September 26, 2016 - The outgoing year, 5776

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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 where Israel positioned itself in the Middle East during the outgoing year; how the Israel-US relationship appears to have suffered; how events in the surrounding Middle East affected the mood of Israelis; how the so-called “lone wolf intifada” affected Israelis; and the prospects for progress between Israel and the Palestinians in the year ahead .

Q. Where did Israel position itself in the Middle East during the outgoing year?

A. From the standpoint of its own self-interest, Israel moved in two distinct and essentially contradictory directions.

On the one hand, against a backdrop of growing concern over shared Sunni and Shiite Islamist threats (ISIS and Iran, respectively), Israel moved closer strategically to a number of major Sunni Arab neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The latter two, which have never signed peace treaties with Israel, no longer bothered to deny the strategic relationship. Even allowing that this enhanced degree of cooperation could be temporary and fragile, it represented a significant step toward legitimization and empowerment of Israel in the Middle East region.

This same strategic backdrop of Islamist threat also facilitated enhanced strategic ties between Israel and a number of regional and international non-Arab states, from Greece and Cyprus in the Mediterranean to Russia, China and India globally. Israel’s Mediterranean ties were also boosted by growing prospects of energy (natural gas) cooperation. This may even include Turkey, which remained a major regional power despite all its troubles.

That was the good news. On the other hand, in the course of the past year Israel continued to slide down a slippery slope toward some sort of ugly one-state Israeli-Palestinian entity that, by definition, ultimately precludes the possibility of Israel remaining a Zionist, Jewish and democratic state. That Israel’s Sunni Arab neighbors tightened cooperation despite this negative reality reflects the extent to which, in their distress in confronting a chaotic region, they awarded priority to Islamist threats. Yet this in no way diminished the increasingly internalized threat to Israel’s essential identity.

Neither of these strategic developments began a year ago. But both intensified significantly in the course of the year that comes to an end on Rosh HaShana eve, October 2.

 

Q. The Israel-US relationship appears to have suffered.

A. Definitely. Here too, the prism of two distinct strategic directions helps us understand what has happened.

On the one hand the Obama administration--having reached a nuclear deal with Iran that facilitates normalization, having concluded that Islamist threats in the Arab Middle East require only relatively low-level American intervention, and having entered a “lame-duck” diplomatic mode--tends not to share the acute threat assessment held by Jerusalem, Cairo and Riyadh.

On the other hand, as a true friend of Israel the Obama administration, together with many in Europe, is genuinely concerned over the direction Israel under Netanyahu is moving with regard to the Palestinian issue: creeping annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem against a backdrop of increasingly strident nationalistic and messianic domestic and settlement policies. When we factor in the bad blood between Washington and Jerusalem over PM Netanyahu’s angry opposition to the Iran deal and his repeated attempts to undercut President Obama at the US domestic political level, we get a picture of deteriorating US-Israel ties over the past year.

To be sure, some of this may be temporary depending on the nature of the next US administration. There remains in the US a solid foundation of far-reaching support for Israel as evidenced by the statements of both major presidential candidates on the occasion of their meetings with Netanyahu on Sept. 25. But by this year’s end it was impossible to ignore a perceptible erosion in support among liberal US Jewish and non-Jewish circles that are seriously concerned regarding the threat of Israel’s loss of a Jewish and democratic identity.

 

Q. How did events in the surrounding Middle East affect the mood of Israelis?

A. Overall, Israelis seemed more frightened by the very visible Islamist onslaught in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, coupled with the Assad regime’s barbarism and Iran’s machinations in the region, than encouraged by the behind-the-scenes Israel-Arab cooperation this has engendered. The outcome, in the course of the past year, has been a growing “fortress” mood among a majority of Israelis. Why support a Palestinian state at a time when so many Arab states are disintegrating? Why work with Palestinians when, just across the border with Syria, Arabs are butchering one another? Why accommodate the “powers” when one, the US with which Israel is allied, appears to be exiting the Middle East and another, resurgent Russia--now positioned militarily close to Israel’s border with Syria--is totally cynical about everything save the Sunni Islamist threat?

Yet at the same time, growing Islamist extremism across Israel’s borders--in Gaza, in Syria, in Lebanon, even a rise in Islamist sentiment in Jordan--appears to be paralleled in Israel by an increase in orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jewish religiosity, at the expense of liberalism and pluralism.

In other words, over the past year Israel became a little more like its neighbors. Further, the same wind that, in Europe and the US, has over the past year fanned the flames of Brexit and the Trump nomination--the xenophobic fear of waves of refugees, Islamist terrorists and chaotic borders--has become dominant in Israel.

 

Q. And the so-called “lone wolf intifada”? How did it affect Israelis?

A. The effect of Palestinian knifings and car-rammings of the past year appears to have meshed with the overall negative Israeli reaction to the surrounding Islamist revolutions and contributed to the country’s increasingly jingoistic and at times messianic mood. The Netanyahu government, unwilling to make any serious move toward braking the slippery slope toward a one-state reality and therefore unwilling to take realistic steps toward stopping violence perpetrated by distraught individual Palestinians, has compensated by escalating its “newspeak” ultra-nationalistic rhetoric: removing settlements has become “ethnic cleansing”; Zionist education is now exclusively about “(orthodox) Jewish values”; an IDF soldier who executes a wounded Palestinian terrorist who poses no threat is a hero.

 

Q. What in your view are the prospects for progress between Israel and the Palestinians in the year ahead?

A. All other things being equal, both Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will remain in office and neither will evince a serious interest in the renewal of meaningful negotiations. Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship will continue to deteriorate.

As for the prospects of a US initiative, most indications point to the likelihood that a Trump administration would not be interested, both because it would identify with Israel’s hard-line stance and because it would adopt a more isolationist policy. Still, Trump’s views are essentially unformed and primitive and we could conceivably be surprised.

That leaves the (at this writing, statistically more likely) question of a Clinton administration. Some of its potential Middle East policy advisers could well view another effort to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace as particularly tempting in view of the positive backdrop of Israel-Arab strategic cooperation. Adherents and admirers of presidential spouse Bill Clinton might see such a process as “unfinished business” meriting his appointment as special Middle East emissary. Conceivably, outgoing President Obama might still act to leave behind a legacy of an articulated version of a final status solution, perhaps even at the United Nations (though Hillary Clinton reportedly told Netanyahu on Sept. 25 that she opposes UN intervention and it is hard to see Obama undercutting her at this late stage).

If indeed a Clinton administration decides to move in the coming year on the Palestinian issue, the odds would unfortunately be stacked against it, first and foremost because in the persons of Netanyahu and Abbas it would confront two recalcitrant leaders. Certainly, it would be well advised to learn the lessons of more than 20 years of failure under the Oslo process: no “end of conflict” is currently possible due to intractable “narrative” issues like the Palestinian right of return, the nature of a “Jewish state” and the Temple Mount question; Israeli and Palestinian leaders must be compelled to restrict their talks and agreements to the more tractable questions of borders, security and limited mutual recognition with the benefit of massive Arab support.

All this seemed to become increasingly clear to the Obama administration in the course of the past year. Which is why it no longer appeared to be trying to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian progress.

 

Q. To sum up the outgoing year?

A. On balance, and despite some bright spots of strategic achievement, 5776 was bad for Israeli interests and for US interests in the Middle East.

Happy 5777: Shana Tova.

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