March 2, 2015 - Meanwhile, back home in Israel

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This week, Alpher dicusses Netanyahu's approach to rallying support against a prospective US-led nuclear deal with Iran and getting himself reelected back home in Israel by speaking this week to the United States Congress; why Netanyahu can’t affect the nuclear deal and what damage he is doing to the strategic relationship between the US and Israel; What challenges from Iran in the Middle East Netanyahu is neglecting, and how this is related to the US; the Israeli public’s response to Netanyahu’s congressional grandstanding and the administration’s angry reproaches; why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems right now to be all about money and if there is a timely US-Israel angle here too.

Q. PM Netanyahu is speaking this week to the United States Congress in Washington. He is seeking to rally support against a prospective US-led nuclear deal with Iran. He also apparently believes this will get him reelected back home in Israel. What’s wrong with this approach?

A. Everything. His performance will not affect the likelihood of a nuclear deal with Iran. He is doing immense damage to the American-Israeli strategic relationship. He is neglecting more pressing strategic challenges from Iran (and indirectly, the US) in the Middle East. And at the electoral level, he is severely testing the traditional wisdom that Israelis want their leader to be persona grata with the administration in Washington.

 

Q. Let’s take these one at a time. Why can’t Netanyahu affect the nuclear deal and what damage is he doing to the strategic relationship?

A. The executive branch, meaning the Obama administration, controls US foreign and strategic relations. By allying himself blatantly with the Republican majority in Congress, Netanyahu alienates the administration without in any conceivable way persuading it to adopt a different approach to Iran. He is also alienating the American Jewish community, which overwhelmingly votes Democrat. And he is injecting Israel into US partisan politics in an unprecedented manner. It is as if he is declaring the Likud a branch of the Republican Party.

Israel, and many other critics, can muster a persuasive case against the Obama administration’s readiness to compromise by merely containing Iran’s nuclear program rather than--its original declared intention--preventing it. But the Netanyahu-Republican alliance is a counter-productive tool for countering the administration’s negotiating approach.

 

Q. What challenges from Iran in the Middle East is Netanyahu neglecting, and how is this related to the US?

A. One challenge is on Israel’s Golan border. It emerged clearly with the recent cross-border strike that killed an Iranian Quds Force general who was working with the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah inside Syria. The prevailing assessment in Israel is that in the months ahead we will see more and more Iranians just across the Golan border: they are assisting and at times even commanding Hezbollah and Syrian Army forces that seek to remove anti-Assad Islamists from the southwest corner of Syria bordering on Israel and Jordan.

On balance, Israel prefers the Islamist presence on the Golan to that of Iran and its Syrian and Hezbollah allies: some of the Islamists cooperate with the IDF and none of them currently threatens Israel the way Iran does. Seen against the backdrop of a possible Israeli-opposed nuclear deal between Iran and the US-led international community, there is huge potential here for some sort of land-based clash or even war involving Iran and its allies during the tenure of new IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot. Incidentally, the new chief-of-staff knows this arena well: he was Northern Command commander for five years.

This is a far more urgent and concrete Iranian threat than the possibility that in ten years Tehran may be free to “break out” toward a military nuclear option. Where will Washington stand regarding possible fighting between Israel and an Iran-led coalition along the Golan border at a time when the US is quietly collaborating with Iran against the Islamic State? Frankly, it is far more urgent to discuss this issue with Washington than to antagonize it pointlessly over the nuclear negotiations by allying Israel with US Republicans.

Lieutenant General Eizenkot must ask himself whether the kind of criticism (“destructive of the fabric of the relationship”, “destructive partisanship”) leveled last week at Netanyahu’s congressional venture by (respectively) Susan Rice and John Kerry could not at some point in the coming two years be translated by Washington into a downgrading of the strategic relationship--one that exceeds the current US reluctance to share progress reports on the talks with Iran.

Here we cannot and must not ignore the potential for an unprecedented “perfect storm” of an Israeli-Iranian clash on the ground in southern Syria, US anger with Israel over the Iran nuclear issue, and American-Iranian tacit cooperation against IS in Iraq and Syria. If anything like this happens in the coming year, Netanyahu will bear a major part of the blame.

Eizenkot also inherits severe budgetary constraints. In view of the changing nature of warfare in the region, these can only become more acute. The Israel Navy has to protect a growing investment in Mediterranean off-shore energy that is plainly vulnerable to terrorist attack from Lebanon or Gaza. Despite the absence of hostile state neighbors threatening Israel with thousands of tanks and artillery and divisions of infantry--that era appears to be long gone--Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon and three more recent rapid-fire rounds with Hamas in Gaza demonstrated an urgent need for more qualitative ground forces capable both of rooting out guerilla enemies dug in deep underground and of destroying rocket-launching sites and production facilities. Nor is it at all certain that Israel’s much-vaunted anti-rocket missile interception systems will remain efficient if and when Hezbollah, with Iranian help, launches saturation doses of thousands of rockets a day at Israel from southern Lebanon.

In recent years, Eizenkot’s predecessor Benny Gantz was obliged to reduce the size of the standing army in order to accommodate defense budget cuts. These pressures will not abate during Eizenkot’s tenure. Considering the administration’s justified pique with Netanyahu, where will the Pentagon stand when Eizenkot and the next Israeli minister of defense come asking for additional material support to help Israel deal with Iran and Hezbollah in the north, Hamas in the south, and the Arab revolutions all around? Lest we forget, and lest Netanyahu forget, Israel remains heavily dependent on its security ties with the US--for deterrence as well as for the nuts and bolts of ordnance.

 

Q. Indeed, this brings us to the Israeli public’s response to Netanyahu’s congressional grandstanding and the administration’s angry reproaches.

A. In going to Washington, Netanyahu is subjecting not only the Israel-US relationship to severe stress. He is also testing a well-known axiom of Israeli electoral politics: that Israelis want their elected leader to be persona grata in Washington.

The conventional wisdom holds that two incumbent Israeli prime ministers were rejected by the electorate in recent decades at least in part because American presidents found ways to express disapproval of their performance. Yitzhak Shamir was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 because President Bush ’41 disapproved of Shamir’s obstinacy over offering territorial concessions for peace within the framework of Madrid Process negotiations; and Netanyahu himself was voted out of office in 1999 because President Clinton signaled Israelis that Netanyahu was obstructing the Oslo process.

Now, once again at election time, Netanyahu is clearly in an unprecedented clash of strategies and wills with an American president and his most senior aides. And Netanyahu has walked into this conflict with eyes wide open. Far from adopting a defensive posture, he has allied himself with the Republican opposition to Obama and thereby both injected Israel deeply into the US political schism--also a dynamic without precedent in the US-Israel relationship--and placed it at odds with most of the American Jewish rank-and-file and even most American Jewish organizations.

Netanyahu’s message to Israeli voters is that he is allying Israel with some sort of “real America”, the kind referred to by people like Sheldon Adelson and Rudolph Giuliani; that Israelis can ignore the rest of America, meaning Obama and most American Jews; and that he is taking this risk for the sake of Israel’s overriding security interest, meaning preventing an Iranian military nuclear option.

Will the Israeli electorate buy into this disgraceful and unprecedented approach to Israeli-American relations?

 

Q. Why does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem right now to be all about money? Is there a timely US-Israel angle here too?

A. This is an interesting turn of events in the annals of the conflict: both sides are “internationalizing” and turning to economic warfare. From the Israeli standpoint, this appears to be the pro-Israel camp’s response to the Palestinian move to internationalize the conflict by involving the United Nations and International Criminal Court. From the Palestinian standpoint, they are internationalizing because they have proven unable to achieve the kind of political settlement they seek through negotiations.

Last week, a court in the US decided to award the American families of Americans targeted for attack by Palestinians during the second intifada (beginning in late 2000) more than $250 million in damages, to be paid by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, who were deemed by the US court to be responsible for the terrorist acts. This landmark American legal action would never have been possible without Israeli backing, including a huge contribution to legal documentation efforts by the Israeli security services. Even Palestinian security figures now acknowledge that PLO/PA leader Yasser Arafat backed terrorist operations against civilians in Israel during the second intifada.

How, if ever, the bereaved American families will collect their compensation remains to be seen. Conceivably, payment may now find its way into Israeli government negotiating demands.

In parallel, and seemingly without coordinating the move with the Netanyahu government or IDF authorities, the Israel Electric Corporation last week began selectively cutting electricity supplies to West Bank cities because its Palestinian counterpart, Northern Electric, which buys and distributes the electricity, is not paying its bills and has ignored IEC payment notices. The Palestinians argue they cannot honor their debts when Israel refuses, for the third straight month, to transfer to Ramallah tens of millions of dollars in excise taxes that it collects on behalf of the PA. That Israeli punitive financial move is explained as retaliation for the Palestinian resort to the ICC. Ultimately, Israel and the PA agreed to devote withheld taxes to settling enough of the Palestinian electric bill to resume full supply. Netanyahu sweetened the deal by finally permitting water supply to the new West Bank model city of Rawabi.

The backdrop to the timing of these solutions was the Netanyahu congressional speech. Why give Netanyahu’s critics additional Palestinian-related ammunition against Israel when the prime minister wants to focus in Washington on his controversial position regarding Iran.

Meanwhile, the PA acted to retaliate for Israel’s refusal to remit tax monies by banning from Palestinian supermarkets the food products of six major Israeli companies.

Confused? One possible way out was hinted at by several European countries and Secretary Kerry after the PA appealed to them regarding the money Israel is withholding: it will be transferred after the March 17 Israeli elections. In other words (assuming these reassurances are anchored in reality), it’s all about Israeli politics.

PM Netanyahu’s Likud does not want to be seen prior to elections as being soft on the Palestinians. At the same time, Israeli security actors are warning that stretching the PA’s economic troubles too far could end up generating some sort of Palestinian collapse--for example, a strike by PA security forces or even a declaration that the PA is liquidating itself--that would be highly detrimental to Israeli, Palestinian and American interests. Netanyahu presumably believes he can travel to Washington, return to Israel, and still walk this tightrope until March 18 without losing his grip.

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