Price Tags Escalating? Bibi and the tenders, and more: Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: November 18, 2013

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This week, Alpher discusses Netanyahu's meetings this week with Hollande, Putin, and Kerry to discuss the prospective Iran nuclear agreement, a possible revival of the French-Israeli alliance of the 1950s and 60s, how Netanyahu could allow tenders for planning 24,000 additional settlement units to be published last week, considering how sensitive the current juncture is for Israel's international relations, and whether there was something unique or particularly worrisome about the latest "price tag" attack launched against Palestinians by extremist settlers in the West Bank.

Q. Netanyahu meets this week with Hollande, Putin, and Kerry to discuss the prospective Iran nuclear agreement. Can we expect a breakthrough?

A. Talks between the P5 + 1 and Iran resume later this week. Kerry's visit to Israel on Friday reflects his decision to be within a few hours flying distance of Geneva in the event an interim agreement regarding Iran's nuclear program is reached. So a breakthrough is certainly possible.

What is most intriguing about this week's events from the standpoint of Israel's international relations are the meetings with Hollande and Putin. Netanyahu is clearly seeking to influence the position on Iran of additional permanent United Nations Security Council members besides the US.

Q. Let's start with Hollande. Is it far-fetched to speculate that we are witnessing a revival of the French-Israeli alliance of the 1950s and 60s?

A. Such speculation is almost certainly far-fetched.

French President Francois Hollande arrived in Israel on Sunday as the knight in shining armor whose tough stand regarding Iran a week ago in Geneva prevented conclusion of a deal Netanyahu had furiously opposed. In view of Netanyahu's sharp disagreements over the Iran and Palestinian issues with US Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama, it was inevitable that some Israelis would wax nostalgic on the occasion of Hollande's visit and hanker back to the era of the Dimona reactor and Mirage aircraft--two symbols of France's major support for Israel prior to 1967.

But France is not offering Israel that sort of relationship again, and in any case, regardless of Netanyahu's current disagreements with Washington, no one is seriously suggesting it. Rather, France is looking to the Middle East for economic reasons--high-tech deals with Israel and arms sales to the Gulf--and because its traditional concern for the Levant and particularly the region's Christian population happens to compensate nicely for the perceived decision by Washington to withdraw militarily from involvement in the region. Hollande also has voters in Israel--French Jews who have immigrated but retain French citizenship and who overwhelmingly voted against him in France's last election. And he is strong on combating terrorism, for example in Mali and in volunteering to join the US attack on Syria's chemical weapons bases that never took place. Paris also has a particularly thorny relationship with Tehran in view of threats and acts of terrorism in the past.

None of this points to any dramatic expansion of the French-Israeli relationship. Hollande, like the rest of Europe (and the world) is critical of Netanyahu's settlement policies and sympathetic to the cause of a Palestinian state. While France and Israel have maintained a close strategic dialogue for years, ultimately Hollande can be expected to compromise with Kerry in ways that may reflect a tougher attitude toward Iran but that nevertheless remain far from Netanyahu's aspirations.

One of the interesting unintended aspects of the timing of Hollande's visit (which was determined well before the Geneva meetings with Iran) is that it seemingly parallels a hastily organized high-level Russian visit to Egypt that produced an upgrade in relations and an arms deal. Russia, lest we forget, was Egypt's great power patron at the time when France was Israel's. Undoubtedly, both the Egyptian military regime and the Netanyahu government were sending signals to Washington that each, for its own reasons and in its own style, was dissatisfied with American Middle East policies.

Q. How about the other powers negotiating with Iran?

A. As noted, Netanyahu is flying to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. In view of Russia's close relationship with Iran, Netanyahu stands little chance of moving Moscow into the French camp, though from his standpoint it makes sense to try.

China, too, is likely to toe the Russian line on Iran. Nevertheless, the Netanyahu government pulled out of a court case against the Bank of China that is scheduled to open in the US this week. The move was extraordinary because Israel had initiated the case, which involves claims by the relatives of victims of acts of terrorism that were committed by Hamas using funds funneled through the Chinese bank. It was also paradoxical. Netanyahu's early political career evolved from his international campaign to punish facilitators of terrorism, yet here he was backing off from a confrontation with the Peoples Republic in consideration of alternative interests.

Q. Considering how sensitive the current juncture is for Israel's international relations, how could Netanyahu allow tenders for planning 24,000 additional settlement units to be published last week?

A. PM Netanyahu apparently only got wind of the planning tenders at the last minute, and acted quickly to freeze the entire project, which was launched by Minister of Housing Uri Ariel. Netanyahu understood that his delicate relationship with the Obama administration was liable to be hopelessly exacerbated by the launching of such a settlement-construction move at this point in time.

But this only means that the question has to be rephrased to ask, "How could we expect anything else from a coalition in which the housing minister is a settler activist politician from the Jewish Home pro-settler party?" The answer to this revised question is, "We couldn't. It was inevitable."

Accordingly, it is almost academic to discuss which is more damaging to Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state: planning the construction of homes for around 125,000 more settlers, or including in the package a tender for the planning of settlement construction in the most controversial spot in the West Bank, E1, where it would almost completely cut off Jerusalem from the West Bank and put paid to any hope for a two-state solution.

This is the coalition Netanyahu wanted. He can perhaps temporarily squelch this or that settlement construction plan. But he cannot alter the fact that he deliberately established a pro-settler government that is incapable of accepting the kind of genuine two-state solution that he purports to be negotiating under Washington's auspices. Indeed, this is a government whose very raison d'etre is planning and building more settlements, whether now or a month from now--settlements that willy nilly erode away at Israel's Jewish and Zionist nature.

Q. Apropos the settlements, was there something unique or particularly worrisome about the latest "price tag" attack launched against Palestinians by extremist settlers in the West Bank?

A. The attack was allegedly a "response" to the murder last week of an Israeli soldier in a bus in Afula by a Palestinian teenager who had entered Israel illegally from the West Bank. What was unique was this latest price tag's target: a Palestinian home in Sinjil village in the heart of the West Bank that, at 2 a.m. last Wednesday night, was occupied by a sleeping family of seven. Until now, price tag arson attacks by settler hotheads focused on unoccupied buildings, including (to date) no fewer than 17 mosques.

Luckily, the Sinjil family escaped their burning house with minimal injuries. But the attack seemingly reflects a readiness on the part of extremist settlers to escalate and focus on live targets rather than buildings. This only underlines two broader phenomena that characterize the security situation in the West Bank with regard to settlers.

First, while the price tag perpetrators are a small minority of settlers, the majority settler leadership almost certainly knows who they are and thus apparently tolerates them. Second, the Israeli internal security service (Shin Bet) has failed to apprehend these Jewish terrorists and bring them to justice.

Now it may be only a matter of time before extremist settlers begin systematically murdering Palestinian civilians. That is a surefire recipe for a major new round of violence in the West Bank.

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