Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: September 30, 2013

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This week, Alpher discusses whether the Syrian chemical weapons agreement and the Obama-Rowhani phone conversation evidence of an approaching "new Munich" and Netanyahu's "sounding the alarm," what the outcome depends upon, what Netanyahu's and Israel's most immediate legitimate concerns are regarding the upcoming round of talks with Iran, how would a possible administration linkage between Iran and Israel-Palestine, as implied in Obama's UN speech work, and how seriously does he take reports of growing tensions between Egypt and the Hamas leadership in Gaza.

Q. Are the Syrian chemical weapons agreement and the Obama-Rowhani phone conversation evidence of an approaching "new Munich", as circles close to PM Netanyahu would have us believe?

A. Not only circles close to Netanyahu. Professor Shlomo Avineri, no supporter of Netanyahu, wrote an op-ed in Haaretz hinting at a US "Munich"-style capitulation with regard to Syria. And the Saudi and other Gulf Arab media have featured highly critical articles regarding President Obama's leadership in the Middle East. It's fair to say that broad circles in Israel, while not necessarily in "Munich" mode, are concerned that the administration is going too far in accommodating Iran's new president and in backing off from the use of force against the Assad regime, and are worried about the consequences for Israel. It doesn't help that September 30 is the anniversary of the Munich accord that paved the way toward World War II.

Yet there is little or no basis in immediate hard facts for this alarmist approach. It's all about the broader picture on the one hand, and "spin" on the other.

The broader picture is the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration's "lead from behind" in Libya and the zigzagging over military action against Syria. The latter led to a Russian-American-UN deal for disarming Syria's chemical weaponry that few in the Middle East have faith in and that appears perversely to have strengthened Assad's grip on power. All this has generated the impression in some circles that Washington's leadership on Middle East issues is "soft".

The spin concerns the Rowhani visit. After all, negotiations over Iran's nuclear project and the possible relaxing of international sanctions have not even begun. Yet Rowhani spinned his visit into a "smile campaign". The administration has been forthcoming and polite but has not even hinted at concessions to Iran. Netanyahu and his entourage have spun these events into a virtual "Munich".

Q. So Netanyahu has come to Washington and New York to sound an alarm.

A. Absolutely. There are plenty of good reasons for Netanyahu to stand at the General Assembly podium and remind the world who the Iranians really are and what they have done and not done. Conveniently, he can even point to fresh revelations regarding Iranian preparations to launch terrorist attacks in Israel. But is he telling the Obama administration something it doesn't know? Is he pointing to something Obama is neglecting?

To be effective, Netanyahu has to stop grimacing and stop condemning Iranian Rosh HaShana greetings. He should recognize that the sanctions and military threats he has championed have helped bring us to the current juncture, but that this is not Munich and he is not Churchill. (Note, by the way, that Churchill's protests and rhetoric did not prevent WWII; accordingly, the Munich comparison is a bad one even for Netanyahu.)

Should we be concerned lest the Syria chemical weapons disarmament program and the renewal of nuclear talks with Rowhani go awry and genuinely endanger Israel? Definitely. But that is no reason to imply that these non-military routes to solutions are a priori a mistake and a sign of weakness. On the contrary, they have the potential to deliver far better results for Israel than military action.

Q. So what does the outcome depend on?

A. The approach and behavior of the principals. Here we can only ask questions.

America. Will the US put its alleged war fatigue behind it and maintain the sanctions and the threat of force until Iran produces genuine, verifiable concessions? In what way, if at all, does Obama's UN declaration that "in the near term, America's diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Arab-Israeli conflict" imply an attempt by Washington to link the two issues and how will this play out in Israeli-American relations?

Iran. Are President Rowhani and Foreign Minister Zarif genuine moderates who mean what they say? How strong is Supreme Leader Khamenei's support for them, bearing in mind that the Revolutionary Guards whom he commands are almost certain to oppose genuine Iranian concessions on the nuclear issue? Or are Rowhani, Zarif and Khamenei, as Netanyahu alleges, a smokescreen concealing an effort to free Iran of crippling sanctions while maintaining its nuclear program? If that is indeed the case, how can Iran's deceit be unmasked in a way more credible than Netanyahu's approach?

Israel. With the US and Iran headed for renewed negotiations in a promising atmosphere, is the Israeli threat of military preemption still credible? To what extent will Netanyahu seek to recruit congressional support for his hard line and how will this affect his relationship with Obama and with Secretary of State Kerry, who is spearheading Israeli-Palestinian talks over a two-state solution? Or will Netanyahu do the right thing: "keep the administration honest" regarding Iran while wishing it success in negotiations?

Q. Beyond all the rhetoric, what is Netanyahu's and Israel's most immediate legitimate concern regarding the upcoming round of talks with Iran?

A. Will any sanctions be relaxed, and in return for what Iranian concessions?

Q. You referred to possible administration linkage between Iran and Israel-Palestine, as implied in Obama's UN speech. How would this work?

A. In its most simplistic form, one could imagine an Obama-Netanyahu conversation in which the American president promises to be very tough on Iran but implies that this will be easier if he can point--in his conversations with the Arabs, the Europeans, the Russians, even the Iranians--to genuine progress between Israelis and Palestinians. He would add, correctly, that both a tough deal with Iran and a two-state breakthrough are in Israel's basic strategic interest.

Note, however, that Obama did not explicitly link the two issues in his UN speech. On the other hand, in singling out Iran and Arab-Israel peace Obama in effect broke new ground in American foreign policy: neither Arab revolutions nor the Pacific rim received the same priority. This appears to be the administration's reply to the accusations that it is "soft" on Middle East issues.

Q. Speaking of the Palestinian issue, how seriously do you take reports of growing tensions between Egypt and the Hamas leadership in Gaza?

A. In late September, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy threatened that Egypt would use military force against those in Gaza "who violate our borders and sovereignty." He complained of "tension" between Cairo and Hamas and suggested the latter was not doing enough to secure the Gaza-Sinai border. The threats followed weeks of Egyptian military operations against the border-smuggling tunnels that included the brutal demolition of any and all structures near the border on the Egypt side--something Israel never dared to do when it controlled the Gaza side of the border prior to 2005.

The Egyptian military regime under General al-Sissi has two complaints against Hamas. One, which Hamas can do nothing about, is that it is a sister organization of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which Sissi is cracking down on mercilessly. A second is that Hamas has aided and abetted Salafi terrorist elements in Sinai and might even have linked up with emerging Islamist terrorists inside Egypt proper.

Accordingly, Egypt is blockading Gaza both on land and at sea. The resultant siege has generated scarcities of fuel and food. Meanwhile, Sissi's regime makes no secret of its support for the West Bank-based PLO.

The Hamas leadership is caught between a rock and a hard place. It cut its ties with Syria, Hezbollah and Iran more than a year ago, when the Muslim Brothers, its natural ally but an enemy of Hamas's Alawite and Shiite allies, took power in Egypt. Now it faces Sissi's vengeance on one flank while on the other it is not being welcomed back to the "resistance" fold by a less-than-enthusiastic Iran, which is helping Assad fight the Brothers and other Sunni rebels in Syria.

For now, Hamas is trying to comply with Egypt's demands by suppressing Salafists in Gaza. By the by, this means a welcome crackdown on those who occasionally lob rockets into Israel. There is also a strong degree of security coordination between Egypt and Israel regarding both Sinai, where the Egyptian army is actively fighting Salafists, and Gaza. But Hamas is also suppressing secular elements in Gaza who are trying to mimic the anti-Islamist movement in Egypt and capitalize on the economic squeeze in the Strip.

The Egyptian siege of Gaza poses a number of interesting questions. First, where are Turkey's PM Erdogan and the Mavi Marmara? Do they only try to supply Gaza by force when Israel is carrying out the siege? Second, could Hamas now seek a more accommodating policy with both Israel and the PLO in order to improve its regional status? Or, on the contrary, might Hamas in its desperation launch a new rocket attack on Israel in order to get the attention of rich friends in the Arab world like Qatar? And finally, if Egypt deems Hamas' provocations to justify attacking the Strip militarily (in other words, attacking what is in effect a neighboring Arab country), how will this reverberate in Israel, Egypt and the Arab world?