October 28, 2014 - Yaalon shunned, and Egypt closes its border with Gaza, postpones ceasefire talks

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This week, Alpher discusses the differences between Washington’s approach to combating IS and that of Israel; why was Yaalon (reportedly) shunned by most of the Obama administration, in a rare display of dissatisfaction; Why Egypt just closed its border with Gaza and postponed convening Israel-Hamas ceasefire talks by a month, and what this means for a stable ceasefire; and whether there are emerging parallels between Israeli-Jordanian and Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation.

Q. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon was reportedly shunned by most of the Obama administration, in a rare display of dissatisfaction. Why?

A. The moment Yaalon concluded his Washington visit, the White House confirmed that it had refused to give him an audience with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The reason cited in press briefings was statements Yaalon made six months ago, in which he criticized the Obama administration and Kerry in particular against the backdrop of Kerry's abortive two-state solution initiative. Last January, Yaalon was quoted in Yedioth Aharonot labelling Kerry and his peace efforts "obsessive and messianic". He has since invested considerable effort in making amends and praising US support for Israel. Yet in March he again sharply criticized US policy, this time regarding Iran and terrorism.

In Washington last week, Yaalon was allowed to meet with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, signalling that US security support for Israel remains strong. Nor is the obvious slap in the face that Yaalon got in Washington only about his blunt criticism of American policy--certainly not about his advocacy of dismantling Iraq and Syria, where he represents many in the Middle East. Rather, at a time when the administration is deeply invested in two primary areas of Middle East interest--Iran and the fight against Islamist militant terrorism--and Secretary Kerry is striving on Israel’s behalf to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to postpone his appeal to the United Nations Security Council for state recognition, Washington has little patience with the overall behavior of the Netanyahu government.

In denying Yaalon a few courtesy conversations, the administration is signalling Netanyahu that his belittling of US negotiating proposals to Iran, his settlement expansion policies and repressive measures against Jerusalem Arabs, his brutal criticism of Abbas and his evasion of efforts to renew the peace process--all reflected in his September General Assembly speech and in Monday's address to the opening of the Knesset's fall session--will draw an increasingly hostile American reaction. Netanyahu, whose political instincts right now apparently dictate a "pull" to the settler and religious right, seemingly thinks he can get away with almost anything in the face of a weak administration that is facing a likely election setback on November 4. The administration is signalling otherwise.

 

Q. Last week you surveyed the vastly diverging interests and approaches of Washington’s coalition partners in the conflict with the Islamist State. Could you now expand on the differences between Washington’s approach to combating IS and that of Israel (which is not an official anti-IS coalition partner)?

A. Last week in Washington,  Yaalon argued publicly that the future map of the Middle East would look different from the current one. In particular, he cited Libya, Iraq and Syria as states whose "borders were drawn up by westerners a century ago" and are now "doomed to break apart". Syria and Iraq, he said, are "artificial nation states".

This statement points to a fundamental gap between US thinking on IS and Israel's approach, particularly with regard to Iraq and, indirectly but significantly, to Iran. As we shall see with reference to last week's Q & A, to a considerable extent Israel's views on these issues are shared by pro-western Sunni Arab neighbors like Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Having invested so much blood and treasure in a democratic Iraq with a functioning army, Washington is deeply committed to holding that country together under democratically-elected Shiite majority rule and reconstituting its army. Accordingly, it seeks to co-opt the participation of Iraqi Sunnis (some 20 percent of the population who live mainly in Baghdad and to its north) in defending the country, and it opposes Iraqi Kurdish independence. The US is also involved in nuclear negotiations with neighboring Iran in a major attempt to facilitate a gradual strategic rapprochement with that country.

In stark contrast, Israel views Shiite-ruled Iraq as a dangerous gateway for Iran to access Syria and Lebanon, link up with the friendly Alawite regime in Syria and with Hezbollah in Lebanon, seek hegemony in the Levant and access to the Mediterranean, and threaten Israel itself. It supports an independent Kurdistan as an expression both of a dismantled Iraq that is less likely to facilitate Iranian designs and of the legitimate right of the non-Arab peoples of the region, like Israel itself, to self-determination. Jerusalem is also notoriously suspicious of the direction a nuclear agreement with Iran is likely to take.

Moving to Syria, the situation is more complex, if only because virtually all the sovereign state alternatives are equally problematic for both Israel and the US. Still, the US advocates the ultimate installation of a moderate regime throughout the entire country, while Israel holds out little hope that a dynamic moderate movement of Syrian nationalists can be created. Instead, looking at the present reality of a de facto division of the country between the equally barbaric Assad regime and IS, Israel is preoccupied with the need to keep both away from its borders. If this means sponsoring a relatively benign mini-state of some sort in southwest Syria, thereby further dismantling the post-Ottoman Syrian state, so be it.

Clearly, the US is at odds with some of its friends on this matter. The only question remaining is whether Yaalon was expressing wishful thinking about Iraq and Syria or accurately describing a new Middle East reality that Washington insists on ignoring.

 

Q. Egypt just closed its border with Gaza and postponed convening Israel-Hamas ceasefire talks by a month? Why, and what does this mean for a stable ceasefire?

A. Egyptian officials declare that these actions, along with the establishment of a "scorched earth" buffer zone along the Sinai border with Gaza, are retaliatory measures against Hamas for supporting unprecedented militant activity against Egypt in Sinai. Last Friday, Islamist militants in Sinai killed no fewer than 30 Egyptian troops--the worst attack thus far in Sinai and the deadliest against the Egyptian military in decades.

Egypt claims that initial investigations of the Sinai massacre, attributed to the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis Sinai-based Islamist opposition, point to the involvement of Muslim Brotherhood cadres trained and armed in eastern Libya and to the support of Hamas, via the few remaining secret tunnels that link Gaza and Sinai. The attack in Sinai involved a sophisticated series of car bombs and ambushes. Cairo responded on Sunday by closing the Rafah crossing between Sinai and Gaza and announcing it was considering the eviction of residents in the "most dangerous" Sinai villages. Egypt went into three days of mourning. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has lately declared its allegiance to the Iraq-Syria-based Islamic State.

While it is difficult to substantiate the Egyptian claims against a Hamas or even Muslim Brotherhood role in the recent Sinai attack, there is no denying that both Egypt and Israel consistently link all the militant Islamist activity in the region. Presumably, they have the hard intelligence to back this contention; in the current instance, Egyptian officers cite Hamas' military wing, Iz a-Din al-Qassam and the militant Gaza-based mafia-like Doghmush clan that kidnapped Gilad Shalit. From the Israeli standpoint, the upshot of Egypt's angry response is both enhanced military cooperation regarding Sinai and harder times for Hamas in Gaza. Note that a portion of the population of northern Sinai is Bedouin and another portion Palestinian--demographic "overflow" from Gaza--that both have strong reasons to resent Egypt and both have become increasingly Islamized in recent years.

With the Rafah crossing closed and an Egyptian buffer zone in the offing--Egypt reportedly plans to either dig a trench and flood the border area with sea-water or build a fence above and below ground there--smuggling of weapons and militants into Gaza and from Gaza into Sinai will become more difficult. At this point in time and until further notice, only Israel is allowing the passage of aid and people into and out of Gaza. With Egyptian mediation of Israeli-Hamas talks about the more permanent aspects of a Gaza ceasefire postponed from late October to late November, the Hamas leadership's desperation to display positive dividends of last summer's prolonged war with Israel will grow.

Accordingly, the likelihood of an aggressive act against Israel by Hamas or a more militant Islamist group in Gaza has just increased. Such an act could spark renewal of Israel-Hamas fighting, with Egypt more than even in Israel's camp. Note that Hamas recently declared that it has resumed digging tunnels, presumably either for attacking Israel or infiltrating Sinai.

 

Q. Last week marked 20 years to Israel's peace treaty with Jordan. Are there emerging parallels between Israeli-Jordanian and Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation?

A. Yes, but not for love of Israel or inclinations toward a warm peace. Rather, the growing Islamist threat has obliged Amman, like Cairo, to tighten military and intelligence ties with Israel. Cairo can cite Hamas and militants in Sinai, while Jordan points to threats from the Islamic State along its border with Iraq and the almost equally fanatic Jabhat a-Nusra along its border with Syria. The latter threat, in particular, appears to mandate close Jordanian contacts with Israel, which also faces a-Nusra units along its Golan border.

Both Jordan and Egypt continue to insist on Israel's obligation to facilitate a two-state solution with the Palestinians as a sine qua non for a genuinely warmer relationship. Indeed, beyond the security sphere and a few instances of vital Israeli infrastructure supply or prospective supply (gas and water to Jordan; gas to Egypt), both relationships remain cold. Unless Netanyahu adopts a different tone regarding the Palestinians, if and when the two Israeli neighbors' existential needs (security, energy, water) are satisfied, relations will become even colder.

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