March 14, 2016 - Why can Palestinians work illegally in Israel? Why avoid a meeting with Obama? Why the Syria ceasefire is holding?

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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 it is still so easy for Palestinians to enter Israeli illegally and even work there for prolonged periods of time; why PM Netanyahu abruptly and publicly canceled his trip to Washington, his speech to AIPAC and his meeting with President Obama this month; how to explain that the Syrian ceasefire appears to be surviving beyond the most optimistic predictions; each principal or coalition and their calculations: the American-led coalition opposing the Islamic State, the Russian-led coalition, the opposition to the regime, and whoever is left; and where Israel is in all this.

Q. Why did PM Netanyahu abruptly and publicly cancel his trip to Washington, his speech to AIPAC and his meeting with President Obama this month?

A. The reason generally cited is the ongoing controversy over Israel’s request for increased US security aid as part of a new ten-year agreement scheduled to enter into effect in 2018. Netanyahu reportedly is avoiding meeting Obama because he believes the next administration will be more generous--a position that ignores repeated warnings that the current state of US presidential politics renders this a huge gamble. Notably, the prime minister has not suspended ongoing negotiations over the issue between the two countries’ security establishments.

Accordingly, there may be two additional reasons for Netanyahu’s decision--beyond the obvious prolonged chill in personal relations between Netanyahu and Obama that was expressed last week in both the insulting way Israel handled the cancellation and publication of Obama’s recounting of his response to Netanyahu’s condescending conceits in an encounter a few years ago. One reason is the persistent reports that the administration is considering presenting its own Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, either unilaterally or embodied in a UN Security Council initiative, as a parting shot before it leaves office next January. Netanyahu clearly wants to avoid even the appearance of having engaged Obama on this issue.

A second may be a reticence to deal with initiatives to organize meetings for Netanyahu with presidential candidates while in Washington. Both Netanyahu and Trump were scheduled to speak at the upcoming AIPAC convention. Certainly other Republican candidates, if they are still in the race, would want photo ops with Netanyahu. At this point in time, meeting with any of them could complicate Netanyahu’s life, not to speak of what is left of his relationship with Obama.

 

Q. Last week, during Vice President Biden’s visit in Jaffa, a Palestinian “illegal” carried out a vicious stabbing attack there, wounding 11 and killing an American tourist. Why is it still so easy for Palestinians to enter Israeli illegally and even work there for prolonged periods of time?

A. Needless to say, Israel’s security forces followed up the stabbing spree by rounding up a few hundred Palestinian illegals--the “usual suspects”--and deporting them back to the West Bank. There was brief talk about legislation to penalize Israelis who employ the illegals and even at times smuggle them into the country. But at heart, the Netanyahu government has no interest in pursuing this issue, for several reasons.

First and foremost, the government is not actively completing construction of the security fence, which constitutes a major obstacle to illegal entry but remains un-built in several key border areas. That would constitute a step toward creating a de facto border close to the green line that leaves out many settlements--something Netanyahu with his strong settler and messianic-religious support does not want.

Secondly, the government is under pressure from economic interests in Israel that rely on tens of thousands of cheap, illegal Palestinian laborers.

Third, even some settlers who smuggle the laborers into Israel constitute a lobby against cracking down.

Fourth, the security establishment is lobbying the government to allow more rather than fewer Palestinian laborers to enter Israel under license. Security officials believe that gainfully employed Palestinians, whether legally or illegally in Israel, are the best insurance against terrorism. Currently there are some 60,000 “legals”, with plans to raise the number to around 100,000. The illegals, 99 percent of whom do not engage in violence, are the primary reserve for licensing and regulating this labor flow.

Finally, nearly six months into the current “intifada of individual terrorists”, neither the government nor the security establishment has settled upon a firm, proven strategy for stopping these attacks. The massive policing operation needed to expel and keep out the unlicensed laborers is clearly not the answer.

 

Q. The Syrian ceasefire appears to be surviving beyond the most optimistic predictions. How do you explain this?

A. The ceasefire has survived for more than two weeks, while efforts to convene more substantial peace talks are continuing. All of the principals are still gaining something from the process and those who oppose it have thus far failed to derail it. To understand this dynamic, we have to look at each principal or coalition and their calculations.

 

Q. Start with the American-led coalition opposing the Islamic State.

A. The US is free under the ceasefire terms to pursue its war against IS, its primary priority and the reason it entered the Levant fray in the first place. It appears to have conceded to Russia that Syrian President Bashar Assad will remain in office for the time being and that the Kremlin will be his patron. It is aware of the need to stem the flow of refugees via Turkey to Europe and sees the ceasefire as an important factor toward that end. Its primary concern right now appears to be to conciliate between a NATO ally, Turkey, and Washington’s most effective Levant ally, the Syrian Kurds. Note, too, that we no longer hear US leaders arguing that Russia’s Putin will pay a heavy price for his intervention in Syria.

 

Q. Why not? What about the Russian-led coalition?

A. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime they support are winning. This is the most persuasive reason for them to leave the ceasefire in place. It enables them to consolidate their territorial gains in western Syria and even to move eastward, toward IS-held Palmyra (Tadmor) for example. They are free to target any rebel group that they flexibly construe as Islamic State or Qaeda-allied. Having targeted and weakened many of the more moderate groups in recent months, Russia is now effectively recruiting the participation of some of them for reconciliation talks with the regime in Damascus. Here Moscow is employing what it calls a “holistic” approach: integrating ongoing warfare, an ongoing ceasefire and an effort to mediate between Assad and as many enemies and “neutral” groups like the Kurds as possible. In the long term, President Putin wants a strong and secular Syria as an ally against the forces of radical Sunni Islam that threaten Russia, too.

In this regard, Kremlin watchers are reminded of the successful way in which Putin ended the second Chechnya war. But that effort involved a huge Russian effort in propping up a loyal Chechen dictator by investing in a major rebuilding effort--something that Moscow, under current economic circumstances, will not be capable of doing on behalf of Assad. Instead Russia, with Chinese support, is investing in a major naval port at Tartus. Together with its naval buildup at recently annexed Crimea, this effort is designed to enable Russia to neutralize what Putin appears to perceive as a threat by NATO to surround it and to oblige the West to treat it as a superpower equal. This too requires a stable and friendly regime in Damascus, an objective currently served by the ceasefire.

 

Q. What about the opposition to the regime?

A. Having suffered repeated blows from the Russians, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime in recent months, the Syrian opposition’s biggest dilemma is not how to keep fighting but rather how to show up for negotiations without conceding too much in advance to the regime. Meanwhile, some moderate opposition groups are feeling free to demonstrate openly against the regime for the first time in years.

 

Q. Who’s left?

A. Turkey, which after Sunday’s third successive terrorist attack in Ankara could conceivably be the ceasefire spoiler by attacking the Syrian Kurds, whom it blames. Turkey also knows the Russians based in Syria have a score to settle with it over the downing some months ago of a Russian combat aircraft. Saudi Arabia, too, is still pledged to remove Assad from power and continues--albeit not very persuasively--to threaten military intervention of its own.

 

Q. Where is Israel in all this?

A. Israel has never been invited to international discussions about Syria, and hasn’t volunteered or asked to attend. Nor does it have a Syrian refugee problem, like Syria’s other neighbors Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. A succession of governments under PM Netanyahu have reasoned that the presence across Israel’s Syria border of no “good guys”--only “bad guys”, from the Damascus regime itself and its allies Hezbollah and Iran to a variety of militant Sunni Islamists--mandates an Israeli policy of neither actively opposing anyone nor actively aiding anyone as long as they stay away from the border with Israel. Israel knows from bitter experience that meddling in an Arab neighbor’s military affairs would prove counter-productive: the last thing it need is to be blamed for the civil war in Syria.

Hence Israel has sufficed with extending humanitarian aid to anyone in need who approaches the border, intercepting armed units that approach the border, and interdicting shipments of strategic weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah. Russia’s entry into the war last September catalyzed immediate and thus far successful efforts to coordinate militarily.

All of this is sound policy on Netanyahu’s part. It comes easily to him because it requires him to do almost nothing--his preferred stance even when, as on the Palestinian issue, it has disastrous consequences. From all these standpoints, the ceasefire does not affect the status quo on Israel’s border.

If the Russian-led alliance eventually pushes Sunni Islamists away from the border, Israel will wait to see whether Russia is willing and able to keep its allies--Syrian regime forces, Hezbollah and Iran--away as well. If it can’t, or won’t, Israel will confront a huge problem. If for no other reason than this truly ominous contingency, Netanyahu needs better relations with Obama.

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