November 30, 2015 - Israel and the UAE, Israel and the Palestinians, Turkey and Russia

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This week, Alpher discusses whether the opening of a diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates is a breakthrough; is the Palestinian issue being pushed to the back burner internationally despite the current protest wave of violence that reflects a high degree of Palestinian public despair; and how we should read the fallout from Turkey’s downing of a Russian combat aircraft last weekend.

 

Q. Israel has opened a diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates. Is this a breakthrough?

A. A breakthrough of sorts. The mission will be accredited to IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, an international body that must allow all member countries representation. The UAE understood this when it campaigned to host that body, and Israel voted several years ago to locate it in the UAE on the understanding that this would afford it a foothold in the country’s capital, Abu Dhabi.

Even though the IRENA mission is not an Israeli embassy, it does represent a diplomatic “return” of sorts to the Gulf for the first time in years. At the height of the Oslo process Israel had low-level diplomatic missions in Oman and Qatar in the Persian Gulf region, as well as Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia in North Africa, and most of these countries had diplomats in Israel. Those relations were severed years ago due to Arab pique over the decline in prospects for a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. But quiet commercial relations with the Gulf states have continued, and security ties have been rumored to exist and even flourish.

Perhaps the most significant precedent established here is the advent of a new diplomatic tie with a major Gulf state despite the total absence of progress in the Palestinian sphere. The Netanyahu government has defined achieving such ties as a major objective of Israeli diplomacy in the near future, based on two strategic assumptions.

First, Israel and the Gulf emirates are united in confronting the dual threat of both Shiite (Iran) and Sunni (ISIS) fundamentalism in and around the Levant. In this respect they differ from nearly all other countries confronting ISIS, because the others--beginning with the US and Russia and now France and possibly the UK--are inclined to cooperate at least tacitly with Iran for the purpose of defeating the “greater evil”, ISIS.

Israel’s second assumption holds that in the current regional atmosphere there can be no progress with the Palestinians, yet that should no longer be an impediment to closer and more overt Israel-Gulf relations. This second assumption is the hardest sell for Israel in view of the abundant evidence that the Netanyahu government bears a considerable portion of the blame for the current state of affairs in the Palestinian sphere.

Still, with the Obama administration clearly withdrawing from a leading role--last week’s visit to Israel/Palestine by Secretary of State Kerry produced no progress at all--the Palestinian leadership increasingly ineffectual, and Islamist threats looming, the UAE was persuaded to take what is for it a very modest step but one that constitutes for Israel a renewed diplomatic foothold in an additional and strategically important Arab country.

 

Q. So does this tell us the Palestinian issue is being pushed to the back burner internationally despite the current protest wave of violence that reflects a high degree of Palestinian public despair?

A. Certainly, that is the way the Netanyahu government would have it. It is striving to continue to expand its grip on the West Bank while minimizing the impact of European sanctions on agricultural produce from the settlements, enjoying the relative absence of pressures from Washington, and pretending it is “business as usual” and mere “conflict management” in the West Bank. In the past week, the Israeli press has recorded the testimony of several anonymous senior IDF officers to the effect that they had warned in advance of the current mini-intifada and proposed a series of good will gestures to the Palestinians--prisoner release, easier movement in the West Bank, more jobs in Israel--as a preventive measure, but were rebuffed by Netanyahu’s hard-line government. On the other hand, Defense Minister Yaalon has reportedly rebuffed right-wing pressures to institute draconian security restrictions on the West Bank.

There is also growing evidence of Palestinian concern over the seemingly suicidal inclinations of the youth who carry out lone-wolf knifing and vehicle attacks and nearly always end up killed by Israeli forces. Does this mean the beginning of the end of the current wave? It’s too early to tell.

 

Q. Returning to the events in the Levant, how do you read the fallout from Turkey’s downing of a Russian combat aircraft last weekend?

A. Turkish President Erdogan is too proud to apologize, while Russian President Putin is invoking far-reaching economic sanctions. Meanwhile, it emerges that recently a Russian combat aircraft on a bombing mission over southern Syria strayed into Israeli air space and withdrew without incident after a polite reminder from the Israel Air Force.

The parallels and precedents are too tempting not to be explored.

First, Putin is applying to Turkey the very same economic measures that the US and Europe imposed on Russia following the latter’s unilateral annexation of the Crimea and in view of its sponsorship of pro-Russian rebels inside Ukraine. In other words, Putin is indirectly ratifying US President Obama’s sanctions strategy against him by copying it.

Second, even prior to Turkey’s firing on a Russian plane, Israel recognized the need to coordinate with the Russians to the extent of forgiving their intrusions. Here we recall that PM Netanyahu was the first foreign leader to meet with Putin after the Russian deployment began in Syria and that Russia and Israel have apparently managed nicely since then to coordinate their respective activities in the Syrian arena.

Indeed, in the Levant a large number of usually friendly air forces are maneuvering within a relatively small air space. Accordingly, a measure of patience and tolerance is called for. On the other hand, when a Syrian combat aircraft strayed across the Golan border last year, Israel shot it down because Syria is still an enemy state and the incident incurred no risks and no cost.

Third, Erdogan has expressed regret and sadness over the Russian plane incident but has not, in so many words, apologized, as Putin demands. Has Erdogan forgotten how long he waited for Netanyahu to apologize over the Mavi Marmari incident of May 2010? Yet even that apology, offered during the Obama visit of March 2013, didn’t put an end to Erdogan’s anger at Israel.

Then too, the Turkish-Russian clash underlines the fact that nearly each and every air force bombing in the Levant has a different enemy and a different objective. Turkey bombs some Islamists, but mainly dissident Kurds. Russia bombs anyone ostensibly threatening the Assad regime, including moderate Islamists, Turkmen who are closely allied with Turkey and whom Erdogan wishes to protect, and occasionally ISIS. The US and France bomb only ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Israel, rarely, sends its air force to intercept strategic arms shipments from Assad to Lebanon-based Hezbollah and to retaliate against any and all Islamists threatening its Golan border, including Hezbollah, Iranians and Sunni Islamists.

All parties will now have to take into account that the sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missiles Russia is deploying in Syria to protect its planes against further Turkish provocations cover the air space of the entire Levant and complicate the situation in the air even further. At a minimum, the fallout from the Turkish-Russian incident renders even less likely than before the prospect of Turkey and Jordan establishing “safe zones” or “no fly zones” across their borders with Syria to accommodate refugees, friendly minorities like the Turkmen and anti-Assad training activities. Under current circumstances that would require Russian concurrence, which is not likely to be forthcoming.

Finally, the Ottoman (Turkish) empire and Czarist Russia are old enemies, and both are ancient enemies of the Safavid (Persian-Iranian) empire. In this part of the world such past glories are not forgotten. Not only is the fate of Syria’s Turkmen a bone of contention between modern-day Turkey and Assad’s ally Russia. The latter aspires to maintain its hegemony over the Turkic-speaking “stans” of Central Asia--formerly part of the Soviet Union--while Turkey also sees them as part of its sphere of influence. And Turks are angry over Russia’s treatment of the Crimean Tatars, yet another Turkic people in the region, following Moscow’s takeover of Crimea. Yet at this point it is also fair to assess that neither Russia nor Turkey nor Iran has succeeded very well at reviving hegemony over ancient spheres of influence.

Throw in the obvious clash between two highly authoritative rulers, Putin and Erdogan, and Russian-Turkish relations could heat up even more. NATO, of which Turkey is a member, is not happy with the prospect of being dragged into any more tension with Russia than that engendered already by the Ukraine imbroglio. Erdogan, on the other hand, is leveraging the incident with Russia, along with the Syrian refugee problem, to ask to reopen Turkey’s European Union membership file and hasten the processing of its application. A senior Turkish official just told the EU that “even Israel wants us to join.”

Indeed, Israel used to advocate in favor of Turkish EU membership, on the theory that if the Europeans could absorb a major Muslim state they could absorb a Jewish state too. That position doesn’t seem particularly relevant today in view of Turkish-Israeli and European-Israeli tensions over the Palestinian issue. Still, the Turkish statement is music to Israel’s ears insofar as Jerusalem stands to benefit from Turkish-Russian tension. Russia might import Israel’s fruits and vegetables to replace those it used to buy in Turkey. And Turkey, with few enthusiastic allies and facing a threat of energy sanctions by Russia, could yet warm up to the idea of purchasing Israeli Mediterranean gas.

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