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 the choice of Diaspora partners for the Israel Ministry of Diaspora Affairs' new program for outreach among Jewish university students tells us; how significant is it that Director General Dore Gold of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs has paid a brief secret visit to a Muslim country in Africa with which Israel has no diplomatic relations; and any redeeming qualities to Defense Minister Lieberman’s new “carrot and stick” policy toward the Palestinians.
Q. The Israel Ministry of Diaspora Affairs has unveiled its new program for outreach among Jewish university students, involving cooperation with Hillel, Chabad and Olami Worldwide. What does the choice of Diaspora partners tell us?
A. Not surprisingly, considering that the Diaspora Ministry in the Netanyahu government is in the hands of
Education Minister Naftali Bennet of the right-religious Jewish Home party, two of the three global partners are
somewhere between orthodox and ultra-orthodox in their Jewish orientation. This program structure tells us three
First, as with many of the changes Bennet is introducing to Israel’s own education curriculum regarding Jewish and Zionist content, in dealing with the Diaspora we encounter the assumption that these two issue-areas must by definition have an orthodox religious content. Zionism is now orthodox; Judaism is now orthodox. This is now the official message to the Diaspora from Israel.
Second, and directly connected to this message, is an Israeli assumption that the only sort of Diaspora Judaism worth investing in is Orthodox. Diaspora Conservative and Reform Jews are intermarrying at too alarming a rate; their conversions are not real; their ritual is not authentic; they are skeptical about Israeli ultra-nationalist policies. Either convert their youth to orthodoxy through programs like Bennet’s outreach initiative, or cross them off the list.
Significantly, this is happening at a time when Conservative and Reform Jewish ritual is more popular and more tolerated than ever among a growing segment of Israelis. Perhaps that is what alarms Israel’s right-religious government as it condones anti-Reform and anti-Conservative initiatives regarding prayer at the Wall, access to ritual baths and the like. Ultimately, this latest initiative will have the net effect of alienating more Diaspora Jewish youth from the direction Israel’s right-religious governments are taking the country.
One way or another, what this initiative tells us is that the gap within world Judaism between Israel and the Diaspora is growing. It also tells us that the Netanyahu coalition can complain about and legislate against foreign governmental contributions to Israeli civil society advocates whose agendas it finds objectionable, but at the same time it can invest Israeli money in problematic American Jewish advocacy programs and those of other Diaspora communities without seeing any contradiction.
Q. The Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs leaked to the press last week that Director General Dore Gold had paid a brief secret visit to a Muslim country in Africa with which Israel has no diplomatic relations. How significant is this?
A. The visit lasted only a few hours due to security considerations and took place following a more public visit to
Conakry, capital of Guinea in West Africa, a country with which Israel renewed relations only recently after an
extended break. And it follows upon PM Netanyahu’s visit to East Africa in early July, during which he met with
seven regional leaders.
This dramatic expansion of Israel’s Africa reach is somewhat reminiscent of the 1950s and early ‘60s, when Israel’s Foreign Ministry under Golda Meir launched far-flung aid programs in these same countries, exporting kibbutz and moshav community-organizing and agricultural skills and winning Israel a very positive global reputation. Those initiatives were part and parcel of Israel’s mostly clandestine “periphery doctrine” of that era. The Mossad established close intelligence and strategic ties with the countries bordering the Middle East’s hostile Arab “core” that surrounded Israel (e.g., Iran, Turkey), thereby sending the Arabs an important message regarding Israel’s strategic sustainability and ultimately contributing to Arab readiness to make peace.
But the positive comparisons go only so far. The outreach we are witnessing today rests on far less compelling foundations, for several reasons. For one, it exploits shared fears of militant Islam--ISIS, Qaeda, Iran--that may conceivably not last long, after which Israel’s African friends may again be more open to Arab and Islamic ties at Israel’s expense. Note that even in the old days, most of Israel’s Arab “friends” cut ties with it when the Israel-Arab conflict heated up after 1967.
Then too, one of the rationales offered by the MFA for this effort, which will undoubtedly cost Israel money in the form of security and other aid, is to recruit votes among Africa’s UN Security Council rotating members in the hope of blocking a Palestinian state initiative there--for example, a late 2016 effort by the lame-duck Obama administration to recruit endorsement for a new set of two-state principles toward which Netanyahu would almost certainly be hostile. Yet if experience teaches us anything, it is that developing world “allies” prove to be highly unreliable friends of Israel when it comes to United Nations votes. Moreover, Angola, Egypt and Senegal are the current African members of the UNSC, and none are among the African countries Israel has recently courted.
This brings us to what is apparently the main rationale not only for these Africa initiatives but for a major portion of Netanyahu’s efforts in recent years to upgrade Israel’s relations with a host of additional countries: the major powers Russia, India, China; Central Asian states like Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan; and minor southern and central European EU members like Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus.
The heart of the issue is that Netanyahu is acutely aware of the deterioration of relations with the United States and the European Union on his watch. And much as he scoffs at the BDS boycott campaign, he fears its ramifications. He understands that his policy of creeping annexation of the West Bank, his blatant and pointless opposition to the Obama administration’s Iran-nuclear initiative, his inexplicable delaying of a new ten-year security aid agreement with Washington, his growing lack of credibility in western capitals, and his uncontrolled personal antipathy for Obama himself have combined to distance most western governments and many western publics. As long as countries with an Islam problem--the Asian powers, Israel’s Hellenic Mediterranean neighbors, and African states bordering on the Muslim world--are happy to find common strategic ground with Israel and ignore the Palestinian issue that the West refuses to ignore, Netanyahu will happily trumpet these relations as a balancing factor vis-a-vis Washington and Brussels.
Yet even Netanyahu cannot ignore reality. There is no balance here: Israel needs the US and Europe--strategically, militarily and economically--far more than any profits it can reap from its new friends. Perhaps the ultimate proof that Israel’s new Africa friendships have a Potemkin-like dimension is the manner in which, for the most crass political purposes, Netanyahu (who holds the MFA portfolio himself) has decimated his own Foreign Ministry: key elements like strategic arms control, Diaspora relations (see above) and public diplomacy have been torn from the ministry and transferred to inexperienced cabinet ministers who have no clue what to do with them, in order to keep them happily in the coalition. Most recently, budget cuts have eliminated dozens of MFA jobs.
Gold’s dramatic and secret visits to African countries present a hollow spectacle indeed.
Q. Last week you mentioned Defense Minister Lieberman’s new “carrot and stick” policy toward the Palestinians. Surely there are some redeeming qualities in at least this project.
A. I can’t find many. Typically, this is a tactical approach to the Palestinian issue that reflects the absence of
a viable strategy, whether for the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
Of course economic benefits (“carrots”) are desirable for the West Bank and Gaza, but it has long been obvious that they don’t buy “economic peace”. We witnessed the “stick” last week when, in response to a single ineffective rocket fired by a renegade group from Gaza that caused no casualties, Israel launched extensive air attacks on dozens of “quality” Hamas targets. This will hopefully contribute to short term deterrence. But it will deliver little more by way of peace and stability. That’s all Lieberman’s heavy-handed approach has to offer.
Neither carrots in the West Bank nor disproportional punitive responses in Gaza constitutes a viable strategy for the Palestinian issue. We can only conclude that they reflect the disastrous dual strategy of slowly swallowing up half the West Bank on one front while humoring Palestinians and the world alike, and at the same time radically “mowing the lawn” in Gaza in the hope of gaining a few months of peace and quiet on the other front. Meanwhile, the Strip’s water supply continues to run out and its demographic time bomb continues to tick.
And time is not standing still in the Palestinian context. We are in a countdown to Oct. 8 Palestinian Authority municipal elections that are liable to produce significant Hamas gains in the West Bank (for the most part by means of ostensibly non-threatening “independent” electoral lists), thereby setting in motion a chain of events that could conceivably bring about an end to rule there by Fateh and Mahmoud Abbas. Neither Netanyahu nor Lieberman appears to have a contingency plan for this eventuality.
A peace process? The latest reliable opinion poll in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Israel Democracy Institute, found steadily declining support--though still a slim majority--on both sides for the idea of a two-state solution. It also found, to no one’s surprise, high levels of mistrust on both sides regarding the other.
Interestingly, the detailed “peace agreement package” presented to both publics in soliciting their views on the details of peace (beyond the general “principle”) is considerably closer to the Palestinian negotiating position of recent years than most contemporary polls and recent Israeli positions. Alongside the 1967 lines with land swaps and a capital in East Jerusalem, Palestinians were offered the return (“family reunification”) of 100,000 refugees; Ehud Olmert’s final offer in Sept. 2008 was 10,000. The Temple Mount would be placed under Palestinian sovereignty rather than some sort of international condominium--the usual Israeli proposal. Small wonder only 46 percent of Israelis agreed. Surprisingly, only 39 percent of Palestinians bought into this relatively (by recent historical standards) far-reaching formula. No room for encouragement here.
This introduces another troubling finding of the poll. Jews and Arabs who define themselves as religious tend to reject this package. And religion is becoming stronger on both sides, just as it is throughout the chaotic Middle East. So while both Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas generate “spin” regarding a possible peace conference/summit meeting between them in Moscow by the end of 2016, meaning a full four months away, their motive appears to be mainly to persuade the world that they are interested in a two-state solution when in fact they know their respective positions remain miles apart.