Syria and Israel; 20 Years to Oslo - Yossi Alpher's Weekly Analysis

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This week Alpher discusses the interim ramifications for Israel of the Obama appeal for congressional support to attack Syria, the most relevant lessons of Oslo right now, as Israel and the PLO once again seek a negotiated solution, and a summary of the outgoing Jewish year, 5773, from the standpoint of Israel's overall security.

Q. As the drama continues to play out over the Obama appeal for congressional support to attack Syria, what are the interim ramifications for Israel?

A. First and most obviously, threats of Syrian, Iranian and/or Hezbollah retaliation against Israel continue to be voiced from Damascus and elsewhere. This has fed into an ongoing alert situation in Israel. The Assad regime and its supporters presumably assess that the threats contribute to their effort to persuade international public opinion, and particularly members of Congress, to oppose Obama's request.

Second, President Barack Obama has recruited active Israeli and American Jewish support for his initiative. He has spoken several times with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the latter, in turn, has spoken directly to members of Congress and has reportedly urged AIPAC to act.

There are sectors in Congress where Netanyahu and AIPAC probably have more influence than Obama. Since Netanyahu and most Israelis support the idea of a punitive US military strike against Syria, there is a certain logic to Israel's involvement in lobbying Congress. On the other hand, depending on the outcome of both the congressional vote and, if it happens, the American attack, the high-profile Israeli role poses the risk that Israel will be blamed in the US for whatever goes wrong, somewhat similarly to allegations that it was Israel that dragged the George W. Bush administration into Iraq in 2003.

Israel's support for Obama in the Syrian context focuses on two issues. One is the need for the international community to deter Syrian use of chemical warfare, lest at some point in the future the Assad regime or its successor feel free to deploy chemical weapons against Israel. The second issue is the credibility of Obama's "red lines": Israelis want Obama to be free and motivated to act on his Syria red line because they believe that failure to act will reduce the credibility of his Iran red line, which at the regional strategic level is more important.

Q. This Friday marks the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo signings. What are the most relevant lessons of Oslo right now, as Israel and the PLO once again seek a negotiated solution?

A. The Oslo paradigm for negotiations has survived these 20 years and continues to provide the model for the current talks initiated by US Secretary of State John Kerry. This is quite remarkable; despite all the criticism of Oslo, there is no operative "post-Oslo" paradigm. The negotiators are discussing the same menu of final status issues set forth in the Oslo Declaration of Principles that was signed in Washington on September 13, 1993. While the Oslo final status timetable expired long ago, and while the Palestinian state that is currently being negotiated was never actually mentioned in the DOP, "Oslo rules" prevail.

Yet the odds of the current talks succeeding are generally thought to be low--even lower than the odds at Camp David in July 2000 or in the Olmert-Abbas talks of 2008. Among the reasons cited are some that have nothing to do with the DOP: lack of dedication and enthusiasm on the part of the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, the regional revolutionary situation, the Obama administration's overall preoccupation with other crises and issues, and the like. But precisely because the current negotiations represent yet another attempt to do what previous Oslo-anchored negotiations failed to do in the course of 20 years, it behooves us to look at the lessons derived from those failures. (Of course, Oslo had successes, too, such as Palestinian autonomy.) I would cite two lessons that, I believe, negotiators present and future ignore at their peril.

One lesson was seemingly inevitable: the Oslo DOP created a negotiating situation that places a sovereign state, Israel, across the table from a third-world-style national liberation movement, the Palestine Liberation Organization, as if it were possible for them to negotiate as equals. Yet there is an obvious political asymmetry here that goes beyond Israel's negotiating advantages as a state with territory and an army. Under Oslo, the PLO is delegated to discuss the disposition of finite territories: the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Yet it does so as the representative of the entire Palestinian people, two-thirds of whom are part of a diaspora that extends far beyond these territories and that insists the PLO discuss issues related to the five million Palestinian refugees, most of whom live in that diaspora.

This disconnect relates to the second issue. The Oslo "menu" of final status issues contains a mix of "post-1967" topics created by the outcome of the Six-Day War, like borders, security, sovereignty and a capital in Jerusalem, with "pre-1967" topics like refugees and holy places that existed well before the 1967 conflict in which Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. While the DOP does not stipulate regarding this menu that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed", it is precisely this mantra that has over the years become a constant feature of final status negotiations.

This means that the only final status negotiations that can conceivably succeed are talks that seek to achieve an end-of-claims, end-of-conflict resolution of all the issues. If a single issue--say, the disposition of the Temple Mount, a "pre-1967" holy place--cannot be resolved, then agreement on all other issues is held hostage to it. All three sides in the current negotiations have subscribed, or "re-subscribed", to this mantra or to words to that effect.

What we have learned from previous attempts at final status negotiations is that the post-1967 issues are easier to resolve. Border negotiations have narrowed the gap to a few percentage points; many bilateral security issues have been agreed; and reasonable outlines for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem were delineated by both Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008.

On the other hand, little if any progress has been made on the thornier pre-1967 issues. The two sides have not come up with a formula for the "right of return" that satisfies the PLO's need for historical-psychological satisfaction on this issue because it would imply that in 1948 Israel was "born in sin"; nor have they come anywhere close to resolving the question who "owns" the Temple Mount. Based on 20 years experience, these are narrative topics that could defy resolution for many years to come. Meanwhile, in response to the impression that Palestinian demands on these issues bespeak the de-legitimization of Israel, Israeli negotiators now insist that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state--a demand equally unacceptable to Palestinians and Arabs in general. On these issues, the parties have never really gotten beyond "square one".

A tentative American recognition of this dichotomy of final status issues is embedded in the US request, first enunciated by President Obama in May 2011, that the parties begin by discussing borders and security--seemingly the two most solvable post-1967 challenges. But neither Israelis nor Palestinians have agreed to detach these topics from the pre-1967 issues, nor has the US suggested as much. In a different context, Mahmoud Abbas' initiative to request United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state can be understood as an attempt--whether intended or not by Abbas--to apply both lessons of Oslo by placing negotiations on a state-to-state basis. Abbas would show up at the table as president of the state of Palestine rather than chairman of the PLO. Presumably this would focus negotiations on state-to-state issues, which are essentially (with the exception of holy places) post-1967. But Abbas has never explained his UN initiative in these terms, and in any case his UN project has been totally rejected by both Washington and Jerusalem.

If and when the current negotiations fail, one key explanation will lie in the failure to draw and apply the necessary lessons from Oslo, 20 years later.

Q. Finally, on the occasion of the Jewish New Year, how would you summarize the outgoing year, 5773, from the standpoint of Israel's overall security?

A. The year was characterized by a confusing mix of mostly positive but some negative developments for Israel's security.

On the positive side of the ledger, we witnessed the renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians and the weakening of the main Palestinian opponent of a two-state solution, Hamas. The main setback suffered by the Gaza-based Islamist movement was the most recent coup in Egypt, which placed the secular armed forces in charge of the country and suppressed Hamas' Egyptian ally, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The advent of military rule in Egypt also benefited Israel insofar as the Egyptian armed forces under General Sissi have launched a major offensive against Salafist elements implanted in the Sinai Peninsula near the border with Israel, thereby enhancing Israel's border security.

Another defeat for extremist Islamists that threaten Israel was registered in Iran, where the election of the moderate Hassan Rowhani to the office of president generated new hope, however guarded, that sanctions and negotiations could mitigate the prospect of an Iranian nuclear threat against Israel. Then too, the beginnings of an improvement of relations with Turkey were registered in March, with President Obama's help.

The list of good news closes with the relative success of the Israeli economy when measured against global economic woes. The inauguration of large-scale natural gas supply from Israeli wells in the Mediterranean offered an additional boost.

And on the negative side of the ledger? Events in and around Syria seemingly embody the dark side of 5773. Both the Assad camp, with its Iranian and Hezbollah allies, and the Salafist-Islamist opposition camp gained strength at the expense of moderates. The fighting overflowed into Lebanon and Iraq. External forces, from Saudi Arabia to Russia, were drawn further in. Israel was reportedly obliged to intervene militarily to prevent the transfer of strategic arms to its enemies in January, May and July. And--closing the circle of this Q & A--American and international hesitation regarding the obligation to counter Syria's use of non-conventional weapons sent an ominous message that virtually all Israelis took worried note of.

Perhaps the most significant regional strategic development of the past year for Israel is what did not happen: the Arab revolutionary wave did not end. Indeed, there is no end in sight. This means we enter 5774 in a state of regional flux and uncertainty. No one can predict accurately what will happen in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. No one can guarantee that revolution will not spill over into Jordan or the West Bank. This leaves Israel in a state of watching and waiting, in the hope that its overall security interests will benefit from the eventual outcome.