Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
This week, Alpher discusses the recent poll revealing that fully two-thirds of Israeli Jews believe it is possible to continue to occupy the West Bank yet remain truly democratic and how this finding meshes with emerging developments inside Israel; what has changed in Israel and the Middle East over the last 20 years; Is the Levant conflict and the agreement, reached last week in Munich, for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid in Syria the beginning of the end of ISIS; and whether there is a broader global strategic meaning to these developments.
Q. A recent Peace Index poll reveals that fully two-thirds of Israeli Jews believe it is possible to continue to occupy the West Bank yet remain truly democratic. How does this finding mesh with emerging developments inside Israel?
A. Sadly, it meshes nicely. A majority of Israeli Jews are increasingly persuaded--by the ruling political right, by the failures of the political left, and by events in the chaotic Arab world around us--that it meshes. In other words, undemocratic acts and decisions in Israel that are in some way linked to the occupation are now seen as democratic. It’s becoming Orwellian.
Here are some very recent examples. They are all confusing, they all involve anti-Israel provocations and devious behavior, they all seek to criminalize or otherwise delegitimize behavior seen as sympathizing with the Palestinians, and they all test bounds of Israeli democracy that until now had held fast.
Thus, an Israeli peace activist, Ezra Nawi was arrested in Israel in late January because he boasted (whether truthfully or not is unclear) that he had turned over to the Palestinian Authority police several Palestinians who sold West Bank land to Jewish settlers. Nawi is being questioned by the Israel Police on charges ranging from conspiracy in attempted murder to accessory to manslaughter and passing information to a foreign agent. The Palestinian land sellers could get a death sentence from a PA court.
Nawi was obeying Palestinian law on PA territory. Whether or not he really did inform on the land seller and whether or not we sympathize with any side in this controversy, Nawi seemingly did not violate Israeli law on Israeli territory. Rather, he infuriated the pro-settler majority.
Here is a similar incident. The Balad party, part of the Arab Joint List, is known for its anti-Zionist provocations and its open sympathy for the most radical actors in the Arab world. Until now, on the occasion of repeated national elections the High Court of Justice has staunchly upheld Balad’s right to run and be elected despite these positions. About 10 days ago, the three Balad members of Knesset met with the families of three East Jerusalem Palestinians who had been killed in the act of stabbing and murdering Israelis. The Israel Police had refused to return the bodies of the stabbers for burial unless the families agreed to private funerals without incitement and nationalist drama. The three MKs claimed their mission had been solely to facilitate the knifers’ proper burial in accordance with Muslim custom. But they readily stood for a moment of silence in memory of the knifers which was subsequently posted proudly on the Balad website and, they claim, led a number of young Arab citizens of Israel to join the party.
In response, the three have been suspended from Knesset debates for three months and an initiative is afoot to allow the removal of MKs from the Knesset, by a vote of a weighted majority of 90 MKs out of 120, in the event of future affronts. Note that the Balad MKs broke no Israeli law. Note, too, that following the incident the Israel Police very quickly found a way to enable the burial of two of the three knifers, thereby largely defusing the controversy. Finally, note that the initiative to remove MKs from the Knesset in the future is deemed unlikely to pass because several extreme right wing MKs who are known for their own provocations have decided that such a measure could in future be used against them. In short, here was another celebration of hypocrisy at the expense of democracy. After all, the real test of democracy is precisely whether it can tolerate opinions and non-violent acts that the majority of the public finds detestable.
Then we come to Razi Barkai, a very popular (Jewish) talk show host on Galei Tzahal, the very popular IDF radio station. Last week Barkai asked the minister responsible for the Israel Police, Gilead Ardan, “Do two mothers from two sides of the conflict not feel the same pain over the loss of their sons?” Barkai was referring to the East Jerusalem Arab mothers of the unburied knife attackers on the one hand and, on the other, the Israeli Jewish mothers of two IDF soldiers whose bodies Hamas has refused to return for burial since the summer 2014 Gaza war. Barkai put the same question to the bereaved father of one of the two soldiers, who replied that no mourning Israeli family could justify the question and suggested that soldiers should stop listening to the station.
Under the ensuing public pressure, the head of the station reportedly decided to split Barkai’s two hour show between Barkai and a right-wing interviewer. (Until that decision I had never regarded Barkai, a superb interviewer, as a leftist and certainly not someone in need of “balance”.) Barkai, who himself belongs to the huge family of Israelis who lost someone to war (his elder brother), was reportedly considering resigning. It seems that by implying equivalency between a Palestinian mother’s desire to bury her terrorist son whose remains Israel had refused to hand over and an Israeli family’s desire to bury its soldier son whom Hamas has refused to hand over, and by implying equivalency between each side’s readiness to exploit the dead in order to hurt the other, Barkai has crossed a line.
Q. What line, exactly?
A. It took a striking survey regarding Israel’s education system and a statement by PM Netanyahu to explain this dynamic. The survey, released last week by the highly respected Van Leer Institute, found a dramatic drop in the percentage of Israeli high school students taking high-level baccalaureate exams in humanities topics like literature and history. Why? One high school teacher put it bluntly: “Humanities, which encourage critical thinking, are not congenial to a society that wants to cultivate collective thinking.”
Still confused? On February 9 the prime minister stated, with reference to the security fence being built along the southern border between Israel and Jordan, “We’ll surround the country with fencing to protect against predatory animals” (also translated “wild beasts”). Just to get the facts straight: the fence in question is being built largely to protect a new international airport under construction north of Eilat and to keep out illegal labor migrants coming from Africa; and Netanyahu apparently felt the need to make his statement in response to a stinging demand voiced by Labor opposition leader Herzog to complete the West Bank security fence. None of this matters to the prime minister. He saw an opportunity to feed the nation’s paranoia regarding knifings and other acts of terrorism that his government is not only unable to prevent but that it encourages by increasingly swallowing up three million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s statement was reminiscent of Menachem Begin calling Yasser Arafat a “two-legged animal”. Both prime ministers believed they knew what their voters needed to hear. Of course Netanyahu went on to do deals with Arafat at Wye Plantation and smoke cigars with him. But that was 20 years ago, in a different Middle East and a different Israel.
Q. How different? Last week, Jordan’s King Abdullah stated at the Munich Security Conference that, “Left unresolved, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will become a religious conflict of a global dimension. And it is only a matter of time before we may be faced by yet another war in Gaza or in south Lebanon.”
A. Abdullah is of course deeply troubled by both the events in the Levant, to Jordan’s north, and the fear of overflow from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to its west. It was predictable that he would try to link them in the eyes of the world.
I don’t agree with the linkage. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict can continue to fester for a long time to come without “going global”. Indeed, it is increasingly becoming an ugly internal “tribal” issue for both Israelis and Palestinians as Israel swallows up the West Bank and East Jerusalem with their three million Arabs. In fact, most of Abdullah’s fellow Sunni Arab leaders, who like him cooperate closely with Israel against both Iran and the Islamic State, are increasingly prepared to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and let both sides stew in their own juice. In this sense, the second part of Abdullah’s prediction, about another Gaza war, does indeed make sense.
Q. Abdullah also predicted another war in south Lebanon. This brings us to the Levant conflict and the agreement, also reached last week in Munich, for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid in Syria. Is this the beginning of the end of ISIS?
A. I fear it is more like the end of the beginning. It is rare to encounter a ceasefire pact that is so quickly disparaged, even by one of the two great power parties to the International Syria Support Group agreement, Russia. There are three immediate reasons why this ceasefire is not likely to take hold, much less last.
First, the pro-Assad coalition comprising the regime, Iran, Hezbollah and a host of Shiite militias, led since September very dynamically by Russia, is now the main protagonist in Syria. It is consolidating territory with a view to bolstering Assad’s rule over all of western Syria and conceivably then moving eastward against the Islamic State. No one is effectively stopping it. A ceasefire might be temporarily useful while the Russian-led coalition completes its siege of the last big target in western Syria, Aleppo. But it will be broken the moment the full conquest of Aleppo becomes possible. So a lot more carnage is in store.
Second, the US, which initiated and has blessed the ceasefire, is not going to put the brakes on Russia, and Moscow knows this. The US is silently acquiescing in Putin’s objective of fortifying Assad’s regime in power, even when the Russian Air Force bombs militias armed and trained by Washington. American rhetoric regarding the Levant, particularly that of Secretary of State Kerry who is on the front lines of US diplomacy, seems less and less credible. Increasingly all other actors on the scene, Israel included, know this.
Third, Turkey is spoiling for a fight against the Syrian Kurds, and Saudi Arabia is insisting on joining the fight against IS. Both countries remain resolutely anti-Assad. The risks of a Russian-Turkish clash continue to grow.
So the war in the Levant is increasingly drawing in not only the great powers but the neighbors as well.
Q. Is there a broader global strategic meaning to these developments?
A. In the eyes of many countries in the Middle East but also beyond, Putin and Russia are successfully humiliating the United States.
Imagine a Levant pacified by Moscow, which proceeds to install in Damascus a secular regime and a federal system that favors minorities like Kurds, Christians and Alawites. It reassures Israel that, in return for the Golan, it can have peaceful relations with the new Syria and with southern Lebanon where Hezbollah has been “defanged”. Iranian Islamist influence has also been effectively neutralized. Further afield, Eastern Ukraine is also firmly in the Russian orbit and Russian pressure on other fringes of NATO like the Baltic states is growing.
This is apparently the “best case” contingency Russia and its regional supporters are projecting. Washington’s best case regarding Russia in Syria is that Moscow will end up bloodied and humiliated. The reader can judge which prediction, if either, seems more likely to correspond eventually with reality. Certainly at this juncture Russia seems better positioned to influence the outcome in a way that corresponds with its perceived interests.