This week, Alpher discusses what are the issues that bear the most intense scrutiny regarding the upcoming nuclear deal with Iran; why is there a commotion in Israel over two Israelis that decided of their own free will to cross the border into the Gaza Strip; how could they have entered unhindered? What was the reason that that the authorities initially acted indifferently to Mengistu’s flight in terms of their contacts with his family? And what will happen now?
Q. On Monday, a nuclear deal with Iran seemed almost certain. Beyond the bewildering details, and bearing in mind that the deal will be opposed by many in Congress as well as the government of Israel, what are the issues that bear the most intense scrutiny?
A. At the tactical level, and assuming a deal is truly approaching, it will say a lot about timetables, inspections and removal of sanctions. But at the strategic level our criteria for judging it must be based on an assessment as to which “take” on Iran the agreement ends up verifying: Iran as a factor in regional stability or Iran as an aggressive, terrorist-supporting regional hegemon.
Thus, on the one hand the agreement is intended by the Obama administration, the main force behind the international effort, as a bridge between Iran and all those in the world, including Israel and most Arab countries, that do not trust Tehran’s motives. The deal is based on the administration’s belief that the current Iranian leadership wants to reintegrate into the world economy and the family of civilized nations and that integration will bring with it moderation in Iran’s regional behavior. The administration looks at the chaos in the Sunni Arab Middle East and apparently is persuaded that Persian Shiite Iran with its 3,000 year history and traditions is its best bet for maintaining a modicum of regional stability.
We see here a throwback to relations during the pre-Islamic Republic period. Before 1979, the Shah of Iran was the “gendarme of the Gulf”, with the approval of successive US administrations that were even aiding his nuclear program. Now President Obama and Secretary Kerry are betting that, once the legacy of bad blood is cleared away and trust is reestablished, Iran will again behave “responsibly” as it did in the past.
In contrast, Israel and its still more-or-less stable Sunni Arab neighbors--Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (with the exception of neutral Oman)—believe the current Islamist regime constitutes a radical departure from Iran of the past. Accordingly, Tehran will exploit the nuclear agreement (which after all is temporary and begins to expire in ten years) and use the massive inflow of cash engendered by lifting of sanctions to fuel not only its economy but also its drive for regional military hegemony through proxy regimes in Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa and through its Hezbollah proxy force. Its principle instruments of power projection will be terrorism and the dynamic al-Quds force, a kind of regionally-oriented commando unit. The agreement’s detractors note that Tehran has continued to wield both of these instruments throughout the nuclear negotiations. Israel in particular points out that Iran’s threats to destroy Israel and its anti-Semitic rhetoric have not diminished in recent months.
Within a few years, according to this scenario, a hostile nuclear Iran will threaten Israel and the Sunni Arab regimes. Nor will US offers of massive quantities of sophisticated weaponry for Riyadh and Jerusalem change the minds of Saudis and Israelis. Quite the contrary, the offer of weaponry merely seems to reinforce the impression that Washington, too, has its doubts about Iran’s intentions.
Which Iran will the agreement serve? This is the criterion according to which the region will judge every aspect of the nuclear deal being finalized in Vienna on Monday and every milestone in the agreement’s implementation.
Q. Two Israelis decided of their own free will to cross the border into the Gaza Strip. Why the commotion in Israel over the two?
A. Last week, the security establishment revealed that two young men, an Ethiopian-Israeli and a Bedouin, had entered the Strip and disappeared months ago. The ensuing commotion has been playing out in a number of dimensions: allegations of mistakes by the military; allegations of ethnic-racist discrimination; and the reemerging national debate over the price to be paid for an exchange that would bring the two home.
A discussion of all these issues is complicated by the fact that, unlike in the case of the Ethiopian-Israeli, Avera Mengistu from Rishon LeZion, no details have been released about the Bedouin--neither his identity nor when and how he entered the Strip and what his motive might have been. A second complicating issue compared to similar incidents in the past is the overwhelming influence of the social media in shaping the public discussion. Underprivileged sectors like Ethiopian immigrant families today have a voice and can make their case using tools that similar groups did not have access to in the past.
Q. Let’s begin with the military aspect. The Gaza Strip is fenced in and heavily guarded. How could these two enter unhindered?
A. The purpose of the Gaza perimeter defense system is to keep Gazan terrorists from infiltrating Israel, not to keep people from moving in the opposite direction. Even so, terrorists have succeeded in entering. The way the system works is to set off a pin-point alarm that allows the IDF to identify the intruder and intercept him within a few hundred meters of the fence on the Israeli side. And, with the exception of Hamas’s tunnels which went under the fence, it has succeeded.
But someone seeking to breach the fence in the opposite direction and enter the Strip has a good chance. We know that Mengistu, who reportedly suffers from mental health issues, tried several times and was repeatedly intercepted by the IDF and escorted to his home. The allegation that after repeated attempts he was successful due to IDF negligence or indifference linked to Mengistu’s dark-skin is being investigated. But this could easily be the instinctive criticism of Ethiopian-Israelis and their advocates among Israeli human-rights activists. After all, recent weeks and months have witnessed a high-level of social activism on the part of the young generation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, who have legitimate complaints regarding discrimination. In this regard, of perhaps greater concern is the suspicion that the authorities initially acted indifferently to Mengistu’s flight in terms of their contacts with his family.
Q. Was this due to racism or security concerns?
A. Indifference stemming from latent racism could conceivably explain why it reportedly took two weeks for the IDF to contact the family. But it does not explain the heavy censorship imposed on the disappearance of the two until last week.
The censorship stems from the concept guiding the entire Israeli hostage negotiation approach. The moment news of hostages--or, in this case, of Israelis who deliberately place themselves in enemy hands--goes public, the price that will have to be paid to return them home goes up and the exchange deal becomes more difficult to negotiate because those holding the hostages can count on Israeli public pressure to reinforce their demands. This explains why the families are counseled by the security establishment not to publicize the issue. But this also explains why, once the issue enters the public domain, a wide variety of Israeli human rights advocates complains that “white Ashkenazic” Israelis in enemy hands generate a far more energetic effort to repatriate them and that Mengistu’s mental issues were neglected because he is an Ethiopian Jew.
Q. Well, is that true?
A. I don’t think so. Here it becomes necessary to look not only at Mengistu and the Bedouin youth as members of what are probably Israel’s lowest socio-economic strata. They also left the country of their own volition. No one even knows whether they want to return. According to one Hamas source in Gaza, Mengistu was allowed after interrogation to leave the Strip via the Gaza-Sinai tunnels and is on his way to Ethiopia via Egypt. As to the young Bedouin, conceivably he sought shelter with members of his clan who live in the Strip, some of whom have formed terrorist units that target Israel.
Accordingly, the price--almost certainly to be paid in the “coin” of released terrorists--that any Israeli government is prepared to pay to ransom these two Israelis is at the bottom of the Israeli national value scale. At the top are Israeli soldiers and intelligence agents in enemy captivity, like Gilad Shalit, and kidnapped Israeli civilians. Next come the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in combat and held by the enemy: Hamas is known to hold two that it snatched from the battlefield a year ago and the Netanyahu government is known to be negotiating their return, via intermediaries, in exchange for Hamas terrorists in Israeli jails. Then there are cases like that of Elhanan Tenenbaum, an IDF reserve colonel turned criminal who was kidnapped by Hezbollah from the Gulf emirates while there negotiating a narcotics deal and brought to Lebanon. Tenenbaum was ransomed by the Sharon government in the early years of this century; the price paid was relatively high because Tenenbaum was judged to be in possession of highly sensitive Israeli security secrets.
All these deals took years to negotiate. All generated justified concern that the released terrorists, usually numbering in the hundreds and at times over 1,000, would again carry out terrorist acts and that their very release would constitute an incentive to the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas to initiate new attacks on Israeli civilians.
Tenenbaum did not go to Lebanon of his own volition. Mengistu and the Bedouin youth did. Mengistu’s case is reminiscent of cases in the early 1950s of Israelis with mental health issues who wandered into Syria; at the time there was no border fence and Syrian territory began on the northeast coast of the Sea of Galilee. They were tortured by Syria in the notorious Tadmor jail and returned home years later, in awful mental and physical shape, in exchanges mediated by the United Nations and the Red Cross. Notably, the Islamic State recently captured the city of Tadmor, or Palmyra, and has not only destroyed precious antiquities there but has destroyed the infamous jail.
Q. So what happens now?
A. According to reports emanating from Hamas, Tony Blair has undertaken to negotiate release of the two. Hopefully he will succeed more in this endeavor than he did as Quartet representative to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a job he left recently after years of relative under-achievement.
Meanwhile the families of the two Israelis in Gaza, accompanied by Israeli media and human rights circles, will focus on pressuring the government to offer to free terrorists in return for two people who left of their own volition and may not want to come home. The ethnic dimension will be played for all its worth, and unfairly. The basic obligation of the state of Israel to bring its citizens home regardless of who they are and what they did will, on the other hand, undoubtedly find expression in an honest effort by the Netanyahu government, backed by the parliamentary opposition in a case that far transcends domestic politics, to ransom them at what is deemed a reasonable and proportional price. And this will inevitably generate yet another domestic Israeli controversy.