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?
Q. Segregated buses in the West Bank? What was the new Netanyahu government thinking?
A. One of the first acts of the fourth Netanyahu government that took office in mid-May 2015 was to proclaim segregated transportation arrangements for West Bank Palestinians commuting to work in Israel: they could no longer travel in the same buses as settlers.
Of course the rationale for the move was described as “security”, even if no security incidents are known to have occurred in “mixed” buses until now. The more settlers there are and the more “economic peace” invites Palestinians to perform manual labor in Israel, the more you seemingly need security through separation when the tired Palestinian day laborers make their way home. This classic act of apartheid was enacted by Defense Minister Yaalon, who ostensibly knows nothing of the symbolism of separate buses or backs of buses from the American South and South Africa but who did, significantly, wait until well after elections to promulgate the measure so as not to alarm liberal-minded Likud voters.
It turns out the segregated buses were a settler request. Judging from the settler testimony in a Knesset subcommittee quoted in the press, the issue is racism, not security. Here is manners expert Yoni Drier from Ariel: “My wife was in her ninth month of pregnancy and the [Palestinian] workers didn’t vacate a seat for her.” Yigal Lahav, head of the Karnei Shomron Council, added patriotically, “Arabs traveling in buses is a victory over the Jewish conqueror,” then titillated the subcommittee with the revelation that mixed travel provides the Palestinians “the thrill of traveling with Jewish girls”.
Yaalon’s bus segregation directive was quickly rescinded by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who seemingly better understood the symbolic context, following protests across the political spectrum. But of course, segregation already exists on the West Bank. After all, West Bank Arabs are already prohibited from driving on some West Bank roads and from entering settlement towns and villages without a permit. On the other hand, there are Palestinian towns where an unarmed settler dare not enter. And there are Palestinian laws that prescribe the death penalty for selling land to Jews.
Lest we forget, then, this is a conflict. And it went way beyond both security and racism--to extreme messianic ideology--when the Likud’s Tzipi Hotoveli, from May 2015 deputy foreign minister and, in the absence of an appointed minister, Israel’s senior stateswoman, convened senior Israeli diplomats on May 21 and told them, “At a time when Israel’s very existence is being challenged, it is very important to be just. The international community deals with concepts of morals and justice. In confronting them we must return to the fundamental truth of our right to this land. The entire land is ours. All of it, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, and we did not come here to apologize for that.”
Was it this leak that caused Netanyahu on Monday to remove the Foreign Minister’s director general and appoint long-time adviser and former ambassador to the UN Dore Gold in his place? Is Gold being sent to keep an eye on Hotoveli? Or does Netanyahu simply want his own man, a soft-spoken hawk but a hawk nevertheless, in place of Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, a Lieberman appointee?
Note that Hotoveli is running a stripped-down Foreign Ministry, many of whose traditional or presumed areas of authority, such as relations with the US, strategic dialogue, arms control negotiations and Diaspora affairs, have been transferred to other ministries. Negotiations with the Palestinians, for example (if and when they happen), have been delegated to Sylvan Shalom, who is now deputy prime minister and interior minister. But Hotoveli need not worry: Shalom is a veteran opponent of the two-state solution, and in any case if an occasion to negotiate presents itself he will be “minded” by Netanyahu’s lawyer and confidant, Yitzkak Molcho.
Small wonder the West Bank Palestinian leadership reassures us there will be no renewed negotiations. Even Netanyahu’s reported offer to the European Union last week to open negotiations on the boundaries of settlement blocs so Israel can continue construction in them unfettered and manage EU sanctions pressures is unlikely to tempt the Palestinian side.
Q. Can you relate these events to President Obama’s critical remarks last week to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and at a DC synagogue regarding Netanyahu’s attitude toward Israeli Arabs?
A. Obama’s remarks appear to be unrelated to the bus segregation flap but rather to a separate “busing” statement. They were a direct response to Netanyahu’s March 17 election-day appeal to Likud voters to counter, at the polls, an alleged campaign to bus masses of Arab voters to the polls. Of course, there was no such campaign, nor is it anything but welcome for large numbers of Arab citizens of Israel to vote. Netanyahu more or less retracted the racist message--which did indeed augment the Likud vote at the last minute--the next day. But Obama has since seized upon it as an indication that Israel’s leadership is taking the country in a direction contrary to the liberal, democratic values that he had always associated with Israel.
In offering these remarks to Goldberg and at a synagogue, Obama is appealing to the liberal American Jewish majority he believes shares his belief system. Anyone who has followed the consistent pattern over the years of slights and insults by Netanyahu toward Obama, going all the way back to Netanyahu’s finger-pointing Oval Office lecture regarding the conflict, in front of the entire world and with Obama’s body language signaling his discomfort, must conclude that the president was simply waiting for a combination of timing, circumstances and repulsive Netanyahu rhetoric in order to take the offensive. But whether Obama is trying to prepare American and Israeli public opinion for some new decision he is contemplating regarding Israel is another question.
Q. Exactly. Obama also recently signaled there would be no peace process initiative in the near future. And on Friday the US dramatically took Israel’s side at a UN nuclear treaty review conference.
A. The US, together with the UK and Canada, blocked the final document of a landmark conference that would have called on the UN secretary general to convene a Middle East nuclear disarmament conference by March 2016 regardless of whether Israel and its neighbors attend or agree on an agenda. The demand to convene the conference was spearheaded by Egypt. Despite Cairo’s own concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program and its close strategic coordination with Israel on matters involving Islamist terrorism, it has long sought to pressure Israel regarding its presumed nuclear capabilities.
Five years ago, to Israel’s consternation the US signed off on an Egyptian call for talks on a Middle East nuclear-free zone. Israel managed to delay them. Now they are again delayed, at Israel’s behest, until at least 2020, when another review conference is scheduled by the UN.
Israel has long argued that the comprehensive nuclear disarming of the Middle East must await peace agreements between it and all its neighbors, including Iran. Israel has pledged that at that point it will enter into serious discussions of the proposition. Interestingly, it was Yitzhak Shamir, perhaps Israel’s most hawkish prime minister, who made this proposal on Israel’s behalf back in 1988. And precisely because this is a consensus position in mainstream Israeli politics, PM Netanyahu’s message of appreciation to Obama and to Secretary of State Kerry for their stand this time at the UN was seconded in messages from Zionist Union (Labor) leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
At the UN last week, Egypt wanted to convene a Middle East nuclear disarmament conference with or without Israel and with or without prior agreement on an agenda. This reflects a consistent campaign by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry (which, unlike Israel’s, has “teeth”) that appears not to be affected by growing strategic links between the two countries’ security establishments. Unlike Egypt, Israel is not a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is not bound by it. Washington has traditionally shielded Israel from nuclear scrutiny in view of a shared assessment that Israel truly needs a powerful deterrent against countries like Iran, which consistently threatens to destroy Israel.
Of particular significance in last Friday’s US stand on Israel’s behalf at the UN is the juxtaposition with Obama’s sharp criticism of the new Israeli government’s values. The administration is clearly making a major effort to distinguish diplomacy on the Palestinian issue, where it is critical but inactive, from Israel’s security needs where it is supportive. It presumably hopes in this way to blunt Israeli opposition to a final nuclear agreement between the P5 + 1 and Iran. Meanwhile, it does not seem to object to Europe-based pressures on Israel regarding the Palestinians. But Netanyahu knows how to handle those.
Q. Is that where you would categorize the Pope’s Middle East diplomacy: Europe-based pressures?
A. Yes, to the extent the Vatican can be seen as a European institution. The Pope recently called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas an “angel of peace” and the Vatican announced preparations to recognize the state of Palestine. It also canonized two Palestinian Arab nuns who were active in the nineteenth century.
But the Pope also recognized the Ottoman slaughter of Armenian Christians 100 years ago as an act of genocide. Clearly, he is concerned not just about Palestine but also about the overall fate of Christians in a turbulent Middle East where militant and barbaric Islamists are running rampant and murdering Christians. “We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians” he told the New York Times during a visit to Turkey last year.
Undoubtedly, the Pope has become convinced that an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution would be beneficial to the survival of Christianity in the region. But with all due respect to the many very solid reasons why Jews and Arabs need such a solution, it is not at all clear how and why the advent of a Palestinian state that is fragmented between the West Bank and Gaza and between the nationalist Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas, in the midst of a region increasingly threatened by militant Islam, will necessarily benefit Christians. The fate of Middle Eastern Christianity as it confronts militant pressures from radical Islam is a far broader strategic issue for the international community to contemplate.
Q. Last week witnessed Islamic State victories and conquests in both Iraq (Ramadi) and Syria (Palmyra/Tadmor). Apparently, US-led coalition air strikes are not pushing back the Islamists to the extent anticipated. In the US and UK, proposals have now emerged to deploy western ground forces to augment weak and fragmented Iraqi forces. A dangerous escalation? Any alternatives?
A. Very dangerous. This would be one of those Vietnam-like quagmires where it’s easy to go in and difficult to get out. The anti-IS coalition would do well to brainstorm the alternatives.
From an Israeli standpoint, two make sense.
One was proposed long ago by Vice-President Biden: allow Iraq to fragment into three federated states, Shiite, Sunni and Kurd. This would enable the US to aid the Kurds and Sunnis directly and radically reduce the appeal of the Sunni IS to Iraq’s Sunnis, who would now have a sovereign cause to fight for, while strengthening the Sunni capacity to block Iranian hegemonic spread into the Levant. Another, riskier option might be to pull out all coalition forces and allow the region’s extremist Sunnis and Shiites--the latter including Iran and Hezbollah--to wage a war of attrition against one another, thereby hopefully weakening both.
Let’s recall that the US joined the fight against IS because the latter executed two American journalists and because Iraq was falling apart. Now might be a good time to reconsider these rationales, too. The present strategy, in which the US is trying to resuscitate a dysfunctional Iraq that lacks the “will to fight” (Secretary of Defense Carter) and is unwittingly abetting Iran’s hegemonic aims in the region while not defeating the extremist Sunni Islamists, doesn’t seem to be working.