This week, Alpher discusses whether the past week’s BDS developments are a “strategic tsunami;” what does it mean for Israel that a pro-Kurdish party in Turkey has won enough votes to prevent the ruling AK Party from gaining a majority in parliament and President Erdogan from changing the constitution to give himself extensive executive powers; why the death of Tareq Aziz, foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein, is a significant milestone in today’s Middle East; whether Assad’s regime is really threatened.
Q. Are the past week’s BDS developments a “strategic tsunami” as some Israelis claim?
A. The brouhaha over BDS is significant, but it also involves a lot of deceptive smoke and mirrors. And it is being cynically exploited by the Netanyahu government to obfuscate the real issues at stake.
The past week or so has seemingly witnessed a confluence of serious boycott “attacks” on Israel: FIFA, Orange, a British student organization. Note that only the latter boycott effort succeeded or was not rescinded, a fact which already calls into question the degree to which BDS overall is working. Of greater significance, though, is Netanyahu’s reaction on two fronts: Israeli “hasbara” or public diplomacy, and the American Jewish community. And of key importance here is the fact that while some BDS rhetoric, especially on campuses, can be understood as directed against the entire state of Israel, the vast majority of BDS actions (FIFA, Orange, European Union threats of “labeling” sanctions, European supermarket boycotts, etc) are directed only against the settlements and the occupation.
Netanyahu’s hasbara response is to state: “It doesn’t matter what we do. The struggle against Israel is connected to our very existence.” BDS has replaced Iran and Holocaust denial as the existential threat to Israel. Neither Netanyahu nor his spokespersons nor the American Jewish leaders who have rallied to his cause (more about them below) mentions the occupation or the slippery slope toward a one-state reality that Netanyahu has put us on as a factor in BDS.
This fatalism is a disastrous approach. As Yedioth Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea wrote last Friday, “The Zionism I was brought up on took a different approach. It matters very much what we do, for better or for worse. It’s convenient to think that all the criticism of Israel stems from anti-Semitic motives. . . . That releases us from the need to confront our actions” in the occupied territories.
So Netanyahu is mounting a major public relations push against BDS that focuses on existential threats rather than the threat to Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state posed by his policies. But he knows that mere “hasbara” will not suffice. Enter Mssrs. Adelson and Saban. They represent the kind of economic threats to potential boycotters like Orange that have apparently forced that company’s leader to practically crawl on his knees to apologize to Israel for his threat to cut economic ties. Here even Haim Saban cannot be drawn out to discuss BDS in the context of the settlements. The anti-Semites will now have a field-day attacking the “Jewish financial offensive”.
Yes, there is an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel dimension to BDS. It must not be ignored in the current controversy. But the Israeli protest and counter-offensive as framed by Netanyahu are only likely to strengthen BDS. The Adelson-led Vegas meeting to plan an American Jewish counter-offensive will further alienate liberal American Jews--the clear majority of the American Jewish community--from Netanyahu’s efforts and, worse, from Israel.
As President Obama has implied, there is already a growing gap between the American Jewish liberal majority with its strong human-rights values and legacy and an Israel living in an increasingly hard-bitten and even barbaric neighborhood. At least a portion of that gap might be inevitable under current circumstances. But a major part is based on avoidable misperceptions and on policies that Israel does nothing to explain. Now it is Israel’s response to BDS--not BDS itself--that is liable to widen the gap yet further.
Currently, most BDS actions and related protests target the occupation. If Israel can be seen to be dealing constructively and productively with ending the occupation, this could strip BDS of much of its support-base and leave only the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic hard core. But if Israel proceeds with the Netanyahu/Adelson line, that hard core will only gain supporters. Then we will really have a strategic problem.
Q. It appears that a pro-Kurdish party in Turkey has won enough votes to prevent the ruling AK Party from gaining a majority in parliament and President Erdogan from changing the constitution to give himself extensive executive powers. What does this mean for Israel?
A. This is good news. This is a welcome electoral setback for Turkish Islamism. The other parties, whose diverse majority will force Erdogan to govern with at least one of them in his coalition, are secular and more moderate than Erdogan in their attitude toward Israel. In particular, the pro-Kurdish HDP under Selahattin Demirtas has succeeded in attracting the Turkish left, religiously conservative Kurds who had voted for the AKP in past elections, and disaffected liberals. The HDP is now the AKP’s likely coalition partner. Hopefully, Kurdish sympathy for Israel will now force Erdogan to moderate his tone toward Israel and his blatant support for Hamas in Gaza.
That is the tentative and tactical good news. The strategic good news is the very success of a pro-Kurdish party within a country that has for generations prided itself on its strong and exclusionist Turkish-nationalist orientation. This means progress for the cause of Kurdish autonomy and/or independence in the Middle East. It could mean, for example, greater autonomy for upwards of 20 million Kurds living in southeast Turkey (a cause which Erdogan, to his credit, has in some ways encouraged in recent years).
Then there is the potentially “grand strategic” good news, which is directly relevant to Israel. The outcome of the Turkish elections could mean overt Turkish support for the independence of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds confront a disintegrating Iraq, but cannot really contemplate breaking away and declaring independence without the support of their giant neighbor to the north, Turkey, which virtually controls their economy and provides their only safe land-link to the rest of the world. An independent Kurdistan would mean that Israel is no longer the only non-Arab ethnic entity in the Middle East that has achieved national self-determination. This is good for Israel’s relations with the Arab world, which in its current state of distress faces a loss of hegemony over other peoples.
Further, a Turkish government that includes a Kurdish element is likely to take measures to fortify and perhaps expand the autonomy of the Kurdish enclaves of northern Syria, like Kobani, which abut the Syrian-Turkish border. From Turkey’s standpoint, this improves security against Sunni Arab Salafist extremists, the “barbarians at the gate”. And like Iraqi Kurdish independence, it is a step toward redefining the Middle East in a way that serves Israel’s basic interests.
Will all this happen, and if so, when? Let’s watch how Erdogan deals with his setback. He is an extremely resourceful politician. Nothing is set in stone.
Q. Moving south into Iraq, why is the death of Tareq Aziz, foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein, a significant milestone in today’s Middle East?
A. Aziz was always my favorite Arab spokesperson, because he didn’t mince words. In March 2003 he stated that Iraq, if attacked by the US-led coalition, would attack Israel, and he was right. But Aziz was something else as well: a Chaldean Christian serving a secular Arab regime. I fear his passing symbolizes that won’t happen again soon. While the status of non-Arab Kurds in the Middle East might now improve following the Turkish elections, the status of minorities inside the Arab world is liable to deteriorate due to Islamist pressures.
Aziz served a Baathist secular socialist regime that was partly founded by Christians in Syria and Iraq. It was non-democratic and vicious, but allowed minorities positions of influence. The last vestige of Baathism is now Bashar Assad’s Syria. There, an Alawite minority (nominally Shiite Muslim) supported by most of the country’s Druze, Christians and Ismailis is increasingly besieged by extremist Sunni Salafist groups led by IS and Qaeda-related Jabhat al-Nusra and by more moderate Sunnis who have recently regrouped and, with Saudi, Qatari and Turkish backing, occupied territory in northwest Syria.
If Assad’s regime falls, it will be virtually impossible to find minorities with political power anywhere in the Arab world outside of Lebanon. Worse, the minorities’ safety in lands they have lived in for many hundreds of years will be jeopardized. Of course, majority rule in Arab countries should be welcomed--but only in democracies where minority rights are respected. Iraq, for example, offers a terrible example of the abuse of majority rule by an elected Shiite-dominated Arab government.
Q. Is Assad’s regime really so threatened?
A. Yes. While nothing is irreversible in the Middle East, Assad is losing ground. His army is in tatters, and Iranians, Lebanese Hezbollah and thousands of Shiite “volunteers” from as far afield as Afghanistan and Uzbekistan (impoverished refugees in Iran who need the pay) are pouring into the country under Iranian auspices to defend the regime.
The Iranian leadership is clearly anxious to reassure Assad in his distress. Last Tuesday Iranian President Rowhani said in Tehran that Iran “will stand by the Syrian nation to the end of the crisis”, while Quds Force leader and strategist Soleimani stated in Syria, “The world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are preparing for the coming days.” This bombast is wearing increasingly thin. So is the contention that Assad rules Syria.
The main challenge for the Iranians, who clearly are now in charge in Syria, is to hold onto “Useful Syria”: not the eastern desert linking Syria to Iraq and not the far north and south. In all these areas, control has been effectively ceded to the Sunni jihadists. Rather, Soleimani needs to reinforce Iran’s control over greater Damascus and the strategic roads and cities linking it, near the Syria-Lebanon border, to the Alawite coastal enclave. Presumably, in a worst-case scenario his back-up plan is to abandon Damascus and turn the coast into one huge Alawite bunker.
Q. And if and when that happens?
A. More major strategic changes for the Middle East. Barring unlikely but not inconceivable events like, say, a clash on Syrian and Lebanese territory between Israel and Iran, the latter will have suffered a major Middle East defeat. Hezbollah will be cut off from its Syrian supply base where it has suffered major losses, will hunker down in its southern Lebanese redoubt, and Lebanese politics will be shaken up. Syrian Druze, Ismaili and Christian minorities will be imperiled by the salafists, who will now battle among themselves for control of Damascus and the country’s major cities. The Sunni extremists will eventually pose a major threat on Israel’s northern border. But, correspondingly, the Hezbollah rocket threat to Israel will have been weakened.