May 31, 2016 - The fallout from the new Israeli government

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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 the fallout now that Lieberman is defense minister and Netanyahu’s government is solidly right wing; what the right-wing domestic agenda is and what are its prospects; what are the amendments Israel requires in the Arab Peace Initiative as a condition for an "Arab solution;" whether the efforts of Kerry, Blair and Sisi to facilitate the formation of a broad, centrist Israeli coalition that includes the Labor party were an exercise in futility; and the near-term conflict alerts and ongoing Israeli plans regarding the Palestinian issue.

Q. Last week, you described the involvement of the international community--Kerry, Blair, Sisi--in an abortive attempt to facilitate the formation of a more centrist government in Israel, one more oriented toward a peace process. Now that Lieberman is defense minister and Netanyahu’s government is solidly right wing, how would you describe the fallout?

A. PM Netanyahu’s new, broader and even more right-wing coalition is quite understandably pledged to a right-wing domestic agenda. But regarding the Palestinian issue, it has set up a smoke-screen for its pro-settlement agenda based on the belief--or perhaps the fabrication--that it can somehow find a common language with the moderate Sunni Arab countries.

 

Q. What is the right-wing domestic agenda and what are its prospects?

A. The new and broader right-wing coalition plans to push four controversial laws. One would compel non-governmental organizations that receive funding from foreign governments--primarily human rights groups aided by the United States and western European countries--to publicize this fact in a variety of ways. This law would ignore contributions by extremist right-wing individuals such as Sheldon Adelson and Reverend John Hagee to right-wing NGOs and candidates for election. It would also ignore the fact that foreign governmental funding to NGOs is already reported and is readily accessible on the web.

A similar law would restrict NGO funding for political campaigns. Both of these one-sided initiatives are designed to portray liberal NGOs and their values as inimical to the public interest and thereby to augment public support for the right.

Another legislative initiative, directed primarily against radical Arab members of Knesset, would enable the indefinite expulsion of a member of Knesset from Knesset activity by a vote of 90 MKs--three-quarters of the Knesset. Finally, a fourth law would define Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people” and define its “values as a Jewish and democratic state”. Note that under current conditions, these last two provocative initiatives have little beyond declarative significance.

As to the chances any of these laws will be enacted, the situation has not really changed. Avigdor Lieberman and his hard-line Yisrael Beitenu party were counted on to support them even before they joined the coalition (and lost one of their six MKs, a liberal who defected in protest). Moshe Kachlon and his liberal Kulanu party, coalition members, were and still are broadly pledged to oppose them (one of Kulanu’s ministers, Avi Gabai, also resigned in protest over Lieberman, but he was not an MK). So while Netanyahu’s coalition now has a slightly larger majority than 61, it will still be hard put to muster the necessary legislative majority to advance this agenda.

Still, the prospect of the agenda being advanced, along with the enlarged Netanyahu coalition’s perceived tilt away from a two-state solution, was enough for a US State Department spokesperson to refer last week to "reports from Israel describing [the new government] as the most right-wing coalition in Israel's history,” and to declare, "This raises legitimate questions about the direction it may be headed in."

 

Q. But both Netanyahu and Lieberman hastened on Monday, the day Lieberman officially joined the government as minister of defense, to pledge their allegiance to the two-state solution.

A. Those statements were not merely a nervous response to US and other international concerns. Notably, both Lieberman and Netanyahu went on to praise Egyptian President Sisi’s earlier and unusual public endorsement of a two-state solution within a broader Arab context and to call upon the Arab League to talk to Israel about possible amendments to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. In making these statements, the two Israeli leaders were following through on a commitment to do so that they reportedly made to Egyptian President Sisi via Tony Blair a few weeks ago.

Obviously, this extreme right-wing government is not a candidate to make the necessary compromises to reach a two-state solution in direct negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Neither, incidentally, is Abbas a candidate. Netanyahu and Lieberman will not divide Jerusalem or recognize a Palestinian capital there, will not accept primary Muslim control over the Temple Mount and other Jerusalem holy sites, will not withdraw to anywhere near the pre-1967 green line and will not even discuss the right of return of 1948 refugees. Abbas will insist on all these issues and will refuse to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Besides, he has no faith in Netanyahu’s credibility as a negotiator.

Lieberman, a settler, is known as an advocate of an “Arab solution”, a term that has endeared itself to elements on the pro-settler right. At the declarative level this calls for the (welcome) readiness to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative, with amendments, that we heard on Monday. This, too, is where Sisi and Blair enter the picture.

But at the practical level, this approach embodies a totally unfounded assumption that the moderate Sunni Arab states, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are so fed-up with Palestinian dysfunction and so in need of Israel as an ally against Iran and the Islamic State that they will summarily force Abbas in the West Bank and possibly even Hamas in Gaza to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, forego a capital in Jerusalem and make far-reaching territorial concessions that reduce Palestinians’ territories to little more than the enclaves they control today, in return for which Israel will achieve normalization of relations with a host of Arab states.

The Arab leaders, beginning with Sisi, won't agree. Were they to do so and were Palestinians to acquiesce, Palestinian leaders like Abbas would have to seek asylum elsewhere to avoid being assassinated in punishment for having abandoned the right of return. And besides, the amendments Israel requires in the Arab Peace Initiative as a condition for an "Arab solution", while understandable, have thus far proven unacceptable to the Arab League.

 

Q. What are they?

A. First, the API stipulates that the refugee issue be resolved in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1949, which is understood by Arabs to call for the right of return, even though it does not say so. Here the Arab League’s intent requires clarification. Second, the API stipulates that in the course of resolving the refugee issue, Arab host countries will not absorb or "patriate" them. Where will they go? We are talking about more than five million descendants of the original 700,000 refugees. A Palestinian state in the West Bank could perhaps absorb a few hundred thousand. Is Israel supposed to "return" the remainder?

Third, the Arab League continues to demand, as a condition for normalizing relations with Israel, not only Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 green line with the Palestinians but agreed Israeli withdrawal from Syrian territories (the Golan Heights) as well, and from minor territories disputed with Lebanon. But Syria has become a barely functioning state, partly occupied by Iranian-recruited forces and partly by ISIS. Even Lebanon has become too dysfunctional to negotiate with Israel. So these API demands seem outlandish in 2016. Finally, the Arab League has agreed in principle to territorial adjustments to the green line, but the extent of the resultant "land swaps" has not been agreed.

For all these reasons, it is difficult to see how the API as currently constituted can facilitate productive peace talks. It is no accident that Israeli left and center parties have not enthusiastically embraced the Arab League initiative. Last week, Tony Blair called on Israel to "commit to a discussion around the API" and added that a lot would depend on "whatever steps the Israelis are ready to take". Ostensibly, then, the new Israeli coalition is responding positively to Blair's invitation. Indeed, that Netanyahu and Lieberman are prepared to discuss the API is a positive move. But it is a move made for all the wrong reasons and based on totally invalid assumptions.

 

Q. In retrospect, were the abortive efforts of Kerry, Blair and Sisi to facilitate the formation of a broad, centrist Israeli coalition that includes the Labor party an exercise in futility?

A. Worse, they offer a glaring example of how well-meaning attempts to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian solution can, in view of the huge gaps separating the two sides and the uncompromising positions adopted by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, prove counter-productive. We saw this in 2014, when US Secretary of State Kerry’s poorly conceived peace initiative ended up pushing the Palestinians to extremist positions that helped usher in the summer 2014 Israel-Gaza war. Now we have witnessed international involvement, willy-nilly, in the formation of an even more extreme right-wing government in Israel than before.

It is extremely difficult to believe that this course of events will now somehow play into a grand regional scheme championed by Blair and Sisi to resolve the Israel-Arab conflict, especially in view of near-term conflict alerts and ongoing Israeli plans regarding the Palestinian issue.

 

Q. What are those alerts and plans?

A. Last week, UN special envoy Nikolay Mladenov predicted that "unless radically more is done to address the chronic realities in Gaza, it is not a question of 'if,' but 'when' another escalation will take place". If Defense Minister Lieberman in any way translates his tough rhetoric toward Gaza-based Hamas into action, the next round with Hamas--which will put paid to any regional diplomatic initiative--could be this summer. Then too, if--under an unlikely and extreme scenario--the PLO and/or Hamas sense or fear that the moderate Sunni Arab countries really are prepared to make compromises with Israel at the expense of West Bank territory or Palestinian governmental authority, the Palestinians could have an incentive to escalate armed provocations against Israel in order to scuttle such a peace process.

Further, we can anticipate increased activity by Netanyahu’s expanded coalition, following and augmenting the pattern established by its predecessor, with regard to the creeping annexation of West Bank territories. This does not necessarily have to involve provocative new settlement construction in the West Bank heartland. Netanyahu has found more subtle ways. More and more illegal (under Israel’s own laws) outposts are being legitimized through doubtful judicial steps. And more and more West Bank area C "crown lands" are being resurveyed with an eye to facilitating the expansion of settlements--reportedly over 15,000 acres in 2015, following upon a mere 5,000 in 2014 and 3,000 in 2013.

Finally, while the statements by Netanyahu and Lieberman praising Sisi and welcoming the API were intended to reassure the international community and the region concerning the new coalition’s intentions, the moment Sisi and others become convinced that the Israeli government is not backing up those statements with genuine concessions and gestures, the regional and international community will understandably adopt a very different and far more critical stance toward Israel that could have the unwelcome effect of escalating regional tensions.

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