December 29, 2014 - End of year summary, strategic developments in the Middle East, and more

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This week, Alpher discusses the primary strategic developments in the Middle East in 2014 from Israel’s standpoint; strategic lessons do you draw from Secretary Kerry’s peace process failure and the Gaza war; the US-IS conflict that emerged in 2014; the revolutionary situation in general in the Arab Middle East and US-Iran negotiations; the worsening of Israel’s growing isolation; and the bottom line for the Middle East in 2015.

Q. Let’s summarize the year that’s ending. What were the primary strategic developments in the Middle East in 2014 from Israel’s standpoint?

A. Closest to home, the failure of yet another attempt to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the ensuing summer war (Operation Protective Edge) with Gaza-based Hamas stand out. Further afield, we encounter the advent of the Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria and the subsequent US-led intervention. At a more generalized level, there is Israel’s growing international isolation, the ongoing revolutionary situation throughout nearly all the Arab Middle East, and the unresolved nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Q. Taking it from the top, what strategic lessons do you draw from Secretary Kerry’s peace process failure and the Gaza war?

A. Kerry presided over yet another attempt to resolve all outstanding issues between Israel and the PLO-led Palestinians in the West Bank. As the sages noted some 2,000 years ago, “Grasp all, lose all:”  -If you set your sights too high, you’ll fail to achieve anything. Kerry encountered two recalcitrant leaders, Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu and presented them with the entire Oslo menu, from borders and security to Jerusalem and the right of return. The failure of his initiative helped precipitate an abortive Fateh-Hamas/West Bank-Gaza merger that helped lay the foundation for Hamas terrorism in the West Bank, followed by Jewish terrorism and ultimately a prolonged Hamas-Israel war.

The war was notable for four strategic developments. First, Hamas, with help from Iran, was able to extend the reach of its mass rocket attacks throughout much of Israel. This disrupted daily life but involved few casualties because, in a second key development, Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system intercepted nearly everything.

Third, the advent of an anti-Islamist military regime in Egypt ensured closer than ever Israeli-Egyptian military and diplomatic coordination, yet no satisfactory outcome from anyone’s standpoint. And fourth, because Israel was unable to develop a viable war-fighting strategy that would defeat Hamas in the crowded Gaza Strip with minimal Israeli military casualties and low Palestinian civilian losses, the IDF ended up killing many hundreds of Gazan civilians and incurring yet again the wrath of an international community that disproportionately applies the rules of conventional conflict to Israel’s asymmetric wars with non-state actors. (Note, by comparison, that the US-led anti-IS coalition’s air attacks are reportedly killing hundreds of Arab civilians in Iraq and Syria, with the world paying little attention.)

This was the third failed attempt in 14 years to resolve the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the highest level, and the third Israel-Hamas war in six years. That the war ended in virtual stalemate merely underlined in 2014 the glaring absence in official Israeli thinking of viable strategies for both peace and war with the Palestinians. This was undoubtedly one of the contributing factors to the unraveling, in the fall, of the Netanyahu government. It is also likely to contribute in 2015 to the unraveling of the tenuous Israel-Hamas truce and the advent of yet a fourth round of pointless fighting, this time possibly involving a northern front as well and much heavier rocket fire against Israeli civilians.

But Washington should be doing some strategic rethinking, too, about refining its approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Even its attempt to intervene in the Gaza fighting appeared to Israelis and Arabs alike to reflect a lack of clear understanding of what is going on in the Islamizing Arab Middle East. At year’s end, the US faced a renewed Palestinian bid for state recognition (with an amended Security Council resolution that actually toughened Palestinian demands compared to those we analyzed last week) that almost certainly called for a veto by Washington. The UN drama looked likely to usher in a Palestinian resort to international tribunals and a consequent diplomatic escalation going into 2015, worsening Fateh-Hamas tensions (Hamas opposes the PLO’s UN initiative), and generating additional economic and security tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Incidentally, Fateh (the mainstay of the PLO) celebrates 50 years to its founding on January 1, 2015.

Q. That brings us to the second issue-area: the US-IS conflict that emerged in 2014.

A. The Obama administration, intent in 2013 on disengaging from involvement in armed conflict in the region, now felt obliged to reengage, at least from the air.  The primary reason for this unanticipated new US military involvement in the Middle East appears to be the administration’s resolve to prevent or combat any new Islamist terrorism against Americans--in this case, the videoed beheading of two American journalists.

The rise of the Islamic State also recalled worrisome dynamics in earlier American decision-making in the region: the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq that left behind a totally dysfunctional new army, and hesitation in 2013 to intervene in Syria against the Assad regime at a time when it might have made a difference and prevented radicalization of the Syrian opposition and its metamorphosis into the Islamic State.

By the end of 2014, neither of these lacunae in US decision-making appeared to have been resolved in ways that pointed to light at the end of the tunnel of combating IS. The American-led coalition’s fight against IS had not turned a corner and was likely to continue in 2015.

Inevitably, this being the Levant, Washington was encountering all sorts of messy additional ethno-political complications that were likely to remain beyond its control. Turkey with its growing Islamist orientation under Erdogan still quietly helped anti-US IS and other Islamists in Syria and hindered a Syrian Kurdish anti-IS effort lest it incite Turkey’s own large Kurdish population. Sunni-Shiite fighting was hemorrhaging into Lebanon. A US-led effort to hold Iraq together and prevent its fragmentation encountered rebellious Sunnis and Kurds, the latter but not the former also abetted by Iran. A variety of besieged Yazidis and Christians demanded rescue. The anti-Assad Islamists were gaining strength on or near Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan. Russia, firmly supporting Assad, sought to persuade the US to reconcile with his murderous regime.

Indeed, the Assad regime with its horrific record of atrocities against the Syrian people did seem to be gaining an unexpected passive American ally to complement its more active partners, Iran and Russia. From Israel’s standpoint, American readiness to cooperate, however passively, with Iran against IS, sent a worrisome signal that Iran’s penetration of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon all the way up to the Syrian and Lebanese borders with Israel was not of great concern to Washington.

Q. This brings us to the revolutionary situation in general in the Arab Middle East and US-Iran negotiations.

A. The only Arab state whose revolution appeared to be ending in 2014 was Tunisia, which held elections in which a dynamic Islamist party, Ennahda, actually stepped aside and allowed secularists, including former regime stalwarts, to come to power. But this was an anomaly.

Egyptian politics were still unstable, and violent Islamist elements were active in Sinai and in Egypt’s cities. Yemen basically divided in late 2014 between the Houthis, a Shiite-affiliate with Iranian ties that held Sanaa and the north, and secular separatists and Sunni al-Qaeda elements in the south and elsewhere. Libya, like the Levant, seemingly disintegrated semi-permanently back into the tribal fiefdoms that had preceded the drawing of artificial state boundaries nearly 100 years ago by the European powers. The developments in Egypt, Libya and Yemen threatened major international waterways, with Islamists in Sinai and Libya gaining access to the Mediterranean, and Iran, via the Houthis, approaching a foothold on the eastern shores of the Bab al-Mandeb Straits.

Under these circumstances of revolutionary flux, any attempt by Israel to plan a coherent strategy for dealing with the region in 2015 was impossible. Clearly, the threat of more war with non-state neighbors loomed. And those neighbors were multiplying: not only Hamas in Gaza and Iran’s heavily-armed proxy Hezbollah on the Lebanon border, but IS and Qaeda affiliates in Sinai and on the Syrian border. As for the Palestinian issue, with a weak PLO-led regime in the West Bank turning to the international arena and Israel’s election outcome certain to produce a coalition that comprises either radical nationalist-messianic right-wingers or at least right-leaning centrists, the prospects for serious two-state negotiations in 2015 looked dim.

Finally, the course of nuclear talks between the US-led P5 + 1 and Iran in 2014 lends weight to the assessment that, as with Havana, Washington is on course toward some sort of gradual normalization of its relations with Tehran and that Israel has no choice but to acquiesce, despite concerns over Iran’s growing presence in Syria and ongoing military support for Hezbollah.

Q. This suggests a worsening of Israel’s growing isolation.

A. The Netanyahu government’s settlement policies and its inclination to see anti-Semitism wherever its critics condemned Israel combined in 2014 to narrow Israel’s relations with both the Obama administration and the European Union, both of which seem to have finally concluded that in Israel they are dealing with an unreliable leader who lies to them. The growing threat of Israeli isolation posed by European sanctions and the BDS movement seemed to generate increased criticism of Netanyahu and political activism on Israel’s political left and center, thereby clearly contributing to early elections.

(Not that anti-Semitism, spearheaded by militant Islamists, did not increasingly manifest itself in the West in 2014, particularly during the summer war with Hamas. But Israel was hardly positioned by Netanyahu to counter or mitigate it effectively.)

Still, Netanyahu could point to a series of counter-moves that ostensibly encouraged the nationalist and messianic right-wing camp he leads as elections approached. His government has enhanced its strategic and economic relations with Russia, China, India, South Korea and Japan--all countries that tend to downplay the centrality of the Palestinian issue in their ties with Israel--in an undisguised effort to diversify Israel’s economy in anticipation of punitive western sanctions. Energy-based ties improved with Azerbaijan, Greece and Cyprus--the latter two EU members intent on closer strategic cooperation with Israel--as Israel’s new gas resources came on-stream. Clandestine intelligence links with Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf apparently improved. And regarding relations with the US, the Republican victory in mid-term congressional elections encouraged Netanyahu to focus for the next two years on close cooperation with Congress rather than the administration.

Q. Bottom line for the Middle East in 2015?

A. We will see more Arab revolution, violence and instability. The US will probably improve ties with Iran but not be able to disengage militarily from the Levant. Israel and Hamas will probably fight again, with ominous prospects on Israel’s northern borders as well. Chances of a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process will be poor, with a growing danger of instability in Israel-Palestinian relations in the West Bank.

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