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 Note that only the latter boycott effort succeeded or was not rescinded, a fact which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
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
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
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
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
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
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.