January 12, 2015 - The Paris attacks and the Islamist threat, election update, and more




 This week, Alpher discusses the attacks in Paris, and Netanyahu's comparison of Israeli and French victims of terror; confronting the Islamist threat; and notable developments of recent weeks that can be understood to suggest strategic political trends in upcoming elections.


Q. The attacks in Paris have generated a storm of commentary. Are there specifically Israeli angles that perhaps should be spotlighted?

A. It is important to qualify and even contradict some of the comments made by PM Netanyahu and others on the Israeli political right. Not all Islamist terrorism is the same: there are points of similarity between Hamas and al-Qaeda (the latter, the apparent affiliation of the Paris attackers), but the differences are key. The attempt by Netanyahu to place Israeli victims and French victims in the same category is superficial and even deceptive.  

Hamas employs terrorism exclusively against Israelis, and exclusively in the context of the Palestinian conflict with Israel. In Israel’s case, it is not enough to “defeat terrorism”; Israel also has to resolve--or at least not exacerbate with more and more settlements--the Palestinian issue if it is ever to know even a measure of relief from Palestinian terrorism or at least to elicit western sympathy and understanding for its response to terrorism.

Hamas and Qaeda/Islamic State may yet move closer or even merge: there have been initial instances in both Gaza and the West Bank of Hamas activists declaring themselves affiliates of Qaeda or IS. But this is not, or not yet, a major trend that can be highlighted by Israel as a means of inviting western solidarity.

Here it is instructive to compare last week’s events in Paris with terrorist attacks in Jerusalem in recent months. The Paris attackers were trained and indoctrinated over a period of years, both in France and in the conflict zones of the Middle East. The Jerusalem attackers--targeting tram passengers and synagogue worshippers--had no training and no real organizational affiliation; they were homegrown and their attacks were spontaneous expressions of anger and frustration. Note also that in Jerusalem, one terrorist atrocity was carried out by Jews against Arabs (a Palestinian teenager was abducted and beaten and burned to death).

Then too, note that Europe and the US confront Middle East-based Islamist terrorism (Qaeda, IS) directed specifically against Arab regimes and the West. Thus far, it has not been directed against Israel, though obviously that could happen at some point. Israel, in contrast, confronts Hamas, which attacks it exclusively and not the West. To Netanyahu’s probable chagrin, the West knows it is being attacked by Levant- and Yemen-based militant Islam but has not drawn any direct connection to Israel’s plight with militant Islam. Indeed, the West is even prepared to involve Iran in its fight against extremist Sunni Islam and thereby to ignore the Islam-based threat that Iran clearly poses to Israel.

Further, in Europe most Muslims unequivocally condemn Islamist attacks like those in Paris, reflecting a relatively high degree of integration into European society-at-large. In Israel-Palestine, where the conflict increasingly threatens to take on characteristics of a civil war, Arab condemnation of Islamist terrorism is not nearly as widespread. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is something of an exception with his consistent stand against Palestinian reliance on violence, but even he finds it necessary to glorify Palestinian terrorists with memorials, street-namings and funds for the families of fallen terrorists.

Note also the different approaches to the French Jewish community. Netanyahu wants them all to “get the message” and come to Israel. Indeed, some 7,000 immigrated to Israel last year and that number is expected to rise considerably in 2015. But French political and Jewish leaders want to maintain a vibrant French Jewish community; even Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky agrees with them.

Q. Still, at the end of the day, Europe confronts a serious Islamist threat that Israel is familiar with.

A. Yes, and it is a threat that draws on alienated elements within a large and growing European Islamic community. Israelis are right in reminding Europeans that terrorism is terrorism, wherever it happens. And Israelis are not alone in warning Europe of the dangers posed by European Islam: more and more mainstream Europeans are doing so as well; note the recent publication of books in France imagining a Muslim takeover of the country.

Undoubtedly, Israel can be helpful in numerous ways. Both Israeli Intelligence and that of several moderate Arab countries appear to know the Middle East and the nuances of Islamic politics and terrorism better than the West (though second-guessing French Intelligence for its failures last week is not very helpful, since failures are inevitable on all fronts).

Moreover, Israel is also open and progressive regarding freedom of expression, which is after all the core issue that generated the first Paris attack. Sunday’s mass march in Paris was first and foremost about protecting western freedoms against attack from the forces of darkness. Here Israel has a right and an obligation to show solidarity. In this regard, even though he was apparently not invited and reportedly elbowed his way crudely to the front line of marchers, Netanyahu fit in better in Paris alongside the European leadership than did certain African and Arab leaders whose presence was prominent and whose record regarding media freedom is abysmal. (And why was no senior member of the Obama administration present to offer solidarity at this moment of European distress in the fight against terrorism?)

Ultimately, solutions will have to be European. And in preaching to Europe, Netanyahu, who is determined more than ever at election time to justify his disastrous policies and lack of viable strategies regarding the Palestinians, is not being helpful. As an Israeli, I find it embarrassing to listen to this Churchill-wannabe dancing once again on the graves of victims of terror in a hopeless effort to escape his own home-grown problems. On the other hand, as an Israeli I will be just as unhappy if, as a delayed response to this attack and a dismal expression of appeasement, France now proceeds to lower the profile of its involvement in the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria. We have seen such responses before.


Q. Apropos election time, last week you promised an Israeli election update. What notable developments of recent weeks can be understood to suggest strategic political trends?

A. Likud’s primaries produced a relatively moderate electoral list. PM Netanyahu and his allies managed to maneuver most of the real pro-settler extremists like Moshe Feiglin and Tzipi Hotobeli out of the “realistic” list, meaning the first 25 slots. This improves Netanyahu’s control within the party. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the Likud has “gone moderate”. It continues to exhibit no resemblance to the right-of-center liberal movement it once was. Netanyahu’s embrace, for the nth time, of the need to reform Israel’s problematic system of governance, is not convincing even as an election gimmick.

But Netanyahu’s chances of forming a government for the fourth time do benefit from weakness on the part of rightist electoral rivals Yisrael Beitenu and Shas (see below) and from at least a temporary truce with Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party, which will presumably now absorb the support of the most extreme Likudniks who have been disenfranchised by the Likud primaries. Islamist terrorism in Europe and Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to pursue Israel in the international arena, which generated a rare instance of US support for Netanyahu’s position, also work to Netanyahu’s benefit insofar as they boost his classic “circle the wagons” tactic. Certainly, anyone who counted Netanyahu out when he abruptly precipitated early elections a few weeks ago and appeared to be losing control over his own party now must once again confront the fact that the man is a master political manipulator.

Labor’s primaries are scheduled for later this week, so we’ll come back to them at a later date. But party leader Yitzhak Herzog has already set aside a safe slot for Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, a prominent economist who led the official inquiry that followed the summer 2011 “social justice” demonstrations, and for an as-yet unnamed retired general. What is notable is that Labor and Likud continue to run neck-and-neck in the polls, but at a low number of mandates, between 20 and 25. If this situation holds over the coming two months, then even the two biggest parties will not be able to form a coalition together without help. Accordingly, this would almost guarantee that Israel’s next government would once again be an unstable mix of medium-size parties with agendas that conflict enough to guarantee stalemate in peace-related issues. Of course, these figures also indicate that a large percentage of Israeli voters are still undecided.

But for real soap opera-style drama, we have to look to the smaller parties.

First, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party has been decimated by a corruption scandal that reaches to the highest level of party officials in a number of ministries and municipalities. After first denying the allegations and as usual blaming law enforcement officials for persecuting him, Lieberman has lately chosen to shut up about the allegations. Presumably, Internal Security Minister Aharonovich, from Lieberman’s own party, showed him the damaging evidence before resigning from politics. Now Lieberman is making sure that the entire “old guard” of his ministers and officials leaves the party. Meanwhile, with his potential Knesset list in tatters, Lieberman’s party barely polls above the minimum threshold of four members of Knesset.

Still (roughly) at the political center, Yesh Atid is making a comeback in the polls (up to 14-15) as its charismatic leader, Yair Lapid, hits the campaign trail. One of its potential competitors, Kulanu, the new list led by Moshe Kachlon, is still being formed, has not yet begun to campaign, and is lagging in the polls. So far Kachlon has brought in a number of nationally unknown women from municipalities and the media (he aspires to 40 percent female representation) to represent the socio-economic issues that are his bread-and-butter, along with a high-profile diplomat and distinguished soldier--former ambassador to Washington Michael Oren and retired general Yoav Galant, respectively--to give his list “balance”.

First in line for an Israeli political Oscar is Shas leader Aryeh Deri. After Eli Yishai parted company and set up a competing Sephardic ultra-orthodox list, Deri confronted mysteriously-leaked footage from 2008 of Shas’s recently deceased founder and spiritual leader, the still-venerated Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, criticizing Deri’s credentials for leadership. Putting on his best face of contrition, Deri proceeded to resign from the Knesset--with elections approaching, a meaningless gesture--and effectively invited his followers to plead for him to return to politics. Stay tuned.

Then there is Avraham Burg, an orthodox Jew and “prince”--his father, Yosef, was the long-time leader of the National Religious Party when it was still known as mainstream and relatively moderate--whose ideological journey is clearly not over. The younger Burg progressed through Peace Now into politics, led the Labor list for Knesset and served as elected head of that esteemed assembly before resigning from politics 11 years ago. He kept moving to the left, ostentatiously adopting (his wife’s) French citizenship as a defiant gesture against the Israeli mainstream, and preaching the welcome end of Zionism. Now he has joined Hadash, the joint Arab-Jewish communist party, and may surface on its Knesset list. Incidentally the Arab parties, including Hadash, have not yet found a formula for merging in order to survive the new four-mandate threshold.

With two months to go, following these elections could be both depressing and fun.