May 16, 2016 - Hamas, Hezbollah, China and BDS


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 the State Comptroller’s report on conduct of the summer 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza and its significance; why, unlike Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon appears to remain highly reticent to engage Israel militarily again; impressions and insights that are relevant to Israel in his travels in Canada and New Zealand; and why Israel is, relatively speaking, smug about dealing with BDS and even the EU boycott of settlement goods.

Q. The State Comptroller’s report on conduct of the summer 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza is reportedly highly critical of the IDF’s performance. What’s the significance?

A. The report has not yet been made public; parts of it may never be published. The report apparently criticizes the IDF with regard to issues like excessive civilian losses in Gaza, faulty anticipation of the strategic effects of Hamas’s tunneling into Israeli territory, and pointless prolongation of the war. By focusing on the IDF, the report seemingly exonerates the political echelon--with the apparent exception of noting a failure by the security cabinet to discuss the tunnel issue in depth and in real time.

I would argue that the focus of the report misses the real significance of the 2014 war, particularly when seen against the backdrop of two earlier inconclusive rounds in recent years: Israel has no viable strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. Without a viable strategy determined by the political leadership, the IDF finds itself repeatedly improvising tactics that characterize a campaign whose inconclusive outcome is known in advance.

We have discussed this dilemma repeatedly in recent editions of this Q & A: Israel has no stomach for reoccupying Gaza; Hamas will not negotiate a political settlement and its ideology and behavior remain highly suspect not only in Israeli eyes (Egypt just opened its border crossing with the Gaza Strip, for two days, for the first time in nearly three months!); Turkish offers to take charge of the Gazan economy are, under current circumstances, treated with suspicion by both Egypt and Israel; and Hamas cannot be pacified by either “economic peace” or economic warfare. So the IDF ends up once again “mowing the lawn”, i.e., battering Hamas into temporary submission at a huge cost for Israel in international condemnation and strategic frustration.

As matters stand, the next round can’t be far away.


Q. Unlike Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon appears to remain highly reticent to engage Israel militarily again. Why?

A. The war in Syria, where Hezbollah, Iran and Russia are all defending the Assad regime, appears to be taking a heavy toll on Hezbollah. Last week witnessed serious Hezbollah losses in a battle near Aleppo in northern Syria and the death of Mustafa Badr a-Din, Hezbollah’s top military commander, near Damascus.

Israel had a long score to settle with Badr a-Din, who was involved in orchestrating murderous attacks against Jews and Israelis over recent decades in places as far afield as Buenos Aires and Bulgaria. Yet so concerned was Hezbollah that the Badr a-Din incident not involve it in new tensions with Israel, that it hastened to point the finger at Syria-based Sunnis rather than even hinting at an Israeli role in his death. (In fact, Badr a-Din could have been assassinated by a host of individuals and Islamist groups that had accounts to settle with him.)

It would appear that in the months and perhaps years ahead only a serious miscalculation on the part of Hezbollah or Israel could start a new war between the two. That, of course, is not beyond the realm of possibility in a chaotic Middle East. Note that, unusually, Israel itself quickly denied that it had anything to do with Badr a-Din’s death. Usually it simply refuses to comment.


Q. You have been traveling and lecturing in Canada and New Zealand. Did you collect any impressions or insights that are relevant to Israel?

A. First, the Chinese presence around the Pacific is almost overwhelming, particularly when compared to the situation in previous decades. Vancouver and Auckland are flooded with Chinese tourists, and Chinese is the second language everywhere. China is the Pacific superpower of the future and possibly--as it expands its international economic and military reach--the global superpower as well. Chinese interest in high-tech knowledge and in infrastructure--ports, railroads--and vital resources is fast becoming dominant around the globe, particularly insofar as Beijing has the financial capacity to invest. In Israel this is keenly felt in the form of Chinese investments in joint university research projects (gaining access to Israeli high-tech knowhow) and in infrastructure.

Second, and on a very different note, global interest in Israel and particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not waning. Not surprisingly, interest on the part of western non-Jewish audiences is increasingly reflected in highly critical questions and references, while Jewish audiences, particularly in small Diaspora communities, evince growing concern regarding how to defend Israel’s interests.

The BDS campaign against Israel looms far larger in such communities than in Israel itself. The striking and courageous comment on Holocaust Memorial Day by IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, alluding to behavior by extremist Israeli circles that is reminiscent of the Nazis in the 1930s (“If there is something frightening in the memory of the Shoah it is the recognition of frightening dynamics in Europe in general and in Germany in particular that are identifiable here, in our midst right now”) was the conversation-opener of non-Jewish New Zealanders long after Israel had moved on to new scandals and fresher news.


Q. Why is Israel itself, relatively speaking, smug about dealing with BDS and even the EU boycott of settlement goods?

A. PM Netanyahu appears to believe that Israel enjoys sufficient strategic cooperation with countries not interested in boycotting it over the settlements issue, to enable it to absorb any damage inflicted by BDS. Under current circumstances, in narrow economic terms he’s probably right.

First and foremost the United States, regardless of the identity of the next president, will not join a European-led boycott. Then too, the other major global powers--Russia, India and China--have their own concerns regarding militant Islam that persuade them to suffice with little more than lip service over the settlements as they seek intelligence, military and other cooperation with Israel.

Add Israel’s closest EU neighbors, Greece and Cyprus, where concerns regarding militant Islam emanating from neighboring Turkey’s Erdogan government and from chaos in nearby Syria have persuaded left-wing governments to enter into strategic cooperation with Israel rather than join a boycott movement spearheaded by the European left. Finally, there is the Arab core surrounding Israel: Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia do not feel free to pressure Israel regarding the Palestinian issue when they need close strategic cooperation against virtually all the militant Islamists in the region, from Gaza to southern Syria.

True, boycott threats have driven a few Israeli economic enterprises, such as Ahava cosmetics and Soda Stream, out of the West Bank. These firms have located nearby across the green line, where settler employees and here and there some Palestinian employees can still commute to work. Thus far, the damage in real financial terms appears easily absorbable. Accordingly, Netanyahu’s government can keep building settlements and swallowing up more and more of the West Bank. Its biggest problem with BDS seems to be rallying the spirits of concerned friends of Israel abroad.

Of course, none of this takes into account the long-term effects of efforts in the West to isolate and stigmatize Israel. Nor does it make life any easier for pro-Israel students on North American campuses as they confront extreme anti-Israel and at times anti-Semitic propaganda--a growing problem in the Diaspora. Worst of all, it helps obfuscate and whitewash Israel’s ongoing slide down a slippery slope toward a very ugly and un-Zionist one-state reality.

But Israel’s current leadership lives very much from day to day. The utter chaos reigning in so many Arab countries around us offers the perfect rationale for doing so. On the other hand that very same chaos, together with Israel’s comfortable security situation and the tolerant attitude toward Israel evinced by its immediate Arab state neighbors, could present ideal alternative circumstances for an Israeli leader genuinely committed to a Jewish, democratic state to begin making unilateral territorial and other gestures toward that end.