Hard Questions, Tough Answers (9.25.17) - Kurdish independence, Palestinian unity, Israel-Arab warming: real or fake news?

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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 odds that the two geographical parts of the Palestinian Authority will be reunited; where Israel stands on the reunification issue; a new era of Israeli-Arab relations; the upcoming vote among the Kurds of northern Iraq for forming a separate Kurdish state; and where Israel stands on Kurdish independence.

 

Q. The Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip have taken steps toward reinstalling West Bank-based PLO rule in the Strip. What are the odds that this will really reunite the two geographical parts of the Palestinian Authority?

A. The odds are low. True, Hamas has announced that it will dismantle its own quasi-government in Gaza and is prepared to negotiate with Fateh regarding the latter’s return to the Strip for the first time since it was violently expelled in 2007. But the two key actors to watch in terms of their influence on West Bank-Gaza reunification are neither Hamas’s political wing nor Fateh.

Rather, they are Egypt and Hamas’s military wing. The latter is not likely to acquiesce in any attempt by the Fateh-dominated Palestinian Authority, if and when it indeed reestablishes its rule in Gaza and Hamas’s political wing relinquishes its control, to reintroduce PA quasi-military forces into Gaza. More likely, someone in Hamas will start firing rockets at Israel in order to show the PA who the real boss is in Gaza.

Nor is Egypt likely to intervene militarily in Gaza to prevent this eventuality. And if Egypt is betting that its candidate for Palestinian leadership, Mohammed Dahlan, can somehow grasp power amidst all these rivalries, it is likely to be disappointed.

Still, this new unity dynamic has come farther than its predecessors: abortive unity agreements signed in 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2012. What has changed is the readiness of a desperate West Bank leader, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), to squeeze Gaza and Gazans economically (with Israel’s connivance). Then too there is the apparent recognition by Hamas’s political leadership that the vicissitudes of Arab revolution and Arab weakness have left Gaza both penniless and almost friendless. And Egypt’s General Intelligence service is increasingly ready to use carrots and mainly sticks to bring Hamas into line and enforce a unity process.

Will we actually now witness the return of PA rule in Gaza, the return of PA security forces to the Rafah crossing between the Strip and Egyptian Sinai, and preparations for new Palestinian elections? It’s doubtful.

Abbas is not interested in elections when all polls show he is unpopular in both the West Bank and Gaza and when he fears rivals like Dahlan. Hamas’s military wing is not likely to step aside when even its political leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, is talking about a “Lebanese solution” in which Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, remains the main military force and pays mere lip service to a weak sovereign PA government. Nor is Hamas likely to cease collaborating with ISIS in Sinai, which is fighting the Egyptian armed forces there.

If the very process of discussing these issues produces an improved humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip--more funding from Ramallah, more electricity, more investment--it will have been worth the effort. Yet this raises the prospect of an intriguing dilemma. Suppose, against all the odds, this time Hamas really does give way and Abbas succeeds. Does the Palestinian president really want the enormous humanitarian/economic headache and political/security liability of ruling over the Gaza Strip, dealing with a recalcitrant Hamas military wing and rebuffing the challenge posed by Dahlan with his Egyptian backing?

 

Q. And where does Israel stand on this reunification issue?

A. Israel can hardly object to the prospect of Hamas stepping aside and Fateh/PLO, its Oslo negotiating partner, returning to Gaza. As noted, Israel has also collaborated with Abbas’s recent efforts to squeeze Hamas financially. True, a best-case Palestinian scenario of a reunited Palestinian Authority under peaceful Fateh rule could generate far stronger Arab and international pressures on the Netanyahu government to renew two-state negotiations in good faith. But for the time being that is simply not likely.

 

Q. The king of Bahrain condemns the Arab boycott of Israel and permits his subjects to visit Israel. A Saudi prince is rumored to have visited Israel secretly. Qatar is lobbying the American Jewish community. Is this a new era in Arab-Israel relations, Palestinians be damned?

A. Assuming it is genuine and lasting, the Bahraini position is certainly worthy of note. Nor is it surprising insofar as Bahrain has for years been relatively friendly toward Israel and presumably now seeks Israel’s active support against Iranian subversion. If the Saudis--secret visit or not--are looking for ways to signal a gradual thaw in their attitude toward Israel, working through Bahrain makes sense. Now would their Gulf rivals, the Qataris, want to be left too far behind, hence their PR appeal to US Jewry to back Qatar’s position against Saudi Arabia. But these gestures are relatively minor. They certainly don’t correspond with PM Netanyahu’s recent bragging about major breakthroughs in the Israel-Arab relationship. Thus far nothing has happened to dispel the assessment that without a major new step forward in Israeli-Palestinian relations, Israel’s ties with the Sunni Arab world will remain primarily clandestine and unofficial.

Understandably, Netanyahu will keep trying to normalize relations with the Arab world. And the Trump administration will provide some support and encouragement, particularly in view of its repeated displays of ineptitude in trying to facilitate renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Nor can we be anything but delighted with every breakthrough, however minor, in Israel-Arab ties. But the most dismaying aspect of all this is that, even in the event of a major breakthrough, Netanyahu will continue to preside over Israel’s and the Palestinians’ slide down a slippery slope toward an ugly, conflicted non-Zionist non-democratic one-state entity. And that entity may feel increasingly comfortable in the company of ugly, conflicted Arab states.

 

Q. On Monday Sept. 25, the Kurds of northern Iraq will almost certainly vote in favor of forming a separate Kurdish state. Nearly every other country in the world is advising against such a step. Where could this lead?

A. The vote has been defined by the Iraqi Kurdish leadership as a non-binding recommendation. Accordingly, one likely outcome is that after the celebrations in Erbil and Suleimaniya nothing will happen. Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, having made his point to the world and particularly the region, will bow to the threats of neighboring Turkey and Iran with their large Kurdish minorities and of Iraq itself, and will leverage the referendum as a vehicle for negotiating enhanced Kurdish autonomy within Iraq.

A less likely outcome is that Barzani will declare independence and put his Peshmerga fighting force on combat readiness to rebuff any attempt by Iran and/or Turkey to invade (Iraq does not have the military capability). Such an invasion is unlikely. But by the same token, an independent Kurdistan that is landlocked among hostile neighbors will be hard put to achieve more than it can today. Indeed, it will be worse off if Iran and Turkey cease trading with it and, in particular, if Turkey ceases piping Kurdish oil (some of it destined for Israel) to the Mediterranean. Already Iran and Turkey have closed their borders with Iraqi Kurdistan and frozen air traffic.

Nor will the emergence since 2011 of a Kurdish autonomous region in neighboring northern Syria help the Iraqi Kurds. For historical, ethnic, political and linguistic reasons, the two Kurdish fragments in Iraq and Syria don’t get along. And Turkey, which borders both, is particularly adamant about fragmenting and suppressing the Syrian Kurdish entity due to the Syrian Kurds’ close affiliation with Turkey’s own large and rebellious Kurdish population. One particularly divisive aspect of the Iraqi Kurdish drive for independence is a tendency by Barzani to claim territories to the south of the Iraqi Kurdish heartland. These may or may not be part of historical Kurdistan, but they contain large non-Kurdish populations of Sunni Arabs, Yazidis, Turkmen and additional minorities, some of whom do not wish to be part of an independent Kurdistan.

The Kurdish nation, some 34 million strong and dispersed primarily among four countries, certainly deserves independence. Iraq’s six million Kurds alone have demonstrated a capacity to exercise all the requirements of sovereignty: control over their territory, self-government, economic development, even some rudiments of democracy (along with sizeable domestic divisions and disputes). They are very tolerant, pluralistic and supportive of women’s rights. They have led the fight against ISIS and served as valuable US allies.

The fragmentation of Iraq since the 2003 US invasion and of the Arab Middle East since 2011 has afforded the region’s Kurds an unusual opportunity to reach for greater independence. Hopefully this referendum will advance their cause, and in a non-belligerent manner.

 

Q. So you’re in favor of Kurdish independence. Where does Israel stand?

A. My own personal professional history in the IDF and the Mossad includes supporting and assisting the Kurds back in the 1960s and early 1970s, when they were absolutely destitute. Israel was their only ally in their fight against genocidal Iraqi regimes. The Kurds helped persecuted Iraqi Jews reach Israel. Israel printed Kurdish textbooks for their schools and trained, advised and armed the Peshmerga.

When in 1975 the Shah of Iran made peace with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and cut off Israeli access to Iraqi Kurdistan, PM Yitzhak Rabin explained to a Knesset committee that Israel’s operation in Kurdistan had ended. He was asked why Israel had helped the Kurds in the first place and responded, “because we’re Jews”. Now PM Netanyahu is the only foreign leader openly supporting the Kurdish independence referendum. The Kurds, who have always been grateful for Israel’s support, are not necessarily comfortable with this official Israeli declaration insofar as it renders it more difficult for them to persuade Arab, Iranian and Turkish neighbors to acquiesce in their independence--though Israeli flags have also been spotted in Kurdistan.

Incidentally, Russia does not openly support Kurdish independence but it does not oppose the referendum and it recently invested billions of dollars in Kurdish energy interests. Judging by Russia’s performance in Syria and its alliance with Iran, it presumably calculates that its interests will benefit from whatever dissonance and conflict this referendum generates in the region.

Netanyahu did not go into detail regarding his reasons for supporting Kurdish independence. Nor did he engage the contention that support for Kurdish independence could encourage support for Palestinian independence. Here it is fascinating to note how others explain Israel’s support. Most Arab commentators argue that Israel consistently wants to fragment and weaken the Arab world. Some cite an Israeli inclination to use violence against Arabs and conquer their territory. Jordanian commentator Oraib Rantawi states that “Barzani wants to draw the province’s borders in blood. He borrows the phrase ‘our borders lie where our tanks stop’ from the Israelis.”

Veteran American diplomats with extensive Middle East experience like Peter Galbraith and Daniel Serwer are more rational and historically accurate. They argue that Israel wants to continue to buy Kurdish oil and seeks through Kurdish empowerment to weaken Iraq, Iran and Turkey. It serves Israel’s interests that Kurdistan borders on Iran, Israel’s enemy. Besides, Israel and the Kurds are veteran allies and the Kurds always treated Jews well.

What is fascinating is what all these experienced observers miss. Israel, the only non-Arab nation state in the predominantly Arab Middle East, instinctively desires to see the emergence of an additional non-Arab nation state. Just as many Iraqi Kurds see Israel as their model, so Israel would welcome an independent Kurdistan because this validates Israel’s own national narrative. And it signals the Arabs, Iranians and Turks that they cannot forever suppress the valid national minorities in their midst.

The Trump administration opposes the referendum. Yet from the standpoint of the values it purports to support, it has every reason to echo the Israeli position.

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