January 26, 2015 - Netanyahu's invitation to speak before Congress, new elections lists, the Saudi succession and more




This week, Alpher discusses the repercussions of the invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress; the Mossad advisory against escalating sanctions and Israel’s tactics against Iran; the attack last week across the Golan border that was attributed to Israel that resulted in the death of an Iranian Quds Force general; strategic ramifications for the elections given the united electoral list of Arab citizens of Israel and the Labor primaries having produced a list with an unusually large, young contingent of women reform advocates; the strategic balance sheet that King Salman inherits after the death of Saudi King Abdullah last week and a coup staged in Yemen by a Zaidi-Shiite sect;

Q. Even Fox News has taken its distance from the invitation for PM Netanyahu to address the US Congress. So who wins and who gains from this prospective speech, scheduled for March 3?

A. Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to insist that the purpose of the speech is solely to prevent a bad nuclear agreement with Iran. "In coming weeks, the powers are liable to reach a framework agreement with Iran, an agreement liable to leave Iran as a nuclear threshold state," Netanyahu stated on Sunday. "As prime minister of Israel, I am obligated to make every effort to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weaponry that will be aimed at the State of Israel. This effort is global and I will go anywhere I am invited to make the State of Israel's case and defend its future and existence."

Yet it is already likely that, because the invitation to Netanyahu was issued behind the back of the Obama administration and has alienated even those congressional Democrats who favor stronger Iran sanctions, the Netanyahu speech, if it happens, could actually work to the detriment of new sanctions, since Democrats will probably now be obliged to support an Obama veto of new sanctions. As noted by Michael Oren, formerly Netanyahu’s ambassador in Washington but now a candidate for the Kulanu party that seeks to poach Likud votes, the Netanyahu speech initiative is a “cynical move” that could “cause a rift with the American government”.

Conceivably, too, following this joint Republican-Netanyahu slight to the White House, Obama will now feel obliged to reconsider what appeared to be a benevolent “hands off” approach to Israel in the coming year. Note that the Israeli-Palestinian issue was totally absent from the president’s State of the Union address last week and that the administration, in close consultation with Netanyahu, has helped fend off the Palestinians’ “internationalization” attack at the UN and the ICC.

Even if he actually hurts the sanctions cause, Netanyahu undoubtedly believes that the speech before a joint session of Congress will contribute to his electoral chances on March 17. That explains why he asked to move the speech from February to early March, exactly two weeks before Israel’s Knesset elections. In the concept that he and his spokespersons preach to Israelis, the Republicans in Congress are the “real America”, the America whose friendship every Israeli prime minister is expected by the public to cultivate. Obama’s alleged animosity can therefore be ignored.

It’s too early to say whether Israeli voters will buy into this concept in the current context. If Netanyahu ultimately finds an excuse to cancel the March 3 speech, it will be because his own tactical polling indicates that voters feel betrayed by the prime minister’s calculations and will punish Netanyahu on March 17 for having gone to Washington in such blatantly partisan and controversial circumstances.

The Netanyahu invitation is clearly a Republican slight to the institution of the US presidency and to President Obama specifically. Accordingly, it can also conceivably be understood as a slight to the American Jewish community, which voted overwhelmingly for Obama and which is now liable to see Netanyahu as what former Israeli consul general in New York Alon Pinkas calls “the Republican senator from Jerusalem”.

This invitation and Netanyahu’s acceptance cast doubt on Netanyahu’s judgment regarding both US support for Israel and the project of preventing a nuclear Iran. By extension, they cast doubt on the judgment of AIPAC and of Netanyahu’s wealthy American Jewish patrons. Just ask Fox News.


Q. The Republican invitation to Netanyahu was complicated last week when Secretary of State Kerry alleged that a senior Mossad official (who turned out to be Mossad head Tamir Pardo) had advised a US senatorial delegation against escalating sanctions. The Mossad issued an unusual clarification. We seem to have a “perfect storm” involving Israel, Iran and the US. What have we learned regarding Israel’s tactics against Iran?

A. The fascinating document here is Pardo’s clarification--an extremely rare public step for any Mossad head. It highlights not only Israeli differences with the US, but nuanced gaps between Netanyahu’s approach and that of the Israeli security establishment as represented by Pardo.

Pardo, on the one hand, “pointed out explicitly that the bad agreement taking shape with Iran is likely to lead to a regional arms race”. On the other hand, he praised “the exceptional effectiveness of the sanctions imposed on Iran in recent years” as having “brought Iran to the negotiating table”. How to square this circle? “In negotiating with Iran, it is essential to present both carrots and sticks and. . . the latter are currently lacking. . . . In the absence of strong pressure, the Iranians will make no meaningful compromises.” Accordingly Pardo, using the term “throwing a grenade”, referred to “the possibility of creating a temporary crisis in the negotiations at the end of which talks would resume under improved conditions”.

This is not Netanyahu speaking--at least not publicly, where he faults any conceivable agreement and is known to have favored military intervention. This is a security community that does not like the emerging agreement, but apparently is prepared to live with it, and that is offering tactical “constructive crisis” advice to the American negotiators. An additional ramification of Pardo’s clarification is that Kerry misquoted him. In any case, Kerry should not have dragged the Mossad into this, even if his pique at Netanyahu’s behavior is understandable. The last thing the Israeli security community needs is to be involved in the US-Israel controversy over Iran, the machinations of the Republicans in Congress and of Netanyahu, and Israel’s elections.


Q. Meanwhile, Israeli sources first acknowledged that in an attack last week across the Golan border that was attributed to Israel the death of an Iranian Quds Force general was a mistake, then claimed the general had been targeted. What do you think happened?

A. Against the backdrop of the nuclear controversy and US involvement on Iran’s side against the Islamic State, Israel is not looking for a direct fight with Iran. Accordingly, it stands to reason that Israel was not aware of the general’s presence alongside Hezbollah officers and men who were targeted across the border in Syria.

But once the shock of what happened was absorbed by the senior Israeli security echelon, cold calculation took over. Iran and Hezbollah are too preoccupied with their roles in the fighting in Syria, Iraq and even Yemen to attack Israel right now and start yet another war. Iran does not want a fight with Israel to disturb its nuclear negotiations with the P5 + 1. Having killed a senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a force that is dedicated to Israel’s destruction, Israel should hardly be seen to be backing off and mumbling excuses. Besides, the simultaneous assassination in Argentina of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was about to release proof of an Argentinian-Iranian conspiracy to cover up the murder 20 years ago of 84 Argentine Jews, also militated in favor of a strong anti-Iranian stance and deterrent act.

This version of events was assisted by Hezbollah’s own revelation that the Iranian general’s cell phone had been on when he was targeted. The location of an active cell phone is notoriously easy to pinpoint.

Iran will eventually retaliate, almost certainly through its Hezbollah proxy, which seeks to avenge a long list of preemptive attacks allegedly perpetrated by Israel. As with the Amia bombing in 1994, the Diaspora will be the likely target.


Q. The Arab citizens of Israel have succeeded in creating a united electoral list, while the Labor primaries produced a list with an unusually large, young contingent of women reform advocates. Are there strategic ramifications here for the elections?

A. The Arab list, which unites no fewer than four parties, is an unprecedented achievement for the Israeli Arab community. It is a direct response to a hostile measure sponsored by Avigdor Lieberman to raise the electoral threshold for entering the Knesset to four mandates. Lieberman had hoped to force the small and fractious Arab parties out of the Knesset. But he should have been admonished to beware what he wishes for: his own corruption-ridden party, abandoned by its most senior elected officials, is in danger of missing the threshold and disappearing, while the Arabs are certain to enter the Knesset with anywhere from 10 to 15 representatives in a single party.

But will they then hold together. The Arab list unites communists, Islamists and radical nationalists. A huge ideological distance separates Dov Hanin of Hadash, the only Jew on the list, from the fiery Hanin Zoabi of the radical Balad, who herself shares few ideological principles with Masoud Ghanaim of the Islamic Movement. The Arab public wants them all to concentrate their anticipated parliamentary power on improving quality of life, education and economic opportunity for Arabs in Israel.

But many of these veteran parliamentarians are accustomed to uselessly pushing a more politicized anti-Zionist agenda. If they pull together, they could be one of the largest parties in the Knesset. Under one possible scenario (a Likud-Labor coalition), they could conceivably even lead the opposition; alternatively, quiet readiness to support a centrist coalition from the backbenches could make them influential kingmakers.

Labor--from herein, combined with Tzipi Livni’s HaTnua, the “Zionist Camp”--features a bevy of young women reformers and an Arab sports broadcaster. A popular retired general and strategist, Amos Yadlin, is the party’s candidate for defense minister. Accusations by Netanyahu and, to his right, Naftali Bennet, that the Zionist Camp list is “post-Zionist” are not likely to persuade many among the huge reserve of floating voters in the political center, where women dissatisfied with the Likud list (only two women) could cross lines. Meretz, on the other hand, is stuck with a familiar list of serving and former MKs that is liable to lose the party votes both to the Zionist Camp to its right and to the united Arab list on the left.


Q. Meanwhile, on the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi King Abdullah died last week while a Zaidi-Shiite sect staged a coup in Yemen. What sort of strategic balance sheet does King Salman inherit?

A. A problematic one, indeed. On the one hand, under Abdullah the Saudis weathered the Arab Spring and helped Egypt overcome Muslim Brotherhood rule and economic crisis. In recent months, Riyadh also cleverly spearheaded a radical reduction in oil prices that has crippled Iran, its regional rival (as well as Russia--a favor to Washington). Clearly, Saudi Arabia’s deep pockets give Salman a huge strategic advantage. The new king also inherits Abdullah’s sponsorship of the Arab Peace Initiative--a worthy document that should not be allowed to drift into oblivion.

On the other hand, in Riyadh’s view Iran has exploited recent developments to generate a growing strategic threat on nearly all Saudi borders. Iran is the hegemonic power in Iraq, Syria and, most recently, via the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, in Yemen as well. While Riyadh has rallied its Gulf allies to help the regime in Bahrain fend off a revolt by the country’s majority Shiites who are also supported by Iran, that drama is far from over. Perhaps most significantly, Saudi sponsorship of the militant Syrian Sunni opposition has failed miserably: not only is Bashar Assad still in power in Damascus with Iranian and Russian support, but the militant Islamist movements spawned by Saudi Wahabi ideology, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, could soon threaten the kingdom as well. Given that Washington is now leaning toward working with Iran and acquiescing for the moment in Assad’s rule, not all is tranquil in the Saudi-American relationship, either.

Finally, and perhaps most important for the Saudi strategic picture, Abdullah’s domestic reforms with regard to human and political rights, while moving in the right direction, may ultimately prove to be too little, too late in terms of domestic stability. With all due respect to the solidity of the succession process, this incredibly anachronistic situation is the biggest challenge of all for Salman and--in view of his poor health--his successors