March 07, 2016 - Israel and Trump; Israel and Reform Judaism; Israel, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon

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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 why Netanyahu is risking his coalition with the ultra-Orthodox by granting prayer rights at the Western Wall to the US-based Reform and Conservative movements and how this is connected to his quest to shore up American public support for Israel; what Israelis think of Donald Trump; and what does it mean for Israel that Saudi Arabia is punishing Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s ties to Iran and support for the Assad regime in Syria;

Q. Why is Netanyahu risking his coalition with the ultra-Orthodox by granting prayer rights at the Western Wall to the US-based Reform and Conservative movements? How is this connected to his quest to shore up American public support for Israel?

A. A few weeks ago, Netanyahu surprised everybody by pushing through a measure to allocate a section of the Temple Mount buttress wall south of the Western Wall, hitherto reserved for archaeological digs, for mixed-gender prayer by Reform and Conservative Jews. His ultra-Orthodox coalition partners voted against the measure but acquiesced. Speculation centered on the fact that coalition membership is so profitable for the ultra-Orthodox in terms of entitlements and budgetary allocations that they would not dare threaten the government’s stability over the measure.

Apparently, the ultra-Orthodox government ministers failed to take into account a “grass roots” revolt by the rabbis who support them. The latter now demand that the measure be rescinded or at least obfuscated in some way that renders it less than an Israeli government decision. The commotion raises an important question as to the timing and the method chosen by Netanyahu to pass the measure in the first place: why does a prime minister who has clearly made his political bed with right-wing religious factions decide, seemingly out of the blue, that the time has arrived to “enfranchise” the presence of non-orthodox American Jewry in Israel?

The answer appears to lie with Netanyahu’s calculations regarding the need to counter the growing international campaign against his policies, or lack thereof, concerning the Palestinian issue. The BDS campaign is growing. Presidential candidates Trump and Sanders appear to be indifferent toward Israel, if not outright antagonistic toward its policies. Even front-runner Hillary Clinton is no friend of Netanyahu’s settlement policies and his do-nothing attitude toward the Palestinians. European Union countries are beginning to label settlement-made goods as just that: not made in Israel. Israeli concern over Iran’s and Russia’s strategic disposition in the Levant to Israel’s north does not appear to be energizing the West.

Netanyahu has been anticipating various dimensions of this drift for several years. To counter it, he has shored up strategic relations with Russia, China and India. He has succeeded in expanding strategic cooperation with the Sunni Arab countries, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But what to do about the United States?

It would appear that the gesture to the US Jewish mainstream that he rammed through his government is understood by Netanyahu as a step toward ensuring American Jewish support for his regional strategic policies. The ultra-orthodox government ministers silently acquiesced after Netanyahu explained to them the strategic backdrop. Ultra-orthodox leaders are famous for their readiness to bend all sorts of rules when it comes to not antagonizing world powers that ensure Israel’s support globally. Now, at Netanyahu’s behest, they have to find a way to explain this to their rank-and-file, whose hatred and disdain for the liberal streams of Judaism are visceral.

 

Q. What do Israelis think of Donald Trump?

A. (With apologies to readers who heard a portion of these remarks by me last week on NPR’s To the Point.)

The few available polls that have looked at this issue are no help. In early February, according to Rafi Smith Polling Institute, only 14 percent of Israelis supported Trump while 41 percent backed Hillary Clinton. Sometime in late February, the TAU/IDI Peace Index showed that 61 percent of the Israeli Jewish public thought Trump’s positions were friendly to Israel. As usual, it depends how you ask the question.

Nor are Trump’s frequently contradictory statements of much use. Will he be “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute? Will he tear up the Iran nuclear agreement or will he “police” it? Does he cast aspersions on (American) Jews and their wealth? But isn’t his daughter an orthodox Jewish convert? Does Putin show “total lack of respect” for the US, or will Trump “probably get along” with him.

Late last week I set out to do a totally unscientific survey of my own, asking what people in my Tel Aviv suburb think of Trump. The butcher, who is totally cynical about all politicians, said “At least he’s funny. I’d vote for him.” My accountant: “He’s an isolationist. He’ll cut Israel off. Bad news.” The local mom and pop store owner: “He’ll get smart advisers and be okay.” The bottom line? Everyone is following this man’s antics, and everyone has a different opinion about them.

At the end of the day, it’s quite clear that Trump has no knowledge at all of the Middle East (or any other foreign or strategic policy issue, for that matter). Nor does he seem to care. Hence it is pointless to ask Israelis how they respond to his views. The more important question is, how will Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is himself essentially a Republican, respond to a Trump candidacy? Will he support Trump the way he did Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney four years ago even if it continues to be apparent that Trump has no allegiance whatsoever to Israel? Or does Trump’s thuggish nature render him more compatible with autocratic bullies like Putin, Erdogan and, some might argue, even Netanyahu himself?

If and when gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Netanyahu’s Republican patron and financial backer, hints that Trump needs Netanyahu’s support among right-leaning American Jews and evangelicals, will Netanyahu toe the line? Could a disgruntled Netanyahu conceivably remain neutral or even support Clinton? Given his approach to the Palestinian issue, isn’t Netanyahu’s ideal situation playing off a democratic president beholden to Jewish votes against a blindly pro-Israel Republican Congress?

The Trump candidacy and the possibility of a Trump presidency cast a harsh light on Netanyahu’s readiness in recent years to antagonize the Obama administration over the Palestinian and Iran-nuclear issues. Obama is an openly pro-Israel president, representing a pro-Israel constituency, who takes issue with Netanyahu regarding what is and is not good for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Trump is a know-nothing. He could conceivably cause Netanyahu to miss Obama.

 

Q. Speaking of the Saudis and the Iranians, Saudi Arabia is punishing Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s ties to Iran and support for the Assad regime in Syria. What does this mean for Israel?

A. The Saudis, led by the al-Salman royal family’s hyperactive regional security approach and confrontational attitude toward Iran, have just cancelled $4 billion in financing for the Lebanese armed forces because Lebanon, under the sway of Shiite Hezbollah, has not been forthcoming enough in condemning Iran. Riyadh-Beirut flights have been suspended and many business ties severed. Better late than never, the Saudis have arranged for the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization. In response, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah last week identified Saudi Arabia as a greater enemy than Israel. Condemning the Saudis’ war in Yemen, Nasrallah called the anti-Saudi cause “the true jihad. This is greater than the July War [the 2006 war against Israel].”

In some ways, having the Saudis identify so openly with Israel’s concerns about Iran and its proxy Hezbollah is reassuring for Israel, which continues to see Shiite Iran as the greater potential enemy--compared to the Sunni jihadist movements in the Levant--on its northern border. But in other ways, Riyadh’s decision seemingly to give up on Lebanon could be problematic. At a time when Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah support are rescuing and stabilizing the Assad regime in Syria, this merely reinforces Hezbollah’s status, and indirectly that of Iran, as the primary strategic power just across Israel’s northern border, with influence radiating southward. It was no coincidence last week that Iran’s ambassador in Beirut offered thousands of dollars in compensation to the families of Palestinians killed in terrorist attacks against Israelis.

Lebanon’s Sunni politicians are looking for ways to mollify Riyadh in order to ensure ongoing Saudi support--financial and political. But Lebanon’s politics are paralyzed by its inability for more than a year now to elect a president, due mostly to Sunni-Shiite tensions at both the regional and the domestic level. Indeed, the Lebanese government cannot even solve a prolonged national crisis over garbage disposal. Even before the new Saudi sanctions, the Lebanese Army was overshadowed by the more powerful Hezbollah, a non-government militia that makes a mockery of Lebanese sovereignty. The now-cancelled Saudi financing was intended to purchase French arms for a Lebanese Army effort to combat Sunni Islamist militants embedded in the country’s northeast, near the border with Syria. Now that too appears to be a lost cause. In Israel, the IDF has lately begun to refer to Hezbollah as an army with a country--certainly, no longer a mere terrorist offshoot of Iran.

Lebanon has long offered the Arab world a kind of window into the ethnic and religious troubles besetting the region. Today, the issue is Iran vs. Saudi Arabia, Shiite vs. Sunni, played out against the prolonged struggle in the Levant. With both the US and Russia involved as well, Israel’s best bet continues to be to stay out of it. For how long, depends very much on Iran and Hezbollah.

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