Hard Questions, Tough Answers

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.

July 27, 2015 - Immediate regional repercussions of the Iran nuclear deal



This week, Alpher discusses ramifications of the Iran nuclear deal for US-Israel relations, as well as regionally; Israel’s relations with Jordan and Saudi Arabia; how Turkey has exploited the momentum of the Iran nuclear deal; and at this time, two weeks past the conclusion in Vienna of the Iran nuclear agreement with the international community, who is gaining and who is losing in the Middle East.


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July 20, 2015 - The Iran nuclear deal and its aftermath



This week, Alpher sums up the Iran nuclear deal, discussing additional pros and cons for Israel; the most important criterion for Israel in addressing the Iran nuclear agreement; what should be on the agenda for Israeli-American talks regarding security assurances; and given the discussed rationales for Israel to line up behind the Iran deal, what still concerns him about the deal and its aftermath.


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July 13, 2015 - The Iran nuclear deal; Israelis who entered Gaza


This week, Alpher discusses what are the issues that bear the most intense scrutiny regarding the upcoming nuclear deal with Iran; why is there a commotion in Israel over two Israelis that decided of their own free will to cross the border into the Gaza Strip; how could they have entered unhindered? What was the reason that that the authorities initially acted indifferently to Mengistu’s flight in terms of their contacts with his family? And what will happen now?

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July 06, 2015 - The growing Sunni Islamist threat



This week, Alpher discusses the strategic significance for Israel of last week’s sweeping Islamist attacks on Egyptian army installations in Sinai, near the border with Israel; the regional implications, shared by Israel with some of its neighbors and with Europe, Russia and the United States; defines Israel’s dilemma in strategic terms, and what the ramifications are; how West Bank-based Hamas and lone-wolf terrorism affect Israel’s relations with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas; and what this portends for the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

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June 29, 2015 - Gaza


This week, Alpher discusses the key dynamics from Israel’s standpoint of the ten-year anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from the Strip and a low-key interception and thwarting by Israel of a flotilla trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza; regarding the publication of a UN report on human rights aspects of last summer’s Gaza war, whether there is anything that Israel can constructively build on as it looks to future conflicts; whether it made sense that the Netanyahu government refused to cooperate with the Human Rights Commission and refused to allow the latest flotilla to approach the Gaza coast; and why the Gaza Strip is relatively quiet, with Hamas seemingly collaborating with Israel by pursuing the occasional more extreme Islamists who fire isolated rockets at Israel.


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June 22, 2015 - Oren, Netanyahu, and widening the gaps between strategic partners


This week, Alpher discusses whether former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren is just trying to sell his new book, or are his attacks on President Obama part of some sort of larger plan to widen the gap between the two countries; if Obama knowingly and deliberately violated previously sacred bilateral principles of “no daylight” and “no surprises;” what the American Jewish angle is; what the likely ramifications of Oren’s attacks for US-Israel relations are at the current juncture.

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June 15, 2015 - Israel and the Syrian Druze


 This week, Alpher discusses why Israeli Druze leaders are lobbying the government to help the Syrian Druze; does Israel have any special reason to get involved; if the Syrian Druze friendly to Israel; what Israel should do; and if there are other minority issues in Syria that should concern Israel.


Q. Israeli Druze leaders are lobbying the government to help the Syrian Druze, who are increasingly under military pressure from the Sunni jihadists. Why Israel?

A. Not only Israel. Israeli Druze leaders have asked the West Bank-based PLO leadership to intervene with Syrian President Assad. They have appealed to Jordan, which is directly south of Suweida and Jebel Druze, located in Syria about 80 km. east of the Golan border. Israel last week reportedly asked US Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey to look into American aid for the Druze. And Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who is famous for his political flip flops, appealed to the Syrian Druze to make their peace with the Islamists, some of whom have vowed to kill the Druze as heretics.


Q. What’s the commotion about? Why the Druze?

A. The Assad regime, with its Alawite minority base, has always attracted the loyalty of Syria’s many other minorities—Christians, Druze, Shiites, Ismailis—who traditionally fear Sunni Arab extremism. Religious leaders of most of Syria’s two million or so Christians recently publicly reaffirmed their support for Assad. The Sunni Jihadists consider Druze, Alawites and Ismailis, all offshoots of traditional Islam like the Yazidis in northern Iraq, to be heretics. While Syria’s two million or so Alawites are still safe in their Mediterranean coastal enclave and some 300,000 Ismailis in Salamiya between Homs and Hamat—both cities vital to the regime’s link between Damascus and the Alawite coastal homeland--are also still relatively well protected by the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria-Shiite “volunteer” alliance that is keeping Assad in power. But the Druze are less well off from a geo-strategic standpoint.

Around 500,000 Druze are concentrated in Jebel Druze and in a few Druze villages closer to Israel on the Syrian Golan. The Syrian army, increasingly in tatters, has withdrawn northward from the area to protect Damascus. Islamic State forces are closing in on Jebel Druze from the east, and Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra from the west. IS reputedly demands that Druze either convert to Sunni Islam or die; al-Nusra reportedly demands total loyalty, meaning “protected” second-class status. In recent weeks, more than 20 Druze were slaughtered in northwest Syria by Jabhat al-Nusra.

Syrian Druze appeals to Assad to send military forces to protect them in the south have encountered anger in Damascus at the Druze for avoiding military service. Indeed, in view of Assad’s increasingly poor chances for political survival, the Druze are hedging their bets. Here and there, some have sought to ally themselves with the more moderate anti-regime rebels. The Jebel Druze leadership says the area can defend itself if it gets more weapons.


Q. Does Israel have any special reason to get involved?

A. Israel has a tradition of protecting regional minorities. In the 1960 and 1970s, Israel extended military and medical aid to the Christian and animist population of South Sudan and to the Kurds of northern Iraq. Both groups were suffering horrifically from Arab state oppression directed from Khartoum and Baghdad, respectively. I was involved at the time in these operations, which were managed by the Mossad. I recall that I and many of the Israelis involved had a strong sense of mission: Israel, the only Middle East ethnic-national minority that had achieved self-determination in its historic homeland, should extend a hand to other beleaguered minorities. This policy culminated in Israel’s aid to the Lebanese Maronites beginning in 1975. There, Israel made the mistake of introducing its own military into the fray on Lebanese territory in 1982. It was betrayed by the Maronites, suffered heavy losses, finally withdrew the last of its forces in 2000 and still has to deal with a hostile Shiite Hezbollah on its northern border.

Since the fiasco with the Maronites, Israel has avoided further entanglements with regional minorities. Confronted with civil war in neighboring Syria, it has developed humanitarian and security ties with various militias across the Golan border in order to secure that border, but has carefully avoided intervention. This policy is based on the wise assumption that even the impression of intervention will make Israel more enemies than friends in Syria. But Israel’s own Druze community is a minority with influence: in the Knesset, in the army, and among the Jewish public which highly regards the Druze commitment to the country’s security. And Israel’s Druze want Israel to intervene.

(The story of Israel’s involvement with Middle East minorities is related in detail in my book, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, published this year by Rowman & Littlefield.)


Q. Are the Syrian Druze friendly to Israel?

A. Not particularly. Until recently they supported the very brutal Assad regime, which itself has always been hostile toward Israel even though it has endeavored to maintain the two countries’ ceasefire agreement. In general Druze, who do not seek anything but ethnic-religious autonomy anywhere, are loyal to the state they live in. The Druze on the western part of the Golan that Israel conquered in 1967 and annexed more than a decade later are divided in their loyalties between Israel and Syria. But the Druze are definitely loyal to one another, whatever state they live in.

Some Israeli strategists have had their eye on Jebel Druze for decades. In the 1950s, Israel trained Druze units to parachute into Jebel Druze. In 1967, former Palmach commander Yigal Allon suggested to PM Eshkol that Israel invade Syria beyond the just-captured Golan Heights and link up with Jebel Druze, thereby ostensibly providing both Israel and Jordan with a partial buffer against Syria. None of these plans was ever acted on. Moreover, the timing of the IDF’s recent decision to disband its single all-Druze unit and disperse the soldiers among regular units seems suspiciously to reflect fears that the Druze unit might try to take matters into its own hands.

In the current highly complex constellation, Jordan plays a key role because of its proximity to Suweida. Jordan has absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, and has been the training venue, in collaboration with the US, for some of the more moderate Syrian rebels. The last thing Jordan needs is for battles pitting the Druze against the Syrian Islamist rebels to be taking place a stone’s throw away. Yet were Israel to provide arms to the Syrian Druze, it would almost certainly have to coordinate the operation with Jordan.


Q. What should Israel do?

A. Israel and its supporters must think seriously about what, if any, obligations the Jewish people have to an increasingly threatened minority located not far from the Israel-Syria border. Israelis can take pride in their role, decades ago, in helping South Sudan to formal independence and Kurdistan to a broad degree of autonomy and self-determination. But the fiasco with the Maronites provides an important lesson to avoid over-committing ourselves.

In the past, the Arab states tended to see Israel as being somehow committed to a conspiracy of fragmenting them by clandestinely supporting their mistreated minorities. Today, with so many Arab states, including Syria, already fragmented without any connection to Israel and so many minorities in danger of being slaughtered, the Arab reaction appears not particularly relevant. Moreover, unlike the South Sudan, Kurdistan and Maronite cases of decades past, the Druze have an important presence in Israel whose views must be taken into consideration.

If it can persuade the US and/or Jordan to supply weapons and possibly training to the Syrian Druze, Israel can maintain its thus far very successful policy of non-intervention in Syria while it watches and waits for events to unfold. If it can’t, it may have to provide the weapons and training itself. At all costs it must avoid IDF “boots on the ground” on Syrian territory--a step that would have highly problematic and unpredictable consequences. Still, it could well confront a demand by Israeli Druze IDF veterans to volunteer to defend Jebel Druze.

One way or another, the ongoing collapse of Syria is liable to be the occasion for greater and far more complicated Israeli involvement in that civil war.


Q. Are there other minority issues in Syria that should concern Israel?

A. No other Syrian minorities are near enough to Israel or have a rationale for asking for its help. But if the forces protecting the Assad regime continue to sustain losses and withdraw, the Ismailis could also soon be threatened by IS. Here it is interesting to note the large Ismaili immigrant community in Canada. There is a Canadian military contingent on the ground in northern Iraq that could conceivably become involved in assisting the Syrian Ismailis.

June 8, 2015 - The BDS "Brou-ha-ha," pro-Kurdish party victory in Turkey, is Assad's regime really threatened? and more



This week, Alpher discusses whether the past week’s BDS developments are a “strategic tsunami;” what does it mean for Israel that a pro-Kurdish party in Turkey has won enough votes to prevent the ruling AK Party from gaining a majority in parliament and President Erdogan from changing the constitution to give himself extensive executive powers; why the death of Tareq Aziz, foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein, is a significant milestone in today’s Middle East; whether Assad’s regime is really threatened.

Q. Are the past week’s BDS developments a “strategic tsunami” as some Israelis claim?

A. The brouhaha over BDS is significant, but it also involves a lot of deceptive smoke and mirrors. And it is being cynically exploited by the Netanyahu government to obfuscate the real issues at stake.

The past week or so has seemingly witnessed a confluence of serious boycott “attacks” on Israel: FIFA, Orange, a British student organization. Note that only the latter boycott effort succeeded or was not rescinded, a fact which already calls into question the degree to which BDS overall is working. Of greater significance, though, is Netanyahu’s reaction on two fronts: Israeli “hasbara” or public diplomacy, and the American Jewish community. And of key importance here is the fact that while some BDS rhetoric, especially on campuses, can be understood as directed against the entire state of Israel, the vast majority of BDS actions (FIFA, Orange, European Union threats of “labeling” sanctions, European supermarket boycotts, etc) are directed only against the settlements and the occupation.

Netanyahu’s hasbara response is to state: “It doesn’t matter what we do. The struggle against Israel is connected to our very existence.” BDS has replaced Iran and Holocaust denial as the existential threat to Israel. Neither Netanyahu nor his spokespersons nor the American Jewish leaders who have rallied to his cause (more about them below) mentions the occupation or the slippery slope toward a one-state reality that Netanyahu has put us on as a factor in BDS.

This fatalism is a disastrous approach. As Yedioth Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea wrote last Friday, “The Zionism I was brought up on took a different approach. It matters very much what we do, for better or for worse. It’s convenient to think that all the criticism of Israel stems from anti-Semitic motives. . .  . That releases us from the need to confront our actions” in the occupied territories.

So Netanyahu is mounting a major public relations push against BDS that focuses on existential threats rather than the threat to Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state posed by his policies. But he knows that mere “hasbara” will not suffice. Enter Mssrs. Adelson and Saban. They represent the kind of economic threats to potential boycotters like Orange that have apparently forced that company’s leader to practically crawl on his knees to apologize to Israel for his threat to cut economic ties. Here even Haim Saban cannot be drawn out to discuss BDS in the context of the settlements. The anti-Semites will now have a field-day attacking the “Jewish financial offensive”.

Yes, there is an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel dimension to BDS. It must not be ignored in the current controversy. But the Israeli protest and counter-offensive as framed by Netanyahu are only likely to strengthen BDS. The Adelson-led Vegas meeting to plan an American Jewish counter-offensive will further alienate liberal American Jews--the clear majority of the American Jewish community--from Netanyahu’s efforts and, worse, from Israel.

As President Obama has implied, there is already a growing gap between the American Jewish liberal majority with its strong human-rights values and legacy and an Israel living in an increasingly hard-bitten and even barbaric neighborhood. At least a portion of that gap might be inevitable under current circumstances. But a major part is based on avoidable misperceptions and on policies that Israel does nothing to explain. Now it is Israel’s response to BDS--not BDS itself--that is liable to widen the gap yet further.

Currently, most BDS actions and related protests target the occupation. If Israel can be seen to be dealing constructively and productively with ending the occupation, this could strip BDS of much of its support-base and leave only the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic hard core. But if Israel proceeds with the Netanyahu/Adelson line, that hard core will only gain supporters. Then we will really have a strategic problem.


Q. It appears that a pro-Kurdish party in Turkey has won enough votes to prevent the ruling AK Party from gaining a majority in parliament and President Erdogan from changing the constitution to give himself extensive executive powers. What does this mean for Israel?

A. This is good news. This is a welcome electoral setback for Turkish Islamism. The other parties, whose diverse majority will force Erdogan to govern with at least one of them in his coalition, are secular and more moderate than Erdogan in their attitude toward Israel. In particular, the pro-Kurdish HDP under Selahattin Demirtas has succeeded in attracting the Turkish left, religiously conservative Kurds who had voted for the AKP in past elections, and disaffected liberals. The HDP is now the AKP’s likely coalition partner.  Hopefully, Kurdish sympathy for Israel will now force Erdogan to moderate his tone toward Israel and his blatant support for Hamas in Gaza.

That is the tentative and tactical good news. The strategic good news is the very success of a pro-Kurdish party within a country that has for generations prided itself on its strong and exclusionist Turkish-nationalist orientation. This means progress for the cause of Kurdish autonomy and/or independence in the Middle East. It could mean, for example, greater autonomy for upwards of 20 million Kurds living in southeast Turkey (a cause which Erdogan, to his credit, has in some ways encouraged in recent years).

Then there is the potentially “grand strategic” good news, which is directly relevant to Israel. The outcome of the Turkish elections could mean overt Turkish support for the independence of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds confront a disintegrating Iraq, but cannot really contemplate breaking away and declaring independence without the support of their giant neighbor to the north, Turkey, which virtually controls their economy and provides their only safe land-link to the rest of the world. An independent Kurdistan would mean that Israel is no longer the only non-Arab ethnic entity in the Middle East that has achieved national self-determination. This is good for Israel’s relations with the Arab world, which in its current state of distress faces a loss of hegemony over other peoples.

Further, a Turkish government that includes a Kurdish element is likely to take measures to fortify and perhaps expand the autonomy of the Kurdish enclaves of northern Syria, like Kobani, which abut the Syrian-Turkish border. From Turkey’s standpoint, this improves security against Sunni Arab Salafist extremists, the “barbarians at the gate”. And like Iraqi Kurdish independence, it is a step toward redefining the Middle East in a way that serves Israel’s basic interests.

Will all this happen, and if so, when? Let’s watch how Erdogan deals with his setback. He is an extremely resourceful politician. Nothing is set in stone.


Q. Moving south into Iraq, why is the death of Tareq Aziz, foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein, a significant milestone in today’s Middle East?

A. Aziz was always my favorite Arab spokesperson, because he didn’t mince words. In March 2003 he stated that Iraq, if attacked by the US-led coalition, would attack Israel, and he was right. But Aziz was something else as well: a Chaldean Christian serving a secular Arab regime. I fear his passing symbolizes that won’t happen again soon. While the status of non-Arab Kurds in the Middle East might now improve following the Turkish elections, the status of minorities inside the Arab world is liable to deteriorate due to Islamist pressures.

Aziz served a Baathist secular socialist regime that was partly founded by Christians in Syria and Iraq. It was non-democratic and vicious, but allowed minorities positions of influence. The last vestige of Baathism is now Bashar Assad’s Syria. There, an Alawite minority (nominally Shiite Muslim) supported by most of the country’s Druze, Christians and Ismailis is increasingly besieged by extremist Sunni Salafist groups led by IS and Qaeda-related Jabhat al-Nusra and by more moderate Sunnis who have recently regrouped and, with Saudi, Qatari and Turkish backing, occupied territory in northwest Syria.

If Assad’s regime falls, it will be virtually impossible to find minorities with political power anywhere in the Arab world outside of Lebanon. Worse, the minorities’ safety in lands they have lived in for many hundreds of years will be jeopardized. Of course, majority rule in Arab countries should be welcomed--but only in democracies where minority rights are respected. Iraq, for example, offers a terrible example of the abuse of majority rule by an elected Shiite-dominated Arab government.


Q. Is Assad’s regime really so threatened?

A. Yes. While nothing is irreversible in the Middle East, Assad is losing ground. His army is in tatters, and Iranians, Lebanese Hezbollah and thousands of Shiite “volunteers” from as far afield as Afghanistan and Uzbekistan (impoverished refugees in Iran who need the pay) are pouring into the country under Iranian auspices to defend the regime.

The Iranian leadership is clearly anxious to reassure Assad in his distress. Last Tuesday Iranian President Rowhani said in Tehran that Iran “will stand by the Syrian nation to the end of the crisis”, while Quds Force leader and strategist Soleimani stated in Syria, “The world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are preparing for the coming days.” This bombast is wearing increasingly thin. So is the contention that Assad rules Syria.

The main challenge for the Iranians, who clearly are now in charge in Syria, is to hold onto “Useful Syria”: not the eastern desert linking Syria to Iraq and not the far north and south. In all these areas, control has been effectively ceded to the Sunni jihadists. Rather, Soleimani needs to reinforce Iran’s control over greater Damascus and the strategic roads and cities linking it, near the Syria-Lebanon border, to the Alawite coastal enclave. Presumably, in a worst-case scenario his back-up plan is to abandon Damascus and turn the coast into one huge Alawite bunker.


Q. And if and when that happens?

A. More major strategic changes for the Middle East. Barring unlikely but not inconceivable events like, say, a clash on Syrian and Lebanese territory between Israel and Iran, the latter will have suffered a major Middle East defeat. Hezbollah will be cut off from its Syrian supply base where it has suffered major losses, will hunker down in its southern Lebanese redoubt, and Lebanese politics will be shaken up. Syrian Druze, Ismaili and Christian minorities will be imperiled by the salafists, who will now battle among themselves for control of Damascus and the country’s major cities. The Sunni extremists will eventually pose a major threat on Israel’s northern border. But, correspondingly, the Hezbollah rocket threat to Israel will have been weakened.



This week, Alpher discusses Israel's near-suspension last week from FIFA and what are the broad strategic ramifications of this phase in the global BDS campaign against Israel; how the new right-wing Israeli government, with its heavy pro-settlement bias, can successfully confront this campaign; whether Tony Blair’s departure is a turning point and who will coordinate economic and infrastructure aid to the Palestinians and state institution-building in his absence; whether last Tuesday's firing of a rocket by Islamic Jihad from the Gaza strip towards Ashdod was a blip on the radar screen or an event with strategic ramifications; and the possibility of an Israel-Hamas dialogue.

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This week, Alpher discusses what was the new Netanyahu government thinking, trying to introduce segregated buses in the West Bank; President Obama’s critical remarks to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and at a DC synagogue regarding Netanyahu’s attitude toward Israeli Arabs and his signaling that there would be no peace process initiative in the near future, as well as the US taking Israel’s side at a UN nuclear treaty review conference; whether we should categorize the Pope’s Middle East diplomacy as a form of Europe-based pressures; and US and UK proposals to deploy western ground forces to augment weak and fragmented Iraqi forces against IS - are there alternatives?

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