July 25, 2016 - Annexing a settlement? Saudis in Israel? Turkish purge? Netanyahu taking on the media?

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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 what it will mean if Netanyahu’s ruling coalition's move in the Knesset to apply Israeli law to the settlement of Maaleh Adumim is approved; if last week's Saudi delegation visiting Israel, led by a retired general, was a breakthrough; whether, in the aftermath of the abortive military coup in Turkey, President Erdogan's purging of tens of thousands of ostensibly disloyal officers, educators and civil servants is an Islamist counter-revolution; how this development could affect Turkey domestically and how it could affect Israel and the region; and if Netanyahu, similar to what Erdogan is doing in Turkey, is attempting to clamp down on media.

Q. Netanyahu’s ruling coalition has initiated a move in the Knesset to apply Israeli law to the settlement of Maaleh Adumim. What will this mean if the law is approved?

A. Since the heads of five out of the six coalition factions in the Knesset have signed on to this initiative, it certainly has a chance of passing. If it does, this would be the first territory in the West Bank (leaving aside greater Jerusalem) that is annexed by Israel (annexation being the international legal equivalent of applying Israeli law). True, Maaleh Adumim, a large settlement city with 40,000 residents just east of East Jerusalem, is considered within the “Israeli consensus” and has been the subject of “land swap” negotiations with the Palestinians. But a unilateral act of annexation on Israel’s part would almost certainly be understood by the PLO as a final blow to the legitimacy of the Oslo accords, thereby generating an instant crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations and in Israel’s international standing.

Ending the Oslo accords is apparently the objective of the law’s pro-settler right-wing advocates. They openly acknowledge that applying Israeli law to Maaleh Adumim is a trial balloon designed to accustom the Israeli public and the world to further Israeli annexations in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank that remains under Israeli military control. They clearly assess that their initiative is well-timed: the international community is preoccupied with chaos in the Arab Middle East and now in Turkey too, and the relatively stable Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt that have not been engulfed by revolution or have overcome it appear to need strategic cooperation with Israel even if this comes at the expense of the Palestinian cause.

Q. Indeed, last week a Saudi delegation visited Israel, led by a retired general. A breakthrough?

A. The only Saudi name released by Israel in connection with the visit is that of the delegation’s leader, General Anwar Eshki, who today heads a think-tank in Riyadh. The visit crowns an acquaintance of several years between Eshki and Dore Gold, director-general of the Israel Foreign Ministry, who have been meeting at conferences and seminars abroad. Eshki’s visit to Israel (and the Palestinian Authority) could clearly not have taken place without a green light from the highest level in Riyadh. Accordingly, this must be understood as something of a breakthrough.

Eshki, whom I have met and who once wrote for bitterlemons-international.org, the virtual dialogue project that I ran for years together with a Palestinian colleague, reportedly made sure to insist in the course of his visit that Israel still had to embrace the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and that closer Israeli-Saudi relations could not be contemplated until there is movement on the Palestinian issue. Nor, it must be noted, can Eshki be considered a Saudi public figure or intellectual anywhere on the level of, say, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former chief of Saudi Intelligence who has made a point of publicly debating several senior Israeli intelligence veterans in third countries but has turned down invitations to visit Israel. Then, too, Eshki represents a country that flouts internationally accepted standards of human rights and is increasingly held partially responsible for the highly destructive proliferation throughout the Muslim world of Wahhabi-style militant Islam.

Having said all that, unless Eshki’s visit was a fluke or a one-off gesture by a Saudi of little importance, it was an undeniable small step in a welcome direction: greater acceptance of Israel by its neighbors.

Q. Apropos another Muslim neighbor that just patched up relations with Israel, in the aftermath of the abortive military coup in Turkey President Erdogan appears intent on purging tens of thousands of ostensibly disloyal officers, educators and civil servants. Is this an Islamist counter-revolution?

A. Islamist counter-revolution is increasingly the only way we can describe what is emerging in Turkey. It now seems evident that prior to the military coup attempt ten days ago, severe tension was brewing beneath the surface. On one side were Erdogan and his followers, who had prepared extensive lists of secular and pro-“Gulenist” Islamist opposition officers and officials to be purged. On the other were those very officers, who proceeded to launch their coup in a last-ditch effort to head off the purge.

The Gulen movement is headed by Erdogan’s moderate Islamist nemesis, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and commands the allegiance of many Turks. The coup attempt in some ways pitted two “deep state” security networks, Erdogan’s and Gulen’s, against one another. An alternative interpretation of events is that Erdogan, having already largely purged media critics, is merely using the excuse of “anti-Gulenism” to carry out a long-planned anti-secular and pro-Islamist purge that in point of fact has nothing to do with Gulen.

Either way, Erdogan clearly has won and his own purge is in full swing. Tens of thousands have been arrested or dismissed from positions of power and influence. To what extent we will end up with a fully Islamist and (at best) quasi-democratic Turkey remains to be seen, but that appears to be the direction of events.

Q. How could this development affect Turkey domestically? How could it affect Israel and the region?

A. The ramifications are potentially far-reaching. Domestically, the armed forces are being weakened, thereby reducing Turkey’s capacity to battle militant Islamists and Kurdish rebels and presaging a deterioration in internal security. Indeed, an Islamist takeover in Turkey will quickly catalyze the reemergence of extremist Marxist urban rebel groups who were active into the early years of this century. Meanwhile, Turkish civil society and civil liberties will suffer greatly.

Then too, this could be the ultimate demise of any lingering Turkish ambitions to join the European Union. And it could work to the detriment of Turkey’s standing in NATO. In effect, Erdogan is remolding Turkey in a more Middle Eastern and less European image. Erdogan’s coup--or counter-coup, depending how one looks at it--gives a bad name to the “democratic Islam” that the US and EU had for a while hoped to encourage in Muslim Brotherhood-administered Egypt and Erdogan’s Turkey of earlier years.

As for Israel, it made its peace with Erdogan and, considering Turkey’s economic and strategic importance, presumably will not allow his purge to affect relations negatively unless Turkish Islamists try to undo the recent rapprochement. One potential fly in the ointment that has already appeared is Cyprus’s concerns over Israeli-Turkish dealings.

On Sunday, Cyprus President Nikos Anastasiades hastened to Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu and receive assurances that any move by Turkey and Israel to lay a gas pipeline between Israel’s Leviathan deep-sea field and the Turkish southern coast, which would have to pass through Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), would be coordinated with Nicosia. In recent years, when tensions between Israel and Turkey were high, Netanyahu reportedly went as far as to dispatch Israel Air Force planes to warn Turkish military aircraft not to harass Cypriot gas exploration activities in Cyprus’s EEZ, which Turkey disputes.

Ideally, just as Netanyahu appears to have passed messages regarding water issues between Egypt and Ethiopia, Israel would undertake to assist Cyprus and Turkey in ending their decades-long dispute over northern Cyprus and patch up relations. But here too, it is anyone’s guess whether Erdogan’s current course will make him more or less amenable to such a move.

Q. Erdogan, as noted, is clamping down on Turkish media. Is Netanyahu trying to do something similar in Israel?

A. Netanyahu is legendarily paranoid about the way the Israeli media treats him. In his current government, he has retained the Communications Ministry portfolio in a transparent attempt to create a friendlier media environment for himself and his political philosophy. Not satisfied that Yisrael HaYom, the free handout created for his benefit by American Jewish right-wing benefactor Sheldon Adelson has become Israel’s biggest circulation daily, Netanyahu now seems poised to attempt to influence the political inclinations or orientation of additional media.

The prime minister is trying to delay and manipulate the launching of a new national broadcasting authority. He is trying to remake the Knesset TV channel, until now a pillar of objectivity, by placing its management in the hands of a crony. He has already awarded the primarily religious right a TV outlet, channel 20, for propagating its values. He is backing legislation that would weaken Yediot Aharonoth, Yisrael HaYom’s main daily rival and an anti-Netanyahu paper. He is constantly trying to weaken the news departments of the two main commercial TV stations, channels 10 and 22.

As of July 2016, the Israeli media remains relatively independent. It still has plenty of allies in government who--some for idealistic reasons and some due to anti-Netanyahu sentiment, even on the far right--are fighting Communications Minister Netanyahu’s “reforms”.

Above and beyond everything else, Netanyahu’s obsession with critical media ignores a key factor the prime minister appears incapable of comprehending: on balance, the Israeli media is critical of him because there is so much to be critical of with regard to his policies in the human rights and Palestinian spheres as well as his own personal and family financial dealings.

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