December 28, 2015 - Doubtful new National Orthodox settler soul-searching; intriguing new Levant environment

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This week, Alpher discusses why the most senior ministers of Israel’s right-wing coalition are taking a strong stand against terrorist attacks by extremist fringe settlers, even though it is a pro-settler coalition; whether new political and ideological lines have been drawn and the political right woken up to the excesses of the settlement enterprise; what are the new regional dynamics and alignments emerging from the Islamic State challenge to the Middle East across the region, with Turkey and Israel talking again, Saudi Arabia establishing a 34-member Islamic coalition, and Israel reportedly assassinating a Hezbollah terrorist in the all-but-occupied (by Russia) Syrian capital of Damascus; and where Israel is in this dynamic.

Q. The most senior ministers of Israel’s right-wing coalition are taking a strong stand against terrorist attacks by extremist fringe settlers. But isn’t this a pro-settler coalition? What is going on?

A. This week, the Shin Bet General Security Service appears to be poised to turn over to government prosecutors a small group of extreme religious anarchist “hill youth” who will be accused of murdering a Palestinian family by arson several months ago in the West Bank village of Duma, along with several additional attacks on Arabs and Muslim and Christian places of worship. Evidently at least some of the perpetrators (whose names have not yet been released) are the children and grandchildren of well-known pillars of the National Orthodox settler community.

Rumors launched by settler supporters claim that the alleged young settler perpetrators have been treated brutally and even tortured by the Shin Bet in order to break their silence and extract confessions. Last week, a related group of extremist settler youth launched a violent and macabre dance at a wedding party at which they brandished knives, slashed at a photo of the Palestinian baby killed in the arson and voiced extremist and racist slogans, all based on their post-Zionist messianic ideology. A video clip of the dance went viral.

These extremely graphic and ugly events involving fanatic hate crimes have forced the pro-settler mainstream to take a stand. Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennet forthrightly condemned the extremist settlers and backed the Shin Bet. He was followed immediately by PM Netanyahu, who realized that if Bennet, who is on his political right, backs the security establishment’s tough treatment of Jewish suspects--which finally approaches the treatment meted out to Palestinian terror suspects--he cannot allow himself to lag behind. Defense Minister Yaalon, who is less ideological, has now more vocally condemned even lesser settler crimes such as land-grabs. Meanwhile settler groups, backed by a few Knesset members to Bennet’s right (the Tekuma faction, part of Jewish Home in a loose coalition arrangement), have been condemning Bennet and demonstrating against the Shin Bet, with some even alleging, totally without factual foundation, that Arabs and not Jews committed the Duma atrocity.

 

Q. Have new political and ideological lines been drawn? Has the political right woken up to the excesses of the settlement enterprise?

A. The more moderate right would have us believe so. It would have us believe that as the religious right takes over national institution after national institution, it can “handle” its own extremists and keep the country on an even keel. Here is Yedioth Aharonot columnist and former Netanyahu spokesman Yoaz Hendel: “What is still held in common is . . . that the institutions of state are important enough that they be respected and served. . . . The drama can be summed up in one demonstration: on one side kippa-wearing right-wing activists, facing them the kippa-wearing head of the Shin Bet, and in between them the institution of the state [“mamlachtiut”, the French “etatism”, a favorite term of Ben Gurion in his seminal state-building days].”

But what is an even keel for the religious right? Evidently, it is a settlement movement that gobbles up more and more East Jerusalem and West Bank land by twisting laws and expelling Palestinians from their homes--only not, God forbid, by firebombing those homes in the middle  of the night. It is a settlement leadership that describes its settlements in terms like “Mayflower” and preaches in the IDF and our schools its “values” of Orthodox Judaism-as-religiosity alone (not Judaism as secular Zionist nationalism or Judaism as democracy and humanitarianism), that rears its children and grandchildren on stolen land, that in the best case treats its Arab neighbors as “natives”, that supports rabbis who preach violence against non-Jews and against Jews willing to compromise (when was a single extremist rabbi indicted for incitement?), and that then rolls its eyes when its younger generation does what younger generations frequently do: takes its parents’ values and goes a step further with them.

The settler youth extremists denounce the Zionist state and its security institutions as an anachronism and invoke physical violence (as opposed to legal violence) to bring on the messiah. Almost 50 years ago a single prophet, Yeshayahu Leibovitz, got it right: occupation will breed “the corruption characteristic of every colonial regime” and “Judeo-Nazis”. Does the National Religious settlement establishment really not understand its direct responsibility for Duma and for that surreal wedding dance?

 

Q. Turning to the region, something is happening: Turkey and Israel are talking again, Saudi Arabia has established a 34-member Islamic coalition, and Israel has reportedly assassinated a Hezbollah terrorist in the all-but-occupied (by Russia) Syrian capital of Damascus. What are these new regional dynamics and alignments emerging from the Islamic State challenge to the Middle East?

A. The current phase of the regional response to the Levant conflicts and revolutions is fascinating. While the US, Russia and the UN sponsor an attempt to convene Syria ceasefire talks without the participation of the strongest Islamist groups fighting in Syria and without any other viable Sunni Arab Syrian partner--the rest of the region jockeys for position on the Levant playing field.

Speaking of viable Sunni partners, lately even the most dynamic players in the region, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, appeared to be spinning their wheels in neutral. In recent weeks, Ankara has sent troops into northern Iraq to stake out a claim to hegemony over beleaguered Sunnis there, then withdrawn them in deference to strong protests from Baghdad. It has moved closer to the Kurds of northern Iraq while intensifying a war against its own Kurds and those in northern Syria. It announced it will establish a military base in the Gulf emirate of Qatar--both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, finding itself in confrontation with Russia after it downed a Russian attack aircraft over Syria and fearing Russian energy sanctions, Turkey has moved closer to the European Union and warmed up reconciliation talks with Israel that could ultimately include a gas deal.

In parallel Saudi Arabia, mired in the Yemen conflict and relatively ineffective in Syria, announced last week the establishment of a 34-nation Islamic alliance (Sunni only; no Shiite-ruled states like Iran and Iraq). But to do what? That’s not clear, particularly insofar as several countries on the list--Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Chad, Mali--quickly backed out of the alliance or disowned it, thereby once again highlighting the weakness of Saudi diplomacy and Riyadh’s vulnerability to criticism as a major sponsor of extremist Wahhabi Islam. As Egyptian TV commentator Ibrahim Issa noted, “This coalition will support terror rather than combating it.” But the Saudis are in good company: recently-created joint Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council military commands also have yet to generate any serious combined military activity against extremist Islam.

 

Q. And where is Israel in this dynamic?

A. Israel responded to Turkish overtures cautiously, demanding that Ankara cease hosting terrorist commanders of Muslim Brotherhood-related Hamas and hedging its bets regarding supply of Mediterranean gas to Turkey lest this alienate its “new periphery” partners in the Mediterranean, Greece and Cyprus, who want both gas and security (vis-a-vis Turkey) from Israel. Greece also hedged its bets last week, its parliament officially recognizing a (virtual) Palestinian state in the presence of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in order to balance the extraordinary readiness of its leftist government to move closer to Jerusalem.

For his part, PM Netanyahu has marketed Israel’s export and business model for its Mediterranean gas assets as a security asset designed to cement Israel’s relations with not only Greece and Cyprus but potentially Egypt as well. He has yet to prove that this intriguing thesis is a viable concept in the constantly changing eastern Mediterranean context.

Israel also reportedly assassinated Samir Kuntar in a Damascus suburb last week. True, Israel had a long score to settle with Kuntar, a Druze who disdained his sect’s neutrality, brutally murdered Israeli civilians decades ago and, following his release in a prisoner exchange, headed a team intent on creating a Hezbollah/Iranian threat on the Israeli Golan. But what was most unusual about Kuntar’s demise was the apparent capacity of the Israeli security establishment to act with impunity in Damascus without Russia in any way reacting. Russian-Israeli military harmony in Syria--each seemingly looking after its interests without disturbing the other--is another interesting feature of the new Levant environment.

The dynamic nature of events in the Levant is increasingly sparking comment by strategic analysts regarding the possible future lay of the land. Thus, former head of Mossad Shabtai Shavit published a position paper in late November proposing a “new Middle East”: Iraq will be Shiite and in an Iranian sphere of influence; a “Sunni-stan” will comprise the parts of Iraq and Syria currently held by the Islamic State; independent Iraqi Kurdistan will be supported by NATO and the US; a diminished Syria will be under Russian influence; Iran, in return for recognition of its hegemony over Shiite Iraq, will cease supporting Hezbollah in southern Lebanon; and an independent Palestinian state will be created in accordance with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.

What should interest us here is not the debatable geo-strategic logic or feasibility of Shavit’s proposal, but rather the fact that the dynamic Levant situation appears to be inviting strategic thinkers to draw new lines on the map. . . . 

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