October 7, 2015 - New intifada (?), New police chief, Netanyahu and Abbas at the UN, and Russia in Syria



This week, Alpher discusses whether we are witnessing the beginning of a new intifada; how Abbas’s UN General Assembly speech figures into the violence; if there was a prominent message in Netanyahu’s UN speech; if it is possible to draw any conclusions regarding the evolution of Israeli societal values from the appointment of Shin Bet deputy head Roni Alsheich to head the Israel Police; and, with the Russians and Iranians apparently expanding their deployment in Syria, an outline of the emerging strategic picture.


Q. Are we witnessing the beginning of a new intifada?

A. The experts are divided on this question. For the moment, most are calling this a “terrorism wave”. True, that’s what the security authorities called the two previous intifadas at the outset. Still, the logic informing the current cautious analytical approach is for the moment persuasive.

With a few notable exceptions--stone-throwing in Jaffa on Tuesday, the murder of a settler couple by Hamas in the northern West Bank last week--Palestinian violence has thus far been confined primarily to East Jerusalem and its surroundings. Suicide bombings and attacks inside Israel have been threatened but have not transpired. Hamas in Gaza has not fired more than a token rocket or two. No other militant Palestinian organizations have “declared war”.

Perhaps most important, the Palestinian Authority Police have not joined the violence. Indeed, PA President Mahmoud Abbas may be blaming Israel for the violence, and particularly for extremist Israeli provocations on the Temple Mount, and he may be avoiding condemnation of Palestinian violence. But he has also directed his security forces to “prevent Israel from escalating” the situation and to meet and coordinate on Wednesday with their Israeli counterparts. Because most of the violence is carried out by unaffiliated individuals--on both sides--completely suppressing it appears out of the question in the near term.

One key question is whether the official Israeli response will calm or escalate the situation. PM Netanyahu (not unlike Abbas) is at one and the same time calling for restraint and, to placate his party and coalition extremists, feeding the flames and talking about “all-out war with Palestinian terror”. Thus he has approved a series of provocative measures. He has allowed long delayed home demolitions (of Palestinian terrorists from East Jerusalem), enabled the planning of more West Bank bypass roads where settlers can avoid Palestinian traffic and, in an unprecedented measure, prevented non-resident Palestinians from entering the Jerusalem Old City during the last two days of the Sukkot holiday.

But Netanyahu also explained on Tuesday to a settler delegation that to respond to the violence by building new settlements would trigger a US ultimatum not to veto an anticipated French proposal to the UN Security Council to declare all settlements illegal (the US denies the existence of an ultimatum). One key to maintaining quiet--if it can first be restored--would be a firm Netanyahu decision to keep extremists from both sides, most of whom are Israeli Jews and Israeli Islamist Arabs, permanently off the Temple Mount.

Conceivably, if the situation worsens and international pressures grow, the next move we will witness on Netanyahu’s part will be a veiled threat to kick the far-right out of his coalition and bring in Herzog and Livni from the moderate left. Thus far that has not happened, perhaps because Netanyahu still feels empowered by circumstances following the Iran nuclear deal (recall his bombastic speech at the UN last week, note his direct dealings with Russia’s President Putin over Syria) to maintain a relatively extreme stance toward the Palestinians.

What is indisputable is the correlation between the violence and the overall situation of prolonged stalemate. It was brought on both by Netanyahu’s refusal to restrain the settlers and the messianic right, particularly in Jerusalem, as they sabotage coexistence, but also by Abbas’s prolonged inability to offer the concessions on holy places and the right of return that might make an end-of-conflict agreement more realistic.


Q. How does Abbas’s UN General Assembly speech figure into the violence?

A. Following weeks of a dramatic buildup toward a ‘bombshell’, Abbas’s ambiguous performance left many Palestinians disappointed. If we had any doubt that at least for the moment he did not intend to cease PA interaction with Israel regarding security and economic cooperation and did not really intend to dismantle the PA, his instructions this week to his security forces to restrain the violence and work with Israel said it all.

Overall, Palestinians were more inspired by the flying of their flag for the first time at UN headquarters that by their leader’s wishy-washy rhetoric. “We cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements with Israel” (which Abbas said) is not the same as “I declare these agreements null and void” (which he avoided saying).

Abbas, then, is not perceived by his constituency to be leading forcefully, while by any standard of global interest the situation in Syria is of far more importance to the world. This reinforces Palestinian despair and anger, and these in turn are the raw materials of an intifada.


Q. Let’s turn to Netanyahu’s UN speech. Beyond the bizarre minute of silence and other gimmicks and the sales pitch for the “innovation nation”, was there a prominent message?

A. Yes, a conciliatory message to the Obama administration. After castigating the Iran nuclear deal in his speech and condemning world complacence and compliance with anti-Israel forces, Netanyahu made what I read as a dramatic about-face. He reconfirmed the US-Israel alliance and praised support for Israel’s security needs on the part of both Congress and President Obama. And he called for strict application of the Iran nuclear agreement--meaning he was making his peace with it.

In case anyone missed this message of readiness on Israel’s part to revert to business as usual with Washington and engage in constructive security cooperation in the “post-Iran-nuclear” era, Netanyahu proceeded to spell it out in several subsequent US media interviews.

How much damage was done over the past year by his disparaging and divisive attitude toward the administration, toward most congressional democrats and toward the views of most American Jews, is another issue, albeit a related one.


Q. Can you draw any conclusions regarding the evolution of Israeli societal values from the appointment of Shin Bet deputy head Roni Alsheich to head the Israel Police?

A. Alsheich is considered highly capable and free of any suspicion of corruption or unethical behavior. Those who know both the Shin Bet internal security service and the police judge that he has all the necessary professional qualifications.

What is striking about the process of appointing and approving Alsheich is that his background as a religious settler in a relatively extreme West Bank settlement (he moved to Tel Aviv a few years ago, conceivably to “clean up” his image) is in no way a factor in the discussion of his candidacy. Nor is the Shin Bet’s prolonged failure to bring to justice the Jewish extremists (almost certainly settlers) who have been torching West Bank Palestinian mosques and killing Palestinians—a failure Alsheich, as deputy Shin Bet head, certainly shares responsibility for.

Why are these issues not raised as factors of relevance to Alsheich’s appointment? Because in the eyes of the vast majority of Israelis they are no longer relevant. And that is a sad commentary on the values of Israeli society today.


Q. The Russians and Iranians appear to be expanding their deployment in Syria. How would you describe the emerging strategic picture?

A. The Russians and Iranians appear intent on shoring up the defenses and ensuring the survivability of the Assad regime in the 25 percent of Syria--“Useful Syria”--that the regime still controls in the western part of the country. The Islamic State threat in Syria is of relatively little interest to them; the more moderate Islamist rebels, some backed by the US and Turkey, are of interest because it is they who currently threaten regime-held territory, particularly in northwest Syria between the Alawite heartland and the Turkish border.

This explains the Russian choice of bombing targets as well as two probes by Russian combat aircraft into Turkish airspace. It also explains the arrival in Syria of hundreds of Iranian combatants and the announcement in Moscow that Russian “volunteer” ground troops would soon be arriving as well.

Useful Syria is an asset to Russia because it holds the only Russian Navy base beyond Russian waters and it holds several hundred thousand Orthodox Christians whose welfare and safety appear to be important to post-Soviet Russia. It is seen as a bulwark against radical Sunni Islamists of the sort who are increasingly active inside Russia. Moreover, the Russian presence constitutes a statement to the United States and the rest of the world that Moscow is “back” as a major power at a time when US hard power-projection is widely perceived to be waning. In this respect, the Russian foothold in Syria is also a potential bargaining chip in talks with the West about Crimea and Ukraine. Even Egypt has endorsed the Russian intervention as a useful move against Islamist terrorism.

Useful Syria is an asset to Iran because its ruling Alawites, in the long run with or without Bashar Assad, are close enough to Shiite Islam to be part of the Iranian-dominated “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran’s Afghanistan/Pakistan borders all the way to the Mediterranean and encompassing Iraq’s Shiite majority and Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite fighters. This gives Iran power projection capabilities deep into the Sunni Arab heartland and right up to Israel’s northern borders. In an era when many Arab polities are disintegrating into chaos, this makes Tehran an attractive strategic or at least commercial partner for the Russians and in some ways, on the heels of the Iran nuclear deal, for the West as well.

All of this appears most threatening in the eyes of Turkey and the US-led coalition; both oppose the Assad regime, while the coalition is actively fighting the Islamic State from the air. Israel and the Kurds of northern Iraq and northern Syria are in a watch-and-wait position. Meanwhile, after five years of fighting, the Arab Middle East is to an ever greater extent being partitioned on a de facto if not de jure basis: Syria between militant Islam, a Russian-Iranian-Alawite coalition and the Kurdish north; Yemen between a Saudi-led Gulf coalition in the south, pro-Iranian Zaidis in the north and al-Qaeda in the east; Libya among its tribal components; and Iraq among its three ethnic-geographic components, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.