November 9, 2015 - Netanyahu-Obama; the Baratz affair; Russian plane downing in Sinai; EU sanctions



This week, Alpher discusses -in advance of the meeting- Netanyahu’s mood as he approached the meeting between him and President Obama, against a backdrop of an Arab Middle East in turmoil and personal relations that have soured over Iran and the Palestinian issue; Dr. Ran Baratz's appointment by Netanyahu as his new spokesman as head of the National Public Diplomacy Directorate; assuming the Russian passenger jet that crashed in Egyptian Sinai was brought down by an act of terrorism, how serious an event was this; and how strong an effect might the European Union's labeling of commercial goods made in West Bank and Golan settlements have on Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.


Q. On Monday, PM Netanyahu met President Obama against a backdrop of an Arab Middle East in turmoil and personal relations that have soured over Iran and the Palestinian issue. You are writing this prior to the meeting. How would you characterize Netanyahu’s mood as he approached this meeting?

A. Smug, regarding not only the Palestinians but even the Iran deal and its aftermath. The prime minister of Israel believes he has successfully rebuffed the Obama administration’s pressures in the course of the past seven years to change its crawling annexation strategy for the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And while Obama triumphed over Netanyahu’s opposition in attaining the Iran nuclear agreement, Netanyahu believes he will not pay a political price for it and will even reap security benefits.

Obama’s key advisers have already acknowledged that the administration will not pursue a two-state solution in the course of the next year. The president will undoubtedly urge Netanyahu to find ways to restore calm to the West Bank and to keep the two-state solution alive--to maintain what Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes called the “aspiration” for a two-state solution. The prime minister will almost certainly nod in approval (there’s nothing problematic for him in an aspiration), reaffirm his commitment to two states and to negotiations without preconditions, and even present a menu of confidence-building measures that he will offer the Palestinians. Then he will come home to Israel and proceed to quietly shelve most of the CBMs. Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose leadership energy and control over the West Bank appear to be fading fast but whose negotiating positions remain set in stone, will reiterate his well-founded lack of trust in Netanyahu as a peace partner.

Regarding Iran, Netanyahu--having ceased all opposition and acquiesced in the deal following his September UNGA speech, and secretly happy that he helped bring about a 15-year freeze in Iran’s nuclear program--will pressure the administration to clarify in precise terms the criteria for determining if and when Tehran is violating the nuclear agreement and what the US response will be. And he will seek to flesh out the nature and scope of the security compensation package the administration has agreed to discuss with Israel, e.g., more F-35 stealth combat aircraft and more annual security assistance once the current ten-year memorandum of understanding expires in 2017.

Obama needs congressional support badly enough on a number of issues not to risk an open rift with Netanyahu. He needs Democratic unity and American Jewish support behind the next Democratic candidate for president. And Netanyahu seeks to restore bilateral political and American Jewish support for Israel to the extent that the hawkish “Israeli Republican” will even be addressing a liberal American think tank. Accordingly, the two leaders’ meeting will almost certainly be deemed a “success”. But perhaps the best indication of Netanyahu’s smugness and Obama’s need to just get through this meeting without a mishap and get on with the more doable items on the coming year’s agenda was their reaction to the Baratz affair.


Q. Baratz?

A. Dr. Ran Baratz was appointed by Netanyahu as his new spokesman, head of the National Public Diplomacy Directorate, on the eve of the US visit. He was dropped from the prime minister’s US entourage at the last minute, when his scandalous Facebook comments went viral. It emerged that Baratz had labeled Obama an anti-Semite, declared that Secretary of State Kerry behaved like a 12-year old, called President Rivlin irrelevant, and is longing for the day when the Third Temple will be built on the Temple Mount.

Baratz apologized for his remarks, which were made as a private individual and some of which he characterized as “jokes” and “satire”. A White House spokesman allowed that the apology was “warranted” and Vice-President Biden indirectly condemned Baratz. But Netanyahu refused to cancel the Baratz appointment, noting merely that he would meet with Baratz and discuss the matter upon his return to Israel.

Baratz, a West Bank settler, has no public diplomacy experience whatsoever. His doctorate is in Greek philosophy. He obviously lacks tact and even common sense. So why was he appointed in the first place?

The only public endorsement Baratz has received from Netanyahu’s ministers, who have to approve the appointment, has come from Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the extreme right-wing Jewish Home party. And that’s the key. Bennett usually states, point blank, what Netanyahu and most of the Likud actually think but are too embarrassed or too smart to say in public: Barack Hussein Obama is really a closet Muslim and a closet anti-Semite; Rivlin, whom Netanyahu detests, really is superfluous; and Kerry’s diplomacy really is infantile. By the way, a lot of Netanyahu’s fellow far-right Republicans in the US share these disastrous opinions.

Obviously, the Israel Prime Minister’s Office should have had a closer look at Baratz’s Facebook account before giving Netanyahu the green light to appoint him. But now that the truth is out? Disown an appointee with such esteemed “values”? Not an easy call for the prime minister.


Q. Assuming the Russian passenger jet that crashed in Egyptian Sinai was brought down by an act of terrorism, how serious an event is this?

A. It must be understood as an event of strategic proportions: for Russia’s presence in the Middle East, and regarding both Egypt and Israel.

It looks increasingly likely that the Islamic State in Sinai sabotaged the Russian civilian plane in retaliation for Russian military activity against it and against fellow anti-regime Islamists in Syria. This begins to bring home to the Russian public the consequences of President Putin’s decision to rescue the Assad regime and help secure the territory of western Syria that it still more or less controls. The paradox here is obvious: Putin has partially rationalized Russia’s bombings in Syria as a means of keeping Sunni jihadists at bay, far from the Russian motherland. Now a couple of hundred Russians vacationing in Sharm al-Sheikh in Egypt have paid with their lives.

Russia will justifiably blame Egypt for its lax aviation security regime, thereby souring the two countries’ relations, which had been expanding. And Egypt’s tourist industry, a key component of President Sissi’s economic recovery plans, will now suffer a disastrous setback. Indeed, any claims Sissi has recently made to have dealt a death blow to Sinai Islamists have been dramatically disproven.

But Putin is hardly likely now to exit Syria with his tail between his legs. On the contrary, his war against Sunni Islamist terrorists can only intensify in response, conceivably at the expense of the dodgier goal of maintaining the blood-stained Assad regime in power. Not that either objective appears doable in the near term. Already Assad’s Russian-trained and -armed army is suffering new losses at the hands of the Saudi-armed “moderate” Islamists with their TOW missiles, while Moscow’s ally Iran is quick to criticize any Russian hints about compromising on Assad’s rule. Welcome to the Middle East. . .

For its part, Israel must now take into account the growing danger that the Islamic State’s war in Sinai will overflow to the Negev. If until now the IDF feared rockets fired at Eilat from Sinai, now the Israel Air Force is on high alert lest a plane hijacked from Sharm al-Sheikh crash into Eilat or seek a suicide target further north. This points to the only upside of the downing of the Russian plane in Sinai: almost certainly closer strategic intelligence cooperation between Russia and Israel and between Egypt and Israel.


Q. Assuming no delays, this Wednesday the European Union will begin labeling commercial goods made in West Bank and Golan settlements and sold in European stores as precisely that--goods made in Israeli settlements rather than goods made in sovereign Israel as it is recognized internationally. How strong an effect might this measure have on Israeli policy toward the Palestinians?

A. In the near-term, probably no effect or even a counter-productive reaction. For some time now, settlement goods have not enjoyed privileged trade status in Europe and the government of Israel has simply compensated the settlements for the eight percent differential in customs discounts. Now presumably the government in Jerusalem will again undertake to foot the bill for whatever reduction in European sales can be documented.

Moreover, in anticipation of such measures, major settlement-based industries like Soda Stream and Ahava Dead Sea cosmetics have simply moved their production address into Israel proper, thereby seemingly justifying the EU threat but, on the other hand, reducing the impact of EU sanctions on whatever industry remains in the settlements. The latter have in any case moved their marketing focus away from Europe to markets in the US, Russia, China, India and Africa, none of which threaten sanctions.

In the longer term, of course, the new EU measure can be seen as yet another step toward more significant European economic penalties to come--if and when they come--with regard to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and construction of settlements. Israel’s response--and here is a first challenge for the esteemed Dr. Baratz to sink his teeth into--focuses on a number of arguments. In the total absence of even a hint of a peace process, some (beginning from the top) are more persuasive, some less.

First of all, why impose this penalty on wines from the Golan when a peace process with Syria is quite simply impossible under present and near-term circumstances in the Levant, and when the Golan truly does shield Israel from the worst of the Syrian violence? This appears to be an example of the EU’s famously rigid bureaucracy gone awry.

Second, it can be argued that sanctioning settlement goods encourages the broader and more venal goals of the BDS movement that target Israel as a whole. It is a prize for extremists. It will not advance a two-state solution. It will alienate virtually all Israelis. Notably, Knesset opposition leaders Isaac Herzog (Labor) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) have lined up with the government against the new EU move, citing these very contentions.

Third, West Bank settlements employ some 30,000 West Bank Palestinians, in construction, agriculture and manufacturing. They are the breadwinners for some 30,000 families, or around 200,000 persons. If indeed the EU sanctions “bite”, some of these workers will be thrown out of jobs. The EU already pays most of the salaries of Palestinian Authority civil servants, thereby helping to keep the Palestinian economy afloat. Now, if it wants to prevent economic backsliding, it may have to consider additional aid to allay the effects of its own sanctions.

Finally, settler spokespersons cite the cases of Kashmir and Northern Cyprus. Why, they ask, is the EU not sanctioning either side for decades-long paralysis in settling those territorial disputes? This argument rings hollow: it disingenuously (or ignorantly) ignores the many strategic characteristics that distinguish the West Bank issue from other land controversies globally, not to mention Israel’s special relationship with the EU. But even were we to agree that all these disputes are alike, this is hardly a rationale for the international community to ignore the Palestinian issue, particularly when, in contrast to, say, Cyprus, no progress has recently been made or is likely soon to be made toward resolving it.