April 13, 2015 - The region and the Palestinian issue

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This week, Alpher discusses how religious and tribal wars in Iraq, Syria, Egyptian Sinai, Yemen and Libya, and Obama and Netanyahu being at loggerheads over the Iran nuclear deal affects the Palestinian issue; how these events serve as a legitimate distraction, including the current fighting in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus; how they serve as an excuse for Israel to do nothing on the Palestinian issue; what is Qatar doing that should command our interest, including the Gaza aspect; why, despite these tensions, the IDF is facilitating the expansion of PA security forces’ area of responsibility; and April genocide memorials of the HOlocaust and the Armenian genocide, and the exploitation of Israeli fears.

 

Q. Religious and tribal wars are raging in Iraq, Syria, Egyptian Sinai, Yemen and Libya. Obama and Netanyahu are at loggerheads over the Iran nuclear deal. How does all this affect the Palestinian issue?

A. This cluster of events and issues is a legitimate distraction but also an excuse for Israel to do nothing regarding the Palestinian issue. It appears to have sent rich and influential Qatar in new policy directions. And, surprisingly, it has generated gradual improvement at the military level in Israel’s approach to Palestinian security forces.

 

Q. Let’s start with the distraction.

A. The focus of American-Israeli relations is currently Iran, an issue that has strained the relationship in an unprecedented manner. Leaving aside Prime Minister Netanyahu’s responsibility for so dangerously injecting his objections to the Iran deal into US politics and even into American Jewish politics, it is difficult to imagine a new initiative on the Palestinian issue emerging right now from Washington lest this overload the Israeli-American relationship. It is even probable that in the current tense atmosphere the Obama administration will refuse to endorse a French initiative regarding Palestinian statehood in the United Nations Security Council.

Then there is the distraction of fighting near Israel’s borders: between Egypt and Ansar Beit al-Maqdes in Sinai; between an Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah coalition and various anti-regime Sunni Islamists across the Golan border in Syria. When Israel hears, for example, warnings from veteran Lebanese Druze politician Walid Jumblatt that Iranian Revolutionary Guards are “closing in” on the Jebel Druze region in southern Syria (militant Islamists consider the Druze to be heretics and we know how they deal with heretics), this is cause for concern and alert. If the ancestral Druze homeland of Jebel Druze, some 80 km. from the Israeli Golan on the Syria-Jordan border, is threatened by extreme Islamists, influential Israeli Druze circles could agitate for Israel to take some sort of military action, perhaps in concert with Jordan, thereby radically expanding the fighting in Syria and introducing new actors to an already volatile mix.

Any or all of these conflicts could involve and distract Israel; none is likely to involve the Palestinians. Except one: the current fighting in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus constitutes a serious distraction for the Palestinian leadership. Islamic State forces have occupied most of the remains of the camp, once the largest in the Middle East but now reduced to rubble and “home” to some 18,000 besieged survivors. Syrian and pro-Syrian forces are trying to dislodge IS, lest its grip on the camp provide it with a launching pad for an assault on Damascus. Various Palestinian leaders and movements, as well as the United Nations, are trying to help the remaining refugees.

The Yarmouk drama offers a bitter and tragic reminder, in the midst of Syria’s civil war, of the ongoing vulnerability of Palestinian refugees scattered across the Middle East.

 

Q. And the excuse for Israel to do nothing on the Palestinian issue?

A. We heard it from Netanyahu when, the day after March 17 elections, he sought to explain to the international community the incendiary remarks he made in the days before elections to the effect that a two-state solution was no longer an option for Israel. Of course it could again become an option, Netanyahu told American TV networks on March 18, but only if regional circumstances change. And if they don’t change for a long time to come and Israel continues down the slippery slope to a one-state reality and ceases to be Jewish and democratic? What precisely has to change in order for Israeli voters and their elected leaders to realize the overriding urgency of disengaging from the Palestinians?

Then too, there is a short-term excuse: Netanyahu has not yet formed a new governing coalition. Here the regional situation is also a delaying factor. The anticipation of complications with Washington regarding Iran and/or pressures, sometime in the future, on the Palestinian issue, could conceivably prompt Netanyahu to prefer a unity government with Labor rather than a narrow right-wing coalition. Until he decides, or gets the coalition concessions he wants from one party or another, he can be comfortable maneuvering at the domestic political level while conveniently rebuffing external pressures of any sort.

 

Q. What is Qatar doing that should command our interest?

A. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have new rulers. This fact, and deterioration of the situation in nearby Yemen has apparently generated a greater readiness on Doha’s part to cooperate, however tentatively, with long-time rival Riyadh regarding Yemen, as well as with Israel in Gaza. But Qatar still has a weakness for the Muslim Brotherhood, Riyadh’s arch enemy, which in Gaza is known as Hamas.

It is the Gaza aspect that concerns us here. Over the past month, the Qataris have bypassed both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority and worked directly with Israel to facilitate two projects regarding the Gaza Strip. A senior Qatari official entered Gaza via Israel rather than via Egypt to try to advance infrastructure reconstruction projects based on a one billion dollar pledge made by Qatar at a Cairo conference last October. Apparently, ongoing Fateh-Hamas tensions that have rendered West Bank-Gazan reconciliation a dead letter also prompted both Ramallah and Cairo to obstruct the Qatari aid effort.

Hence Doha’s bypass via Israel, which apparently included consultations with Israeli officials on March 11 by Mohammad al-Amadi, head of the Qatari National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza. Qatar, it will be recalled, broke its low-level diplomatic relations with Israel years ago over the Palestinian issue. Now the PLO/PA leadership based in Ramallah is concerned not only with Qatar reconstruction aid for Gaza that is not channeled through it. It has latched on to rumors that Qatar is trying to mediate a long-term bilateral truce between Hamas and Israel that would permit Hamas to build an airport and seaport in Gaza, thereby reinforcing its independence from the West Bank and its leadership.

How and why Israel would agree to permit arch-enemy Hamas to establish an independent import capacity for its armed buildup in anticipation of the next round of fighting is difficult to comprehend. But the reasons for the Netanyahu government to encourage the rumors and the independent Qatari reconstruction effort are clear: to the extent the Gaza Strip can be separated from a (theoretical) Palestinian state construct that includes the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it is less likely that Israel will be pressured effectively to advance a two-state solution at all. This explains the statement earlier this month by Amin Makboul, secretary-general of Fateh’s Revolutionary Council, that Fateh is concerned lest Israel exploit its direct communications with Qatar “to separate Gaza from the West Bank, thwart the Palestinian state project and consolidate the separation.”

 

Q. Yet despite these Gaza- and Qatar-related tensions between Israel and the PLO/PA, the IDF is facilitating the expansion of PA security forces’ area of responsibility. . .

A. Yes, quietly but steadily. This flies in the face not only of the Gaza tension but of the controversy over Israel’s withholding of Palestinian tax revenues, the threat by underpaid Palestinian security forces to cease cooperation with Israel, and the PA’s refusal to accept the tax revenues--once the Netanyahu government agreed to remit them--because the latter insisted on deducting Palestinian electricity bills and other accumulated debts the PA allegedly owes Israel.

Last Wednesday, April 8, Palestinian security forces were permitted by the IDF for the first time to launch patrols in the villages--really outlying neighborhoods of Arab East Jerusalem--of Abu Dis, A-Ram and Biddu. The move constituted long-delayed implementation of a phase of Palestinian police expansion brokered several years ago within the framework of efforts by the United States Security Coordinator and the Jordanians to enhance Palestinian security capabilities in a manner acceptable to Israel.

Last week’s move appears to reflect an impressive capacity on the part of both Israeli and Palestinian security forces to advance cooperation despite a stagnant and depressing political situation. On a separate front, IDF-monitored fruit and vegetable exports from Gaza to Israel are on the increase. And the Israel High Court of Justice also demonstrated its independence on Sunday by giving the Netanyahu government ten days to explain why it refuses to reconsider a Palestinian request to transfer planning authority to local Palestinian councils in the 60 percent of the West Bank that under the Oslo Accords constitutes Area C.

 

Q. Finally, April 24 marks 100 years to the beginning of the Armenian genocide and April 16 is Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. Considering Turkey’s denial that genocide took place in 1915-16, the Islamic State’s current barbarism toward Christians, Yazidis and other Levant minorities, and Iran’s ongoing Holocaust denial, it appears the region has not made much progress.

A. Indeed, the barbaric acts perpetrated and publicized with great exultation by IS portray the region as backsliding. The chilling message is not lost on Israelis. Here is one more reason why a calculating leader like Netanyahu has been able to exploit irrational Israeli fears to support an irrational Israeli project. The fears are irrational because Israel is perfectly capable of defending itself. The project is irrational because it invokes a non-viable messianic strategy to perpetuate Israel’s grip on the West Bank and its 2.5 million Palestinians, thereby dooming Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

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