This week, Alpher discusses whether there is any chance former US President Jimmy Carter will succeed in generating Palestinian unity where everyone else has failed when he arrives in the region this Thursday to mediate between Hamas and Fateh, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia; if Israel’s northern front is heating up or if recent incidents are connected to events in the Syrian civil war; how US involvement in the Saudi-led effort in Yemen, directed against Iranian intervention squares with the US-led nuclear talks with Iran; why Israel couldn’t observe the centenary of the Armenian genocide on April 24.
Q. Former US President Jimmy Carter arrives in the region this Thursday. He reportedly wants to mediate between Hamas and Fateh, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Any chance he’ll succeed in generating Palestinian unity where everyone else has failed?
A. Virtually none. Israel is enabling Carter to visit the West Bank as well as Gaza, where he will meet with the Hamas leadership after he met with supreme Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Qatar. But the Israeli leadership has refused to meet with the highly critical Carter during this trip.
The Carter effort finds Hamas and Fateh completely at loggerheads. Last week a Palestinian Authority ministerial mission to Gaza returned to Ramallah empty-handed, claiming its attempts to work with Hamas and enable reconstruction aid channeled through the PLO to enter the Strip were rebuffed there. Hamas in response accused Palestinian Authority security officials of trying to eliminate Hamas from the West Bank after Hamas won student body elections at Bir Zeit University and Palestinian police responded by detaining an Islamist student activist there. So there is little evidence to support the supposition that conditions are ripe for Hamas-Fateh reconciliation, even if the PA Central Elections Committee robotically announced this week that new Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections could be held any time.
In contrast, it seems that Qatari efforts to promote indirect dialogue between Israel and Hamas (reported in these virtual pages two weeks ago), thereby facilitating augmented commerce and movement of Palestinians between the Gaza Strip and Israel, has at least had a calming effect. Last week on Israel Independence Day a single rocket was fired from the Strip into Israel. It did no damage and the Israeli response was minimal. Hamas quickly reassured Israel via Cairo that it would pursue the renegade attackers. One Israeli strategic commentator, Yediot Aharonot’s Alex Fishman, put two and two together and speculated that the next rocket fired from Gaza could be a spoiler protest against Israeli-Hamas contacts fired by a pro-Fateh group based in the Strip. . .
Q. The last few days have witnessed new attacks on Syrian missile depots near Lebanon and another border incident on the Golan. Is Israel’s northern front heating up?
A. The violence in the north was accompanied by a statement by Defense Minister Yaalon to the effect that Israel will not tolerate a buildup of hostile forces and sophisticated weapons systems on its northern border. This is not a new policy, just as attacks on weapons transfers from Syria to Lebanese Hezbollah (attacks that are not claimed by Israel but are generally attributed in the region to the Israel Air Force) and retaliatory attempts to attack Israel along the Golan border are not new.
So there is a pattern here that appears to represent no more than a brief escalation.
Q. Are these incidents connected to events in the Syrian civil war?
A. Here the situation becomes less routine and more complicated, with the primary focus on Saudi Arabian attempts, not all successful, to weaken Iranian influence in the region.
In recent weeks, just as a variety of observers were pronouncing that Syrian ruler Bashar Assad, backed by heavy Russian arms supplies and manpower reinforcements from Iran and Hezbollah, was stabilizing his rule over at least “useful Syria” (the Damascus region, the Mediterranean coast and the territory linking them), Islamist and other rebel forces registered important gains on the ground. On Syria’s northwest coast the Idlib provincial center is now in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian version of al-Qaeda. Al-Nusra and more secular groups have also taken territory in the south near Syria’s border with Jordan. Now Islamic State forces are massing to attack in the area between Damascus and the Lebanon border, including Syria’s international airport and the Qalamoun hills on the border with Lebanon. In Syria and Iranian eyes, these rebel achievements are linked to last week’s night bombings of Syrian missile depots near Qalamoun that are attributed to Israel--if only because they all weaken Syria.
Real or imagined, the linkage brings us to the broader regional situation: the war in Yemen and the Saudi response to Iran’s drive to expand its Middle East presence and influence. Last week, Saudi Arabia “declared victory” in Yemen, then continued its bombing campaign under a new name and a new slogan and, however briefly, on a lower profile. It was apparent that the Saudi-led effort in Yemen could not succeed without a major land campaign but that there were no volunteers to lead it. The Saudis’ brief flirt with a ceasefire appeared to be a response not only to pressure from Washington and Cairo to put a stop to a failed military effort but also to an Iranian proposal for Yemen truce talks, coupled with veiled threats that the Houthis would expand the war into Saudi territory.
In the absence of a major invasion by Saudi-led forces on the ground in Yemen, the emphasis has moved to recruiting tribal allies and dissident Yemeni army units for the anti-Houthi/Zaidi effort, presumably with sizeable bribes. The United States contributed a naval presence near the Yemeni coast that apparently deterred an Iranian naval resupply effort for the Houthis. The Saudi-Houthi war has also been enabling AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) to expand its impressive territorial base in eastern Yemen, to the distress of nearly everyone else.
Thus far the Saudi air offensive in Yemen, which was apparently initiated without consulting Washington but which the Pentagon hastened to support, and Riyadh’s wishy-washy ceasefire declaration have provoked derision on Iran’s part along with region-wide intimations that the new Saudi leadership under King Salman and his defense minister, his young son Prince Mohammad, is impulsive and reckless.
Yet more or less in parallel with this stalemated and problematic effort to combat perceived pro-Iranian and anti-Sunni forces in the southern Arabian Peninsula, the Saudis (and Qataris and Turks) have registered more success in the Syrian arena with their support for al-Nusra and its military achievements. (To render that support “kosher” they still have to moderate the Nusra image and detach it from its Qaeda patron.) Jordanian commentator Oraib Al Rantawi summed up the Saudi regional strategic logic nicely: “Those who claim that [the air offensive in Yemen] achieved its aims and ended in a ‘glorious’ Saudi victory suggest that the Kingdom should now seek a similar victory in the Syrian crisis. And those who claim that the [Yemen campaign] failed to achieve any of its main objectives and that it was no more than a ‘painful disappointment’ for Saudi Arabia in its first military test, equally believe that Riyadh is now likely to try to secure gains in Syria that would ‘compensate’ for its defeat in Yemen.”
A seemingly smoother Saudi effort to combat Assad and Iran also reached fruition last week with the first shipment of major French weapons systems to the Lebanese Army. The weapons have been paid for with a Saudi grant of $3 billion. The idea is to beef up Lebanon’s capacity to secure its sovereignty against incursions from Syria, whether by Syrian and pro-Syrian forces or by the Salafist opposition.
Here one potential fly in the ointment is that Israel fears lest the French weaponry find its way into the hands of Hezbollah forces that, after all, are collaborating with the weak Lebanese Army against the Salafists. And this in turn brings us full circle back to Israel’s concerns about advanced weaponry in Hezbollah’s hands and last week’s attacks from the air on a Syrian weapons depot near Lebanon.
Q. You mentioned US involvement in the Saudi-led effort in Yemen, directed against Iranian intervention. How does this square with the US-led nuclear talks with Iran?
A. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, a well-informed and frequent visitor to the Middle East, termed the Obama administration’s current approach to the region “dual engagement”: balance “a less-threatening Iran with a more confident, forward-leaning Saudi Arabia”. To that end, the US is beefing up Gulf Arab security capabilities, lending a hand in the seemingly poorly conceived Saudi offensive in Yemen, and supporting Saudi efforts to strengthen the anti-Assad forces in and around Syria. In mid-May, President Obama will convene a summit meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders at Camp David, both to reassure them regarding US-Iran ties and to speak candidly with them about the need for greater pluralism and individual freedoms at home in Saudi Arabia and the emirates in order to strengthen security from within.
The term “dual engagement” brings to mind two associations. First, back in the 1980s, during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the US engaged in a policy called “dual containment” that ended up badly. Both Iran and Iraq emerged from their war more extreme than ever; each blamed Washington for siding with the other. Now the idea appears to be to ease Iran into a stabilizing role in a volatile, chaotic Middle East while reassuring the Saudis with weapons. If the Iran aspect of this policy is indeed as ill-conceived as it looks to many Saudis, Egyptians and Israelis, it could end up in an Arab war with Iran brought on by the impression of US acquiescence in Iranian hegemony in the region and criticism, however necessary and justified, of the Saudi leadership.
Second, where does dual engagement leave Israel? The administration is clearly pledged to dialogue now with the Gulf Arab leaders about Iran. In contrast, Obama had made it clear that he will not meet with PM Netanyahu in the near term. This situation reflects, on the one hand, Saudi wisdom in greeting this month’s P5 + 1 nuclear agreement with Iran courteously and, on the other, Netanyahu’s open affronts to Obama. True, the administration appears poised to deliver highly sophisticated arms to Israel as well as arming the Gulf Arabs. But dual engagement leaves Israel relatively isolated in the region’s high-level interaction with the administration and that is not a good thing. The sooner Netanyahu forms a government and, if possible, begins to patch things up with Washington, the better. He could have started already by agreeing to a photo-op with a former Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.
Q. Apropos regional isolation, why couldn’t Israel observe the centenary of the Armenian genocide on April 24 by calling a spade a spade, using the term genocide and sending a more senior delegation to Yerevan?
A. In the past, the excuse was the sensitivities of Turkey. Now that Turkey has radically chilled its strategic ties with Israel, the explanation is Israel’s critical security and commercial links with Azerbaijan, another enemy of Armenia.
Undoubtedly, these were and are sound explanations. They are well grounded in regional realpolitik. But they are not rooted in the moral and ethical foundations of the Jewish people. We can only hope the day will soon come when the Israeli political leadership--Likud or Labor, it doesn’t matter--will assess that the country is no longer so isolated regionally that it cannot address this issue with greater moral clarity and integrity.