February 9, 2015 - Jordan being dragged into the Syria conflict, escalated fighting in Sinai, an election update and more

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This week, Alpher discusses Jordan being dragged into the Syria conflict on the ground in response to the Islamic State’s horrific execution of its pilot; how the escalated fighting in Sinai between the Egyptian army and Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, which has pledged fealty to Islamic State, affects Israel; whether Israel is affected by Russia’s economic crisis; and offers an election update

Q. Last week, you discussed Israel’s need to deter Hezbollah while not getting dragged into the Syria conflict on the ground. Now, in response to the Islamic State’s horrific execution of its pilot, Jordan may be dragged in. How does this affect Israel?

A. For several years now, Jordanian-Israeli security cooperation has been enhanced by the shared need to combat the effects of civil war in Syria: overflow of fighting, refugees, and intelligence. Now Jordan appears to be contemplating not only heavier attacks on IS from the air but ground activity as well. This poses the possibility of combat inside Syria involving Jordanian forces in areas close to the Syria-Israel border, a development that Israel would be hard put to ignore. Meanwhile, according to CNN, Israeli drones are patrolling and gathering intelligence for Jordan across the Jordan-Iraq border; earlier, Israeli drone activity had been reported along the Jordan-Syria border that abuts Israel.

Last week, Jordan returned its ambassador to Israel after an absence of several months. Officially, this constituted Jordanian acknowledgement that the Netanyahu government had finally complied with its demands as custodian of the Jerusalem Muslim holy sites: liberalizing access to prayer by young Palestinian Muslims, and preventing provocative visits to the Temple Mount by extremist “faithful” who call for organized Jewish prayer there and even for destruction of the mosques. But the timing also appeared to reflect Amman’s need for closer coordination with Israel as the region threatens to enter a new phase of escalation in the Levant wars.

 

Q. In parallel, fighting has escalated in Sinai between the Egyptian army and Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, which has pledged fealty to Islamic State. Does this affect Israel?

A. Yes, even more closely and immediately than Jordan’s war with IS. The Egyptian army has suffered heavy losses lately in Sinai. In coordination with Israel (under treaty demilitarization obligations) it has radically reinforced its presence in the peninsula. The Sisi government in Cairo is also absolutely convinced that the Sinai Islamists are working in tandem with Gaza-based Hamas. Accordingly, it is stepping up its efforts to cut tunnel and other land links along the Gaza-Sinai Rafah border, creating a no-man’s land along the border by demolishing more than a thousand dwellings on the Sinai side.

(Back before 2005 when Israel occupied Gaza and tried to combat the smuggling tunnels, it contemplated similar draconian measures--house destruction, flooding--on the Gaza side of the Gaza-Egyptian border. It backed off from going to extremes due to human rights concerns related to its status on occupied territory. Egypt has no compunctions about taking such far-reaching measures on its own sovereign territory.)

All these developments increase the likelihood of attack on Israel--by Ansar Beit al-Maqdes from Sinai and/or by Hamas from Gaza. Both movements may be looking for a distraction from heavy military and even economic pressure from Egypt. Interestingly, Israel has responded to what is in effect an Egyptian siege of the Gaza Strip by increasing commerce and movement of peoples with Gaza, but so slowly as to have little effect on the pressures felt inside the Strip. With Fateh-Hamas rapprochement a virtual dead letter and the United Nations acknowledging that most pledged reconstruction funds for the Strip have not materialized, Hamas has virtually nowhere to turn: it can either sit tight and suffer, soften its rejection of genuine peaceful coexistence with Israel; or prepare for another round of fighting. Judging by the rate of test firings of home-made Hamas rockets into the Mediterranean and the “graduation ceremony” last week for 17,000 youths given Hamas paramilitary training, the latter option seems more likely.

 

Q. Is Israel affected by Russia’s economic crisis?

A. Yes. A number of sectors of Israel’s economy have definitely suffered setbacks because the low price of oil, combined with NATO sanctions over Ukraine, has hurt Russia. One such sector is tourism: Christian and medical tourism from Russia have been cut back drastically.

Another is agriculture: for some time, Russia has been an export destination for Israeli fruits and vegetables. That sector actually expanded when the NATO sanctions over Crimea began, because Russia retaliated by refusing to import European vegetables and instead turned to Israel and Lebanon. But now Russian importers can’t afford the foreign currency exchange rates and have been obliged to cancel their contracts. Farmers in Israel’s Arava region in the Negev have been severely affected.

Lastly, there is the complex web of joint enterprises and investments involving Israeli entrepreneurs, many the children of Russian Jewish immigrants, and their countries of origin, Russia and Ukraine. Israel, after all, has a large Russian-speaking population, many of whom maintain close family and business ties with Russia and Ukraine. Here the war in eastern Ukraine also constitutes a disruption, with relatives marooned by the fighting and even (Israelis of Ukrainian extraction with IDF training) participating in the fighting.

The economic damage is apparently containable. But the complexity and vulnerability of the Russia-Israel link offer one more reason why the Netanyahu-Lieberman duo has carefully avoided being identified with western anti-Russian sentiment, even to the (further!) detriment of US-Israel relations. Indeed, the regional strategic picture is further muddied by the fact that Saudi Arabia, a tacit “ally” of Israel in combating radical Islamists from Hezbollah via Iran to Islamic State, has apparently deliberately engineered at least a portion of the global oil price drop in order to punish both Iran and Russia (the latter for supporting the Assad regime in Syria).

 

Q. Election update?

A. Likud and the Zionist Camp (Labor plus Livni’s HaTnua) remain in a virtual tie in the polls, each with the low outcome of between 23 and 25 mandates. This places much of the focus on the “blocs”: right-center, left-center, and ultra-orthodox, and now a united Arab list. Here Likud seems better positioned at this point in time to put together a coalition of 61 mandates. But if Zionist Camp emerges from the election with even a slim plurality over Likud, it would get the first opportunity to try and form a government and could come up with a coalition that includes parties of the center-right like Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman), Kulanu (Kachlon) and possibly Shas. Alternatively, it might seek ways to rely on the Arab list, but without actually bringing it into a coalition.

Meanwhile, because about 25 percent of voters remain undecided, all this is pure speculation. What does seem certain is that even a Labor-led coalition with center-right parties will be so fragmented and fragile as to be incapable of registering any real progress on the two-state issue. At best, by renewing some sort of negotiations, freezing settlement construction and projecting a relatively positive peace platform, it could buy Israel some temporary good will.

Nor is the peace process the Zionist Camp’s primary electoral “ticket”. Rather, the Zionist Camp seems to accept that the public blames the Palestinians and Arab world chaos rather than Netanyahu for the absence of a peace process, and is concentrating on socio-economic issues where Netanyahu is relatively vulnerable. The Likud leader, for his part, is focusing on “security” where he judges the left to be perceived by the public as weak. Accordingly, Netanyahu is still planning to speak to the US Congress about Iran in early March. He believes the voting public back home in Israel will reward him electorally and ignore the damage he is doing to US-Israel relations.

By the same token, Netanyahu appears to be ignoring the risk of international disapproval by undertaking new settlement construction initiatives, including in East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. And he is destroying some 400 Palestinian structures built “illegally” in West Bank Area C with European Union funding. These are all initiatives that could easily have been postponed until after Israel’s March 17 elections. That Netanyahu has elected to go ahead with them appears to reflect his confidence that the international community’s response will have little negative effect on voters, whereas Likud activism across the green line will have a positive effect.

(Incidentally, “indifference” about sums up the public’s reaction to the Quartet’s rather pathetic call on Sunday--at election time in Israel and with Palestinians hopelessly fragmented and the PLO opting for the internationalization route--to resume peace talks urgently. It was a sad reminder that the Quartet--the US, UN, EU and Russia--actually still exists. Right now, no one is listening in Jerusalem, Gaza or Ramallah.)

Right now, Likud and Zionist Camp both reject forming a coalition together. But with the two biggest parties likely to emerge so small, a unity government between them might end up being the only stable one conceivable: stable, in the sense that it is united over doing nothing of substance on the Palestinian issue, the most pressing issue of all.

Finally, both major parties are leveling a variety of corruption allegations against one another--in the case of the Netanyahu household, fairly petty financial corruption. None of this is likely to stick, and it all pales in comparison to the sex scandal sweeping the Israel Police: no fewer than seven police generals (out of 19) have been forced in recent months to retire due to allegations of sexual misconduct against policewomen. So far, the police scandal does not appear to have electoral implications. It just makes for juicy tabloid reading.

 

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