April 20, 2015 - Israeli coalition-building dallies while regional chaos and fragmentation spread

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This week, Alpher discusses when Israel will have a new government and what will it look like; how bad the regional situation could get given the increased chaos in the Middle East, with Russian missile supply to Iran and territorial gains by al-Qaeda in Yemen; where do the external powers fit in: the US, Russia, the EU and China; and why Israel is so concerned about the Russian sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

Q. On Wednesday, the four-week period allotted to PM Netanyahu to form a new coalition expires. When will Israel have a new government and what will it look like?

A. On Monday, Netanyahu asked President Rivlin for a two-week extension, which he is entitled to under the constitutional rules. Netanyahu hopes by Wednesday to have signed coalition agreements with Moshe Kachlon’s Kulanu party and with the two ultra-orthodox parties--all of whose coalition requirements are in one way or another economic, and which he has found relatively easy to satisfy. This gives him 53 mandates; he needs at least 61.

The problem Netanyahu confronts in the coming two weeks is whether, and how, to accommodate the coalition demands of two right-wing parties that lost votes in the March 17 election, yet demand major portfolios whose centrality exceeds their relative weight in any coalition. If he doesn’t retain Avigdor Lieberman in the post of foreign minister and does not award Naftali Bennet the Defense Ministry or something equivalent, Netanyahu does not have a functioning coalition. Lieberman (six mandates) and Bennet (eight) together add 14 mandates, creating a stable right-wing government. Bennet’s Jewish Home party alone would give Netanyahu a mere 61 mandates, meaning a coalition that could fall at the whim of one or two rebellious members of Knesset.

Ostensibly, Netanyahu’s alternative is to turn to Labor and Isaac Herzog to form a broad unity coalition. Netanyahu has apparently encouraged rumors to this effect in order to improve his bargaining leverage with Lieberman and Bennet. But Herzog defiantly and publicly rejects the option of joining the coalition, as do many in his Zionist Union partnership with Tzipi Livni. Herzog either doesn’t take Netanyahu seriously, or prefers that Netanyahu end up with a shaky right-wing coalition that is dependent for its stability on too many small and extreme parties, thereby providing a convenient parliamentary target for Herzog to build his reputation as head of the opposition.

Does Netanyahu himself know what kind of coalition he wants? Right-wing, isolated, settler-friendly, ultra-nationalist and hard-put to deal with a chaotic Middle East? Or broad-based and more capable internationally? Many observers speculate that he does not--a situation fairly typical for Netanyahu in tough decision-making circumstances. One way or another, the public will know within about two weeks, with coalition negotiations almost certainly going down to the wire.

 

Q. Meanwhile, in the past week the Middle East seems to have become more chaotic, with Russian missile supply to Iran and territorial gains by al-Qaeda in hapless Yemen. How bad could the regional situation get?

A. What we may be witnessing is the ongoing de facto division or partition of the region among at least three blocs. So chaotic is the situation that we’re also seeing a lot of problematic internal contradictions in the strategies of nearly all actors.

The Iranian-led bloc is the most clearly delineated. It comprises the Shiite majority in Iraq and the Alawite regime in Syria with its Christian and other minority adherents. Hezbollah, which galvanized the Shiites of Lebanon, serves as a military vanguard along with Iran’s own al-Quds force. Iran’s long arm is already extended to the Zaidi Shiites of Yemen, and it will seek destabilizing power and influence among the majority Shiites of Bahrain and the Shiite minority in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Strikingly, Iran, flush from the success of the Lausanne nuclear agreement and improvements in its relations with the US and Russia, is also trying to project itself as a regional peacemaker by proposing a diplomatic solution for Yemen and a regional consultation forum for the Gulf states. Is this the old good cop-bad cop approach, an iron fist in a velvet glove, or is it the triumph of Iranian diplomacy over Iranian subversion and aggression?

A second bloc is extremist Sunni, led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda in Yemen and in parts of northern and southern Syria. IS and Qaeda have outposts in Egyptian Sinai and Libya, and sympathizers in Sudan and elsewhere in the Arab world.

A third, more complicated bloc is the one Saudi Arabia and Egypt are trying to consolidate for the fight against the Zaidis in Yemen and, indirectly, against Iran and its interests. The Saudis, Emirates and Jordan are also fighting--alongside Iran!--against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Egypt is fighting an al-Qaeda affiliate in Sinai and, increasingly, IS affiliates in Libya.

Can such a Saudi-led bloc effectively combat both extremist Sunnis in the Levant, Sinai and Libya as well as a branch of Iranian-supported Shia Islam in Yemen, all the while ignoring the growing success of al-Qaeda in expanding its territorial base in Yemen--and still maintain a degree of ideological coherence? It was not surprising last week to hear Iraqi PM Abadi, who leads the country’s pro-Iran Shiites in the fight against IS, express concern over Saudi motives and direction.

As if all this were not confusing enough, already there are indications of attempts by Saudis and others to “moderate” the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, sufficiently so as to support its campaign against the Assad regime. Then too, the Saudi military effort in Yemen has thus far generated few successes and heavy civilian losses; Pakistan and Turkey have withdrawn from the Saudi-led coalition and neither Saudis nor Egyptians have put “boots on the ground” in Yemen.

Finally, two non-Arab states, Israel and Turkey, are not “affiliated” with any bloc, but for very disparate reasons. Turkey, having failed abjectly in recent years to lead a moderate Islamist revival among the Arabs, is trying to maintain a modicum of ties with Iran (though not with Iran’s ally, Syria under Assad), with the militant Sunni Islamists in the Levant who oppose Assad and use Turkish territory, and with the Saudi-led coalition that opposes both. Israel, on the other hand, perceives both the Iranian-Shiite bloc and the militant Sunni Islamist bloc as mortal enemies and, to the extent possible, works with the Saudis and Egyptians against them. Israel is also very concerned about both Russian and US ties with Iran.

 

Q. Indeed, where do the external powers fit in: the US, Russia, the EU and China?

A. Strikingly, the US and Russia appear to be narrowing the gaps separating them in the Middle East--unlike, say, in the Ukraine-Crimea theater. Both perceive the militant Sunni Islamist presence in the Levant as a direct threat to their interests, particularly in the sphere of sponsorship of terrorism. Note that the US was attacked on 9/11 by Sunni al-Qaeda and that Islamist terrorist attacks in Russia--and there are many--are all Sunni in origin, many of them with Wahabi links that can be traced to Saudi Islamist teachings.

This in part explains why both Washington and Moscow wish to see Iran play a stabilizing role in the region and why the US barely protested Russia’s sale of strategic surface-to-air missiles to Iran immediately after the Lausanne agreement. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that both powers accept that the sanctions against Iran are already unraveling.

Unlike Russia, however, the US is now cultivating cooperation not only with Iran and Shiite Iraq, the two pillars of the Shiite bloc that is hostile to Israel, but also with the Saudis and Egyptians--in Yemen and through arms supplies--while all the while reassuring Israel that its security interests will not be jeopardized. Here again we encounter an internal Middle East policy contradiction, this time in Washington, that is difficult to reconcile.

The European Union is both contributing most non-Arab fighters to IS and bearing the brunt of the horrendous humanitarian consequences of the collapse of so many Arab states: a refugee crisis and massive attempts at illegal migration. As matters stand, the crisis will only get worse in the years to come. And because most refugees who flee war do not have homes to go back to, we are looking at major population dislocation that will negatively affect the Middle East, Africa and Europe for years to come. Unmanageable food and water crises will follow.

Finally, China’s drive to develop Middle East infrastructure (ports, roads, railroads, raw material mining) as a means of advancing its own economy, has also been negatively affected. How can China expand the port of Aden or build an east-west rail line across the Arab world under current circumstances?

 

Q. Coming back to the Russian sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran, why is Israel so concerned?

A. Assuming the nuclear deal with Iran goes forward, along with US-Iranian cooperation against the Islamic State and possibly against other destabilizing elements in the region, not only Israel but Saudi Arabia and Jordan as well see this missile sale as a factor for regional escalation. Israel is particularly worried lest Iran transfer the missiles--as it has done with many weapons systems, including some of Russian manufacture--to Hezbollah and Syria. If that happens, S-300 batteries placed across Israel’s northern borders could threaten to paralyze virtually all civilian and military air traffic in Israel.

Meanwhile, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are scheduled to receive more advanced American attack aircraft. Neither country is satisfied with US reassurances regarding the Iran nuclear deal. The Israel Air Force actually has some knowledge of the S-300, which is deployed by both Greece and Cyprus, two nearby EU countries with close ties to both Russia and Israel.

The Netanyahu government has in recent years made a major effort to cultivate ties with Russia and President Putin, going so far as to avoid voting at the UN to censure the Russian takeover of Crimea. Now Russia is arming Iran, an enemy of Israel that Russia and the US seem to be warming to simultaneously. Israel’s response so far has been symbolic, downgrading its attendance at Moscow’s approaching celebration of the seventieth anniversary of its victory over the Nazis. Putin is warning Jerusalem not to respond to the S-300 provocation by offering military assistance to Ukraine.

From Israel’s standpoint, the situation with Russia, like just about everything else in the Middle East right now, is rife with contradictions. Putin has also recently improved military relations with Egypt, Israel’s tacit strategic partner in the fight against militant Islam. There are indications Russia may try to sponsor a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one that wisely, unlike the US approach, seeks to solve border and sovereignty problems first and delay thorny issues like refugee right-of-return. Russia (like Iran) is well positioned in Damascus to Israel’s north, where its prediction that Assad will survive the insurrection against him can no longer be dismissed out of hand. In short, Russian involvement in the Middle East is growing even as the US ostensibly aspires to lower its profile.

Thus the Israeli-Russian relationship is too well developed and too valuable to jeopardize. Besides, Israel has to “keep its powder dry” in anticipation of serious military threats and problems on its borders that are direct consequences of regional chaos and contradictions: penetration by IS of Jordan, another rocket attack by Hamas in Gaza, and trouble on the northern borders where Hezbollah is backed by Iranian forces and a veritable Shiite foreign legion recruited from as far afield as Uzbekistan.

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