This week, Alpher discusses Israel's near-suspension last week from FIFA and what are the broad strategic ramifications of this phase in the global BDS campaign against Israel; how the new right-wing Israeli government, with its heavy pro-settlement bias, can successfully confront this campaign; whether Tony Blair’s departure is a turning point and who will coordinate economic and infrastructure aid to the Palestinians and state institution-building in his absence; whether last Tuesday's firing of a rocket by Islamic Jihad from the Gaza strip towards Ashdod was a blip on the radar screen or an event with strategic ramifications; and the possibility of an Israel-Hamas dialogue.
Q. Last week, Israeli football/soccer narrowly missed being suspended from FIFA, the international football association. Two weeks ago you wrote about the Palestinian campaign against Israel at FIFA led by Jibril Rajoub. What can you add now regarding the broad strategic ramifications of this phase in the global BDS campaign against Israel?
A. There is a broad sense in Israel that the FIFA boycott campaign, while technically thwarted from Israel’s standpoint, constitutes a negative turning point in Israel’s defense against BDS. (BDS, Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions, is the vanguard of the campaign to isolate Israel globally against the backdrop of the Palestinian issue.) Rajoub used FIFA and football to put the boycott firmly on the international agenda. While he was ultimately persuaded not to put his demand to suspend Israel to a vote and not to bring his case to the United Nations--a compromise for which he has been roundly condemned in radical Palestinian circles--the arrangement he achieved will expose Israel to FIFA monitoring regarding all of his complaints: excessive security measures against travel by Arab teams into and out of the West Bank; the illegal integration of West Bank settlement teams into Israeli league play; and Israeli destruction of Palestinian football facilities.
Last week, too, President Reuven Rivlin added fuel to the fire of BDS alarm in Israel when he told a group of academics that the “academic boycott is a strategic threat of the first order”. He was referring first and foremost to boycott activities on US and European campuses, but also to a growing sense among Israeli academics that they are being shunned by their western colleagues.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response to FIFA and its aftermath and to BDS was, as usual, music to the ears of Israeli hawks and paranoids and Israel’s knee-jerk right-wing supporters in the US and elsewhere. "I think that it is important to understand that these things do not stem from the fact that if only we were nicer or a little more generous--we are very generous, we have made many offers, we have made many concessions--that anything would change because this campaign to delegitimize Israel entails something much deeper that is being directed at us and seeks to deny our very right to live here. . . . Now, this is a phenomenon that we have known in the history of our people. What hasn't been said about the Jewish people? They said that we are the focus of all evil in the world. All of these things are being said about us today as well. It was not true then and it is not true today.”
Most Israelis, including many on the moderate left, tend to oppose the Palestinian-led boycott campaign for two reasons. First, it some cases it makes no distinction between settlement-related activities and those confined to Israel proper and the Israeli mainstream, thereby punishing Israelis who are either not involved in the occupation or are even active in campaigning against it. And second, some of the leaders of the boycott campaign are not merely opposed to the occupation: they indeed oppose Israel’s very existence. Yet with an extreme rightist-ultra-nationalist government in Jerusalem and with Netanyahu pouring on the Holocaust-style rhetoric, it is all the more difficult and discomfiting for moderate Israelis and moderate supporters of Israel to combat these growing boycott efforts.
Q. Indeed, how can the new right-wing Israeli government, with its heavy pro-settlement bias, successfully confront this campaign?
A. How indeed? In the past two weeks we have witnessed a parade of senior European diplomats--most recently German Foreign Minister Steinmeier--coming to Jerusalem to plead with Prime Minister Netanyahu to “do something” in order to head off additional European sanctions and UN Security Council action. Netanyahu’s gesture to European Union foreign affairs chief Mogherini--let’s open negotiations regarding the borders of the settlement blocs--has already been flatly rejected by the Palestinian leadership and will not gain Netanyahu much time. This month, French Foreign Minister Fabius is scheduled to arrive to present the French initiative for a United Nations-mandated “international framework” for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations--yet another European initiative that Netanyahu seeks to sideline.
But his new government is certainly not built for the task. In order to please his Likud and coalition partners, Netanyahu has divided up classic vital functions of the Foreign Ministry—public diplomacy, Diaspora, strategic dialogue, negotiations with the Palestinians, nuclear issues--among five or six other ministers, all of whom have additional “jobs”. Left in the Foreign Ministry is Deputy Minister Hotovely (there is no foreign minister), who instructs Israel’s diplomats that they should not “apologize” for Israel’s control over the entire God-given Land of Israel.
Small wonder the boycott campaign is gathering momentum. Israel’s “hasbara” (public diplomacy) is in strategic crisis.
There are only two possible explanations for this dismal state of affairs. One is a grotesque exaggeration of the traditional denigration of Israel’s Foreign Ministry in favor of security-related ministries on the grounds that everything in Israel is ultimately security-based. This might have made sense if all of Hotovely’s functions had been transferred to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. It does not make sense when they are divvied up among so many other ministers who themselves lack security expertise.
A second explanation is Netanyahu: he simply believes he can manage everything. He can rebuff boycotts, pull the wool over the eyes of pesky western diplomats, find ways to cooperate under the radar screen with Arab neighbors who share Israel’s fears of radical Shiite and Sunni Islam, and keep expanding the settlements. In his favor, we have to note that he has done this rather successfully for the past six years.
Is BDS a turning point?
Q. Is Tony Blair’s departure a turning point? Who will coordinate economic and infrastructure aid to the Palestinians and state institution-building in his absence?
A. Blair’s departure is definitely not a turning point. By the time he ended his eight years as Quartet envoy to the Middle East (the Quartet is made up of the UN, US, EU and Russia), his relations with the Palestinian Authority were reportedly bad, and those with Israel none too good. Back home in the UK he is under attack for his role in the 2003 Iraq war and for cultivating lucrative business consultancies that allegedly conflict with his Middle East tasks.
Perhaps most significantly, Blair’s very appointment represented a misbegotten and at times counter-productive strategy of “economic peace”. Of course improving Palestinians’ well-being and building their institutions is a good thing. But the notion that this in and of itself will contribute to peace and stability, whether in the West Bank or Gaza, is highly problematic. Both intifadas broke out at times of relative prosperity. Even the 1936 Arab revolt against the British mandate broke out at a time of prosperity in Palestine.
What Blair and all those engaged in economic and infrastructure development in the absence of a viable peace process should understand is that the conflict is political and increasingly religious/ideological, but most definitely not economic. This calls into question the logic of a (fairly typical) statement about Gaza by German FM Steinmeier on Sunday: “we have to think about the reconstruction of Gaza and the economic situation, because only through the rehabilitation of Gaza and the economy of its residents, can we think about the security of Israel, which is tied to the prosperity in Gaza." If Gaza is “prosperous”, will Hamas not attack Israel and call for its destruction? Each round of violence launched by Hamas in and around Gaza generates a new international rebuilding effort, until the next round when Israel destroys some of the new structures.
Q. Apropos Gaza and violence, last Tuesday night, May 26, Islamic Jihad activists fired a Grad rocket from the Gaza Strip toward Ashdod. Israel’s retaliation was pinpoint and minor. Was this a blip on the radar screen or an event with strategic ramifications?
A. The past year since last summer’s war with Hamas has witnessed “only” six single rocket attacks on Israel and two fire-fights with IDF units across the fence. Israel has generally limited its armed response in a conscious effort to avoid escalation over isolated incidents. (Note that this count does not include incidents where the IDF opened fire on Gazans suspiciously approaching the border fence.) But last week’s incident appears to be more significant, for two reasons.
First, it illustrated the growing gap between Hamas, which ostensibly rules the Strip, and a variety of Gaza-based Salafi Islamist organizations whose agenda is even more extreme. Last week’s Grad rocket was fired by Islamist Jihad members who were apparently quarreling among themselves over their inability to get ongoing financial support from Iran. Iran, in turn, is punishing IJ over its refusal to support the pro-Iranian Houthis in Yemen and condemn Saudi Arabia. Hamas, in this case, immediately and demonstrably cracked down on the IJ attackers. Gazan intra-Islamist affairs then became violent when, on Sunday, a Gazan group claiming allegiance to ISIS reported it had assassinated a senior Hamas commander in the Gaza Strip for “participating in the heretical war against the Mujahidin [jihadist holy warriors]" and called on Hamas to “end its war on religion in Gaza, or face the consequences.”
Confusing? The point is that the Islamist wars are linked and that, like it or not, at any given point in time some Islamists are not as bad as others.
Second, Hamas also found an innovative way to reassure Israel in real time last Tuesday night that it was not involved in this attack: through an unidentified “Palestinian actor”, but not the Palestinian Authority. This is as close as Israel and Hamas have ever gotten at the official level to direct dialogue; the message was passed not through Egypt, Turkey, Qatar or the PA, all of whom have served as conduits in the past, but through a Palestinian with close ties to Hamas and credibility with Israel.
We have noted in past weeks that a Qatari-Swiss proposal for a three to five-year Israel-Gaza ceasefire has been tendered to both sides, with discussions billed to include air and sea port facilities for Gaza with appropriate security provisions for Israel. Hamas’s political wing reportedly likes the idea, with its military wing far less enthusiastic. Last week’s message might have been a step toward some greater degree of dialogue on this and related issues.
This impression was reinforced last Wednesday when President Rivlin stated that he favors talking to “everybody”, including Hamas. The real question, Rivlin added, is “about what?” A possible reply came on Sunday this week, when Mustafa al-Sawwaf, a prominent Palestinian journalist and political analyst from the Gaza Strip, wrote in the Hamas-affiliated online al-Resalah that Hamas could negotiate with Israel over specific issues concerning the Gaza Strip without making political concessions such as recognizing Israel’s right to exist.
Or is Hamas merely playing for time in an increasingly chaotic and isolated reality?
Q. An Israel-Hamas dialogue?
A. Note that Israel’s current right-wing government, with its antipathy to yielding West Bank territory and its attachment to the settlements, might actually be better positioned tactically than the Israeli peace camp to do a deal with Hamas in Gaza. The peace camp is committed to negotiating a two-state solution that includes Gaza and the West Bank is concluded with the PLO, Israel’s official peace partner under the Oslo accords which has no presence in the Gaza Strip, and which ends the conflict. The Israeli political right does not like the Oslo accords and does everything it can to thwart them. But it has no desire to return to the Gaza Strip and would be delighted to triumphantly parade an extended ceasefire deal with Hamas that, by-the-by, makes Israel look good internationally and makes last summer’s problematic war look good from Israel’s standpoint while reducing the pressure for a genuine two-state solution.
No one can say that stabilizing the situation with Hamas in Gaza is a bad thing. Yet ending Israeli rule in the West Bank and East Jerusalem remains the only way to get Israel off the slippery slope toward a bi-national state that spells the end of Zionism and the Jewish state.