Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: September 3, 2013


Topics discussed are the Assad regime and its assessment of President Obama's decision to postpone a punitive attack pending congressional approval; Israeli assessment of the decision to postpone.

Also, the issue of shortages of and long lines for gas masks in Israel, and Israel's security needs if and when a two-state solution is reached.

Q. Last week you briefly discussed the possible motives for the recent Syrian chemical attack in Damascus and the precedents for it in Arab warfare. But you didn't talk about the nature of the Assad regime as a factor. Is it a factor?

A. Definitely. A lot of the speculation about whether and to what extent the leaders of Syria were involved in the decision-making chain concerning this and other chemical attacks appears to be based on relatively benign regime models and seemingly ignores the real nature of the Assad regime. The extended Assad family runs Syria like a mafia. Like a mafia, it is barbaric and cynical, living by its own very nasty rules which mock common morality. Even its most "civilized" representatives complete the metaphor. Consider the recent press conference performance by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem: here was the Assads' consiglieri, his passive aggressive tone a perfect foil for Bashar Assad's open threats.

Because chemical attacks terrorize both civilians and rebel fighters, they are very useful for the regime. And because all precedents of the use of gas as a lethal weapon, going all the way back to the Holocaust and through Egyptian and Iraqi use (in Yemen and against Iran and Iraq's own Kurds, respectively) never generated a determined international effort at punishment or prevention, this is the perfect weapon from the Assad regime's standpoint. While intelligence evidence appears to indicate that the regime did not expect its most recent attack, in the Damascus suburbs, to generate so many casualties and so much damning evidence, it is nevertheless logical that the presence of UN inspectors in Damascus at the time of the attack did not deter the regime from launching the attack: it simply did not take seriously the international community's "outrage".

Q. And now, how do you think the Assad regime assesses President Obama's decision to postpone a punitive attack on Syria pending congressional approval?

A. This almost certainly fits Assad's perception of weak international reaction. In his view, Obama hesitated because the American public and most US allies--including even stalwarts like the Poles and Czechs, not to mention the British--were intimated by his threats and by the perception of support for him in Moscow and Tehran. Even the Arab League backed off from endorsing a punitive American attack, despite the Sunni Arab world's antipathy toward Assad. Obama's remarks about American public war-weariness, together with the evidence of the effect of the Iraq intelligence fiasco on American attitudes toward involvement in Middle East conflicts, were not lost on Assad. On the other hand the notion, accepted in wide circles in Israel, the US and the West, that Obama's decision to go to Congress actually demonstrated that "restraint is power", was almost certainly not on Assad's radar screen.

Assuming this assessment is accurate, then if eventually the Obama administration obtains congressional support and launches a punitive and deterrent attack on Syrian military installations, Assad's inclination will probably be to renew the chemical attacks soon afterward. Just as Obama will be seeking to send a deterrent message, so will Assad. Only if the US attack is particularly destructive and is backed up by a clear willingness in Washington to repeat it when necessary, might it eventually have the desired effect. And if Congress refuses to give Obama a mandate, Assad will be openly triumphant.

Q. And how does Israel assess the decision to postpone?

A. The Israeli establishment seems to understand the necessity for Israel to continue to support Obama's efforts among the American Jewish community and in Congress, despite the negative impression left in the US by allegations that link Israel to President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. But beyond this tactical response, Israeli commentators are of two minds.

One camp believes that Obama was never enthusiastic about an attack and has now been intimidated, and that this reflects negatively on his future willingness to back up his "red line" with Iran. The other holds out the hope, suggested by the administration itself, that congressional support regarding Syria will enhance Obama's capacity and willingness to deal militarily not only with Damascus but with Tehran if necessary.

The Netanyahu government appears to fall somewhere in between. The prime minister has pointedly asked his Cabinet not to comment on the Obama decision to delay. In what appear to be authorized statements, a few spokespersons, including President Shimon Peres, have expressed support and understanding for Obama's decision-making and confidence that Syria will indeed be punished (without adverse spillover into Israel). But at the same time at least one such spokesman, Tzachi HaNegbi, has exploited the current dilemma to underline the need for Israel to prepare to deal on its own with Iran. Certainly the Israeli public, looking at the very slim international support that Obama has been able to recruit for a limited, punitive "one off" attack on Syria--even France's support is now wobbling--feels more isolated in its concern over its neighbors' non-conventional weapons.

Q. In this context, what's the problem with gas masks in Israel? Why the long lines and shortages? Surely this problem should have been dealt with years ago.

A. It has not been dealt with. The government is essentially out of gas masks, and current production is far too low to satisfy the expanded demand caused by the public's sense that it has to prepare for a retaliatory Syrian chemical attack, however low the likelihood. (Note that the Sarin gas used by Syria in its recent notorious attack in the Damascus suburbs works by being breathed in, not by skin contact--the way, say, mustard gas works.)

We can only understand how this shortage came about with reference to a long-standing debate in Israel regarding the need for personal protective equipment against gas and missile attacks. Gas masks were first distributed to the entire public on the eve of the 1991 Gulf war against Iraq. In that instance, the Shamir government, backed by intelligence assessments that Saddam Hussein would not retaliate against Israel with chemical weapons, yielded only reluctantly to popular (and populist) pressure fanned by Foreign Minister David Levy. In the event, many Israelis donned the masks and withdrew to sealed rooms in their homes, only to discover years later that the masks were almost certainly defective (and of course no chemical weapons were used).

The debate over the masks reflected not only the sense among the intelligence community that the probability of a chemical attack was low, but also the strategic attitude of the security community, which favored an offensive over a defensive approach in terms of budgetary outlays and military strategy.

Broadly speaking, that has been the case ever since. True, after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Defense Minister Amir Peretz persuaded the government to channel funds to the development and deployment of defensive anti-rocket missile systems like Iron Dome that have proved successful. But the sealed room approach has been replaced by more simple fortified rooms, many of which are not equipped to defend against gas attacks. Some forty percent of the Israeli public still lacks shelter of any kind against attack. And, most significantly, the budget for producing gas masks has declined precipitously.

Of course, all those thousands of worried Israelis who besieged gas mask distribution centers over the past ten days ignored repeated invitations sent them over the past two years to pick up their protective equipment. So there was a panic effect here. But the simple truth is that calculated budgetary and security policies have ensured that there really is not enough protective equipment to go around.

Q. Obama and Kerry have delegated recently retired Marine Corps General John Allen to assess Israel's security needs if and when a two-state solution is reached. What are those needs?

A. Allen is not the first American general to be sent by a peace-minded US president to help plan an Israeli-Palestinian security regime in the event of peace. But the Middle East is changing, with revolutions in Syria and Egypt projecting direct security ramifications on the Israeli-Palestinian complex. Hence it makes sense to reopen this file now that the parties are talking again.

At the most general level, and given ongoing hostility to Israel in many Arab (and Iranian) quarters, the proximity to Israel's heartland of Palestinian territory and the length of the two entities' borders require that a Palestinian state be essentially demilitarized. Israel, an international force or some combination thereof will need to have access to Palestinian territory and to the mutual border to ensure that demilitarization (or, in the parlance of previous negotiations, "non-militarization") is maintained. Of particular concern is Ben Gurion international airport, where landing patterns bring incoming passenger planes so close to the West Bank that they could be vulnerable to anti-aircraft missile attack. A major element of phasing and confidence-building over time will also be involved.

Second, the borders of the Palestinian state with the Arab world, i.e., the West Bank border with Jordan and the Gaza Strip border with Egypt as well as Gaza's naval boundaries will require some sort of control regime to ensure that hostile personnel and ordnance don't enter. The present reality of friendly and security-minded regimes in Jordan and Egypt renders this task relatively straightforward and even suggests some sort of regional security regime to anchor Israeli-Palestinian security arrangements. Yet, in light of the current chaos in the Arab world, agreed security arrangements will have to take into account possible changes in regimes. Involvement by Israel in joint trilateral patrols along these borders within the framework of trilateral security regimes might provide a solution.

Third, it must be recognized that the air over Israel, the West Bank and Gaza cannot be compartmentalized the way the land would be, through agreed borders. Here we confront, by international standards, a very small unit of air transport control and electromagnetic space. Hence there has to be a single air control tower and single integrated authority for the delegation of radio and other wavelengths for all of what was once mandatory Palestine.

All of these issues have been discussed at length over the past 20 years and, depending on the negotiating framework, a large measure of agreement has been reached. In short, these classic security issues are easier to overcome than the territorial or "narrative" (right of return, holy places) issues. But several thorny topics remain.

First, the Gaza Strip: Israeli security requires the presence there of a regime dedicated to peace and coexistence, meaning not Hamas but presumably the PLO under Mahmoud Abbas ruling Gaza. In other words, the absence of PLO rule in the Strip constitutes not just a political problem but a security issue as well.

Second, specific tactical security provisions will have to be made for areas where, under a two-state regime, Israeli and Palestinian populations continue to live side-by-side. Jerusalem, as a shared capital of two states, is the most obvious example. But if settlers remain in place even during a transition stage anywhere in the West Bank, this too would require a special security regime.

Third, there is the issue of an international role. Does Israel want international peacekeepers on the ground in the West Bank, and if so, in what role? And does it want to back up its security arrangements with specific bilateral treaty guarantees by the United States? Obviously, there are advantages for Israel in an international and/or American security umbrella. But there are also potential drawbacks, such as restrictions on Israel's freedom to respond to security provocations.

Fourth, in the past, Israel has insisted that it would require a residual security presence in the heart of the West Bank in the form of intelligence installations on mountaintops that "look" far to the east, toward Iraq and Iran. The Palestinian side has consistently seen this demand, like the call for Israeli "boots on the ground" in the Jordan Valley or anywhere else inside a Palestinian state, as an infringement on its future sovereignty. Some sort of compromise solution has to be found.

Finally, the Palestinians can make the case that not only Israel but they too have legitimate security needs that must be dealt with by a joint security regime. They need protection from "price tag" type attack by settlers along with recognition that their own security and tranquility can only be guaranteed by Palestinian paramilitary or gendarmerie troops. These requirements have to be met while respecting the provision of "non-militarization". Anyone who thinks that security in a two-state context concerns only Israelis has to bear in mind these Palestinians needs, too.