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 three new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives that are reportedly being incubated: a set of “Obama principles”, a Moscow summit, and an Israeli referendum in terms of potential content and advantages and disadvantages; what would he recommend for an Obama peace formula as part of his legacy; PM Netanyahu seemingly contemplating steps to dissuade Obama from any peace initiatives, including a possible Moscow summit with Palestinian leader Abbas; allegations that Abbas had been recruited sometime before 1983 by the KGB; and the campaign to hold a national referendum on the two-state solution, “Decision at 50.”
Q. The informed press and academia are rife with discussion of three new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives that are reportedly being incubated: a set of “Obama principles”, a Moscow summit, and an Israeli referendum. Can you discuss each in terms of potential content and advantages and disadvantages?
A. I first heard about the idea of President Obama presenting his own outline for Israeli-Palestinian peace about
two years ago, from a former senior administration Middle East negotiator. From its conception, the idea has been
presented as a parting shot from a lame-duck president who is thoroughly frustrated with his inability in the
course of eight years to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. The initiative would be timed for presentation after
November 8 so that the “Obama principles” would not affect the presidential elections and would be considered part
of the outgoing president’s legacy.
Given the fact that this idea has been leaked repeatedly for so long, one intriguing possibility is that its real purpose is to keep two problematic and recalcitrant leaders, PM Netanyahu and President Abbas, “in line” until Obama leaves office. In other words, there will be no presentation of Obama principles or outlines; rather, the constant threat that Obama will resort to them is meant to motivate both sides to the conflict to take their own initiatives and otherwise avoid extreme behavior lest the Obama principles spotlight the bad behavior of one or both.
According to this logic, why should Obama risk the legacy of his other international accomplishments--the Iran nuclear deal, the pivot to Asia, trade and environmental deals--by reiterating the stock formula for a two-state deal at a time when its feasibility and likelihood are fading fast? A similar logic could be alleged to apply to the president’s ongoing treatment of the conflict with ISIS: send occasional small increments of US “advisors” to Iraq and Syria but avoid any major initiative in the hope that the Levant conflict can be kept off the main US public agenda until a new administration takes over.
Q. Still, suppose Obama is determined to leave behind his own peace formula as part of his legacy. What would you recommend it contain? What should the concept be?
A. I would strongly counsel against another set of “Clinton parameters” presented in a presidential speech. Advice
to the parties regarding percentages of green line “land swaps”, the disposition of the quarters of Jerusalem’s old
city and numbers of refugees to be admitted made sense back in late 2000-early 2001. At that time, President
Clinton felt he had come close to facilitating progress at Camp David and Taba and enjoyed a degree of prestige and
trust among both sides that might have helped bridge remaining gaps. In contrast, Secretary of State Kerry did not
make that sort of progress in his 2013-2014 peace initiative, Obama himself has never experienced intense mediation
as a learning process the way Clinton did at Camp David, nothing of substance has happened since then, the gaps are
wider than ever and very little of the optimism of the 1990s remains.
Rather, the concept I would recommend would be a United Nations Security Council resolution sponsored by the US and pre-negotiated with the other Council members so as to ensure approval. It would be designed as a synthesis of two models. First, a “new 242” that lays out broad principles for a two-state solution, without details. Here we recall that UNSCR 242 of 1967 did not address the Palestinian issue at all; it did not even mention the Palestinians. But the very general principles it laid out for Israel-Arab state-to-state peace negotiations, after first being rejected or politely ignored by Israel and the Arabs, eventually became the guidelines for Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace and almost served the same function for Israeli-Syrian peace. So a set of principles for Israeli-Palestinian peace, such as “sixty-seven lines plus agreed land swaps” and “two capitals in Jerusalem, recognized by the international community”, broad parameters for Arab world support and incentives, and a readiness to advance partial solutions (breaking the deadlock caused by “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”), could be a healthy step in the right direction for which Obama would be credited.
This alludes to the second model I would recommend: a post-Oslo paradigm that abandons those Oslo accord principles that never really worked such as “nothing is agreed”, recognizes that a step-by-step process might not achieve the “end of claims, end of conflict” promised by Oslo, but nevertheless enables progress, however slow and piecemeal.
Q. PM Netanyahu seems to be contemplating steps to dissuade Obama from moving in this or any other direction, including a possible Moscow summit with Palestinian leader Abbas . . .
A. Netanyahu apparently genuinely fears an international initiative that attempts to dictate concessions he cannot
or will not make, thereby further isolating Israel internationally. Indeed, Netanyahu’s confidants label an Obama
lame-duck initiative “foreign intervention” and argue that only direct bilateral talks with the Palestinians can
conceivably advance a solution. But of course Netanyahu and Abbas, though feeling obliged to pay lip service to
direct talks, have ensured that no such talks will convene and that if they do they won’t succeed. Abbas, for his
part, fears that a set of “Obama principles” would contain items favorable to Israel (“Jewish state”, no right of
return to Israel) that he and certainly his constituents cannot abide.
So how do the two of them square this circle? Abbas does so by actively encouraging alternative international intervention, for example the French initiative to convene an international conference before the end of 2016. Abbas seems to believe that cumulative international pressure will isolate Israel and bring about concessions in his favor. This enables him to avoid dealing with Israeli (and American) demands he cannot be seen by his constituents to accept, such as recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
Netanyahu squares the circle by floating or otherwise encouraging several initiatives essentially for deceptive PR purposes. One is the notion of an Israeli-Palestinian summit in Moscow under the auspices of President Putin. Netanyahu and Putin have reportedly been discussing this idea. Egyptian President Sisi supports it. Putin would of course be happy to upstage both Obama and the French by moving the focus of Middle East peace activity to Moscow. Abbas also favors a Moscow summit, but apparently continues to proffer pre-conditions to such a summit or for that matter to any direct negotiations at all: a real settlement freeze by Israel and implementation of the fourth stage of Palestinian prisoner releases negotiated by Kerry back in early 2013. In other words, he has to get more out of the meeting than a mere photo-op.
Netanyahu would risk his right-religious coalition were he to accede to Abbas’s demands. Hence he and Defense Minister Lieberman counter by floating a variety of steps, many of them virtual, that comprise economic incentives for peaceful cooperation in both Gaza and the West Bank (the carrots of Lieberman’s “carrot and stick” policy). They are encouraging alternative power centers in the West Bank in order to weaken Abbas. Netanyahu also periodically meets with opposition leader Isaac Herzog as a means of administering artificial respiration to the notion of a unity government. Herzog as foreign minister in charge of the peace process would ostensibly constitute an incentive for Abbas to show up in Moscow for direct negotiations hosted by Putin and to forego pre-conditions or perhaps accept softer ones that Netanyahu could persuade Putin to present to Abbas. Since Abbas values Russian support and Putin values his tactical coordination with Israel regarding Syria, this could be “an offer Abbas can’t refuse”.
By early September Abbas had reportedly accepted a Russian invitation to hold talks with Netanyahu sometime in the months ahead. In fact, Abbas blamed Netanyahu for turning down an immediate meeting in Moscow. The Russians announced they had agreement in principle but without a date. On the other hand, Abbas’s advisors continued to insist that he still held fast to his pre-conditions, which Netanyahu rejects. Meanwhile Israeli scholars examining leaked documents in England floated a report, seemingly well-grounded, that Abbas had been recruited sometime before 1983 by the KGB. The implication of the timing of the leak is that the Russian-speaking Abbas, who in the late 1970s was researching his doctorate in Moscow at a time when the PLO was extremely close to the Soviet bloc, is somehow too intimate with the Russians.
But isn’t Netanyahu also quite close to Putin? Stand by. . .
Q. You have an intelligence background. What do you make of these allegations?
A. If the report is based solely on a document in Russian with two lines, as the Israeli scholars allege, I’m
inclined to doubt its veracity. The KGB was very professional. They would not have put an agent’s real name and his
code name in the same document. They would not have codenamed a spy “mole”. On the other hand, if this document
represents notes copied by the KGB archivist who smuggled them to the West, then this “overload” of information is
perhaps conceivable. In any event, during the 1970s when Abbas was allegedly recruited the PLO was genuinely
subservient to Moscow, meaning that Abbas and his comrades were willing collaborators who may have had code names
they did not even know about.)
Obviously, if by Nov. 8 plans are afoot for Netanyahu and Abbas to meet in Moscow and ostensibly launch new negotiations, both Obama and the French would have to reconsider their plans. It is virtually a given that nothing of substance would emerge from these Moscow talks. But from Netanyahu’s standpoint, he would have gained nearly a year of international stalemate while a new US administration settles in, and perhaps even more time depending on who the next US president is, what direction the various Arab revolutions on and near Israel’s borders are taking, and whether the aging Abbas is still in power in a year.
Q. And the third initiative?
A. A broad coalition of virtually all Israeli peace organizations from the Zionist left and center has just
launched a campaign to hold a national referendum on the two-state solution sometime in or after June 2017--the
fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War in which Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. The
organizers, whose coalition is called “Decision at 50”, fully understand that they are now the minority, the
political underdog, and that the dominant right-religious establishment is planning to “celebrate” the fiftieth
anniversary in a spirit of triumphalism (“50 years to reunited Jerusalem”, etc.). At a minimum, the organizers hope
the referendum campaign will stake out the legacy of the Israeli center-left regarding the Six-Day War narrative
and remind the public of the disastrous one-state direction the political mainstream has adopted.
At the practical level the referendum idea faces huge hurdles. Israel has never held a referendum. It is the political right not the left that traditionally has boosted referendum initiatives, e.g., regarding any further withdrawal from territories, because it believes it can sway the public to reject such an agreement or unilateral initiative.
Why would the current right-religious coalition agree to pass legislation for a referendum in which the public is asked to approve or reject the two-state solution when all polls show a majority (albeit a dwindling majority) still in favor of two states? Only if the political right reasons that, given the dwindling majority, it can win such a referendum, in which case the current initiative could conceivably end up as a counter-productive exercise. After all, the current public mood is hawkish, frightened by Islamist terrorism, preoccupied with the chaos across Israel’s borders and generally not geared to peace process thinking.
Certainly, if a majority of the current Knesset approves the exercise, the right-religious elements that dominate the coalition will seek to formulate the question put to voters in such a way as to influence the outcome in its favor (e.g.--and only exaggerating slightly--“Do you favor a Palestinian Arab PLO state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem or continued Israeli rule over the Jewish ancestral homeland and the places sacred to Jews for the past 3,000 years?”).
The list of organizers involved in Decision at 50 reads like a who’s who of the Israeli center-left, including of course Peace Now along with former chief negotiators Tzipi Livni and Gilead Sher, former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon, former Labor Party head Amram Mitzna, the Meretz Knesset contingent and MKs from the Zionist Camp (Labor). They represent a peace camp that knows it has lost a measure of credibility with the Israeli public. Could the referendum initiative be their ticket back to relevancy? Do they have anything to lose by flooding the Israeli public forum with a simple, straightforward question--do you or do you not want a two-state solution--even if, conceivably, their referendum campaign never generates an actual referendum?
These are serious people with an existential cause. “Decision at 50” is a dynamic and intriguing idea. I wish it luck.