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 backdrop to France's plan to convene an international conference on the Israel-Palestine issue on May 30; what Paris hopes to accomplish; how Israel and the Palestinians view the initiative; his assessment of the chances for progress; if there is a danger here; whether there is a lesson from the 100 year anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement between the UK and France that laid the foundation for the Levant boundaries of the modern era; if Syria and Iraq be put back together again; what the immediate ramifications of last week's resignation of Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu and if there is a link here to Sykes-Picot.
Q. France plans to convene an international conference on the Israel-Palestine issue on May 30. What is the backdrop to this initiative?
A. The French have long coveted a more pro-active role on Middle East peace issues. The absence of American initiatives and an apparent green or yellow light from Washington appear to be factors that explain the timing. The French move seemingly fills an international vacuum generated by the Obama administration’s current lame-duck status and reticence to get deeply involved. It also effectively postpones any new Palestinian initiative to bring the conflict and the settlements issue to the United Nations Security Council--an initiative Washington apparently does not wish to deal with in the months ahead, and one that could conceivably generate new and unwanted tensions in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Q. So what does Paris hope to accomplish?
A. Neither Israel nor the Palestine Liberation Organization is invited to the May 30 meeting, which is being held at foreign minister level. The French Foreign Ministry has spoken to prospective participants from the international community about using the meeting to prepare an international peace conference in the summer, presumably meaning around the time of the UN General Assembly in September.
Yet, based on diplomatic sources I have been in touch with, it appears that the French themselves are not certain what they want to accomplish. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, in office less than three months, has hinted that he inherited the conference initiative from his predecessor Laurent Fabius and is not sure how far to go with it. On May 12 he arrives in Jerusalem and Ramallah to consult about the conference with PM Netanyahu and PLO Chairman (Palestinian Authority President) Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Yet neither is currently invited to send a representative to Paris at the end of the month.
Q. So how do Israel and the Palestinians view the initiative?
A. Not surprisingly, Netanyahu opposes it. He claims to prefer direct and unconditional bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, knowing full well that Abbas considers him a non-credible partner for a solution of any sort and that accordingly this demand is a non-starter. He has asked the US to intervene and pressure France to back away from the initiative.
Not surprisingly, too, the Palestinian attitude is more positive. Abbas has let it be known that he is willing to postpone his own Security Council initiative to condemn the settlements and recognize a Palestinian state if the French are serious. Traditionally the Palestinians, believing that Israel will always “have the upper hand” in bilateral talks, prefer international intervention to bilateral talks, believing that this will “even the playing field.” Yet Palestinian declarations--e.g., alleging that the Paris meeting could be “the last chance to avert an intifada”--already reflect what appear to be exaggerated expectations from the French.
Q. What’s your assessment of the chances for progress?
A. There is virtually no likelihood of serious progress being registered at the May 30 meeting. The timing, as we approach US presidential elections, virtually guarantees that Netanyahu will either try to ignore any new initiative or will prove uncooperative. Accordingly, Abbas will almost certainly claim to be disappointed.
Q. Is there a danger here?
A. Yes. We have seen in the past how external peace process initiatives, undertaken at a time when one or both of the conflicted parties are not interested, can prove counterproductive. The US peace initiative of 2013-2014, spearheaded by Secretary of State Kerry in the face of reluctance on the part of both Netanyahu and Abbas, ended up ushering in the summer 2014 Gaza war. Then too, every new initiative that fails almost automatically leaves both sides disappointed and suspicious, thereby setting the scene for more deterioration.
The French should be careful what they wish for.
Q. May 2016 marks 100 years to the Sykes-Picot agreement between the UK and France that laid the foundation for the Levant boundaries of the modern era. Some of those borders have now disappeared thanks to war and revolution in the Levant. Is there a lesson here?
A. The Sykes-Picot borders were colonial. They largely ignored natural and historical tribal boundaries, for example between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and regarding minorities like Kurds, Druze and Alawites. This is one way of explaining the virtual disintegration of Syria and Iraq and the near-disfunctionality of Lebanon in recent years. Interestingly, the Sykes-Picot borders seem to have survived best where they developed into the creation of states that had no sovereign or semi-sovereign foundations in recent history, like Israel and Jordan.
Q. Can Syria and Iraq be put back together again?
A. Iraq is still barely functioning as a unified state. Its Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities are seeking or exercising independence in a variety of ways. Syria is thoroughly fragmented. There is a natural tendency in the US and elsewhere to support the restoration of full Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty: established states prefer the status quo ante to the dangers of dismantling states. Russia appears to be something of an exception in hinting that a loose federation is the best solution for Syria.
From Israel’s standpoint, an arrangement that awards a maximum degree of autonomy or independence to Levant minorities like the Kurds and the Druze is desirable. It weakens traditional Arab enemies to Israel’s north. It demonstrates once and for all that the Arab world is not monolithic. And it reflects the right of non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities (like Israel itself) to their own national-ethnic-historical place in the Middle East sun.
Q. Last week, Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu resigned, apparently under pressure from President Recep Tayip Erdogan. What are the immediate ramifications? Is there a link here to Sykes-Picot?
A. Beyond an obvious clash of egos, the resignation rewards Erdogan with greater political power as he seeks to steer Turkey toward a constitutionally executive presidency that augments his grip on power. This could mean yet more Islam and fewer civil and human rights in Turkey in the months and years ahead. Davutoglu, incidentally, had been slated to meet with US President Obama on May 5; the international community considered him easier to deal with than the mercurial and megalomaniacal Erdogan, who apparently timed Davutoglu’s dismissal to scuttle the Obama meeting.
But Davutoglu was also bad news for the region, and his demise signals the death knell of the regional policy he championed, which in any case had proven a spectacular failure. That policy was termed by Davutoglu “zero problems with neighbors”. Informally it was also called “neo-Ottomanism”. Herein lies the link with Sykes-Picot.
Davutoglu and Erdogan began about a decade ago reaching out to many parts of southeastern Europe and the Middle East that had constituted part of the Ottoman Empire before WWI and prior to the Sykes-Picot redrawing of borders: from Bosnia and Albania to Syria, Lebanon and Kurdistan. “Zero problems with neighbors” was in effect a kind of cover for an attempt to reassert Ankara’s influence over its former Ottoman provinces and crown Turkey, with its growing economic and military clout, a renascent regional power. None of the neighbors liked the idea, and some of them said so to the Turks in no uncertain terms, citing memories of the cruelty and imperiousness of Ottoman Turkey.
The last straw was President Bashar Assad’s brutal suppression of the Syria revolt from 2011 on. Until then Erdogan had cultivated a special Turkish-Syrian relationship, citing it as the flagship accomplishment of “no problems with neighbors”. Turkey’s tacit support since then for Sunni Islamist militants fighting Assad reflects in part Erdogan’s bitterness over what he sees as a Syrian betrayal.
Many of Turkey’s regional ties today are in tatters: with Russia, Syria, the Iraqi Shiites, the Syrian Kurds, Egypt and Israel. Many in the Middle East consider Erdogan’s orientation to be essentially that of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been discredited everywhere but in the Gaza Strip. Davutoglu and Erdogan undoubtedly share a major portion of the blame.