What's different about Kerry, and more: Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: December 30, 2013

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This week, Alpher discusses what Kerry is doing differently from his many predecessors who have tried and failed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how bad the escalating Palestinian violence is, whether there is escalating Israeli opposition to a deal brokered by Kerry, the interaction between Israeli prisoner release and the new settlement construction and the third release of pre-Oslo Palestinian terrorists and whether Pollard fits in somewhere, and whether he has any predictions for the Middle East in 2014.

Q. Another controversial Israeli prisoner release is scheduled for Monday night, Secretary of State Kerry is headed back to Jerusalem and Ramallah, and anticipation continues to build regarding an American peace plan. What is Kerry doing differently from his many predecessors who have tried and failed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

A. Two fairly unique aspects of Kerry's style as a mediator and facilitator stand out. One is what some of his Israeli interlocutors describe as "messianic zeal": he exercises constant pressure on the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships in the form of repeated visits and daily phone calls, and he exudes determined optimism.

A second is the impressive depth of the American organizational effort: Kerry's peace team comprises dozens of security experts alongside more than 100 additional experts, some with impressive knowledge of Israeli and Palestinian politics. Kerry's people are constantly reaching out to Israeli experts, for example on Jerusalem and public opinion, and even commissioning studies, going so far as to test prospective two-state terminology on Israeli focus groups. They are also lobbying aggressively and have met with retired senior military personnel to persuade them of the viability of the Kerry-Allen plan for the Jordan Valley.

Kerry confronts domestic Israeli and Palestinian circumstances that differ from those that preoccupied previous American peace facilitators. He has to try to tailor his upcoming framework agreement to Netanyahu's desire to hold onto his predominantly right-wing coalition while maintaining a process whose success the prime minister himself is not necessarily committed to. On the Palestinian side, he confronts a leader, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) who has a legitimacy problem: his constitutional tenure ended a few years ago and he faces a concerted anti-normalization campaign, growing outbursts of violence and a loss of security control over urban refugee camps in the West Bank. Abbas must also deal with Hamas intransigency in Gaza, which he purports to represent in talks but does not control.

Then there are the vastly different regional circumstances. The unpredictable nature of the Arab revolutions constitutes a constraint on both Netanyahu's and Abbas' freedom to take risks. On the other hand, Saudi concern regarding Iran and Syria enables Kerry to hint to Netanyahu that progress with the Palestinians will be rewarded by more overt security and economic cooperation with the Gulf. Moreover, Abbas appears to have reversed the late Yasser Arafat's longstanding insistence on independent Palestinian decision-making in favor of submitting any new agreement to the Arab League; this could improve Kerry's freedom of maneuver, in the sense that the League, spearheaded by the Saudis, might be more flexible than Abbas on issues like borders and the right of return.

In one critical aspect, however, Kerry's approach is no different than that of the past 20 years: he adheres to the Oslo menu of final status issues, solutions to all of which must find expression in his upcoming framework agreement proposal. And in one area, Kerry's capacity to deliver might be worse: it's not clear how much pressure President Obama would be prepared to exert on Israel or the Palestinians to back Kerry up.

Q. How bad is the escalating Palestinian violence?

A. In July 2013, when the peace process was renewed, the IDF recorded 82 violent incidents. By November the figure had doubled, to 167. The scope of firebomb (Molotov cocktail) attacks on the IDF inside the West Bank nearly doubled this year, to 522. These figures point to the erosion of deterrence on the part of the IDF and even by the Palestinian security forces commanded by Abbas. In Gaza, there are indications that Hamas is losing control over more extreme jihadist groups. An Israel Air Force attack last week in retaliation for non-Hamas attacks from Gaza targeted jihadist rocket depots and production facilities.

None of this bodes well for Israeli-Palestinian stability. Extremist Palestinian forces could launch major violence in the event of a breakthrough by Kerry.

Q. And what about escalating Israeli opposition to a deal brokered by Kerry?

The hawkish majority of Netanyahu's coalition reacts with outlandish statements and proposals every time it gets a whiff of possible progress. Most of this is political, and ephemeral. Last week, Defense Minister Yaalon proclaimed that Israel does not have a peace partner. And on Sunday a ministerial committee passed, on a preliminary basis, a bill that would annex the Jordan Valley--an obviously provocative response to the Kerry-Allen military plan for the Valley. Netanyahu will undoubtedly find a way to derail this latest initiative, but he cannot ignore the signal it conveys.

More ominously, a Kerry-brokered peace breakthrough accepted by Netanyahu could provoke not only the collapse of the latter's rightist coalition, but also attacks by extremist settlers and their allies on Palestinians and the IDF--and conceivably even assassination attempts by home-grown Israeli extremists against Israeli government officials.

Q. Speaking of settlers, can you address the interaction between Israeli prisoner release and the new settlement construction that is virtually certain to emerge once again with the third release of pre-Oslo Palestinian terrorists? Does Pollard fit in somewhere?

A. This time, Netanyahu's prisoner-linked settlement initiatives are liable to invite direct diplomatic retaliation against Israel from the European Union, which has threatened such a response. Timing the prisoner release and settlement announcements for the Christmas-New Year holiday will help Netanyahu, since both the EU and the US (except for Kerry and some of his team) are on vacation. The storm will probably blow over this time once again. But the fourth and final prisoner release, another 26 prisoners scheduled for the end of March, will be different because it includes Arab citizens of Israel who were incarcerated for terrorist offenses prior to 1993 and whose legal and public status in Israel is different than that of Arabs whose homes are in what became after 1994 the Palestinian Authority.

This is where Netanyahu would apparently like to reintroduce the Pollard issue. Israel will argue that not only is Pollard's release justified by the recent Snowden revelations of American spying on Israel's leaders, but Pollard's freedom will render it easier for Netanyahu to justify to his own government and public the release of veteran Israeli Arab terrorist offenders. Here it bears emphasis that the prisoner-release issue crosses left-right lines among Israelis.

Q. Finally, the inevitable question: looking to 2014, do you have any predictions for the Middle East?

A. No. In today's Middle East it would be a mistake to predict anything. Rather, the only sensible way to approach the coming year is to point to the dynamics we should be aware of and follow closely, but without being able to know how they will evolve.

First, following upon the discussion above, will Kerry succeed or fail, and how will the impression of success or failure affect the Israeli-Palestinian complex? Here "success", incidentally, might be relative if for instance a "framework agreement" that is initially trumpeted as a breakthrough turns out to lead nowhere.

Next, will the US-Iran relationship continue to warm up? How will this affect attitudes in Israel and the Gulf? And what sort of internal Iranian pushback--or export of terrorism--can we expect from the conservative opposition led by the Revolutionary Guards?

What developments can we expect in two key Arab countries that border on Israel: Egypt and Syria? Will the military succeed in molding a new polity in Egypt, and how will Islamist reaction affect Israel, for example in the form of attacks from salafist bases in Sinai? Will Assad prevail in Syria or will the country be divided between an extremist pro-Iranian regime and equally extreme salafists? How will this affect Lebanon? And how will it affect Islamist violence, both Shiite (Hezbollah) and Sunni, on Israel's northern borders?

How will Turkey shape up: closer to Iran or more moderate in view of Erdogan's apparent domestic dilemmas?

Summing up the above points regarding Egypt, Syria and Turkey: are the Arab revolutions over? Has Arab (and Turkish?) political Islam spent itself? Will Arab states remain as fragmented and dysfunctional as before the revolution?

Will the United States continue to be perceived as withdrawing militarily from the Middle East? Will Russia be perceived as "returning" and China as penetrating the region? How will these trends affect strategic decision-making in Israel and among its neighbors?

These are heavy questions. They reflect heavy issues. The year 2014 is likely to be decisive with regard to at least some of them.