September 06, 2016 - The totally non-credible verbal war over settlements. The increasingly complex shooting war in northern Syria


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 what we can learn from the exchange in late August between late August a UN envoy who called Israeli settlement construction an impediment to peace and a Netanyahu spokesperson who retorted that the envoy was “distorting history and international law;” who are the winners and losers in this round of the seemingly endless Syrian civil war and what is the strategic significance of Turkey's invasion of northern Syria with the blessing of the US; and whether Washington wins or loses and Where this leaves US and Israeli strategic interests regarding the Syria issue and its regional and international ramifications.

Q. In late August a UN envoy called Israeli settlement construction an impediment to peace. A Netanyahu spokesperson retorted that the envoy was “distorting history and international law”. Is there anything new we can learn from this exchange?

A. Repetitive and seemingly routine as it is, there is indeed something to learn from this exchange.

First, the contents of the tit-for-tat. The UN envoy, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov, was following up on a Quartet (the UN, US, EU and Russia) report that alleged two months ago that Israeli settlement construction and Palestinian incitement had to cease in order for the peace process to be revived. Mladenov stated that in fact, settlement-building by Israel had “surged” since then and provided facts and figures to support his allegation.

PM Netanyahu’s foreign media advisor and spokesperson, David Keyes, retorted that Mladenov had “made peace harder to achieve by distorting history and international law.” Here are some of the pearls of wisdom he added courtesy of Israel’s government: “It is not the presence of Jews, who have lived in the West Bank and Jerusalem for thousands of years, that is a barrier to peace. . . . The claim that it is illegal for Jews to build in Jerusalem is as absurd as saying Americans can’t build in Washington. . . .The Palestinian demand to ethnically cleanse their future state of Jews is outrageous. . . .”

First, lest I be misunderstood, I believe that the West Bank settlements are not only an impediment to peace; they represent an instance of folly that is in a league with Barbara Tuchman’s immortal “March of Folly”: their negative influence on Israel’s fortunes is of grand-strategic proportions because they doom Israel to cease being a Jewish, Zionist state.

But THE impediment to peace? Let’s start with Keyes, then get back to Mladenov. Point no. 1: Jews have not lived in the West Bank and Jerusalem for thousands of years. They lived there nearly two thousand years ago, before being brutally dispersed. A handful of Jews lived in Safed and Jerusalem during recent centuries. The entire Zionist narrative, built upon the claim of the Jews’ “return” to their historical homeland, acknowledges that they were expelled some 2,000 years ago. All of a sudden, we’ve been here all along?

Point no. 2: No country in the world except Israel recognizes the legality of Israeli actions in East Jerusalem. The most learned arguments of Israeli experts in international law in favor of Israel’s right to settle and build in East Jerusalem, not to mention the West Bank, have been accepted by no one. So, yes, Mr. Keyes, it is far more legal for Americans to build in Washington.

Point no. 3: Now the Palestinians want to “ethnically cleanse their future state of Jews”? The Palestinian position, backed by the international community, wants to cease any further Jewish settlement but not remove existing settlers pending final status negotiations in which their fate would be discussed. Many would remain in settlement blocs “land swapped” with Israel. At least Mr. Keyes grants the Palestinians a future state.

What we can learn from Keyes’s statement is that the Netanyahu government’s public diplomacy is becoming ever more divorced from realities on the ground. It is simply rewriting both history and legality. The best explanation for this state of affairs is that Netanyahu is so confident in his ability to rebuff international pressures over his gradual expansion of Israeli control throughout the West Bank that he can afford to make up “hasbara” as he goes along.

But what of Mladenov, the Quartet and the UN? Are settlements and incitement the only, or even the major impediments to a peace process? Has the Quartet learned nothing from its years of trying to monitor and mediate Israeli-Palestinian peace and through the activities of emissaries like Mladenov? When will it conclude that the barriers to a fruitful process are far more substantive?

Start with Israel’s rejection of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and insistence on “Jewish state” recognition, and add the overriding presence in the Israeli governing coalition of messianic elements who reject any possibility of a Palestinian state. Then move to Palestinian insistence that there is no Jewish people and that Jews have no inherent rights in their historic homeland, the demand that Israel recognize the right of return of all 1948 refugees and their five million descendants and the claim, made repeatedly by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, that “there never was a temple on the Temple Mount”.

Finally, there is the international community’s pathetic belief that “economic peace”--meaning investment in the Palestinian economy--will advance real peace, despite all historic evidence to the contrary. And what of the presence in the Gaza Strip, which is supposed to be part of any peace deal, of a ruling Islamist clique that rejects any sort of negotiation at all with Israel and the absence in all quarters--Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Quartet and the Arab world--of any strategy whatsoever for doing something about Hamas in Gaza.

The ritual of UN condemnations of settlements and incitement and infantile Israeli responses will presumably continue. But they are an insult to the intelligence of any serious observer.


Q. Turkey has invaded northern Syria and the US has given its blessing. Who are the winners and losers in this round of the seemingly endless Syrian civil war? What is the strategic significance?

A. The winners are the easiest to identify.

Turkey has struck a blow to remove two problematic and aggressive Syrian actors, ISIS and the Syrian Kurds, from immediate proximity to the most sensitive segment of its long border with Syria. And it has injected itself as a major player in any future discussions of Syria’s future.

The Assad regime in Damascus has gained to the extent that ISIS continues to lose ground and Syrian Kurdish dreams of independence or even far-reaching autonomy in contiguous territory just south of Turkey have suffered a blow.

And Russia and Iran gain because they have predicated their armed presence on Syrian soil on the strengthening of the Assad regime, which is friendly to their regional strategic interests.

Two losers are obvious: the Syrian Kurds and ISIS have both lost ground. Here we must note that Turkey may emerge both a winner and a loser, in the sense that both ISIS and the Kurds (Syrian as well as Turkish Kurds: they are allies) are now liable to take their armed and terrorist struggle against Turkey deeper into that country.

But is the US a loser here? The Obama administration has bent over backward to position itself next to Turkey in the winners’ corner. Vice-President Biden, confronting a Turkish-Russian rapprochement of sorts on August 9 and Turkish accusations of US complicity in July’s abortive military coup, was the first to seek to win back Turkish good will. Presented with the fait accompli of the Turkish invasion of Syria upon his arrival in Ankara on August 24, he gave it his blessing. Secretary of State Kerry stated in Ankara on August 26 that the U.S. wanted a “a united Syria. We do not support an independent Kurdistan.” President Obama, at the G-20 summit in China last weekend, promised Turkish President Erdogan to help bring the Turkish coup plotters to justice--meaning presumably that he will facilitate Turkey’s request to extradite alleged coup leader Fethullah Gulen.

The US, then, has taken Turkey’s side in virtually all outstanding issues because it assesses that the Turkish alliance, within the NATO framework, is more important to American interests in Syria—indeed not only in Syria: there are European and refugee issues at stake--than the American alliance inside Syria with Kurdish fighters and the American demand that Syrian leader Assad be removed from power. The Syrian Kurds are already recalling the March 1975 US abandonment of the Iraqi Kurds on the occasion of the Shah’s rapprochement with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.

The US, surprised by the Turkish coup and Erdogan’s accusation of American complicity, surprised by Erdogan’s rapprochement with Putin and surprised by the Turkish military move into Syria, has chosen unambiguously to back Turkey and Erdogan.


Q. But does Washington win or lose? Where does this leave US and Israeli strategic interests regarding the Syria issue and its regional and international ramifications?

A. It will now be harder for the US to achieve its declared objective of dislodging both Assad and his primary enemy in Syria, ISIS. US allies--Turkey and the Syrian Kurds--are now fighting one another, with “moderate” Syrian Islamists caught in between. We saw at the G-20 that the US and Russia are still unable to disentangle their various alliances inside Syria and arrange even a ceasefire to stop the carnage in Aleppo; Obama cited “gaps of trust”. I think the US is a loser here, but events in Turkey and Syria could still prove me wrong.

For Israel these events represent a setback because, despite Jerusalem’s recent rapprochement with Ankara, ISIS and Assad are its primary strategic enemies in Syria. Israel doesn’t want either of them on its northern border, yet both are now stronger. Israel also loses to the extent that Assad’s allies, Iran and Hezbollah, now register further gains. And Israel loses to the extent that the Syrian Kurds, a natural ally, witness a setback to their dream of autonomy in a territorially contiguous strip of northern Syria and witness the US choosing Turkish interests over theirs.