June 14, 2016 - Orlando and Sarona; Netanyahu in Moscow


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 analysis of the shared characteristics of the Sarona and Orlando terrorist attacks; the additional unique elements of the Sarona attack of June 8 that seem to have made it so traumatic; and what Netanyahu's fourth meeting in a year with President Putin, together with the fact that he met only once with President Obama during this time tells us about Netanyahu’s strategic world view.

Q. The Sarona and Orlando terrorist attacks have provoked a lot of analysis in Israel regarding shared characteristics. Can you comment?

A. Both attacks were perpetrated by young men acting apparently as “lone wolves”, without any organizational affiliation. In both cases, Islamist propaganda disseminated by social media appears to have played an important role in inciting violent acts. In both cases, extremist Islamist groups--Hamas, ISIS--hastened to embrace the perpetrators as their own despite the lack of evidence of an organizational connection (in Orlando, Omar Mateen declared his affiliation in the course of the attack).

Indeed, these attacks point to and appear to characterize an alarming new phenomenon, one seen throughout the stabbings of the past half year in Israel, and in the US in the San Bernardino attack of last December: the jihadist organizations are capable of inspiring individual, “unaffiliated” attacks without actually recruiting. As ISIS steadily loses ground in the Levant, its capacity to generate seemingly spontaneous terrorism in distant places provides it with a new dimension of jihadist activity.

Something similar may be happening with the Palestinian organizations. As Jordanian columnist Oraib al-Rantawi commented last Friday, “Whereas they previously used to compete with each other in ‘declaring their responsibility’ for one attack or another, the Palestinian factions these days . . . . confine themselves to issuing some statement on the web or sending a statement to a pre-prepared mailing list of ‘friendly’ media, after which their mission is deemed to have been accomplished. . . .” Are we entering an era whereby social media generate “virtual” organizational links to terrorism?

Then too, in both cases the attack appears at least for the moment to have enhanced the political fortunes of the militant political right--Netanyahu/Lieberman in Israel, Trump in the US. In Israel, when Mayor Ron Huldai of Tel Aviv quite justifiably blamed the occupation for the Sarona attack, he was practically shouted down by the political right-wing and its very verbal supporters. But this may be a very temporary effect: Israel does not face elections, and while election results in Israel have definitely been pushed to the right by proximate terror attacks and while in general Israeli politics is heavily affected by security issues, this tends not to be the case in the US. There, with an election five months away, domestic social and economic issues tend to be more influential and Donald Trump’s “I told you so” message following Orlando could be long forgotten by November.

Finally, Huldai pointed to the real difference between the two attacks. Sarona is part and parcel of Israel’s unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. Orlando calls for different terms of reference: gun control in the US and Islam’s unresolved issues with the West in general and with the LGBT world in particular.


Q. Can you address the additional unique elements of the Sarona attack of June 8 that seem to have made it so traumatic?

A. There are several such elements. First, considering the “lone wolf” aspect, the attack was quite sophisticated. The two well-dressed perpetrators penetrated numerous security perimeters to travel from the southern West Bank to the very heart of Tel Aviv, a stone’s throw from IDF General Staff Headquarters, and calmly eat a meal before opening fire on fellow diners.

Second, unlike the knifings and car run-over attacks of the past six months, this attack featured live fire. On the other hand, the “Carlo” submachine guns used by the shooters were so primitive (they are an amateur machine-shop copy of the Swedish Carl Gustav, which used to be standard issue in the Egyptian Army) that they jammed quickly, thereby saving many lives. One of the shooters can be seen in the restaurant’s closed-circuit video throwing his jammed weapon down in disgust.

Incidentally, “cold” weapon attacks (e.g., knives) have been in steady decline the past two months, as has (according to a reliable opinion poll) popular Palestinian support for them. On the other hand, a majority of Palestinians continues to believe that if the current, declining low-level intifada develops into an armed intifada this would serve national aims better than negotiations with Israel, which are seen by a clear majority as useless. Here it is entirely unclear whether the Sarona incident was the opening act in a new round of more violent attacks on Israelis. In contrast, in the US it seems reasonable to predict that anti-Muslim rhetoric and the ongoing availability of guns, coupled with ISIS’s on-line incitement, will generate more incidents like San Bernardino and Orlando.

Third I was pleased to hear, in taped exchanges over the body of the shooter who was wounded by a security guard, that rabble-rousing cries for the guard to “put a bullet in his head” were ignored. Perhaps the lesson regarding purity of arms from the Hebron execution incident some two months ago has been absorbed here and there.

Fourth, this incident provided Avigdor Lieberman’s first challenge as minister of defense. In keeping with the image of maturity and responsibility he seeks to project, Lieberman responded to the Sarona attack relatively non-belligerently, with minimal closures and road-barriers and maximum detective work. He appears to have adopted the IDF’s argument that collective punishment should be avoided to the greatest extent possible and economic and political incentives maximized. In any case PM Netanyahu, perhaps mindful of Lieberman’s loudmouth reputation, virtually monopolized the declarative leadership role in the wake of the attack.


Q. Netanyahu traveled to Moscow last week for his fourth meeting in a year with President Putin. During that time, Netanyahu met only once with President Obama. What does this tell us about Netanyahu’s strategic world view?

A. First of all, it tells us something about Netanyahu’s personality: he has far better chemistry with the blunt and authoritative Putin than with the liberal and nuanced Obama. Accordingly, the Netanyahu-Putin meetings radiate a more positive image. Secondly, the Russian military presence in Syria not far from the Syrian-Israeli border requires constant coordination at the tactical level--a task fulfilled on Israel’s side by a team led by IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan--and periodic consultation at the strategic level, apparently by the two leaders.

An example of the apparent strategic agenda last week was Putin’s public endorsement of Israeli-Turkish rapprochement--a bilateral work in progress between Jerusalem and Ankara that is mired in ongoing and seemingly never-ending negotiations. This was significant: Russia and Turkey are at loggerheads regarding Syria-Turkey border issues since Russia moved into Syria militarily and the Turkish Air Force downed a Russian combat aircraft that had allegedly strayed slightly into Turkish air space. Netanyahu wants to move ahead with repairing relations with Ankara. Turkey, after all, is a major trading partner for Israel, a potential key customer for Israeli natural gas from the Mediterranean, and in the long run a possible strategic partner for dealing with radical Sunni or Shiite Islamists based in Syria. Both Russia and Egypt are highly sensitive to any upgrading in Israel’s relations with the increasingly Islamist and authoritarian Erdogan government in Ankara, so Putin’s blessing was important.

Finally, there is the bigger picture of Israeli relations with Russia as opposed to Israeli relations with the US and Western Europe. A series of right-wing Netanyahu coalitions, with their support for the messianic West Bank settler movement and restrictions on human and civil rights in Israel, has maneuvered the country into a highly defensive position toward the BDS movement and European Union sanctions on the one hand, and into growing estrangement from the Obama administration on the other. Netanyahu seeks to compensate Israel strategically and economically through enhanced security ties with some Arab states and broader strategic ties with Russia and to a lesser degree China and India--all “partners” that pay little more than lip service to the Palestinian issue.

That is the deeper strategic explanation to Netanyahu’s four trips to Russia in less than a year. Yet neither Israel’s Sunni Arab neighbors nor the Russia-China-India trio can come close to compensating Israel for potential economic damage if relations with the EU worsen, or for potential strategic security damage if the next US president decides to downgrade the two countries’ defense ties. No amount of displays of Russian-Israeli congeniality can hide that fact. And here, when it comes to the Palestinian issue and the West, Netanyahu has no real solutions to offer as long as he and his supporters covet the territory of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.