February 01, 2016 - Regional initiatives, regional spying

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This week, Alpher discusses the flurry of high level discussions and agreements between Israel, Greece and Cyprus, with Egypt also mentioned as an economic and military partner, seemingly directed at isolating Turkey regionally; more Edward Snowden revelations of far-reaching electronic monitoring by the US and UK, and whether Israel is alarmed at its friends’ spying; if there is any chance of success trying to end the slaughter in Syria, via the convening of yet another high-level meeting in Geneva to try; how do Israelis react to more and more instances of regime-led siege warfare against Syrian civilian villages, leading to starvation; his reaction to French FM Fabius calling for an international peace conference and threatening that if it fails, France will recognize a Palestinian state.

Q. Last week you discussed the difficulties in Israeli-Turkish talks. We then witnessed a flurry of high level discussions and agreements between Israel, Greece and Cyprus, with Egypt also mentioned as an economic and military partner. These talks were seemingly directed at isolating Turkey regionally. Can you put this in perspective?

A. Following surprise summit meetings in Jerusalem and Nicosia, the leaders of Israel, Greece and Cyprus last week announced agreements on possible supply of gas and electricity from Israel to Greece via Cyprus, and on trilateral security cooperation. PM Netanyahu even went out of his way to declare that any gas deals reached with Turkey would not compromise these deals. The Israeli press hastened to declare a new “geopolitical bloc” in the Eastern Mediterranean, and hinted that Egypt--which shares the distrust of Turkey’s Islamist leadership displayed by the other three and will soon have its own gas reserves to contribute--is a potential fourth member.

None of this is new. All four parties have for several years been discussing energy sharing and security vis-a-vis not only Turkey but other Islamist threats as well--in Greece’s case militant Islamists concealed among the multitude of Syrian and other migrants from Turkey. Talks and high-level visits began as early as 2010, following the Mavi Marmara crisis which highlighted Turkey’s support for the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip--a regime that is anathema to both Israel and Egypt.

How serious is this new bloc? Here we have to distinguish between the parties’ sincere intentions, and the difficulty of making good on them. All four, Egypt included, have an interest in signaling Turkey that they have alternatives to its huge economic clout and its Islamist machinations. It is instructive to note how far Greek PM Tsipras and Cypriot President Anastasiades, both leftists who would ordinarily be expected to be highly critical of Israel, are prepared to go in collaborating with Netanyahu. Yet both Greece and Cyprus are also in extremely poor economic straits, meaning they have little to contribute to the new bloc. Then too, the transport of gas and/or gas-produced electricity from Israel to Greece faces a huge geographic obstacle in the form of the seabed between Cyprus and Greece that is two kilometers deep and defies the easy laying of pipelines and cables. At the military level Cyprus, with its decades-old dispute with Turkey, has much to fear without the deterrence embedded in its military cooperation with Israel. This problematic “new periphery” pact is discussed in depth in my book Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies.

From a strictly economic standpoint, Israel’s best bet is still to sell gas to Turkey. From a security standpoint, Greece and Cyprus need Israel’s cooperation. So how impressed can Ankara be with this new “geopolitical bloc”? Still, one cannot help but admire Netanyahu’s capacity to tighten relations with European Union members, one (Greece) a NATO member as well, that ordinarily would shun his company due to the festering Palestinian issue. This is not unlike Israel’s current close security relations with Sunni Arab countries, from Egypt and Jordan to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At the broadest strategic level, this phenomenon offers eloquent testimony to the power of the fear of militant Islam, whether Iranian/Hezbollah, Islamic State, or Turkish.

 

Q. At a very different level of regional activity, more revelations by Moscow-based Edward Snowden now indicate far-reaching electronic monitoring by the US and UK, mainly from a sovereign British base in Cyprus, of Israel Air Force operational flights, particularly in the Gaza arena. Is Israel alarmed at its friends’ spying?

A. Israel is long accustomed to its friends’ spying. Just look at the field of antennas bristling from the roof of the US embassy in Tel Aviv. Routine efforts by American intelligence agencies to recruit Israeli informants to report to them on issues like nuclear and missile capabilities and possible plans to attack Iran are regularly shrugged off by Israeli counter-intelligence authorities. Jonathan Pollard may have been the last American recruited by Israel, but Israel appears powerless to protest ever ongoing US spying activities against it. Lest we forget, this is a totally asymmetrical security relationship.

Accordingly, far more worrisome than the act of spying by the US are the capabilities involved: if the US possesses them, Moscow presumably does too. And if the US can spy on Israel from nearby Cyprus, Russia is now firmly embedded in neighboring Syria.

 

Q. Apropos Syria, this weekend witnessed the convening of yet another high-level meeting in Geneva to try to end the slaughter there. Any chance of success?

A. Very little. Because the external powers--the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia--can’t agree on which opposition actors should participate, many of the Levant Islamist opposition movements are not at the table. In particular ISIS, which controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq, is not on anyone’s list of invitees (it responded with a murderous terrorist attack at a Shiite shrine near Damascus). But the Kurds are also not invited, and they are the only moderate opposition actor thus far to prove capable of conquering and holding territory. Then too, the moderate Syrian rebels who were invited to come to the Geneva meeting are not prepared to sit at the same table with the Assad regime unless and until it ceases barrel-bombing and starving their fellow Syrian citizens.

Finally, only the US, Russia and Assad appear to agree on an agenda for Geneva that reportedly stipulates a two-year transition period to a ceasefire and elections. In any case, this could only apply to the one-third of Syria the regime controls. And Washington and Russia continue to disagree over Assad’s fate.

Thus far, these UN-sponsored Geneva “peace talks” have conceivably rendered the situation in Syria worse, not better. The Assad regime with its Russian and Iranian support draws encouragement from them to continue slaughtering and starving civilians.

 

Q. Indeed, in recent weeks we have confronted more and more instances of regime-led siege warfare against Syrian civilian villages, leading to starvation. The photos of starving Syrians are reminiscent of Bergen Belsen. How do Israelis react?

A. Israelis see the photos and make the Holocaust connection. Further, Israelis realize that these starving people are our neighbors. They may represent an enemy country, Syria, but with the exception of our far right fringe of racist messianics, few Israelis rejoice in their plight.

Israel and Israelis do try to aid Syrian refugees. Official medical and humanitarian aid is available at the Golan border and at hospitals in northern Israel. Unofficial aid is provided by compassionate Israeli NGOs like IsraAID and Israeli Flying Aid working at and near Syria’s borders and on Greek islands where Syrian refugees arrive by boat from Turkey. (Once you’ve contributed to APN you might Google and help them.)

Still, by international standards Israeli aid, official and unofficial, is a drop in the bucket. In recent weeks I have heard here and there the idea that Israel could have airdropped food and other supplies to starving Syrian villagers under siege by pro-government forces near the Syria-Lebanon border. It’s an intriguing idea. But adopting it would almost certainly have brought Israel head first into the Syria conflict in a totally counter-productive way. It’s one thing for an Israeli drone or F16 to (allegedly) intercept occasional Syrian and Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah. It’s another for more vulnerable Israeli transport planes or helicopters to fly deep into Syrian airspace and risk being shot down while delivering aid, thereby catalyzing a new, dangerous and totally unnecessary phase in the Syria conflict.

Note in this context that Israel, a neighbor of Syria potentially seriously affected by the fighting, is not only not involved on the ground in Syria. Alone among Syria’s neighbors, it is not at the table in Geneva.

 

Q. Finally, back to the Palestinian issue: French FM Fabius is calling for an international peace conference. He is threatening that if it fails, France will recognize a Palestinian state. Netanyahu is unmoved. Your reaction?

A. I doubt this French initiative will have much effect. If the conference is held, it won’t get very far, with or without Israeli participation (Netanyahu threatens to boycott it). If it is not held and Paris follows through and recognizes a Palestinian state, this will not have any more impact than previous recognition by dozens of world leaders and parliaments.

Note that the US has backed away from any new initiative during this election year, and France and others have apparently backed away from a United Nations initiative. Netanyahu can rally Israeli public opinion against the French initiative by claiming that Fabius, who leaves office soon, simply wants to go out with a bang. Netanyahu can also exploit Israeli and world Jewish pique over France’s recent hosting, on international Holocaust Remembrance Day, of Iranian President Rowhani--who was on a European “victory tour” and buying spree and represents a Holocaust-denying regime.

Further, Netanyahu has a trump card to play: Knesset opposition leader and Labor Party head Isaac “Bougie” Herzog stated last week following a meeting with France’s President Hollande that the two-state vision for an Israeli-Palestinian solution is currently “not relevant” due to the regional and international situation. Herzog, like Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, is adjusting his public political credentials to appeal to the large concentration of voters at Israel’s political center who want a two-state solution that separates Israel from the Palestinians but are firmly convinced that such a solution is not possible at present.

Herzog’s political ally in the Zionist Camp Tzipi Livni and rivals within Labor like Shelly Yachimovich agree quietly that a process is not currently possible but insist that Labor must continue actively and loudly to advocate negotiations. This internal dispute on the center-left is primarily about the upcoming leadership battle in Labor party primaries. But it serves Netanyahu well, particularly at a time when there is a growing reaction among even some of his Likud allies like Benny Begin against the excesses of the McCarthyistic far right-wing witch hunt against prominent members of Israel’s peace camp.

Ultimately, from Netanyahu’s standpoint the only positive aspect of the French initiative is that it gives Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) a diplomatic achievement, hence may promote a degree of quiet and stability in the Palestinian Authority for the immediate future, thereby once again relieving Netanyahu of the need to consider taking any sort of initiative.

 

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