This week, Alpher discusses what we can expect in Israel and Israel-US relations in 2016; the notion that the Palestinian issue increasingly will become an internal Israeli affair; how the Arab and Muslim worlds will respond to this and if we will witness external aggression against Israel; and prospects for some sort of international political agreement regarding Syria, spearheaded by the US and Russia
Q. What can we expect in Israel and Israel-US relations in 2016?
A. Broadly speaking, more of what we experienced in 2015, and worse.
There will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace process, with or without US sponsorship. Indeed, the issue will hardly feature in US presidential elections or, for that matter, in Israeli politics.
Apropos those elections, we can probably expect Israeli PM Netanyahu to be so confident in his standing in both Israel and the US that he will crassly interfere in favor of the Republican candidate. Netanyahu’s narrow coalition, dominated and manipulated by him almost at will, will hold. Settlement construction will expand, the status and fate of the West Bank and East Jerusalem will become an increasingly divisive “internal” issue, and at least some right-wing legislative initiatives to restrict civil rights and castigate the left will be enacted.
Q. Can you expand on the notion that the Palestinian issue increasingly becomes an internal Israeli affair?
A. Just look at the events of the past week. They may be rife with contradictions and mirror images, but they are all seemingly internal. First, the Netanyahu government approved an extraordinary NIS 10 billion package (about $2.5 billion) for Israeli Arab sector development: infrastructure, health, welfare, etc. This laudatory step was welcomed by Israeli Arabs and Israeli liberals. But what motivated it?
Basically, the move appeared to reflect not egalitarian motives so much as Netanyahu’s concern over security establishment reports of the growing appeal of ISIS and other radical Islamist movements among Israeli Arab youth. In other words, as with Netanyahu’s approach to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, this was “economic peace” at work: he believes (with no foundation whatsoever in recent Israel-Arab history) that the more financially content Israel’s Arabs are, the less they are likely to agitate for equal rights and make trouble. Then too, the prime minister is undoubtedly aware of financial establishment predictions that Israel’s overall economic growth will slow unless the Arab sector becomes more productive and better integrated into the economy. If the economy slows, all Israelis will suffer.
Finally, there was the fact that all Arab members of Knesset are now united in a single electoral list led by a dynamic moderate, Ayman Odeh, who was able to make a decisive contribution in the negotiations regarding the package.
So far, so good. But then, Naftali Bennet’s Ministry of Education announced the banning from the national high school curriculum of a book, “Borderlife” (Hebrew: “Gader Haia”), that features, God forbid, an abortive Arab-Jewish romance. The ministry’s explanation: we don’t want to encourage assimilation. Needless to say, the ill-conceived ban not only raised a huge ruckus, but turned the book into an overnight bestseller among Israeli teenagers.
Now we move not far away, to the West Bank. On Sunday, after five months of investigation, charges were brought against a group of messianist extremist “hill youth” for attacking Palestinians. Most prominent among the incidents covered was the firebombing of a Palestinian home in Duma village that wiped out an entire family and triggered the current intifada-like wave of knifings and other attacks in Jerusalem, Hebron, and occasionally elsewhere in the West Bank and Israel. As we noted last week, the National Religious settler establishment whose sons are in jail hopes now to get back to the business of settling the territories and rolling its eyes when it comes to the obvious link between its “moderate” messianic land-grab ideology and the not-illogical extreme of murder that its younger generation has taken it to.
All this culminated in last Friday’s shooting attack by an Israeli Arab in the heart of Tel Aviv who killed two Jews, wounded others in the city center and apparently also killed an Arab taxi driver in north Tel Aviv. At the time of writing the young attacker, who had a relatively minor criminal, terrorist and psychological record, was still at large, possibly relying on Israeli Arab accomplices or sympathizers.
The shootings triggered two extraordinary acts, one somewhat unusual and the other, by now, predictable. The shooter’s father, from the north Israel village of Arara, recognized his son from closed circuit footage shown on TV and immediately reported him to the police and denounced the murders. It turned out the father was himself a police volunteer and the murder weapon had been held by him under license.
The sharp contrast within a single Arab family may have been unusual. But the father actually represents the law-abiding Israeli Arab mainstream that, like most folks anywhere, just wants to get along and live peaceably.
More predictably, Netanyahu arranged a photo-op at the Tel Aviv murder scene on Saturday evening where he alleged that Israeli Arab communities were behaving outside the law and were disloyal to the state, and promised more law-enforcement in the Arab sector. His remarks immediately recalled last March, when his election-day getting-out-the-Likud-vote rabble-rousing to the effect that droves of Arabs were being bused to polling stations generated international protests regarding anti-Arab racism at the highest level in Israel.
Was this the same Netanyahu who had just recognized the positive need for more development in the Arab sector? No. Rather, it was the same Netanyahu who in the course of the past seven years in office had consistently ignored demands by Arab Knesset members themselves to wipe out islands of illegality and criminality in Arab towns and villages.
In sum, we can confidently predict that 2016 will witness the ongoing merger or integration of Israeli and West Bank Arab-Jewish issues, replete with strange contrasts and contradictions, as the country continues to slide down the slippery slope toward a violent, ugly and conflicted one-state reality.
Q. And how will the Arab and Muslim worlds respond to this? Will we witness external aggression against Israel?
A. Possibly, but only by the non-state actors on Israel’s borders, and largely due to their own conflicted agendas rather than genuine concern for the Palestinian cause. Recent weeks have witnessed vocal threats by Hezbollah to Israel’s north to avenge the assassination of Samir Kuntar and threats by Hamas to return to the second intifada tactic of suicide bombings. The threats reflect the internal political and military weaknesses of both movements, as do rather unusual threats against Israel by ISIS. Hamas is isolated in Gaza and has nothing to show for the summer 2014 war. Hezbollah is hard put to justify to its Lebanese Shiite constituency its serious losses in the Syria fighting. And ISIS too is losing territory under the pounding of Russian and especially US-led air attacks.
Q. Turning to the broader Middle East, you don’t see a prospect for some sort of international political agreement regarding Syria, spearheaded by the US and Russia?
A. If any agreement is reached in 2016 regarding a ceasefire and elections in Syria, it will not include some of the main players such as ISIS and other extremist Islamic movements that will go on fighting in both Iraq and Syria. Nor, at this point, can it represent a meeting of the ways between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds or between Iran and Saudi Arabia--all regional actors whose acquiescence in a US-Russia deal over Syria is vital.
Indeed, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia just took a turn for the worse, as Riyadh’s provocative execution of a Saudi Shiite dissident sparked riots in Iran that quickly eventuated in a break in diplomatic relations. Clearly, the US-led nuclear deal with Iran has not convinced the Saudi-led Sunni Arab world that Iran can be considered a reliable partner in the Levant. With Saudi Arabia already bent on organizing a strictly Sunni “Islamic Coalition” to counter radical Shiite and (ostensibly) Sunni Islam, the forecast for 2016 can only point to more rather than less violence in the Levant. Russia and Iran will become more entrenched in Syria, while Turkey will continue casting about for allies against virtually everyone to its south--Assad’s Syria, Russia, Iran and the Kurds. US and Russian-led efforts may whittle away at ISIS’s territorial grip, but ISIS will continue to expand forcefully in Libya, the Sahara and Egyptian Sinai and to infiltrate Gaza and Yemen.
Regarding the latter, incidentally, the best we might hope for is the repartition of Yemen between north and south, the former pro-Iranian and the latter under Saudi aegis. Al-Qaeda and ISIS will continue to grab Yemeni territory wherever they can. That is hardly a formula for stability in the Arabian Peninsula in 2016.
As matters stand, then, the region’s three primary powers (besides Israel, which wisely continues to avoid involvement in the field of battle), Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all seem primed to pursue their own sectarian interests in the Middle East in 2016. A joint Russian-US initiative to stabilize Syria seems relatively powerless in the face of this dynamic. The Palestinian issue does not really engage anyone.