Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: March 3, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses the possible dynamics of PM Netanyahu arriving to talk with President Obama in the midst of the Ukraine/Crimea crisis; the influence of the Ukraine crisis on the Middle East; what we can expect in the weeks ahead regarding the American-sponsored framework agreement and Monday's Obama-Netanyahu meeting; and Netanyahu's thinking for the "day after" failure scenario.

Q. On Monday, in the midst of the Ukraine/Crimea crisis, PM Netanyahu arrived to talk with President Obama. How, if at all, do these dynamics interact?

  A. First and most obviously, they place two heavy foreign policy issues on the agenda of the president and of Secretary of State Kerry at the same time. Second, the Moscow-linked aspects of the Ukraine crisis directly influence all three Middle East issues and crises that are on Washington's agenda: Iran, Syria, and of course Israel-Palestine, the issue that is expected to dominate Obama's talk with Netanyahu.

  Q. Can you elaborate on the second point, the influence of the Ukraine crisis on the Middle East?

  A. Two dimensions currently seem relevant. One is the widespread perception throughout the Middle East that Russian President Vladimir Putin is acting in Crimea, and may still act in Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine, in a manner relatively unrestrained by American (and European) threats and sanctions. This appears to many to confirm the sense that in Syria the Russian-allied "camp" (Assad, Iran, Hezbollah) is prevailing over US-supported opposition forces at least in part because of Russian assertiveness and US hesitation.

  All this comes on the heels of Obama's defunct "red line" threat of the use of force regarding chemical warfare in Syria. Obama is being portrayed, first in the Middle East and now in Ukraine, as "risk averse". Putin seemingly can allow himself to ignore the American president's current threat that there will be "costs" for Russia's behavior in Ukraine. Regardless of the (quite convincing) logic of Obama's behavior in these crises as understood in Washington, and even recognizing that Putin's current actions may prove disastrous for Russia and for him in the long term, in the Middle East the US position on Ukraine is liable to trouble America's friends and encourage its detractors, like Iran and Syria.

  None of this is lost on the Iranians negotiating nuclear issues with Washington or, for that matter, on Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (with whom Obama will meet later this month). Obama very forcefully addressed the consequences for Israel of a failed peace process, including loss of the US capacity to support it forcefully in the United Nations, in remarks to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg published on Sunday. The question is whether, under current circumstances, Netanyahu feels as free to ignore American presidential admonitions as Putin apparently does.

  Q. And the second dimension . . .

  A. One cardinal reason for Russia to seek to retain control over Crimea is the Islamic dimension. Not only is Sevastopol the jumping off point for Russian naval access to the Mediterranean, meaning primarily to Arab countries like Syria. Even closer to home, it provides proximity to the Caucasus with its problematic Islamist movements and, for that matter, to Muslim Turkey. Indeed, 12 percent of Crimea's own population is made up of a veteran Tatar Muslim demographic that, in other areas of Russia like the Volga/Kazan region, has in recent years been subject to Salafist influences that have spawned acts of terrorism.

  Last week's Q & A mentioned this Russian concern. I asked Vitaly Naumkin, arguably Russia's best known academic expert on the Middle East, for details. He informs me that ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has been worried about the influence of Arab Muslim missionaries among its Muslim population--particularly those from Saudi Arabia. Dozens of moderate imams and Muslim scholars and journalists have been assassinated in the northern Caucasus and even in the Volga region, where mass acts of terrorism were recently perpetrated. There is also concern regarding a growing number of Russians converting to Islam, some of whom are joining primarily Chechen Salafist volunteers in Syria. Eventually these volunteers will return home and, it is feared, become a dissident and even terrorist element.

Russia is taking measures to restrict extremist Islamist propaganda and to monitor Russian-national volunteers in Syria. The Russian takeover of Crimea must be understood against this more "local" backdrop as well as in the broader Ukrainian and international contexts.

  Q. Returning to Monday's Obama-Netanyahu meeting and the approaching Obama-Abbas meeting regarding the American-sponsored framework agreement, and discounting the influence of international crises like Ukraine, what can we expect in the weeks ahead?

  A. There is widespread pessimism in both Jerusalem and Ramallah regarding the prospects for agreement. It is based on a broad spectrum of indicators.

  One is the sort of American admonition regarding the costs ("fallout") for Israel of not reaching a two-state solution that we heard from Obama on Sunday and have heard lately from Secretary of State Kerry. These warnings presumably reflect Washington's perception of Israeli final-status positions that seemingly preclude an end of conflict agreement--regarding Jerusalem, the 1967 lines, security issues and the like--and Washington's desire to soften them.

  Netanyahu, for his part, astutely plays down these issues and focuses instead on areas where Abbas and his spokespersons advertise their rejection of American demands that are reportedly included in the draft framework agreement: regarding recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, for example, and Israeli security requirements in the Jordan Valley. This explains statements like "It takes at least three to tango in the Middle East. We already have two--Israel and the US" (Netanyahu on Sunday).

  And indeed, the Palestinian side is, at least at the declarative level, the one voicing the most objections. This corresponds with Abbas' well-advertised agenda of turning to the international community after the current nine-month negotiating period is up in April. And it is here that Abbas confronts a seeming American-Israeli consensus demand to extend the negotiating period beyond nine months. Abbas can only be troubled not only by Kerry's evident acceptance of the Israeli "deal-breaker" negotiating position regarding a Jewish state, but also by Kerry's growing public desire to extend negotiations despite the absence of concrete achievements.

  Note that the secretary of state began this peace process last July by predicting an end-of-conflict-end-of-claims two-state agreement within nine months. As he encountered lack of progress and absorbed the huge substantive gaps separating the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating positions, Kerry modified his perspective to predicting an agreed framework agreement after nine months, followed by the current prediction--a non-agreed but simply acknowledged framework. In Palestinian eyes, the US and Israel are increasingly seeking to negotiate for the sake of negotiations, playing for time with no agreement in sight.

  Netanyahu has no real problem with the idea of extending the negotiating deadline; this facilitates his relations with the US, the European Union and the Arab world. Hence his meeting with Obama is not likely to generate a crisis. Abbas, on the other hand, does have a problem with the extension, and it is his prospective meeting with Obama that is likely to be more divisive. The apparent failure of the Kerry-Abbas meeting in Paris last week, followed by sharp Palestinian criticism of the American position, may be an indicator of crises to come.

  Q. If Abbas' strategy for the "day after" failure is to return to the UN, is there any indication of Netanyahu's thinking?

  A. Last week witnessed the unveiling of a fascinating proposal in Israel that might conceivably reflect Netanyahu's thinking regarding a strategy for the "day after" failure of the peace process. At present, it can only be termed at best a tentative trial balloon, directed perhaps as a warning to Abbas, perhaps as an indication to Obama where American failure will lead, and perhaps as a signal to the Israeli public and political scene. The identity of the man who presented it to the public says a great deal.

  We are referring to Michael Oren's "plan B" for unilateral Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank in the event the current talks fail and the PLO reverts to its own UN-based "plan B". Presented in Maariv, The Times of Israel and on Channel 10, Oren's plan specifies neither the depth of Israeli withdrawal nor the fate of Jewish settlers left behind. Rather, it projects a pro-active Israeli attitude toward anticipated post-process Palestinian attempts to invoke "international sanctions, targeting our economy, completely delegitimizing us in the world." (Interestingly, and not entirely coherently, in a separate reference Oren attributes to the PLO a Palestinian fallback plan of a "bi-national state".)

  Of course, Oren is not the first prominent Israeli to advocate unilateral withdrawal. But plans of this nature that have been unveiled until now came from the political center, not the right where Oren's views are generally assumed to lie. After all, until last September Oren was Israel's ambassador in the US--a personal appointee of Netanyahu--and it's hard to imagine Netanyahu was not in the picture of Oren's new initiative.

  Is this an independent, personal initiative, or is Oren a stalking horse for Netanyahu? Certainly, if Netanyahu takes seriously the recent warnings (including Oren's, but also Obama's, Kerry's and the EU's) that Israel will become politically and economically isolated if and when the current peace process fails, then unilateral withdrawal on the West Bank might appeal to him as a way of addressing international demands in the absence of a peace agreement--recall the backdrop to Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal in 2005.

  And there is every indication that Netanyahu does indeed take the warnings seriously. Otherwise he would not be going to Silicon Valley to drum up business for Israel after his meeting with Obama and his speech to the AIPAC annual meeting.

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