What could FM Lieberman mean, and more: Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: January 6, 2014


This week, Alpher discusses the pronouncements on the peace process made by Secretary of State John Kerry in the course of his most recent Middle East trip, Foreign Minister Lieberman's departure from his traditional hawkish stance in his pronouncements that seem to view Kerry's performance as highly constructive, the relevance of Ariel Sharon's legacy for the current situation, and whether there is a Palestinian angle to Sunday's demonstration of more than 20,000 Eritreans in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, demanding freedom to work and live in Tel Aviv.

Q. Can you make sense of the pronouncements on the peace process made by Secretary of State John Kerry in the course of his most recent Middle East trip?

A. It's difficult. Kerry has made a practice of exuding both optimism and determination in all his pronouncements regarding the two-state solution. But in describing what he is trying to achieve, he is extremely circumspect, to the point of making little substantive sense.

For example, in Jordan on Sunday, Kerry told CNN: "We are working on a framework for negotiations that will guide and create the clear, detailed, accepted roadmap for the guidelines for the permanent status negotiations, and can help those negotiations move faster and more effectively." We have here virtually every buzzword that has entered the peace process in the past 20 years: framework for negotiations, roadmap, guidelines, and permanent status negotiations. What Kerry said earlier that day in Jerusalem didn't help: "The path is becoming clearer. The puzzle is becoming more defined. And it is becoming much more apparent to everybody what the remaining tough choices are."

So what does Kerry know now about the gaps between the two sides' positions that he, and we, didn't know before? It appears that he will soon present a framework that defines those gaps, presumably in terms that are fairly familiar to everyone. But if that's the case, where's the progress that Kerry is promising us?

Perhaps this is all a smokescreen designed to deflect pressure from the negotiators while concealing genuine progress? If Kerry's framework is to constitute an innovation--something that can be called substantial progress--there would appear to be only three ways in which this could happen. We'll use the territorial issue to demonstrate.

One way is if the gaps appear to have been narrowed by dint of half a year's negotiating and American prodding. In other words, if the amount of territory Israel will annex in the West Bank in order to bring the settlement blocs into sovereign Israeli territory is no longer defined by the Palestinians as about two percent of the West Bank and by Israel as about six percent (the approximate Olmert-Abbas gap in 2008) but as, say, a gap between only three and five percent. This is unlikely given the Netanyahu government's current rejection of the 1967 line as the basis for defining a Palestinian state--unless that is a smokescreen as well.

A second way would be to redefine the territorial gap in a creative way, as falling, say, between the security fence (which encompasses around eight percent of the West Bank) and the 1967 lines. This would enable PM Netanyahu to claim the fence as his point of departure for negotiations--an innovation and a step forward given that until now Netanyahu has ostensibly refused to discuss borders and territory--and Abbas to claim the 1967 lines, which has always been his position. Of course this still leaves a sizeable territorial gap between the two sides' demands. And it says nothing about the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem, both territorial issues that would be dealt with in separate chapters of the American formulation.

A third way would be to define the two sides' territorial positions (again, bearing in mind that Netanyahu has traditionally refused to define a border until security issues have been dealt with to his satisfaction) and present an American position: say, the settlement blocs would be attached to Israel within four percent of the West Bank, with the Palestinian state receiving equivalent land from Israel's side of the green line. It's also conceivable that Kerry would actually draw a map of a proposed new line, though obviously that sort of initiative goes well beyond the concept of a framework agreement and is more likely to be held in abeyance until it becomes clear that the two sides cannot agree on a border.

One way or another, it appears from Kerry's own statements that his objective is to both define and narrow the gaps on all core issues in a way that is accepted by both sides, albeit perhaps very reluctantly, as constituting progress while still falling short of a "breakthrough". Will this approach bring a two-state solution closer?

Q. Foreign Minister Lieberman's pronouncements on the occasion of Kerry's trip appear to view the latter's performance as highly constructive. Can you explain this departure from Lieberman's traditional hawkish stance?

A. Since resuming office following his legal difficulties, Lieberman has gone out of his way to appear more accommodating and less confrontational in general--particularly toward Washington. Kerry has assisted this process by engaging Lieberman personally, precisely in order to disarm the latter's potential opposition to Netanyahu if and when progress is registered.

The two met most recently last Friday. Two days later, Lieberman stated regarding Kerry's proposals that "any other proposal from the international community won't be as good. . . We cannot ignore the magnitude of his efforts . . . . on the two issues most important to us." Lieberman was presumably referring to Washington's endorsement of the principle of Israel as a Jewish state and of a long-term Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley, both areas where the administration has come down on Israel's side and provoked Palestinian anger and rejection.

Lieberman's ostensibly more moderate policies and congenial manner seem to reflect a conscious calculation on his part that he needs to position himself closer to PM Netanyahu and farther away from the extremists in the Likud and in Naftali Bennet's Bayit Yehudi party. Certainly Lieberman knows that if he wants to qualify in the public's mind as a potential successor to Netanyahu he has to be seen by the Israeli public as "persona grata" in Washington.

On the other hand, in the same appearance on Sunday before a meeting of Israeli ambassadors, Lieberman could not resist repeating his well-known demand that "a condition for an agreement with the Palestinians" is land swaps that place the Triangle and Wadi Ara areas with their 250,000 or so Arab residents under Palestinian sovereignty in return for the settlement blocs. This would ostensibly, in Lieberman's thinking, achieve a dual purpose: reducing Israel's own population of Palestinian Arab citizens while solving the land swap problem without touching land deemed (by him) more valuable to Israel.

One big problem with Lieberman's scheme is that it falls back on obsolete nineteenth century solutions, for example regarding Alsace Lorraine between France and Germany or the lakes district between Switzerland and Italy. Back then, entire populations could be transferred with their lands between countries, then forced to change citizenship. These days, civil and national rights are enshrined in internationally endorsed conventions, to say nothing of Israeli rights guaranteed under Israeli law. Thus Lieberman's scheme would not change the demographic balance because it would leave the Arabs of Wadi Ara and their descendants Israeli citizens--the Israel High Court of Justice would ensure they could not be disenfranchised even if they live in Palestine--while moving the Israeli-Palestinian border some eight kms from the Mediterranean.

That would nullify the very rationale that, some 40 years ago, was cited when the settlement blocs were built on West Bank territory: expanding Israel's narrow waist.

Q. With Ariel Sharon apparently passing from the scene and so many reminiscences surfacing about his involvement in issues related to Israel's Arab neighbors, what's your take on the relevance of his legacy for the current situation?

A. In the context of advancing peace solutions, Sharon is known for two dramatic acts: in 1978 he made it easier for PM Menachem Begin to agree at Camp David to dismantle Israeli settlements in Sinai by dismantling them himself, thereby helping pave the way for Israeli-Egyptian peace. And in 2005, he conceived and implemented the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, including the dismantling of settlements there and in the northern West Bank. The Gaza withdrawal, in particular, demanded great political courage and leadership on Sharon's part..

Of course lest we forget, it was also Sharon who conceived and built most of the settlements in Sinai, Gaza and the West Bank. That he could first build then dismantle settlements is a testament either to his pragmatism or to his lack of genuine strategic thinking, depending how you look at the matter.

I would opt for both possibilities. In 1994, I spent two hours one-on-one with Sharon while he explained how he used settlements to divide and rule in the West Bank and Gaza, whether by separating two Bedouin tribes near Hebron with a single hillside settlement or separating major population centers of hundreds of thousands in the Gaza Strip with 30 settler families at Netzarim. That was not solid strategic thinking. Nor was the invasion of Lebanon that he led in 1982, with the cockeyed objective of forcing the Palestinian refugees to move from there to Jordan, thereby "Palestinizing" the Hashemite Kingdom and somehow letting Israel off the hook regarding the West Bank.

We all know Sharon was a ferocious warrior, whether leading bloody reprisal raids in the 1950s, crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 or responding to the second intifada in 2002. Undoubtedly, after becoming prime minister in 2001 Sharon became a pragmatist. But not a peacenik; he was totally cynical about Arab readiness for peace--he simply didn't believe in it. Nor did he vote in the Knesset in favor of Israeli peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Hence he initiated the withdrawal from Gaza rather than bow to President George W. Bush's pressure to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas, who had succeeded Yasser Arafat.

If there is any possible legacy or model here for Netanyahu to follow under current circumstances, it would be to initiate a unilateral withdrawal from a substantial part of the West Bank in order to rebuff or evade Kerry's peace pressures, in the hope of holding onto "united" Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. For better or for worse, that's what Sharon would probably have done..

Q. On Sunday, more than 20,000 Eritreans demonstrated in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, demanding freedom to work and live in Tel Aviv. Is there a Palestinian angle here too?

A. Yesterday, I happen to have been both in Rabin Square and along the route the Eritreans walked from south Tel Aviv to get there. Their conduct was dignified and they maintained perfect discipline (enforced by their own yellow-jacketed monitors) during four hours of speeches in Tigrinya and an orderly walk back through the streets of the city. A huge police detachment was left completely idle. The tide of black Eritreans stretching half the length of Tel Aviv was something the city had never seen. Their message to the city's residents was: don't ignore us any longer; we constitute critical mass.

Some 50,000 Eritrean Muslims and Christians in Israel want their work and residency status in Israel legalized and regularized. They have the support of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (most live in south Tel Aviv in desperate conditions). They certainly don't want to be snatched off the streets and shipped off to the new Holot holding facility that was recently built by the government in the Negev at a cost of half a billion shekels, where they are separated from family and denied any dignity whatsoever.

The Netanyahu government has wisely built a fence along the Negev-Sinai border, so no more Eritreans are arriving. Now it unwisely thinks it can force the 50,000 to leave by making their lives miserable. Yet they have nowhere to go, since prison and even death await them in Eritrea and the international community (but not Israel) recognizes them as refugees.

The Netanyahu government is adamant that the 50,000 Eritreans along with a few Ghanaians and Sudanese, all of whom are happy to do the menial jobs no one else is interested in doing in Israel, are illegal labor migrants who cannot stay. (Their nationwide strike on Sunday left Tel Aviv's restaurants without dishwashers and the municipality without street-sweepers, while hotels in Eilat were unable to function.).

The Africans are described by the Netanyahu government at the highest level, here and there with a racist tinge, as a threat to Israel's Jewish nature. Yet this is the same government that is daily expanding Israel's grip on East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where close to two million Palestinians live--forty times as many non-Jews and non-Israelis--thereby ultimately ensuring that Israel will become not a Jewish state but a bi-national or apartheid state.

The total lack of logic, proportion or common sense in these juxtaposed positions is mindboggling.Lieberman-Kerry200x200.jpg