February 13, 2017 - Potential Disrupters in US Relationships with Israel and the Arab World

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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 updates on the agenda for the Trump-Netanyahu summit scheduled for later this week; new developments that could conceivably disrupt US-Israel relations in the near term beyond issues regarding the settlements, Iran, and Syria; potential Israeli responses to future Hamas attacks; Not labeling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group; and the report that Trump also wants to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization.

 

Q. Last week you discussed the agenda for the Trump-Netanyahu summit scheduled for later this week? Any updates?

A. The impression that has emerged in the course of the past week is that the Trump administration is listening to Arab admonitions and cautions regarding the settlements issue and that it may be weighing the option of discussing Israeli-Palestinian issues within a broader Arab framework.  The possibility of an “Arab solution” would appear to dovetail with the preference of PM Netanyahu, particularly insofar as the current chaotic state of the Arab world dictates that such a process would be drawn out over time and Netanyahu’s most basic strategy is to play for time. This would also broaden the administration’s agenda with regard to Syria-related issues, where Saudi Arabia and especially Jordan wish to be taken into account.

All of this caused Barak Ravid to write in Haaretz over the weekend that “The Israeli right voted Trump and got Obama”. That is undoubtedly an exaggeration. But there are indeed early signs that the Trump administration is feeling obliged or compelled to follow more traditional rules and patterns: regarding immigration, concerning Japan and South Korea, on “One China”, on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, and regarding settlements. On Sunday morning Netanyahu found himself rebuffing coalition pressures to ask Trump for a green light to annex settlement blocs and build massively for Jews in East Jerusalem. He noted Trump’s caution regarding settlement construction and stated that security issues, meaning Iran and Syria, would dominate his agenda with Trump.

Apparently Trump in principle favors settlements but in practice wants Netanyahu to cool down the issue for now. Accordingly, it appears that the settlement issue will not be the focus of the Netanyahu-Trump talks and may not prove particularly controversial there. Netanyahu, with 6,000 new settlement housing starts already under his belt, can afford to slow down. He almost certainly faces a High Court ruling disallowing the “regularization” bill that was passed last week to compensate the dominant pro-settler right wing elements in his coalition for the Amona evacuation. Regularization would apply Israeli law in the West Bank as a means of expropriating private Palestinian land. President Rivlin, himself a pro-settler right-winger, reportedly said the new law would make Israel look like an apartheid regime, and Attorney General Mandelblit has warned that he cannot defend the legislation before the court because it violates international law.

As long as Netanyahu returns home without a Palestinian state or an active two-state process emerging from his talk with Trump, he does not anticipate coalition problems.

So Syria and Iran will presumably be the focus. Here Netanyahu has two concerns. One is that Trump will in effect cede or concede Syria to the Russians, leaving Israel potentially exposed to a threat from Iran’s forces there. The other is that a US military move against Iran or its interests will result in Iranian-sponsored violence against Israel. This means US-Israeli strategic coordination in the Middle East now has a major new agenda item.

 

Q. Assuming, then, that Netanyahu returns to Jerusalem with a set of understandings regarding settlements, Iran and Syria, what new developments could conceivably disrupt US-Israel relations in the near term?

A. Even a Netanyahu indictment over crony capitalism offenses in the months ahead would probably not disrupt relations insofar as the Israeli right would presumably stay in power or win an election. Alternatively, Netanyahu himself might defy custom and hold onto the premiership despite an indictment, challenging the High Court to remove him prior to trial and conviction. Accordingly, other than a misunderstanding regarding Iran or Syria--an unlikely development--the primary disruptive event on the horizon relates to the Gaza Strip.

Specifically, in many Israeli and Palestinian circles there is a strong sense that we are in a countdown to yet another round of fighting between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas and that this one could be more destructive than in the past. Several Israeli ministers with military backgrounds have predicted another flare-up this coming spring. The state comptroller’s report on the 2014 round, due to be published any day, is expected to point the finger at extensive government and IDF mistakes in waging that two-month-long conflict, thereby raising expectations and appetites for a “corrective round”.

Last week we witnessed yet another brief flare-up along the Gaza-Israel border, followed by rocket fire at Eilat from Sinai-based ISIS--clearly an escalatory step. An extreme militant, Yahya Sanwar, was reportedly just elected Hamas’s new leader following an internal power struggle that took place against a backdrop of growing economic hardship and increasing readiness on the part of the population to blame the Hamas regime. Egypt’s President Sisi sees Hamas as an extension of Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood, the enemy of his regime. Turkish access to the Strip--Turkish aid for Gaza was a condition for recent Turkish-Israeli rapprochement--has not made any appreciable difference, and Turkey currently appears more interested in Israeli gas, trade and overland access to Jordan and the Gulf than in bailing out Hamas. If indeed the Trump administration appears set to talk to the moderate Sunni Arab regimes about Syria and about pan-Arab auspices for a long-term Palestinian-Israeli process, and if it follows through on its threat to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, Hamas’s leaders might conclude they have little to lose by “stirring the pot”.

 

Q. So wouldn’t Israel just “mow the lawn” again, meaning hit Hamas hard enough to persuade it to desist without anything of substance changing?

A. Israel has “mowed the lawn” three times since 2009. Do the math: the resultant deterrent effect lasts less than three years until Hamas launches another round. The difference this time would be Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He threatens openly to abandon standing “mow the lawn” policy and instead, in response to a Hamas rocket and tunnel attack, send the IDF into Gaza, conquer territory and destroy Hamas. As long as this threat merely strengthens Israeli deterrence against a Hamas attack, fine. But if Hamas attacks anyway and Lieberman follows through, the Middle East is in for a trauma that will reverberate all the way to Washington.

Some strategic thinkers believe it will be sufficient merely to bomb and bombard Hamas far harder than in the past, without a ground campaign, until it surrenders. Lieberman, correctly, understands that a decisive victory under current circumstances would also require deep penetration by ground forces.

That means occupation. Reoccupying Gaza means heavy IDF losses and very heavy Palestinian civilian losses. Eliminating Hamas rule in Gaza means a power vacuum that only renewed Israeli rule and occupation can fill; Palestinian Authority and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas will refuse to be placed in power in Gaza City by Israeli bayonets. Israel will find itself occupying Arab land, ruling over two million destitute Palestinians, and fighting Palestinian guerillas and terrorists inside the Strip as it did prior to the 2005 unilateral withdrawal.

The financial and diplomatic cost would be far higher than the NIS 15 billion (about $4 billion) that the summer 2014 round reportedly cost. Turkey could again break relations. The international community, led by Europe, could impose harsh sanctions. Relations with Egypt would be severely strained. Hezbollah in southern Lebanon could join the fray and attack Israel, if only symbolically (it is still very busy in Syria), in solidarity with Hamas. Abbas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority would be hard put to maintain order in the face of a widespread popular Palestinian protest. Disorder could spread to Jordan’s large Palestinian population

I have often written in this Q & A series that Israel has no viable strategy for Gaza. “Mowing the lawn” is not a strategy that can resolve issues of war or peace, Hamas refuses to talk peace or to talk at all, and economic aid for Gazans is at best a stopgap that Hamas sneers at.

Lieberman, for a change, has a strategy. But not all strategies are necessarily smart. Lieberman’s, if implemented, is both not viable and potentially disastrous. Israel is supposed to have learned since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that occupying enemy territory, particularly the territory of a non-state enemy, is heavily counter-productive.

If it becomes necessary, it might be better to mow the lawn. Better the devil we know in Gaza; the alternative could be far worse.

 

Q. You mention that the Trump administration is apparently weighing the idea of declaring Hamas’s parent organization the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. Does this make sense?

A. No. Hamas itself is categorized internationally as a terrorist organization because it targets Israeli civilians. Even it is careful not to operate outside of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, although Egypt has accused it of complicity in Islamist jail-breaks in Egypt too. Hamas is the Palestinian version of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood. But the Brotherhood itself has not been involved in terrorism for many years. It may be guilty of trying during its brief year in power in Egypt (2012-2013) to Islamize Egyptian life and institutions and that may be repugnant to many Egyptians and others, but that is not terrorism.

If the Trump administration defines the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, Egypt and Israel presumably will not object. But Qatar, a friend of Hamas and the Brotherhood, will. And Turkey, where the ruling AK Party is the equivalent of the Brotherhood and where Egyptian Brethren fleeing from the Sisi regime have found shelter, certainly will. The US maintains important military bases in both of these countries. Moreover, the Brotherhood is legal, politically legitimate and part of the system in Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, three countries that are friendly to the US. It is a member of the Saudi and US-backed coalition fighting in Yemen.

This is a headache the Trump administration does not need. Not every Islamist is a terrorist; many political Islamists are happy to cooperate with secular parties in government. Many merely want to govern according to Islamist principles. Some of this may be distasteful and objectionable--witness what President Erdogan is doing to Turkey--but it is not terrorism.

 

Q. Trump reportedly also wants to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization.

A. That makes more sense insofar as the Guards and its subsidiary al-Quds Force have a long record of sponsoring terrorism against Israeli and Jewish targets, often through the vehicle of Lebanese Hezbollah, though not recently.

The 120,000-strong Guards control some 20 percent of Iran’s economy, so there is plenty of room for biting sanctions here. It is the Guards who are holding dual Iranian-American citizens in jail on false charges. There is even talk that Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani will run for president in upcoming Iranian elections. He is already subject to travel sanctions because the Quds force was designated a terrorist organization by the US in 2007.

So there is more logic here than in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood. But this could be dangerous: US forces and the Quds Force cooperate tacitly on the battlefield of Mosul and potentially elsewhere in Iraq. In the past, Suleimani’s forces have targeted and killed American troops in Iraq, and they could again.

The real question is not what additional organization to designate “terrorist” but rather, beyond bluster, what relationship Trump seeks to develop with the world of Islam, with Muslims (including American Muslims) and with the many hundreds of millions of peace-minded Islamists throughout the nearly two-billion strong Muslim world.

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