April 18, 2016 - The region, from the Sinai islands to the Golan, from Ngorno Karabach to Yemen; Israel’s “Gandhi” revisited


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 why, even though Israel has a peace treaty with Caiso, but no formal ties with Riyadh, Israel offered its blessing for a deal that affects a vital naval passage that has triggered war in the recent past; explains the timing of Sunday's declaration by Netanyahu’s government whence they met on the Golan Heights and the prime minister declared that the Golan would always remain a sovereign part of Israel; connects the regional conflict situations of the ceasefire in Syria, which appears to be ending, Yemen, where there is optimism regarding a ceasefire, and Ngorno Karabach (an enclave disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan) where renewed fighting has broken out; and why, now 15 years after his assassination by Palestinians and 11 years after he was declared a national hero to be memorialized annually in school ceremonies, far-right-wing Major General Rehavam Zeevi (“Gandhi”) is accused of having been a serial rapist and sexual harasser and having consorted with gangsters.

Q. Egypt just returned two Red Sea islands in the Straits of Tiran to Saudi sovereignty. Israel has a peace treaty with Cairo but no formal ties with Riyadh. So why did Israel offer its blessing for a deal that affects a vital naval passage that has triggered war in the recent past.

A. Egypt is apparently so deeply in debt to the Saudis that President Sisi had little choice but to return the two desert islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi sovereignty and to commit to a Saudi plan to build a bridge linking Sinai with Saudi Arabia, i.e., linking Arab Africa with Arab Asia. The announcement was made on the occasion of a visit to Cairo by Saudi King Salman, who this time offered $22 billion over five years to keep the Egyptian economy afloat.

The Saudis turned the islands over to Egypt back in 1950 when Cairo led the Arab campaign against Israel. Egypt’s ensuing use of the islands to block Israeli naval commerce through the Straits was a casus belli in 1967. Accordingly, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty commits Egypt to keep the Straits open and places part of an international peacekeeping force, the US-led Multinational Force and Observers, at the Straits. Riyadh has now publicly committed Saudi Arabia to maintaining this status quo.

Israel was given advance notice and offered no objection to the transaction. Riyadh’s public commitment (“in writing”, according to Israeli Defense Minister Yaalon) to the international status quo regarding the Straits places it, for the first time, in an indirect contractual relationship with Jerusalem--a minor step, but nevertheless a step, toward Israeli-Saudi normalization and closer integration into regional security arrangements directed against both Iran and militant Sunni Islam of the ISIS and al-Qaeda variety.

For now, the Saudi-Egyptian deal raises more questions than it answers. Does an Egyptian-Saudi Tiran bridge constitute some sort of Egyptian commitment to send troops to defend the Saudi regime if the need arises? Should the monarchy in Jordan be concerned about the ease of future Egyptian access to territory just to its south or a Saudi threat to blockade the port of Aqaba? Is Salman’s largess, coupled with his strategic military moves in Yemen (see below) and his apparent rapprochement with Erdogan’s Turkey, a reflection of Riyadh’s emergence as the premier Arab power, replacing Egypt? Are widespread patriotic public protests in Egypt against the deal yet another sign that the Saudis are linking up with a country whose 2011 revolution is still a work in progress?

One thing is certain. Israelis who profess to see the Tiran island transaction as an indication that our Arab neighbors might agree to similar territorial swaps within the framework of Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Syrian peace deals will once again be disappointed. Arab-Arab territorial deals are one thing. Arab-Israeli swaps are something else entirely: they remain out of bounds when it comes to Israeli schemes for holding onto West Bank lands or enlarging the Gaza Strip at Egypt’s expense.


Q. On Sunday, Netanyahu’s government met on the Golan Heights and the prime minister declared that the Golan would always remain a sovereign part of Israel. Can you explain the timing?

A. PM Netanyahu is apparently concerned that international diplomatic efforts spearheaded by Moscow to end the fighting in Syria will comprise a guarantee regarding Syria’s territorial integrity, including eventual return of the Golan. There is a broad consensus in Israel that Syria’s collapse as a functioning state and the presence on its soil of Sunni and Shiite Islamists who are extremely hostile to Israel justify retaining the Golan under Israeli control.

This is the signal Netanyahu is sending to Russian President Putin as they prepare to meet this Thursday. But control over the Golan and sovereignty there are clearly two vastly different matters. Moreover, the Golan cabinet meeting may have the unwanted effect of drawing attention to an Israeli role in a Syria solution when in fact Israel has until now wisely remained removed from the Levant chaos.

The Israeli prime minister’s argument that Israel has a biblical-era historical claim to the Golan is not particularly convincing. But under current chaotic regional circumstances he has a powerful geostrategic justification for holding on to the territory--even if as late as 2011 Netanyahu himself negotiated with the Assad dynasty in Damascus to withdraw from the Golan in return for peace and security guarantees.


Q. Yet, despite renewed diplomatic efforts spearheaded by Moscow the ceasefire in Syria appears to be ending, while in Yemen there is optimism regarding a ceasefire and in Ngorno Karabach (an enclave disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan) renewed fighting has broken out. Can you connect these regional conflict situations?

A. In the coming weeks we are likely to see more fighting in Syria because the tide of battle appears to be turning. A variety of Iranian and other Shiite forces loyal to the Assad regime have gathered strength under the ceasefire and Russian tutelage, with their re-conquest of Palmyra representing a concerted move to recoup territory in the central and eastern parts of the country. And the Russians are still there: they may have withdrawn a few units for PR purposes, but they remain actively engaged in the fighting. With the US-backed Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, a variety of Iraqi army and militia forces and some rejuvenated “moderate” Syrian opposition groups pushing from the east and the north, ISIS is increasingly fighting in the Levant with its back to the wall while Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) is under pressure in Syria’s northwest.

In response, we can expect a bigger ISIS buildup in alternative arenas such as Libya, a Qaeda buildup in Yemen and more ISIS terrorist attacks against Syrian and Iraqi civilians. And the fighting in Syria and Iraq is hardly over even as some of the warring parties again meet in Geneva to discuss a diplomatic solution.

One key player whose near-term actions are worth monitoring is Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, on the heels of the “recovery” of the Tiran Straights there are indications that the Saudis are looking for a compromise solution in Yemen so they can “declare victory and withdraw” from a fruitless battle; I would wager on some sort of renewed north-south Yemeni political partition. On the other, Saudi and other Gulf money still flows to ISIS and al-Qaeda; the latter, in particular, is setting up a mini-state in eastern Yemen and, like ISIS in Libya, controls a coastline that facilitates the ongoing transfer of weapons and personnel in accordance with the ebb and flow of warfare in the broader Middle East.

The Saudis and the Emirates, having originally financed Qaeda, have now pledged to fight its forces in Yemen. That should be interesting.

>Finally, the renewed fighting in Ngorno Karabach pins an ally of Turkey, Azerbaijan (Azeris are a Turkic people) against an ally of Russia and Iran, Armenia. It’s still difficult to say to what extent, if at all, their conflict constitutes a proxy war between Moscow and Ankara, which remain in a confrontational mode since Turkey shot down a Russian combat aircraft over the Syria-Turkey border and Russia escalated its support for anti-Turkish Syrian Kurds. But because this is a 25 year-old conflict that corresponds with the collapse of the Soviet Union and because it pits a former KGB general in Yerevan, Serge Sarksian, against the son of a former KGB general and ruler in Baku, Ilham Aliev, their former KGB colleague Putin is the foreign leader engaged in mediating between the two. Note that in Ngorno Karabach, as in Syria, Russia has become the prime international mover.

There is an Israeli angle, too: In the past five years, Israel has sold Azerbaijan five billion dollars worth of weaponry, paid for largely through oil deliveries; an Israeli “suicide drone” was reportedly recently used by the Azeris against Armenian forces in Ngorno-Karabach. Israel views its strategic ties with Azerbaijan as a critical buffer against neighboring Iran and is embarrassed by the use of its weapons against Armenia. If long-drawn-out Israeli-Turkish reconciliation talks soon produce a breakthrough, the Israel-Azerbaijan link will take on even greater importance.

<Meanwhile, the fighting hasn’t ended anywhere.


Q. Finally, 15 years after his assassination by Palestinians and 11 years after he was declared a national hero to be memorialized annually in school ceremonies, far-right-wing Major General Rehavam Zeevi (“Gandhi”) is accused of having been a serial rapist and sexual harasser and having consorted with gangsters. Why now?

A. Gandhi (a nickname from pre-1948 Palmach days, associated with his skinny torso at a time when the real Gandhi was much in the news) was an outstanding IDF staff officer who later established the “Land of Israel Museum” and went into far-right politics. Like Meir Kahana, he advocated the “transfer” of Palestinians out of Israeli-controlled territory. The forcible expulsion or exchange of peoples known as transfer was an acceptable geostrategic concept back in the early twentieth century, for example in the Greek-Turkish context. But by the 1970s it was considered a violation of all internationally recognized principles of human rights. Yedioth Aharonoth columnist Amnon Abramovich noted on Monday that in advocating transfer, Zeevi “placed our entire existence here on the horns of a national transgression when he said: ‘If transfer is immoral, all of Zionism is immoral’”.

Unlike Kahana, Zeevi managed to remain close to the Israeli political mainstream due to his distinguished military past. He could unite the Palmach elites with the settler elites to a sufficient degree to stay afloat politically. When he was assassinated in a Jerusalem hotel, he was a minister in Ariel Sharon’s government. As a “martyred” government minister in an increasingly right-wing Israel, he was awarded an annual day of remembrance.

Now the women he abused as their commanding officer throughout his military career and the gangsters he consorted with then and in his political career have spoken out. The picture is ugly. The timing of the revelations by a popular TV investigative program, “Uvda”, appears to reflect a political drive in some circles to set the record straight about a dangerous extremist along with the need of the abused women, many now very elderly, to speak out. I asked Major General Shlomo Gazit, a Palmach and IDF veteran who served for many years with Zeevi, how he addressed the revelations: “In his IDF days we knew about the strange combination of unacceptable behavior with women and with the underworld. . . . ‘Uvda’ presented these in an era of different moral and political norms.”

The TV program did not go into Zeevi’s advocacy of transfer. But its timing speaks for itself. Hopefully, a significant portion of the educational system will now begin to rethink “Gandhi day”.