This week, Alpher discusses how Russia’s military buildup in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia and the consequent American and Israeli concern has this played out since last week; if we are witnessing escalation into a third intifada in Jerusalem and the West Bank; what triggered the escalation; and at the strategic level, what the dangers are for Israel of this “mini-intifada.”
Q. Last week you discussed Russia’s military buildup in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia and the consequent American and Israeli concern. How has this played out since?
A. Russian President Vladimir Putin can draw satisfaction from his success in catalyzing high-level approaches by Americans and Israelis alike that appear to be designed to discuss ways to adjust to the new Russian military presence.
A meeting last week between the most senior Russian and American defense officials, Shoygu and Carter, led to a statement by US Secretary of State Kerry that in effect acknowledged agreement (“common ground”) that Syrian President Assad, who is supported by Moscow, should for the time being remain in office. This was an American concession in view of the consistent demand from Washington for Assad to step down. But it was hardly surprising in view of the US failure to bring about regime change in Damascus. At a time when the US Central Command’s General Lloyd Austin acknowledges that only “four or five” US-trained rebels are fighting in Syria, Kerry’s statement seemingly recognized the obvious: Assad, now a virtual puppet of Moscow and Tehran, is not going anywhere.
Then this Monday Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow to discuss the new Russian deployment with Putin. Notably, Netanyahu brought along IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Head of Intelligence Hertzi Halevi. This underlined the Israeli military objective of ensuring that Russian and Israeli combat aircraft don’t get in one another’s way in the skies over Syria and that Russian tactical intelligence is not transferred to Syrian or Iranian forces fighting close to Israel’s northern borders. Unlike Kerry, Netanyahu will presumably make clear to Putin that Israel does not interfere in the Syrian civil war and is not favoring any of the warring parties.
The contrasts between Washington’s and Jerusalem’s response to the Russian challenge are striking. First, Netanyahu has direct access to Putin; a decade ago, the Israeli leadership might have deferred to US mediation. This reflects Netanyahu’s concerted efforts in recent years to cultivate non-western strategic allies in Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi in the hope of deflecting western pressure over the Palestinian issue.
Second, Israel seeks to strike an essentially neutral pose regarding Assad’s fight against militant Sunni Islamists because it considers Assad’s Iranian allies to be at least as dangerous as the Islamic State. In stark contrast, the US ranks IS as the greater danger, tactically cooperates in the battlefield with the Iranians and now has at least temporarily backed away from its demand to remove Iran’s puppet, Assad.
And third, Israel has a direct national interest to recruit Russian understanding for its immediate regional strategic needs regarding which it has publicly drawn “red lines”: a quiet northern border; keeping Iran and its proxies far away; preventing transfer of strategic weaponry to Hezbollah; ensuring the safety of Syria’s Druze community. Like it or not, in Israeli eyes the Russians may now be more capable than the Americans of delivering on these demands or at least influencing others to deliver on them. But these are at best short-term calculations.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the divisive Iran nuclear deal Netanyahu is meeting with Putin (and before him British PM Cameron and Italian PM Renzi) long before meeting with Obama. All these moves send a certain signal of doubt to Washington. Here Netanyahu would be well advised to remember that Washington is Israel’s real strategic ally; not Moscow.
Q. Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem and the West Bank are we witnessing escalation into a third intifada?
A. Currently, the terms being used are ‘mini-intifada” and “Jerusalem intifada”. This reflects the sharp escalation in recent days and weeks of incidents of stone-throwing and Molotov cocktail-throwing, primarily in East Jerusalem and the surrounding Arab neighborhoods but increasingly elsewhere in the West Bank as well.
What uniquely characterizes these incidents and constitutes a mitigating factor is the broad absence of gunfire and total absence of suicide-bombing on the part of the Palestinian youth involved, along with an effort by Palestinian Authority Police to suppress violence in the West Bank and confine it to greater Jerusalem. Still, one Israeli has already been killed by a stone thrown at his vehicle, and the Palestinian Authority’s stand-off approach regarding Jerusalem and crackdown in the West Bank tend, each in its own way, to invite Hamas to play the lead role in the violence.
Q. What triggered the escalation?
A. Whether or not this becomes the “third intifada” or dies down appears to reflect a bewildering collection of background factors. Beginning at the regional level, the chaos fueled by militant Islam provides an impetus for Hamas to incite in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to begin escalating rocket fire into Israel from Gaza as an expression of support for rioting stone-throwers. By the same token, the growing European BDS campaign inevitably sends a signal of support for anti-Israel demonstrations. Yet at the same time, European preoccupation with the huge and dramatic flow of refugees from Syria, Libya and elsewhere shunts Palestinian issues to the media back burner. (I witnessed this last week in visits to Norway and the UK: it was impossible to find news of the “intifada” anywhere in the flood of sympathetic coverage of the refugee flow.)
Closer to home, PLO and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is sending confusing political signals that open a political vacuum that in turn invites violence. He has “resigned” from PLO institutions yet nothing has happened by way of choosing a successor. He promises a dramatic initiative at the United Nations General Assembly later this month, then reassures western diplomats that he won’t dismantle the Palestinian Authority, nullify the Oslo accords or cease security cooperation with Israel.
Moving even closer to home, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is, not surprisingly, at the center of the unrest. Last year, under similar circumstances Netanyahu brought calm to the Mount when he yielded to the protests of King Abdullah of Jordan (who has a treaty-bound role as protector of the non-Jewish holy places in Jerusalem) and blocked Jewish extremists from access to the Mount where their demonstrative prayers and in some cases racist taunts had angered Muslims and exacerbated tensions that degenerated into violence.
This time around, with the Jewish extremists again allowed by Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition to pray on the Mount and Abdullah again protesting, Netanyahu has responded differently: he has banned extremist Muslims from accessing the Mount. Note that many belong to Israeli Arab Islamist organizations that are increasingly involved in the tension as the borders between Israel and Palestine are dissolved by Israeli settlement expansion. In parallel, Netanyahu is acting to apply far more stringent legal penalties to stone-throwers, many of whom take shelter in the Mount’s two holy mosques. In other words, this time around Netanyahu is defying Jordan and restraining extremist Muslims on the Mount rather than extremist Jews.
One outcome has been hot-pursuit entry into the mosques by the Israel Border Police, now reinforced by a reserve call-up, with boots on and gas canisters firing--an act of defilement invited by the protesters, who then raise an international uproar over what is described as a concerted Israeli effort to encroach upon the Mount itself (note that Palestinians define the al-Aqsa Mosque as including the grounds of the entire Mount).
The average Palestinian teenage rock-thrower justifies his actions by declaring that the Mount belongs exclusively to Muslims and that Jews are usurpers bereft of rights there. Some of the Jews who insist on praying on the Mount want to build a third temple there. The stones are flying and extremism is taking over, especially with both sides’ most holy days approaching.
Q. At the strategic level, what are the dangers for Israel of this “mini-intifada”?
A. The usual Israeli “hasbara” tactics--blaming Palestinian anarchy and divisions, offering to negotiate without preconditions, noting the incendiary role of Palestinian Islamists on the Mount, explaining that Jews have a right to pray at the site of the two temples, pointing out that rocks can kill--may be technically accurate but they have long since failed to project a positive image to an international community increasingly frustrated with Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians. Assuming Netanyahu takes this tack at the General Assembly, his words will fall flat everywhere except among his hard-core groupies. So one certain danger is more negative PR, more BDS, more doubts in Washington. Another is Palestinian pressure on Jordan to take its distance from Israel.
Yet in the Arab sphere, regional chaos creates a kind of smoke screen. Amman, Cairo and Riyadh all need strategic coordination with Israel against the twin Islamist dangers of IS and Iran far more than they can afford to condemn Israeli behavior toward Palestinians beyond the usual lip service.
Meanwhile, to the extent anyone is still interested, Palestinian state-building is another casualty. The Palestinian public is preoccupied with the violence, West Bank politics is in disarray and the few remaining grassroots civil society activists like former prime minister Salam Fayyad are being persecuted by Abbas’s high-handed rule. Accordingly, the Palestinian-Israeli situation simply continues to slide down a slippery slope toward a disastrous apartheid-like reality.
All of which may be a good reason to fast on Yom Kippur.