July 17, 2017 - Netanyahu: threatened on four fronts and coddled on a fifth

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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 domestic and regional threats Netanyahu is facing; why Gabai, as an untested and inexperienced politician elected to lead Labor by a constituency in rebellion against the party establishment, is a threat; whether there was strategic significance to the recent Temple Mount attack; the Syria ceasefire; and Netanyahu's need to be coddled.

 

Q. Threatened on four fronts? Domestic? Regional? Where are they?

A. Domestic and regional. The domestic threats, both essentially new, concern recently elected Labor party leader Avi Gabai and new revelations of large-scale corruption regarding orders for naval vessels from Germany. The regional threats have plunged Netanyahu into a confrontation with the Muslim world over the Temple Mount, and a confrontation with both Trump and Putin over the green or yellow light their southwest Syria ceasefire appears to give Iran in the rest of Syria.

 

Q. Why is Gabai a threat? He is an untested and inexperienced politician elected to lead Labor by a constituency in rebellion against the party establishment. Won’t he crash like all his predecessors?

A. We have to consider Gabai in the context of the latest of the many corruption scandals plaguing Prime Minister Netanyahu. Gabai’s predecessor, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, repeatedly made his party available to join Netanyahu’s coalition if and when a peace process with the Palestinians becomes a reality. Every time he tried, Herzog ended up with political egg on his face. Gabai has made it clear that he is a candidate to replace Netanyahu, not to serve under him. True, Gabai has no real political experience and is not even a member of Knesset. But we live in the age of Trump and Macron, and after 12 years in power Netanyahu (and influential wife Sarah) is paranoid.

If the Labor option is no longer available as a convenient threat for keeping his coalition in line, Netanyahu is more dependent on coalition member parties that can threaten to bring it down: the National Orthodox Bennet and the secular nationalist Lieberman on the right, along with the centrist Kachlon and two ultra-Orthodox parties. Now factor in the latest scandal in which figures extremely close to Netanyahu have been arrested and interrogated by the police on suspicion of trafficking in huge bribes in return for crooked and superfluous naval ship and submarine orders from a major German shipyard.

All of a sudden even the novice Avi Gabai looms large. Netanyahu may want to consider testing him early by advancing elections before he himself is indicted.

 

Q. Moving to the regional threats, is there strategic significance to Friday morning’s Temple Mount attack, or was this just another in a long series of attacks on Israel Police officers in Jerusalem’s Old City?

A. True, this was the latest in a series of attacks. But this one was unique. First, because it involved Arab citizens of Israel rather than West Bank or East Jerusalem Palestinians. And second and more important, because it took place on the Temple Mount itself, the third holiest site in Islam. Precisely because this attack followed earlier incidents at the gates to the Old City, and precisely because in all cases police officers were targeted and killed, both the cumulative dimension and the escalation to the Temple Mount plaza lead to a strategic conclusion: Palestinian nationalist and Islamist terrorists are determined to demonstrate to the world that Israel is not capable of maintaining order and freedom of worship for Muslims at al-Aqsa and the Mosque of Omar, the two mosques on the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif.

The attack, which clearly required a degree of planning, intelligence collection and logistics savvy, represents a spectacular failure at prevention both by Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, and by the Israel Police who are charged with guarding the perimeter of the Mount.

Israel’s response of first closing the Mount, then opening it with metal detectors appears, at least at this initial stage, to have confirmed that it has lost control. The Mount had to be closed for two days--an unprecedented step--because the three attackers, Islamists from the Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm who were killed by police on the Mount plaza, apparently took possession of their “Karlo” locally-made machine pistols in the mosques themselves. A police search of the mosques and Waqf (Muslim endowment) offices, also an unprecedented step, turned up additional “cold” but lethal weapons: knives, clubs and ammunition.

The metal detectors, placed on Sunday at all eight entrances to the Temple Mount plaza, signal Muslim worshipers that, in its effort to restore control, Israel has now effectively invaded the plaza itself, which is ostensibly the exclusive domain of the Waqf. As of Monday the Muslim response is to refuse to enter the plaza as long as the metal detectors remain. (Note that earlier attempts by Israel to install closed circuit TV cameras on the mount were rejected by Waqf officials.) Jordan, which under its peace treaty with Israel plays a key role regarding the Mount, has added its protest.

So has Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the now illegal northern branch of the Israel Islamist Movement and still a major inciter against Israeli encroachment on the Mount. Salah, a former mayor of Umm al-Fahm, was released from prison in January after serving a sentence for incitement. His repeated accusations that “the Temple Mount is endangered” by Israel helped incite Friday’s attack yet appear in Muslim eyes to have been confirmed by the Israeli response.

Netanyahu now faces a dilemma: what to do to calm the situation, prevent major escalation among Muslims close at hand as well as damage to relations with the Muslim world, and restore the always fragile status quo on the Mount. Friday’s attack, in which two Israeli Druze policemen were killed, was condemned by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and, to differing degrees, by Arab members of Knesset. That is good news. So are the relatively restrained reactions from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco, which reflect the fact that Israel has direct lines of communication with them. Jordan, with its large Palestinian and Islamist sectors and its special status on the Mount, has no alternative but to protest loudly.

The metal detectors will almost certainly have to be removed. In any event, they cannot possibly be used to maintain security at Friday prayers, when hundreds of thousands come to worship on the Mount, without starting a huge riot. The fact that this attack was executed by Muslims from a town over which Israel can potentially exercise total control points to one area where security failures can be corrected. But it also points to the danger that, fifty years after Israel “conquered” the Temple Mount, the religious dimension of the conflict--the Muslim-Jewish dimension--is growing. Israel has no obvious response as long as it controls East Jerusalem and the West Bank and as long as its own religious extremists expand their political power and influence.

 

Q. And the second regional threat, the Syria ceasefire?

A. PM Netanyahu took the occasion of a visit to Paris on Sunday to declare that “Israel opposes the ceasefire in Syria” because it perpetuates the Iranian military presence in that country. True, emerging ceasefire arrangements in southwest Syria approved early in July in Hamburg by presidents Trump and Putin will presumably keep Iranian and Iranian-proxy forces some 20 km. (12.5 miles) away from Israel’s Golan border. But Netanyahu has long insisted that any final settlement in Syria remove the Iranians entirely. Now he has apparently concluded that the ceasefire, by default, is liable to leave the Iranians everywhere in Syria but (for the moment) the Israel border area.

This places Israel in a strategic quandary on two fronts. One is Iran’s growing military presence in Syria, including its many Shiite proxy forces from Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent days Israelis have become aware that Iran is establishing permanent land and possibly naval bases in Syria, to be nourished by a land bridge stretching from Tehran via Baghdad and Damascus to the Mediterranean and to southern Lebanon.

The second quandary concerns Israel’s relations with Russia and particularly the United States. By agreeing to a ceasefire in southwest Syria without demanding that Iran’s forces leave Syria, Trump and Putin confronted Netanyahu with a fait accompli. The Israeli prime minister can hardly reject an arrangement that distances the Iranians and their proxies from the Golan. But he now has to recognize that even Trump, not to mention Putin, is not necessarily prepared to factor in Israel’s concerns with Iran when discussing superpower arrangements for post-war Syria.

From Israel’s standpoint, this is liable to set the scene for a future war pitting Israel against a Syria- and Lebanon-based coalition of Iranians, Hezbollah, additional Shiite militias, and Syrians. Make no mistake: Iran is the only state in the Middle East that calls for Israel’s destruction. If and when it can, it will target Israel.

 

Q. Obviously, in view of all these weighty concerns, Netanyahu is in need of a little coddling.

A. That’s why he went abroad on Sunday. First stop was Paris, where he heard newly-elected President Macron declare that anti-Zionism is a “reinvention” of anti-Semitism. This slogan was music to Netanyahu’s ears. It plays right into his government’s anti-BDS campaign that targets genuine bigots but also not a few constructive and very Zionist political critics of Israel’s increasingly apartheid policies in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, some of whom are no longer allowed into the country. They can now all be labeled not only anti-Zionists but anti-Semites as well. So can all of Israel’s relatively moderate friends and allies in the Arab world; I have met many friendly Arabs, but very few Zionist Arabs.

Then on Monday, Netanyahu flew to Budapest for a meeting with the heads of the V4 or Visegrad countries, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. All four are increasingly under right-wing ultra-nationalist political influence and leadership. Some of their leaders, like Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, nurture anti-Semitic leanings that Netanyahu is happy to ignore, especially when they focus on liberal US Jews like George Soros (see last week’s Q & A).

The objective of Netanyahu’s presence in Budapest is to rally European Union members to Israel’s side and distance them from European criticism of his policies regarding the Palestinians and human rights issues in Israel. Central Europe’s increasingly nationalist and anti-refugee right wing leaders tend to support Netanyahu’s policies. He will sell them Israeli high-tech products and feel at home in Budapest.

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