Alpher discusses the current state of the Arab revolutions; how Syria is moving in a different direction from Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen; what, if anything, would Alpher have Israel do in Arab revolutions; how should Israel address Palestinians fleeing the violence in Syria, especially in the context of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offering last week to absorb them
Q. Exactly two years have passed since the "Arab spring" began with the self-immolation in a Tunisian town of Mohammed Bouazizi. What's your assessment of the current state of the Arab revolutions?
A. I'm very wary of a lot of the two-year assessments I read, which tend already to allocate points for achievements like democracy and free speech in the Arab world. It's simply too early to do this, because all of the affected Arab countries are still in what I would term a "revolutionary situation". And in a revolutionary situation, it's impossible to predict the impending course of events, much less the outcome.
The best example of this paradigm is Egypt, where more or less every month we are treated to another twist or turn in the revolution that virtually no one had anticipated.
Under these circumstances, I would very tentatively point to the following regional developments about which we can generalize, and which describe fairly clearly where we have come so far, though not necessarily where we're going.
First, political Islam is very much on the rise everywhere you look: Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Syria. But it takes diverse forms, from the Muslim Brotherhood via Salafists to violent jihadists. And the commitment of the first two to representative democracy and freedom of expression is still not at all clear--though for the moment these freedoms are indeed flourishing.
Second, with the exception of Bahrain, Arab monarchies have thus far remained relatively unaffected by Arab revolution. To be sure, in Morocco and Jordan the monarchy has confronted instability and is instituting democratic reforms with varying degrees of success. But in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, while there has been some unrest, little has changed. The explanation appears to lie in a combination of tradition and a royal willingness to spread the wealth very generously.
This brings us to the third general feature of regional developments: the involvement of non-revolutionary states. Saudi Arabia has acted aggressively to maintain quiet or reach compromises in all the states that border it: from military suppression in Bahrain to enforced compromise in Yemen to throwing money at Jordan. The only exception is Iraq, where the Saudis have little influence but where American-imposed democracy is, so far, tentatively holding and preventing revolutionary violence, though for how long is anyone's guess.
On the other hand, non-Arab Turkey presents itself (with little success) as a model for Arab revolutionary regimes to emulate, and intervenes actively in Syria.
Fourth, with the possible exception of Libya with its heavily tribal heritage, the North African states have held together. This reflects their history of cohesiveness and, particularly in Egypt, centralized state rule. This is not the case with Syria which, together with Iraq and Lebanon, was cobbled together arbitrarily by the French and British less than a hundred years ago by linking diverse provinces of the Ottoman Levant.
Q. So Syria is moving in a different direction from Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen?
A. Syria is in danger of disintegrating into ethnic enclaves and drawing Iraq and Lebanon--and possibly even the Kurdish parts of Turkey--with it. To Israel's north, we could be witnessing the demise of the post-Ottoman Levant state-system. Last week, the UN Commission on Human Rights stated that the civil war in Syria was turning into a sectarian battle. A number of Russian spokesmen, led by President Vladimir Putin, expressed concern over the future of Syria as a state, to the extent of indicating that their concern was no longer for the Assad regime but rather for the cohesiveness of the country as a whole.
In Syria, minorities are a growing preoccupation. Russia is particularly concerned over the fate of some 300,000 Greek Orthodox Syrians for whom the Pravoslavic church in Russia serves as a powerful Kremlin lobby. There are reports of growing Alawite activity in the Tartus coastal area, north of Lebanon, to secure and fortify the region as a future redoubt for the Alawites and possibly Syrian Christians as well, once the Sunni majority takes over. In northern Syria, the Kurds have declared autonomy. In the south of the country in Suweida, the "capital" of Jebel Druze just north of the Syria-Jordan border and not far from the Israeli Golan, mass Druze anti-regime protests took place last week.
Israelis were reminded that in the early days of post-WWI French rule in Syria, both the Alawites and the Druze enjoyed a degree of autonomy. Meanwhile, senior Jordanian officials warned that non-Syrian jihadists were "hijacking" the Syrian revolution and that they eventually could target both Jordan and Israel.
Certainly, the Syrian revolution appears to be heading into a new phase in which the regime recedes, shrinks or collapses and the opposition fails to present a unified alternative.
Q. Israel has remained uninvolved in Arab revolutions. What, if anything, would you have it do?
A. In general, the Netanyahu-Barak policy of "keeping your powder dry" over the past two years has made sense. Israeli intervention in any given Arab revolution can only be counter-productive. In the most relevant case, Syria, it is impossible even to divine who is and is not worthy of Israel's support among the opposition groups--even if they were to seek Israeli help, which has not been the case. Indeed, Israel has not even been invited to join the various international coalitions led by France, the United States and Turkey that meet periodically to discuss ways to support the opposition. Its only conceivable intervention in Syria would involve securing or destroying the regime's chemical weapons.
With the exception of a few initial appeals to the US to support Hosni Mubarak, Israel has also wisely avoided being seen to intervene in Egypt on its southern border. Even as the Gaza issue and the deterioration of the Sinai Peninsula into terrorist anarchy have complicated matters, Netanyahu and Barak have fairly effectively managed Israel's interests with the new regime, in general through the good offices of the Egyptian army and Washington.
It is on the Palestinian issue that I would seriously fault the behavior of the current Israeli government. The Gazan half of the PA, under Hamas rule, credits itself, not without reason, as a vanguard of Arab Islamist revolution, having won a democratic Palestinian election back in 2006. Israel should have recognized its permanency long ago and instituted the border liberalization reforms we are currently witnessing in the hope of reaching a modus vivendi with Hamas. As matters stand, Hamas trumpets these Israeli concessions as the spoils of "victory" in the recent fighting: that is hardly a realistic description, but it's a pity the only way Netanyahu could talk to Hamas was in the context of the Gilad Shalit affair and Operation Pillar of Defense, and only through the good offices of the Egyptians. Overall, the end result may be for the best, but it does not strengthen our regional deterrent or credibility.
Yet the more important Palestinian issue in the context of Arab revolution concerns the PLO in the West Bank. Israel has not made a serious effort to promote a peace process for four years. For the last two, this strategic lacuna must be seen against the backdrop of the Palestinian Authority's secular nature and its growing isolation from the regional sweep of Arab political Islam. In the absence of a serious two-state process, the Palestinian Authority confronts a growing dilemma regarding what to do. We should not be surprised if the outcome is either intifada or internal revolution and a Hamas takeover attempt that forces Israel's hand militarily, or both--all within what is now an internationally-recognized Palestinian state.
In short, if we're not careful, the Arab revolutionary wave, the rise of Arab political Islam and the Israel-Arab conflict are all liable to come together in the West Bank in one "perfect storm".
Q. Still in the Palestinian and Syrian context, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offered last week to absorb Palestinians fleeing the violence in Syria. How should Israel address this idea?
A. Around one-fifth of the 500,000 or so Palestinian refugee residents of Syria reportedly fled last week when both the Syrian regime and the rebels attacked the Palestinians in Yarmouk camp near Damascus. According to the PLO, 700 Palestinians have died in the fighting in Syria. Most Palestinians have been trying to remain neutral in the fighting. Many of those fleeing will almost certainly end up in Jordan.
To my mind, Abbas' initiative is a perfect instance of one area where the PLO/PA leader is doing something right. Now that he presides over a recognized Palestinian state, he is offering to absorb Palestinian 1948 refugees. Isn't this precisely what Israel wants a Palestinian state to do: absorb refugees itself and stop demanding the "right of return"? By welcoming this initiative and facilitating it, Israel could strike a blow for a rational resolution of the refugee issue while making a gesture that could pave the way for a new peace process and upgrade the flagging prestige of the moderate Palestinian leadership.
Jordan, too, should welcome and facilitate this initiative by serving as a conduit for the refugees between Syria and Palestine. Jordan, like Israel, has every reason to applaud the repatriation of Palestinian refugees to the Palestinian state, insofar as this enhances the Hashemite Kingdom's own non-Palestinian identity.
Here is an ideal opportunity for Palestinian-Jordanian-Israeli cooperation. Sadly, it almost certainly won't happen. Netanyahu is too busy demeaning Abbas, ignoring Abdullah, and pandering to right-wing voters in Israel.