June 20, 2016 - Barak on fascism, is ISIS losing, Lieberman on Gaza


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 prominent Israeli former government and security officials who spoke out last week very bluntly against Netanyahu and his government and whether this could this be the beginning of serious change; if ISIS is losing the battle for the Levant and if the Obama approach is winning; and whether there are lessons here for Israel regarding Hamas in Gaza.

Q. Prominent Israeli former government and security officials spoke out last week very bluntly against Netanyahu and his government. Could this be the beginning of serious change?
A. Frankly, and sadly, I doubt it. While the criticism, particularly on the part of former prime minister Ehud Barak, was far more direct and angry than anything voiced until now, it is hard to see how figures like Barak can translate it into political facts on the ground. Nor is the talk of a new “generals’ party” realistic. The former chiefs of staff in question--Barak, Yaalon, Gantz and Ashkenazi--do not necessarily all get along and, with the possible exception of Yaalon, probably don’t have the “fire in the belly” needed to fight ugly and extended political battles.

Then too, to a large extent the Israeli public has had its fill of retired generals and former Mossad and Shin Bet heads. These figures will not necessarily garner a lot of votes come election time--which is probably years off anyway.

Barak himself has in recent years lost a great deal of credibility with the Israeli public and appears to know this, hence he is ostensibly shunning a renewed political role for himself. But he does seem to think he can be accepted by the public as a kind of wise elder statesman who may not be popular but should be listened to.

Barak’s primary accomplishment last week was to very eloquently place critical and very dramatic descriptive terms (referring to Netanyahu and his entourage) like “fascistic tendencies” and concern over the “end of the Zionist enterprise and dream” in the public mainstream. Yaalon’s was to declare his candidacy to replace Netanyahu as prime minister--thus far, without a party or an organized following. Barak also alluded to the need to get organized against Netanyahu. And Tzipi Livni declared her intention to expand the Zionist Union (Labor + Livni) into a “centrist democratic bloc”. But additional generals considered possible candidates for such a bloc--Ashkenazi and Gantz--sufficed with committing to a non-political framework dedicated to “changing the culture”.

Most of these statements were made at the annual Herzlia Conference, considered an ideal venue for catching the public eye. Barak and Yaalon were quickly and disdainfully labeled by the Likud “the party of the frustrated”. In fact, there are no new parties, no new elections, and an ill-defined constituency for the generals’ remarks. Barak’s language in particular echoed that of IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan who a few weeks ago allowed that some of what is happening in Israel reminded him of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. To what extent this rhetoric will help to shape a more aggressive and focused public discourse, is the only unanswered question at this point in time.
Q Is ISIS losing the battle for the Levant? Is the Obama approach winning?
A. Not just in Iraq and Syria but in Libya as well, ISIS has in recent months been losing territory steadily. The most spectacular theater of victory over ISIS today is Fallujah in Iraq, where Iraqi forces on the ground, many of them led or trained by Iran, and US forces in the air are combining to retake the city from ISIS. In this sense, the Obama strategy of empowering anti-ISIS forces while minimalizing American participation and US casualties appears to be working. It may still take years to recover all the Levant lands occupied by ISIS in Iraq and Syria but the direction is clear, and positive.

There are, however, two prominent downsides to this dynamic. One is ISIS’s ability to change tactics and switch to large-scale terrorism that brings the battle to western, or Egyptian, Saudi and Turkish soil. Last week, CIA Director John Brennan bluntly informed Congress that “despite our progress. . . on the battlefield. . . our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.” Nor, it might be added, have international efforts prevented the growing emergence of “lone wolf” terrorists inspired by ISIS from afar, like in Orlando.

The second downside is illustrated at Fallujah: in order to muster sufficient force against ISIS, the US is further empowering Iran, which has its own Islamist ideology and hegemonic designs on the region, and, by default, Syria’s Assad, who has both Iran and Russia on his side and is no longer being seriously challenged by Washington. This is one of the factors that prompted last week’s protest memo signed by 51 State Department officials who wish to see a more aggressive US approach toward Assad.
Q. Are there lessons here for Israel regarding Hamas in Gaza?
A. According to the Israeli press, last week a “senior source” in the Ministry of Defense--almost certainly newly-anointed defense minister Avigdor Lieberman himself--told a journalist that in the next round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza, Israel must conquer and reoccupy the entire Strip and replace Hamas rule there. Lieberman didn’t say who his Palestinian candidate to replace Hamas is, but did specify that it could not be West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas, whom he labels as Israel’s enemy on the international scene. Israel would not initiate such a war, Lieberman added, but this is the strategy it would adopt if and when Hamas started a war.

These views are vintage Lieberman. He repeated them frequently before becoming defense minister. Because they were attributed to a senior source, it is clear they do not constitute a slip of the tongue but rather were carefully calculated and designed for publication.

There are very few security thinkers in Israel who agree to a strategy of reoccupying Gaza. Such a move, which is feasible enough militarily, would leave Israel both responsible for the well-being of two million destitute Palestinians following a bloody and highly destructive campaign, and exposed to universal international condemnation. Nor would Israel be able to recruit an alternative Palestinian leadership to take Gaza off its hands. Even Abbas, who used to rule Gaza, would refuse to be reinstalled in power there at the tip of Israeli bayonets.

In short, if Lieberman was inspired to publicize his views, albeit “not for attribution”, by territorial gains against ISIS in the Levant, he is making a grievous mistake reminiscent of Ariel Sharon’s design to reconstitute Lebanon under Israeli occupation in 1982. Even in the Levant it is more than likely that ISIS rule, once removed, will be replaced by political, military and Islamist elements just as ugly. The only difference is that the US, having in any case invested few forces, will then go home, whereas Israel will need to muster a small army to retake Gaza, will suffer serious losses in doing so, and then won’t be able to leave.