January 30, 2017 - Trump and Israel: II

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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 issue areas where President Trump’s provocative agenda touches on Israel; the motives behind PM Netanyahu's tweet that said the wall Israel built along its border with Egypt is a good model for the wall Trump wants to build, at Mexican expense, along the US-Mexico border; Israel's decision to absorb 100 Syrian refugee children at a time when Trump’s executive order bans entry into the US of refugees and visa holders from Syria; the Iran factor; the settlements issue; and Netanyahu's chances of beating all of the accusations raised against him and remaining in power.

 

Q. The past week has delivered more issue areas where President Trump’s provocative agenda touches on Israel. Can you comment?

A. By my count, those areas are the wall, Middle East refugees, Iran, and settlements. In contrast, the Jerusalem embassy issue seems to have been shunted temporarily to a back burner.

 

Q. Start with the wall. PM Netanyahu went out of his way to tweet that the wall Israel built along its border with Egypt is a good model for the wall Trump wants to build, at Mexican expense, along the US-Mexico border. What are Netanyahu’s motives?

A. The most obvious motive is to find favor with Trump and demonstrate to him that as they approach their first meeting sometime in February, Netanyahu is a reliable ally. Bear in mind that Netanyahu is still feeling his way with Trump. He apparently asked him to delay the embassy transfer to Jerusalem lest this ignite new conflict in and around the city and alienate the moderate Sunni Arab states whose strategic coordination regarding ISIS and Iran Netanyahu takes pride in. He is also aware of anti-Semitic currents in the new administration: that is how many Israelis explain the Holocaust Memorial Day statement from the administration that did not mention the Nazis’ Jewish victims. (Never mind that Netanyahu’s own Likud party held a rowdy and garish festival in Eilat that same day.)

Secondly, the wall Netanyahu built along the Egyptian border (really a fence, and entirely at Israel’s expense) is indeed effective and has radically reduced illegal entry to Israel from Egyptian Sinai by asylum-seekers and labor migrants from Sudan and Eritrea. So this was an opportunity for Netanyahu to trumpet his accomplishment to his own constituents, whose support he needs at a time when he is the target of a number of investigations regarding both crony capitalism charges and his management of the last Gaza war in the summer of 2014. Whether a wall is a solution for stopping illegal entry from Mexico to the United States--and whether the Negev-Sinai fence can be considered a viable model--is apparently not Netanyahu’s concern.

Thirdly, Netanyahu has a minor grudge against Mexico, which voted against Israel recently in several international forums. So the angry reaction of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto did not surprise Netanyahu. The dismayed reaction of Mexico’s Jewish community, transmitted to Netanyahu through Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, will presumably be considered collateral damage when Netanyahu totes up the cost/benefit ratio for this particular tweet.

 

Q. Turning to Middle East refugee issues, at a time when Trump’s executive order bans entry into the US of refugees and visa holders from Syria, Israel has reportedly undertaken to absorb 100 Syrian refugee children. A striking contrast.

A. Not only did Interior Minister Deri announce last week that the 100 orphans would be placed with the families of Arab citizens of Israel and eventually receive permanent citizenship, but Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman allowed earlier last week, in guarded public comments--he refused to elaborate--that Israel was extending assistance to the needy in Syria beyond the medical aid it offers to anyone who reaches the Golan border (note: conceivably, Lieberman was also referring to the 100 orphans).

How to explain the contrast? First, the images broadcast from the recent siege of Aleppo prompted large numbers of Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, to suggest that the country could do more to help at the humanitarian level. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are shouldering the main burden of Syrian refugee absorption, and Israel has an interest in demonstrating to the first two, as well as to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates--with all of whom Israel has developed some form of strategic cooperation--that it is not indifferent to Arab suffering. Note, too, that there are Israeli non-governmental organizations like Israel Flying Aid that provide aid to victims of the war in Syria, presumably quietly via Jordan and Turkey.

To the best of my knowledge, Syrians are not lining up at the Golan border and begging for asylum in Israel. There is in the Arab world a strong stigma attached to such an appeal by Arabs anywhere. Even those receiving life-saving medical aid in Israeli hospitals insist on anonymity so they can eventually return home without being singled out for retribution. This undoubtedly renders it easier for Israel to absorb young orphans who presumably do not need or are too young to account to anyone for their presence in Israel.

There is an additional factor underlying Israelis’ reluctance to identify with Trump’s refugee policies. Many Israelis were born in Syria, Iran and the other countries singled out by the US in its ban on entry. This fact is listed in their Israeli passports. Could they too conceivably be refused entry to the US, or at least hassled at the entry point?

 

Q. Where does the Iran factor come in?

A. On January 21, the Prime Minister’s Office released a two-minute clip of Netanyahu appealing directly, in English with Persian subtitles, to the Iranian people (it is easily viewed on youtube). Netanyahu began by noting that he would shortly be meeting with Trump to discuss Iran. Then he remarked that while he had often sharply and publicly opposed the Iranian regime, a direct and friendly appeal to the oppressed Iranian people was overdue. He went on to express friendship for Iranians, respect for Iran’s culture and achievements, and hostility toward the Tehran regime, whose end he hopes is near.

Obviously, the real target of Netanyahu’s appeal was Trump, whose inauguration took place a day earlier. By advocating regime change in Tehran, Netanyahu placed himself in the most extreme camp of Trump supporters with regard to Iran and the demand to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal--President Obama’s flagship accomplishment with regard to the Middle East, which Netanyahu bitterly opposed in years past.

Beyond that, advocating regime change in Tehran is pointless. That part of Netanyahu’s message makes him look uninformed and out of touch with his own intelligence establishment. Like it or not, the Islamic Republic regime is solid.

 

Q. And the settlements issue?

A. Now that Trump is in office, Netanyahu appears to believe he can launch an expansion of settlements on several fronts and that the US will help rebuff criticism at the international level. Recent days have witnessed announcements of several thousand new settlement construction starts and permits in and around East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank. On Monday or Tuesday this week, the Knesset is expected finally to pass the “Regularization Bill”, which for the first time applies elements of Israeli law to previously unauthorized settlement and outpost construction on private Palestinian land in the West Bank in order to legalize the settlers’ presence. This is a first legal step, after nearly 50 years, toward annexation. The measure could expose Israel, and Israelis, to international legal measures and is so controversial that Attorney General Mandelblit has warned that he cannot defend it if an appeal is made to the High Court to declare the bill unconstitutional.

Netanyahu delayed the bill while Obama was in office. He may still secretly hope the High Court will strike it down, if only to avoid being targeted personally by the international court system for violating the Geneva Convention regarding occupied lands. Further, assuming Netanyahu is in some way wary of the slippery slope toward an apartheid state that he has placed Israel on (he occasionally protests that he still wants some sort of two-state solution or “Palestinian state minus”) he also has to be careful lest he lose control of his own coalition and face majority support for more extreme annexationist measures. Besides, the same Trump who supports the settlements also claims to aspire to send his son-in-law to facilitate a two-state solution.

 

Q. You’ve alluded to Netanyahu as the target of investigations that render his premiership vulnerable. How do you assess his chances of beating all the accusations and remaining in power?

A. In the coming days, Netanyahu will have to deal with a state comptroller’s report regarding the government’s management of the summer 2014 war with Gaza-based Hamas. The report is apparently highly critical of the performance not only of Netanyahu, but of then defense minister Yaalon and the IDF’s chief of staff at the time, Benny Gantz. Issues singled out for criticism are Netanyahu’s handling of his security cabinet, lack of Israeli preparations to deal with Hamas’s attack tunnels, and the absence of strategic thinking regarding war against Hamas.

According to the usual norms of parliamentary government, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition should turn on him regarding the incompetence illustrated by the report. But it won’t; there is little normalcy in Israeli politics or in Netanyahu’s grip on power. The report could, however, constitute a preliminary “nail in the coffin” if and when, sometime in the weeks ahead, the Israel Police begin submitting criminal charges concerning Netanyahu’s crony capitalist relationships with gift-giving billionaires, a media mogul, and the German manufacturers of Israel’s submarines.

Taken together, all these issues including the comptroller’s report are generating a great deal of maneuvering by Netanyahu’s political rivals, both within the coalition and within the opposition. As for the prime minister, he is pressing every available button designed to reinforce his shaky political position, and hoping Trump will help.

Will the prime minister be forced to step aside? Will an alternative coalition emerge? Or will one or more of the smaller coalition parties defect, precipitating elections? And if there are elections, will the increasingly “public” Ehud Barak try to make a comeback and lead the ailing Labor party? Could the unpredictable Trump try to interfere?

In my view, there is at least a 50 percent likelihood that one or more of these scenarios will transpire. Stay tuned.

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