June 12, 2017 - Israel-Palestine-Qatar-Gaza

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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 the revelations in recent days regarding peace proposals and negotiating initiatives in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere since 2014; whether these reported moves offer any new hope; the bottom line; whether things could get worse in the near future if progress is not likely; how possible deterioration links up with the Saudi-led economic siege of Qatar; and the violent ISIS attack on Iran last week and Trump's “condolence” message.

 

Q. Recent days have witnessed revelations regarding peace proposals and negotiating initiatives in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere since 2014. Why now?

A. There are several sets of revelations. They concern US positions during the 2013-2014 talks led by then-Secretary of State Kerry, high level meetings held two years later, and demands tendered then and now by PM Netanyahu regarding the West Bank settlements. The revelations have appeared in recent days in Haaretz daily, apparently timed to coincide with the newspaper’s annual “peace conference” currently being held in Tel Aviv. A second explanation could be growing anticipation that the Trump administration will soon present its own proposals for restarting negotiations.

 

Q. And do these reported moves offer any new hope?

A. No. Quite the contrary, they offer insight into the tactics Netanyahu invokes to avoid serious negotiations, along with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s limited room for maneuver and problematic negotiating skills in discussing compromises. They offer a promo of the difficulties a Trump initiative will inevitably encounter.

Thus, one set of revelations concerns a working document composed in early 2014 by the Kerry negotiating team. This Working Draft Framework for Negotiations offers formulations regarding borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, security, etc. It is based not only on Kerry’s meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas but also on a secret London back channel that brought together Netanyahu’s personal representative Yitzhak Molcho and Hussein Agha, representing Abbas.

Netanyahu’s responses to Kerry were always careful: he never said no and always accepted new ideas with reservations. Abbas did say no, sometimes angrily as when confronted with a formulation that avoided granting a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Ultimately, when presented with a final version by then-President Obama, Abbas walked away without ever responding. Only then did Netanyahu publicly reject positions he had tentatively and conditionally agreed to. Reading these accounts, one gets the impression that Netanyahu maneuvered more skillfully than Abbas.

Another issue broached by the revelations concerns Netanyahu’s position regarding settlements that find themselves inside the agreed boundaries of a Palestinian state. In the Kerry talks, Netanyahu insisted that settlers wishing to remain in place be allowed to do so, subject to Palestinian jurisdiction. Last week in the Knesset and in his talks with the Trump team, Netanyahu has insisted the settlers remain in Israeli enclaves, meaning subject to Israeli law and Israeli security while located deep inside sovereign Palestinian territory.

Undoubtedly, Netanyahu faces a huge political problem if he has to evacuate tens of thousands of settlers who are his and his coalition’s constituents. But of course he is deliberately compounding that problem on a daily basis by augmenting the very settlements in question. Worse, any agreement that leaves settlers in place, even under Palestinian law, is a time bomb guaranteed to torpedo the agreement. The settlers who choose to remain will be the most extreme in their messianic attachment to the land and their willingness to invoke force toward that end. That is why the Palestinian negotiating position rejects enclaves completely and acquiesces unwillingly in the idea of settlers remaining under Palestinian law: this is a recipe for endless friction and violence that will doom any agreement.

Of course, this insistence regarding settlements could be an attempt on Netanyahu’s part to extract alternative concessions, American and Palestinian, in return for agreeing to remove the settlers. He would claim that he must be compensated for weathering the inevitable collapse of his coalition and withstanding the violent protest inside Israel that this would engender. But as the next set of revelations shows, it’s more in Netanyahu’s character to manipulate the negotiations in order to ensure they fail rather than succeed.

We are now informed that Kerry’s final peace initiative in April 2016, an attempt to work in Arab guarantees and gestures that would render it easier for Netanyahu to make concessions, involved a secret meeting in Cairo between Netanyahu, Egypt’s President Sisi, and Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog. The idea was for Netanyahu to bring Herzog and his Labor/Zionist Union party into the coalition with Sisi’s public blessing, after which the promised peace-plus-Arab-concessions process would take place.

Until now, Herzog’s participation in the Cairo meeting was not known to the public. But the denouement to this meeting is known. Rather than bring Herzog into his coalition, Netanyahu did an about face and brought in ultra-hawk Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister, thereby expanding his coalition towards the political right rather than the left. Despite lip service to the contrary by Netanyahu and Lieberman, that effectively ended Kerry’s final initiative.

It also embarrassed both Sisi and Kerry. But that is merely collateral damage for Netanyahu.

 

Q. Bottom line?

A. Everything we know about Netanyahu’s negotiating tactics points to his inability, or unwillingness, or both, to make the necessary concessions. Note the informal London back channel, which was always deniable and whose tentative agreements could always be walked back. Netanyahu is a sophisticated negotiator whose ultimate goal is to hold on to both an extreme coalition and the territories. Trump and Greenblatt, be warned.

 

Q. Well, if progress is not likely, could things get worse in the near future?

A. Yes, because of the situation in the Gaza Strip. Here it behooves us to recall that, in the immediate event of renewed Trump-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Abbas cannot really deal on behalf of the Gaza Strip because Hamas rules it and Hamas does not follow the PLO/Fateh line. Currently, Hamas more or less maintains a ceasefire with Israel and has issued a new manifesto that somewhat moderates its political position. On the other hand, Hamas in Gaza has come under more militant leadership.

In an apparent effort to force Hamas to toe his political line, Abbas has in recent months tightened the financial screws under which monthly operating funds are transferred from Ramallah to Gaza City. The result is a radical electricity shortage in the Strip that, in a cascade effect, has led to a breakdown in sewage disposal and clean water supply.

Israel is caught in the middle. It could supply electricity to Gaza at its own expense, but this would place it at odds with Abbas, its prospective negotiating partner and the Palestinian actor endorsed by the moderate Arab camp and the Trump administration. Meanwhile Israel has begun excavation work on its side of the Strip’s boundary to install its long-awaited subterranean anti-tunneling barrier. Hamas is watching angrily from its side of the boundary.

This gives Hamas two possible reasons for escalating and attacking Israel with rockets again. First, it wants to scuttle or delay work on the tunnel barrier, which if successful will rob it of an effective tactical weapon. Second, if it can’t supply basic services to two million suffering Gazans, then perhaps a war with Israel could distract attention and enable it to remain in power.

 

Q. How does this possible deterioration link up with the Saudi-led economic siege of Qatar that is rocking the Arab world?

A. The Saudi diplomatic and economic offensive against Qatar has been joined by another eight Sunni states including Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s peace partners. It reflects Riyadh’s reading of its love fest with President Trump a few weeks ago: a yellow or even green light to bring independent-minded Doha into line with Riyadh’s anti-Iran leadership.

Qatar now finds itself in a quandary. It can knuckle under and weaken ties with an Islamist axis comprising Iran, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey. Or it can refuse to bow, meaning strengthen ties with Tehran, Ankara and Gaza as a means of sustaining its economy and protecting al-Jazeera, its influential maverick satellite channel.

So far Doha, though under economic and transportation siege, is not capitulating. Turkey is sending troops to its small naval base in Qatar and Iran is sending food supplies. For its part, Hamas appears to be enhancing its links with Iran. The Saudi-led siege of Qatar is dividing the region and even the Sunni world into two ideological camps. If this direction of events continues, it might increase the likelihood of a Hamas attack on Israel this summer. It certainly muddies the picture of who is who in the Middle East. Witness the comment by Turkey’s President Erdogan to foreign ambassadors in Ankara last week: “There is a game being staged behind the Qatar crisis, but we have failed to decipher it thus far.”

If Erdogan doesn’t understand, who does? To further complicate matters, note that Qatar provides vital economic aid to Gaza and that Israel, which retains ties with Doha, indirectly facilitates the aid in order to keep the Gaza economy afloat.

 

Q. Iran was the target of a violent ISIS attack last week. Trump’s “condolence” message reminded Iran that it too is a supporter of terrorism. Justified response or bad form?

A. Just last week the US arrested two Hezbollah activists for planning terrorist attacks on American soil. Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran. So it is correct to accuse Iran of continuing to support terrorism globally. However, what Trump said ("We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote") is indeed bad form. Iranian civilians lost their lives last week in an attack on their national institutions. Either say nothing about the two Tehran attacks, which obviously complicate the entire Middle East anti-ISIS picture, or offer simple condolences as the State Department did. Find another opportunity to remind Tehran and the world that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism.

Indeed, the CIA’s appointment of an advocate of regime change in Tehran, Michael D’Andrea, as its new Iran operations chief constitutes sufficient reminder. Incidentally, D’Andrea has a hopeless task; the Tehran regime is solid and must eventually be talked to, not replaced.

If this appointment and the divisive aftermath of Trump’s Riyadh trip are any indication, Trump’s Middle East policies thus far may be doing more damage than good. Nor, as matters stand, is Trump likely to redeem himself with an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Both Netanyahu and Abbas are poised to thwart it.

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