August 08, 2016 - Lieberman’s sour (nuclear) grapes; Hamas, World Vision and Palestinian elections

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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 Minister of Defense Lieberman's response to last week's declaration by President Obama that the Israeli security establishment confirms that Iran is complying with the nuclear agreement, and why such needless confrontation over a done deal; how is Israel dealing with Hamas' announcement of two weeks ago that it would participate in West Bank and Gaza municipal elections scheduled for October 8, and how does Palestinian leader Abu Mazen hope to win the elections that he himself initiated; and the Hamas/World Vision story and why it is significant.

 

Q. Last week, President Obama declared that the Israeli security establishment confirms that Iran is complying with the nuclear agreement. Minister of Defense Lieberman responded by (once again) comparing the nuclear agreement to the pre-WWII Munich capitulation. Why this needless confrontation over a done deal?

A. To complicate matters even further, President Obama’s remarks to the effect that the doubters should acknowledge that the nuclear agreement is working were made at a time when Israeli and American security officials were meeting in Washington to finalize a new ten-year US defense aid agreement and when IDF Chief of Staff Eizenkot was being decorated by General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Israeli Minister of Defense Lieberman’s angry response, cloaked as a standard Ministry of Defense communique, therefore had the almost inevitable effect of delaying the defense agreement once again.

That may not have been the explicit intent of the outspoken Lieberman, who had until now by and large immersed himself in learning the ropes at his new ministry and maintaining a low profile. Rather, his “Munich” comment was more likely directed at all those in Israel who he suspects have gone soft on the Iran nuclear deal or who never really opposed it--meaning they take a balanced view that recognizes the obvious benefit of delaying Iran’s nuclear ambitions for ten to fifteen years--or who otherwise get on Lieberman’s nerves.

Eizenkot was one of those targets: Lieberman, his minister, was showing him who’s the boss. Netanyahu was another: the prime minister had sent his acting national security adviser, Yaakov Nagel, to Washington to negotiate the ten-year defense aid deal, thereby leaving Lieberman, to his chagrin, out of the process. And of course, Lieberman could not miss the opportunity to show Obama, too, who ostensibly makes the real security assessments in Israel. (Obama, of course, is by now used to being insulted by right-wing Israeli leaders.)

Netanyahu was left with the mess. He had to issue a statement paying lip service to Lieberman, thereby avoiding a coalition crisis, while lamely reaffirming the Israel-US security relationship. Now he has to find a way to get the ten-year security deal negotiations back on track.

For the record: Israel has reportedly capitulated to American demands that the defense deal, which goes into effect in 2018, be more restricted than its predecessor even if it is a bit more generous. The deal will apparently be capped at around 3.5 billion dollars per annum, up from three billion, but with no “loopholes” for additional allocations like joint development of anti-rocket missile defenses that Israel has pioneered. And within five years all the money will have to be spent in the US for acquisitions--without a portion being allocated to local Israeli military suppliers, as was the practice in recent years. Netanyahu appears to accept that he should take what Obama is offering and not wait for the US elections and risk negotiating with a possible Trump administration.

And for the record: a significant portion of the Israeli security establishment indeed recognizes that a deal that delays Iran’s military nuclear ambitions for more than a decade is advantageous for Israel. There is far more concern in Israel over Iran’s non-nuclear drive to expand its hegemony through Iraq and into Syria and Lebanon, bringing Iran’s al-Quds force right up to Israel’s northern border and possibly even enabling Iran to access the Mediterranean via the Hezbollah-held southern coast of Lebanon.

 

Q. Two weeks ago, Hamas surprised the West Bank Palestinian leadership by declaring it would participate in West Bank and Gaza municipal elections scheduled for October 8. How is Israel dealing with this? How does Palestinian leader Abu Mazen hope to win the elections that he himself initiated?

A. Both Israel and the PLO were taken aback by the Hamas announcement. Hamas had boycotted municipal elections in 2012, meaning that the PLO in the West Bank in effect “ran against itself”. Now Hamas is reverting to the 2004-2005 pattern, when it ran and won in many West Bank municipalities as a prelude to its 2006 victory in general parliamentary elections. Since the Palestinian Islamist movement brutally took control of the Strip in 2007, estrangement has prevailed--electorally and politically.

There are 2.6 million Palestinians eligible to vote in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem out of a total population of 4.81 million. Some 416 municipalities will be up for grabs in October. Hamas appears to believe it can capture the main municipalities because Fatah/PLO in the West Bank is seen by many as corrupt and hopelessly inefficient and Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas, who heads both the Fatah/PLO and the Palestinian Authority) is perceived as old and out of touch. To facilitate its electoral ambitions and thwart any Israeli attempt to hinder them, Hamas has been maintaining an unusually quiet Gazan front and has even hinted that in the future it could under certain circumstances negotiate with Israel.

The PLO, on the other hand, can now exploit Hamas’s glaring failures in Gaza to its electoral advantage. For one, a major water crisis is looming there and Hamas’s refusal to cooperate with Israel, which has solutions, has exacerbated the situation. Then there is the World Vision corruption scandal, revealed by the Shin Bet just last week: a senior Hamas operative held by Israel has exposed the way the Gaza-based Islamist movement has systematically diverted for its military needs tens of millions of dollars worth of international charitable funds intended over several years to benefit Gazan civilians, including with regard to water. (More on this below.)

Here Israeli Minister of Defense Lieberman enters the picture once again. Lieberman has always had a low opinion of Abbas, claiming he is too weak to enter into serious negotiations with Israel. And Lieberman, like Netanyahu, subscribes to the demand to reverse the “traditional” order according to which Israel has to first make peace with the Palestinians before it can normalize relations with its Arab state neighbors. The two right-wing Israeli leaders have been telling Arab leaders they must first warm up relations with Israel, only after which a Palestinian deal will be possible--a proposition which understandably meets with Arab skepticism.

Now Lieberman and Netanyahu appear to recognize that a Hamas victory in West Bank municipal elections could upset all of their schemes for improving Israel’s relations with the Saudis and other Arab states that share Israel’s threat assessments regarding Iran and ISIS (and Hamas). Accordingly, Lieberman appears to have little choice but to offer the PA under Abu Mazen a series of benefits that could enhance Fatah’s municipal electoral profile: permission to build a second new West Bank Palestinian city, following Rawabi; and Palestinian-administered building permits for some 200,000 Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank. Area C, encompassing some 60 percent of the West Bank, is under full Israeli control and the IDF has until now denied the permits, rendering the Palestinians illegal squatters.

Will these and similar measures prevent a Hamas victory? What will Israel do if Hamas wins sensitive Palestinian municipalities like Hebron, where Israelis live too, or Qalqilya, which borders on sovereign Israel just across the green line? Might Fatah, or Israel, or both, find excuses to “postpone” the elections if it looks like Hamas will win? And will Abu Mazen finally designate a successor--hopefully an attractive successor--prior to the October elections in an effort to rejuvenate Fatah’s image?

Stay tuned.

 

Q. Can you return briefly to the Hamas/World Vision story? Why is this significant?

A. World Vision defines itself as “a global Christian relief, development and advocacy organization dedicated to working with children, families and communities to overcome poverty and injustice.” It has branches in over 100 countries and headquarters in California and London. It has annual revenue nearing three billion dollars. It is the eleventh largest charity in the United States. Germany and Australia have already suspended contributions to the organization in response to the Gaza scandal. If and as additional donor countries and charities follow suit, the Gazan population will suffer.

This is potentially a very important issue because, assuming Israel’s allegations are true, they appear to verify a constant theme in the approach of the Israeli security establishment to the question of international aid for Gaza. Israel alleges that Hamas uses the aid--money, building materials, machinery, etc.--to maintain and enlarge its army, to dig and fortify tunnels, to produce rockets, and in general to prepare to attack Israel while denying the aid to the Gazan civilian population for which it was intended. Israel also charges that international aid groups, from the United Nations (e.g., UNRWA) on down, do not do enough to verify the ways in which their aid is actually used in Hamas-ruled Gaza. In this case, Israel points the finger directly at World Vision, accusing it of lax supervision.

The current allegations against World Vision, it should be noted, are based on the confession, thus far presented second-hand to the public, of an alleged Hamas operative infiltrated by Hamas into the World Vision Gaza office for the express purpose of siphoning off over $7 million a year for military use by Hamas. The operative, identified as Mohammed al-Halabi, was held incommunicado by the Shin Bet for over 50 days until he allegedly confessed and told all. He has not had his day in court and has not spoken in public. World Vision denies the allegations and alleges the aid sums mentioned are in any case grossly exaggerated.

As a veteran of the Israeli security establishment, and having great respect for the Shin Bet internal security service (which in the Israeli setup has jurisdiction over Gaza and the West Bank), I am inclined to accept the allegations regarding the abuse of World Vision funds. I expect one day soon to hear them verified directly and freely by al-Halabi. Nevertheless, because those allegations have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s relationship with the international donor community and for the welfare of Gazans, I think it is necessary to note that the case against World Vision is as yet not verifiable.

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