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 what has happened since his earlier expression of skepticism regarding the willingness of the Arab world to sponsor an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that corresponds with the demands of the right-wing Netanyahu government; what would happen -in a best case scenario - if Netanyahu brought Labor into the coalition, he and Lieberman continued to preach “two states for two peoples” and the Egyptians and Saudis agreed to launch a peace process; a summary of the Six-Day War’s overall effect on Israel-Arab peace as we enter its 50 year anniversary; and in the 40 years to the Entebbe rescue, what does he think of the recent assertion in an interesting new book, that the raid “made peace less likely. . . .[and made] it harder for Israeli politicians to push through the compromises required for peace.”
Q. Last week you expressed skepticism regarding the willingness of the Arab world to sponsor an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that corresponds with the demands of the right-wing Netanyahu government. What has happened since?
A. A French attempt to revive the same peace process--one that by-the-by helped generate the timing of the Netanyahu-Lieberman counter-initiative--ended in Paris with a watered-down statement that appeared of little immediate consequence. Reportedly drafted under American pressure because Washington fears a maverick dynamic that merely makes matters worse, it sufficed with a reaffirmed commitment to the two-state solution, a rejection of the status quo, and a French pledge to convene more discussions and another conference at year’s end. The Netanyahu government’s alarm regarding this initiative, which took the extreme form of a comparison by Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold between the June 3 Paris meeting and the much maligned Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 that drew colonial borders across the Levant, at least proved that Netanyahu’s underlings can still entertain us with theater-of-the-absurd spin.
Not unexpectedly, it emerged that the Netanyahu government’s “peace initiative” was equally overblown. The designated Arab partners, reportedly recruited enthusiastically by Tony Blair when it looked like Labor rather than Lieberman would join Netanyahu’s coalition, predictably got cold feet when confronted by realities. The Egyptians announced they were not promoting a revival of the process. And the Saudi foreign minister rejected Netanyahu and Lieberman’s demand to “update” the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as the foundation of a new process, avowing that it could not be “watered down”.
None of this stopped Netanyahu and his spokespersons from continuing to spin his Arab Peace Initiative-linked initiative. Friday’s Haaretz featured an op-ed by Netanyahu confidant Natan Eshel blaming Labor (Labor!) for preventing a peace process by not joining the coalition. (Never a dull moment: this is the same Eshel who resigned as Netanyahu’s chief of staff in 2012 under a cloud of allegations of office-based sexual harassment.) As if on cue, Labor leader Herzog once again expressed a readiness to join the coalition, but only on condition that Naftali Bennet’s far-right HaBait HaYehudi party be removed--as if the coalition’s Likud contingent itself was not as extreme as Bennet regarding compromise with the Palestinians, and as if without Bennet a Likud-Labor unity government really could end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yedioth Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea summed up the cynical reality on Sunday: “The [peace] process is a wonderful excuse: . . . It allows Benjamin Netanyahu to cultivate the process . . . not as a tool for achieving a solution but as a substitute for a solution; it allows the head of the Labor party to pave [the party’s] way to the coalition as its humiliated rear guard, the fig leaf that will shield the government from its global critics.”
Q. Nevertheless, let’s suppose that Netanyahu brings Labor into the coalition, he and Lieberman continue to preach “two states for two peoples” and the Egyptians and Saudis agree to launch a peace process. What would happen? Put on your optimist’s hat and give us a best case scenario.
A. In the best case I can imagine, two negotiating tracks are established: Israeli-Palestinian with Egyptian and Jordanian chaperones to discuss two states, and Israel-Arab, with a dozen Arab states talking to Israel about normalization gestures in return for progress with the Palestinians. Despite the statement by Saudi FM Jubeir, the Arabs agree to drop some Arab Peace Initiative preconditions such as Israeli peace with Syria and Lebanon and Israeli acceptance of UNGA Resolution 194 regarding the 1948 refugees. All of this takes several months to organize, thereby ensuring that neither France nor the US nor even the Security Council takes any initiative that might be objectionable to Netanyahu during the next six months.
In this best case contingency, Israel opens the bilateral track with the Palestinians with a unilateral territorial gesture--turning ten percent of Area C land over to the Palestinians in the Judean Desert where no one feels the loss. The Arab states respond with a minor “normalization” gesture: a Gulf emirate upgrades relations and sends a charge d’affaires to Tel Aviv to provide visas to Israeli entrepreneurs. More grandiose Arab gestures are discussed.
The PLO, Israel’s negotiating partner, officially rejects Israel’s territorial gesture lest it constitute the be-all-and-end-all of the peace process. Nevertheless, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are officially renewed after a brief boycott by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is eventually placated by Saudi money and Egyptian threats. There is minor progress in talks about territory and security but virtually none regarding refugees, holy places and Jerusalem, where Netanyahu and Abbas remain much farther apart than Abbas and Olmert were in their failed talks in 2008. Since the parties continue to adhere to the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” principle, progress is on paper only.
But even that is too much for Hamas. Fearing agreement that might weaken its grip on the Gaza Strip, it renews heavy rocket fire from Gaza and launches suicide bombings in Jerusalem. Another Israel-Gaza mini-war ensues, with Egypt locking down the Strip to blockade Hamas into submission.
This delays the process long enough for a new American president to take office. If it’s Trump, Netanyahu calculates (correctly? Trump after all is an unguided missile) he has nothing to worry about in terms of serious international pressure. If it’s Clinton, Netanyahu has half a year to come up with another process.
Q. Meanwhile, early June is “anniversary” time: we are entering year 50 since the Six-Day War. How would you summarize that war’s overall effect on Israel-Arab peace?
A. From Israel’s standpoint, seen from 2016 this remains a very just “no alternative” defensive war. That is an important point in terms of the overall Israeli narrative regarding Israel’s place in the region and its right to self-defense, and it contrasts sharply with the backdrop and rationale for ensuing wars, particularly in 1973 and 1982.
But Israel made two huge mistakes in the aftermath of the 1967 war. First, while it justifiably offered the Arabs “territories for peace”, it became so over-confident after 1967 that it ignored Anwar Sadat’s 1972 peace feelers and allowed itself to be surprised by the October 1973 Egyptian-Syrian counter-attack, where it paid a huge price in human lives and national self-confidence and self-image. It is hard to exaggerate the effect of the tragic Yom Kippur War, to this day, on the Israeli national dialogue regarding peace and security.
And second, Israel’s Palestinian policies from 1967 onward qualify it for a chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s epic 1985 study, The March of Folly. The messianic Greater Land of Israel genie was let out of the bottle and can’t be put back. That movement’s political supporters were ushered into power (to be sure, not only because of dreams engendered by the West Bank and Gaza occupation) where they remain today and are nourished and aggrandized by the aftermath of June 1967.
A wise and far more modest Israeli political and security establishment would have seen the danger after June 1967 and withdrawn unilaterally or turned the West Bank over to Jordan. Instead it annexed East Jerusalem, including a host of Arab villages that have no real connection to Jerusalem, and allowed the settlement project to commence. Today we eat the bitter fruits of their hubris.
Q. We’re approaching another significant anniversary: July 4 will mark 40 years to the Entebbe rescue. In an interesting new book some Israelis, including rescued Entebbe hostages, argue that the raid “made peace less likely. . . .[and made] it harder for Israeli politicians to push through the compromises required for peace”. Where do you stand?
That argument is floated in Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, a highly praised book by Saul David that was published in late 2015. Those who raise it also speak of Israeli hubris.
I disagree with the argument. I believe the message the Entebbe raid sent to the Arabs, particularly the Egyptians, was one of Israeli capability to strike against their interests in the very heart of Africa--and in particular, near the sources of Egypt’s lifeline, the Nile. Here we must recall that less than three years earlier the Yom Kippur War had obliterated any vestige of Israeli hubris. Since then, Israel had negotiated two separation-of-forces agreements with Cairo. And the groundwork was being laid in 1976 under PM Yitzhak Rabin for secret peace talks with Egypt in Morocco that extended into 1977, Israeli elections, and the advent of the Begin-Dayan government.
But Israel had also laid the groundwork for Entebbe over the preceding decades of close strategic relations with Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya and support for the southern Sudanese rebels--all key geostrategic building blocks for the Entebbe rescue.
How did Egypt respond to Entebbe? On July 4, 1976 I was on the island nation of Mauritius which was hosting the Organization of African States annual summit. The Mossad sent me under non-Israeli cover to observe the OAS dynamic, with particular reference to the Arab states of Africa--Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco--as well as the official PLO observer mission and the Horn of Africa states whose conflicts could directly affect Israeli interests in the Red Sea. A major distraction was a Libyan-backed coup in Sudan: President Jaafar al-Numeiri arrived at the summit in blood-stained combat dress after having brutally suppressed the rebellion, and in closed session accused Moammar Qaddafi of an act of war. All this was business-as-usual for an OAS summit. Until July 4.
Then news came over the BBC of the Entebbe rescue. I immediately decided that my mission now was to test the Arab reaction. I found the Moroccan delegation on the beach enjoying the Indian Ocean breeze. They were delighted with the news: “Maybe you know some Israelis? Tell them mabrouk (congratulations)”. Then I found the Egyptians, all army generals in uniform, at a café in Port Louis (as you can see, these regional get-togethers are laid-back junkets for many delegates). They were in total shock: “Impossible, the Israelis don’t have the capability. They’re still nursing their wounds from ‘73”.
Upon my return home, Mossad head Yitzhak Hofi summoned me to tell him about these Arab reactions. His comment: “The Moroccans know our capabilities; the Egyptians still think they won in 1973.”
It was Hofi who would soon lead initial talks with the Egyptian leadership in Morocco--the talks that led to Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 and the ensuing peace. I have no doubt that Sadat very quickly internalized the lesson of Entebbe: Israel could operate freely in Egypt’s strategic rear and threaten the sources of the Nile; it could not be defeated; peace was necessary.
The lesson of Entebbe for Israel was that justified force can be particularly positive and useful when exercised by a country actively seeking peace.