This week, Alpher discusses whether Egypt's reported proposal to help solve the Palestinian issue by allowing the Gaza Strip to expand into Egyptian territory in northeast Sinai in realistic; is it a breakthrough that for the very first time a senior Hamas official stated that there is no religious prohibition on negotiating directly with Israel; is it a watershed event that Friday 43 reservists from the IDF's elite listening unit 8200 published a declaration refusing to serve, in protest at the abuse of intelligence data to perpetuate the occupation; why the Sunni Arab world is seemingly so reluctant to sign up for President Obama's military campaign against ISIL.
Q. Reports in Israel last week indicated that Egypt would help solve the Palestinian issue by allowing the Gaza Strip to expand into Egyptian territory in northeast Sinai? Is this realistic?
A. No, and it is not likely to be realistic in the foreseeable future. The fact that publicity for this alleged gesture was confined largely to right-wing circles in Israel says it all.
For years, a variety of Israelis have proposed to Egypt to allow the Gaza Strip to expand into northeast Sinai, where the sparse population is in any case partly Palestinian. The idea is to alleviate demographic crowding in Gaza and introduce a third party into the land swaps that would facilitate border adjustments between Israel and the West Bank. Some of the proposals stipulate that Israel would compensate Egypt with land from the southern Negev.
A number of Arab states have over the years exchanged territory in order to alleviate geostrategic problems. Jordan, for example, has exchanged land with Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and even Israel (as part of the 1994 peace agreement). But Egypt has consistently refused to deal with Israel in this way, even when the two signed a peace agreement and Taba (near Eilat) presented an obstacle. Egypt has always argued that its borders are "sacred" and that the Palestinian issue has to be solved within the confines of Mandatory Palestine and not at the expense of neighboring states. It has also, like all Arab states, severely limited its "normalization" with Israel, whether in the form of land swaps or tourism, citing the need for Israel first to resolve the Palestinian issue.
Thus, many Israelis were surprised last week by the anonymous report, carried by Israel Army Radio, that Egypt under President a-Sissi was offering the Palestinians territory in Sinai, adjacent to the Gaza Strip and five times its size, with the resultant Palestinian state centered in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority remaining autonomous in the 40 percent of the West Bank it currently occupies. Pro-settler Israelis rejoiced and commended a-Sissi's wisdom in recognizing that Israel's neighbors had an obligation to lend a hand in solving the Palestinian issue--thereby enabling Israel to hold onto 60 percent of the West Bank and all the settlements. They even ignored a-Sissi's own vehement and angry denials that he intended anything of the sort.
So what was the source of the deception? Apparently, elements in the dominant Fateh faction of the PLO began late last month to spread the rumor. They were angry with Hamas due to both its new post-war popularity among the Palestinian rank-and-file and its apparent attempt to foment a new intifada that would remove Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) from power. The idea was to further complicate Hamas's relations with Egypt. Fateh itself proceeded to condemn the apocryphal proposal.
The outcome was a brief riff in Israel's relations with Egypt. Meanwhile, the pro-settler faction that dominates PM Netanyahu's coalition had a brief celebration before coming down to earth: Egypt will not solve the problem they have created and perpetuated.
Q. Last week, for the very first time a senior Hamas official stated that there is no religious prohibition on negotiating directly with Israel. A breakthrough?
A. Mousa Abu Marzouq, deputy head of the Hamas political bureau, added that "negotiating with Israel is the popular demand throughout the Gaza Strip." It certainly is enticing to think this could be the first step toward constructive Israel-Hamas dialogue. But I doubt it. Abu Marzouq was immediately shouted down by the rest of the Hamas leadership, including political bureau head Khaled Meshaal, who stated that, "Direct negotiations with the Israeli occupier are not on the agenda of Hamas; if negotiations are necessary they must be indirect."
By the by, under current circumstances direct Israel-Hamas political negotiations would be anathema both to the West Bank-based PLO, which claims to represent the Gaza Strip and is Israel's designated partner in a two-state solution, and to Egypt, which detests Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Q. Still focusing on unusual pronouncements, last Friday 43 reservists from the IDF's elite listening unit 8200 published a declaration refusing to serve, in protest at the abuse of intelligence data to perpetuate the occupation. A watershed event?
A. Yet again the answer is no, this time because refusal to carry out military service is a highly sensitive issue in Israel that provokes condemnation from across the political spectrum.
This is not the first time a public refusal to serve has been broadcast by soldiers identified with the left. It has happened throughout the years of occupation. But we recall that general condemnation of those moves was very useful when in 2005 the issue became refusal by right-wing soldiers to remove settlers from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. So consensus on this issue is important for maintaining the overall fabric of Israeli society. As Yediot Aharonot columnist Nachum Barnea put it, "In the Israeli reality, refusal to serve is a boomerang."
The latest instance of refusal to serve is significant because it originates with officers and NCOs who do reserve duty in an elite unit. Their complaints are articulate. First, communications intercepts are being used to coerce the recruitment of Palestinian intelligence sources by exploiting compromising information regarding homosexuality and desperation regarding the need for medical treatment in Israel. And second, the intercepts facilitate targeted assassinations that frequently kill or injure innocent Palestinian civilians alongside terrorists.
Frankly, as an intelligence veteran I can testify that the recruitment and targeting techniques described by the reservists are relatively standard fare between enemies. The question broached here is, in the case of the Palestinians, for how long? Coming after 47 years of occupation, following a war fought by Israel without a viable strategy, and at a time when no peace process whatsoever is on the horizon, the reservists' refusal constitutes a timely reminder that our strategic resources are being allocated in a highly distorted manner.
About a decade ago, a number of former heads of the Shin Bet published a joint protest at the absence of a peace process. That protest was reportedly one of the reasons why PM Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza. Sharon never believed in peace with our neighbors, but he did get the message that the occupation was intolerable and he had to do something to relieve the pressure from his own former colleagues in the security establishment. Unfortunately, the outcome has been three minor wars with Hamas in Gaza.
Will Netanyahu respond at all by showing some recognition of the impossible situation of never-ending occupation that inspired this protest?
Q. Why is the Sunni Arab world seemingly so reluctant to sign up for President Obama's military campaign against ISIL?
A. Secretary of State Kerry has been touring the Middle East in an effort to recruit Arab and Turkish participation in the campaign. Saudi and emirate reaction has been fairly positive, including a possible role for several Arab air forces, including that of the UAE. On the other hand, none of the Arabs seems prepared to put "boots on the ground", relegating that role to the Iraqi army and relatively moderate Syrian opposition groups, which they may now help train. Undoubtedly, the lack of enthusiasm among America's European allies--except the French--for a combat role, coupled with Russia's admonition that air attacks in Syria that are not coordinated with the Assad regime would be a breach of international law, have affected Arab willingness to join the US. This, despite the threat ISIL poses first and foremost to the Arab world.
Kerry encountered particularly negative responses from the Middle East's two biggest Sunni powers, Egypt and Turkey--each for very different reasons. In Cairo, the government of President a-Sissi resents Obama administration refusal to supply weaponry it claims it needs to fight Islamist subversion in Sinai and rebuff attacks launched from Libya--a country that was plunged into anarchy when the US led a campaign to eliminate the Qaddafi regime. President Obama, it will be recalled, sought dialogue with the very Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government that Sissi deposed, then criticized his takeover in July 2013. Sissi sees the Brotherhood as an enemy and believes the US should, too.
Ankara, on the other hand, is ruled by an Islamist government that supports the Muslim Brotherhood and is reluctant to attack fellow Islamists--even barbarians like ISIL. It allows ISIL volunteers to cross its territory, and refuses to allow the US to use its bases in Turkey to attack ISIL. Ankara also cites the fact that ISIL is holding 49 Turkish hostages captured from the Turkish consulate in Mosul as a reason to hold back.
There are additional reasons for the skepticism evinced by Sunni Arab countries. For one, they have an aversion to supporting an anti-Islamist effort that has the significant side effect of helping shore up regimes they dislike in Shiite-ruled Iraq and Alawite-ruled Syria, thereby boosting Shiite Iran, which supports those regimes. Then too, the new US effort to combat ISIL comes on the heels of an American failure at peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians that helped usher in the recent Gaza war, during which Kerry sought to arrange a ceasefire with the help of Turkey and Qatar, two countries disliked by the mainstream Arab world.
Finally, the Sunni Arabs are asking: will the US stay the course? Until President Obama's recent announcement that the US would fight ISIL, his administration had been universally perceived as disengaging from the Middle East. Thus the administration faces a challenge not only in combating ISIL, but in rallying Arab support for its effort as well.