February 08, 2016 - From a new Israeli initiative on the Palestinian issue to the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian and other regional escalation


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions. 

This week, Alpher discusses Labor party leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog's partial measure for the Palestinian issue and whether it is any more feasible than the two-state solution; is it better than nothing; if a possible Hamas initiative to start another Gaza war is a possibility; and where he envisages regional conflict escalation and how relevant this is for Israel and the US.

Q. Israel’s Labor party has approved a partial measure for the Palestinian issue, proposed by party leader Isaac “Bougie” Herzog. Is this new platform any more feasible than the two-state solution?

A. Herzog’s new program argues that the “two-state solution is currently irrelevant”. It then proceeds to adopt a plan modeled on proposals of recent years drafted by the Institute for National Security Studies and Labor MK Omer Bar Lev. It offers an interim solution designed to keep the two-state solution alive and to appeal to centrist voters who support a two-state solution but, like Herzog, believe it is currently not feasible. Herzog--and now his party too--want to “separate” from the Palestinians by ceasing settlement construction beyond the settlement blocs and the West Bank security fence, completing construction of that barrier, and turning over parts of Area C of the West Bank (which encompasses 62 percent of the territory and where all the settlements are) to expanded Palestinian rule.

The plan also calls for Israel to abandon outlying Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. It revives Ehud Barak’s slogan, “They are there and we are here.” And it wants to discuss all this in a summit meeting with Arab states. Meanwhile, the IDF will remain in the West Bank, along with all the settlements.

Of course, no part of this plan is currently feasible for the simple reason that Labor is not in power and the Netanyahu government is not about to adopt any part of it. But let’s look at the plan as an election platform and suppose that it would indeed appeal to voters and that Labor, despite Herzog’s not-particularly-charismatic leadership, returns to power and forms a government pledged to his plan. At that point, those parts of the plan that constitute, in effect, a form of unilateral withdrawal would seemingly become politically feasible with or without a Palestinian partner.

Thus, Israel could permit Palestinian rule over parts of Area C constituting up to 20 percent of the West Bank where there are no settlements; it could move the Jerusalem fence and barrier so that outlying villages foolishly included within the city’s expanded municipal boundaries back in 1967 would be turned over to the Palestinian Authority; and it could cease augmenting settlements beyond the blocs. None of these steps necessarily requires a Palestinian partner.

Yet even this would be difficult. Settler opposition--still representing the most dynamic political actor in the country--would be strong and almost certainly violent. The Palestinian Authority and the PLO, whose leadership is increasingly weak and wobbly, have long pledged to refuse to cooperate with partial solutions lest they become permanent--meaning that West Bank and Jerusalem areas abandoned by Israel would not necessarily be embraced by the PA and could become fair game for land grabs by rebellious settlers. Correspondingly, the Arab League would refuse to sanction the Israel-Arab summit which Herzog proposes in order to provide broad Arab approval for the move. The Arab League, after all, is pledged to the Arab Peace Initiative which calls for comprehensive peace--not limited withdrawal--as a condition for comprehensive Arab dialogue and normalization. Meanwhile, Hamas would seek to exploit the resultant uncertainty by fomenting terrorism in the West Bank and Israel and conceivably starting a new Gaza war.


Q. But isn’t the Herzog plan better than the current stalemate, meaning better than nothing?

A. Absolutely. Wish him luck. This plan is indeed more realistic in the eyes of many Israeli voters than insistence on an immediate two-state solution. Even the most modest unilateral territorial move and cessation of settlement construction could keep the two-state solution alive until better times. And some aspects of PA and Arab League rejection could conceivably be fudged, particularly when Herzog asks nothing from them in return.


Q. You mentioned a possible Hamas initiative to start another Gaza war. Isn’t this already a possibility?

A. Yes. The Hamas military leadership is openly taking credit for digging attack tunnels under Israel and testing improved rockets. This has sparked a lively discussion within Israel as to whether, how and when the security establishment will deal with the tunnel threat (the Pentagon is helping fund a new Israeli underground “iron dome” project). Nor is Hamas influenced by Israeli and international attempts (“economic peace” initiatives), however modest, to improve the quality of life for the Gaza population. The Palestinian proclivity to engage in armed opposition and aggression at times of economic prosperity has been noted here repeatedly. Hamas is also trying to foment acts of terrorism and anti-government plotting in the West Bank, where the low-level intifada of individuals wielding knives increasingly threatens to escalate into a more organized, armed and violent anti-Israel campaign.

Inevitably, Hamas’s tunnel-digging provokes Israeli counter-threats. PM Netanyahu noted last week that “if we are attacked by tunnels from the Gaza Strip we will respond very strongly against Hamas.” As if Israel’s last response under Netanyahu, during the summer of 2014, was not strong enough? Netanyahu is virtually admitting that the last military campaign he managed failed to exercise any real deterrent effect. We know from experience how this sort of rhetoric can feed into an escalatory spiral.

Then there is the regional factor: the danger that the internal Arab conflicts surrounding Israel will escalate, thereby inspiring Hamas and perhaps other Palestinians as well to follow suit.


Q. Could you be more specific? Where do you envisage regional conflict escalation? How relevant is this for Israel? For the US?

A. The US is already part of the latest escalation in the Levant, with several thousand troops back in place and additional troop contingents contemplated for Iraq. Whether or not this satisfies the recently-voiced Saudi and UAE condition (more US involvement on the ground) for sending their own troops to fight the Islamic State is not clear, but they are at least threatening to do so. In parallel, the Russians who began the Levant escalation last September are accusing Turkey of preparing to send troops into northern Syria. Turkey, for its part, has apparently begun establishing a no-fly zone refugee staging area across its border inside Syria for the tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah-Russian advance on Aleppo. Turkey is also anxious to take steps in northern Syria in order both to block Syrian Kurdish advances and to protect Syria’s threatened Turkmen, who are ethnic Turks.

At the heart of all these military moves and threats are the game-changers of recent days and months: Russia’s entry into the fray on Syria’s side, the territorial advances of Syria’s Kurds, and the failure in Geneva of the latest attempt to put in place a de-escalatory dynamic. At this point in time, the most serious danger of escalation is between Turkey and Russia. Ankara and Moscow have totally conflicted visions for northern Syria and indeed, for Syria in general. Russia wants Assad to rule and anti-Turk Kurds to dominate the north; Turkey opposes both bitterly and favors non-ISIS Islamists. Meanwhile, the only real threat to Islamic State territory is not in Syria but in Iraq where, as noted, the US military is increasingly active.

A second theater of growing escalation is Libya, where IS is compensating for its setbacks in Iraq by building up a major threat to all the helter-skelter international efforts to forge some sort of new government and stabilize the country. Already, the same European powers that intervened, with US backing, to topple Qaddafi in 2011--with disastrous consequences for Libya--are again discussing military options. Note that parts of Libya are increasingly serving as a base for militant Islamist activity in Sahel states like Mali and in northern Nigeria.

A third theater is Yemen. There, a highly destructive civil war that has already drawn troops and air attacks from much of the Arab world (along with mercenaries from as far afield as Colombia!) now witnesses the specter of both IS and al-Qaeda exploiting the chaos and carving out new territorial fiefdoms that will inevitably be the scene of yet more carnage.

To sum up, new phases of violent escalation currently threaten a wide swath of the Middle East: the Turkish-Syrian border, Libya, Yemen . . . and the Israeli-Palestinian West Bank and Gazan theaters.