May 1, 2017 - War and Diplomacy on the eve of Israel’s 69th Independence Day


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 rising tensions with Syria; the outlook on Trump's upcoming meeting with Abbas and trip to Israel; whether Abbas or Netanyahu are in a position to "deal"; possible ramifications of Germany's increasing pressure on Israel; tension between Israel and North Korea; and celebrating Israel's Independence Day in light of the present mood.


Q. As Israel turns 70, tensions with Syria are rising. Any déjà vu here?

A. Last week witnessed the spectacle of ambitious ministers in PM Netanyahu’s coalition speaking far too openly about Israel’s presumed involvement in another attack on Damascus’ international airport. An Iranian weapons shipment for Hezbollah was reportedly targeted. In response to the loose talk of “Intelligence Minister” Yisrael Katz and Housing Minister Yoav Galant, Syria apparently launched a pilotless aircraft toward Israel that was shot down over the Golan Heights. (“Intelligence minister” and “minister of strategic affairs” are fictitious ministries invented by PM Netanyahu to keep coalition members happy; but it goes to their heads.)

Syria under President Bashar Assad, feeling more confident by the day, is now speaking openly about such Israeli attacks and its intention to counteract them. To that end, it is reportedly asking Russia for more advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Syria’s Russian ally, also a friend of Israel, is squirming: it acknowledges Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism but without mentioning Israel.

All this is slightly, but only slightly, reminiscent of the run-up to the Six-Day War in May-June 1967. Then, tension along the Israel-Syria border led to threats by IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin. Israel shot down six Syrian MiGs. The USSR, at the time wholeheartedly a supporter of Syria, intervened by spreading false reports about an Israeli build-up on the Golan. Egypt’s President Nasser responded by massing forces in Sinai on the Negev border, expelling a UN peacekeeping force and closing the Tiran (Red Sea) Straits to Israeli shipping. The rest is history, to be revisited on these virtual pages on the fiftieth anniversary of the war in June.

So we have, again, loose talk by Israelis and Syrian-Israeli military tensions. But we also have a very different Russian role and no Egyptian role at all. Unlike 1967, the only danger of escalation here is if Syria, or Hezbollah, or Iran--all injured parties every time Israel intercepts a shipment of strategic weaponry to Hezbollah--chooses to launch a massive military response against Israel. Militarily and strategically, they are in no position to do so. And Russia has a vested interest this time in calm between Israel and Syria.

Accordingly, the danger is minimal. Still, the loose talk by Israeli ministers with inflated egos must stop. (For more, see below.)


Q. Turning to the Palestinian arena, PLO/PA leader Abbas is set to meet President Trump this week. Their agenda reportedly focuses on a renewed peace process. Later in May, Trump will apparently visit Israel. Any hope here?

A. Not much hope of substance. But we may see a lot of dramatic smoke and mirrors regarding a virtual peace process in the months ahead.

The vicissitudes of 100 days in office have caused President Trump to change his mind about a lot of issues he raised during the election campaign: NATO, NAFTA, Mexico paying for the wall, genuine tax relief for the middle class, China, recreational golf, etc. But on the Palestinian issue he remains committed to the “ultimate deal”. Accordingly, he has been “working” the Middle East conscientiously. Thus far he has met with Netanyahu, Egypt’s President Sisi, Saudi deputy crown prince and rising star Mohammad bin Salman, and Jordan’s King Abdullah. This month he will meet with the PLO’s Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Turkey’s Erdogan. And apparently he will visit Israel (and the Palestinian Authority?) by the end of May.

So Trump has begun to educate himself regarding the conflict. By any rational standard, this should sober him up regarding the “deal”. Or not: last week he stated, “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians--none whatsoever.” Thus far he has asked Netanyahu to “hold back” on settlement expansion and has indicated a willingness to increase economic aid to the PA (while cutting it everywhere else)--the old “economic peace” illusion. But Trump has not (yet?) offered so much as a general set of guidelines regarding the process he envisions.<

Many observers expect Trump to seek to anchor a process, whatever it entails, in some sort of international conference and broader Arab framework. Modest confidence-building gestures could be requested on all sides. This is reminiscent of the Madrid conference of late 1991 that launched a prolonged process of bilateral and multilateral Middle East negotiations. In the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian sphere those talks ultimately nurtured and were preempted by the Oslo process. Multilaterally and with Syria, they produced very little.

But a Madrid-style conference would buy Trump time. It could be held, say, in June or July of this year, and would presumably be followed by bilateral and multilateral meetings that drag on for another half a year before proving futile. Of course, for better or for worse a lot could happen by then.


Q. Is Abbas in a position to “deal”? Is Netanyahu? Can either make the kind of concessions Trump may ask for?

A. Abbas and his advisers speak highly of Trump and his initiative. They either pin misguided hopes on Trump or feel they have no alternative.

After all, Abbas addresses Trump from a position of weakness. Any talk of a new peace process is little more than a light breeze in his political sails. West Bank support for Abbas is low. Relations with Hamas in Gaza have been exacerbated by Abbas’s decision to withdraw PA salaries from tens of thousands of Gaza-based government employees who have been sitting on their hands since the Hamas takeover in 2007. While this signals Trump that Abbas and Fateh are anti-Islamist and should not be confused with the Islamist Hamas, it also projects weakness on the part of Abbas.

Besides, Abbas can only be embarrassed by a two-week old Fateh prisoners’ hunger strike in Israeli jails initiated by his political rival, the jailed Marwan Barghouti. (For more on PA salaries in Gaza and the Fateh hunger strike, see Q & A of two weeks ago.) And Abbas will have to answer to Trump regarding PA subsidies to imprisoned Fateh terrorists and their families, including the source of these funds.

For his part, PM Netanyahu cautiously downplays the prospects of any new process. At the end of the day he does not really wish to part with his settler coalition partners, with the settlement project or with his increasingly ultra-nationalist agenda just because of renewed negotiations with the Palestinians.


Q. Meanwhile Germany, Europe’s most powerful country, is ratcheting up the pressure on Israel. Where could this lead?

A. Last week witnessed three ugly diplomatic clashes between Berlin and Jerusalem that reflected the growing gap between the two regarding ways to deal with their shared history as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

First, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel wrote in the Frankfurter Rundschau daily that "Social democrats were, like the Jews, the first victims of the Holocaust.”Many Israelis and Jews everywhere saw this as a trivialization of the Nazi murder of six million Jews. Then Gabriel came to Israel to meet PM Netanyahu (who is also foreign minister) but insisted on meeting representatives of human rights organizations Breaking the Silence and B’tselem as well. This caused Netanyahu, who bristles at criticism of IDF behavior in the West Bank by NGOs like these and seeks to delegitimize them, to cancel his meeting with Gabriel. The latter refused to back down and refused to accept an explanatory phone call from the prime minister.

Finally, the German Foreign Ministry balked at Netanyahu’s demand to desist from trying to radically moderate a new UNESCO resolution regarding Israel and Jerusalem. Berlin argued that it was serving Israel’s interest by leading UNESCO in a more rational, less Israel-bashing direction. Jerusalem argued that the right direction would be to insist that UNESCO cease its fanatical preoccupation with Israel at the expense of far worse global violations of cultural and civilizational norms.

The bottom line is that Israel is slowly losing the support of some important European actors. Netanyahu would argue that he has plenty of European and other strategic and trading partners in reserve. But for obvious reasons, Germany is a very special case.


Q. Finally, as tension grows between the US and North Korea, Jerusalem and Pyongyang squared off too. Jerusalem and Pyongyang? Where’s the connection?

A. Last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “a madman” and noted that North Korea had armed Syria and Iran. Pyongyang responded that Lieberman was “an imbecile” and threatened Israel. Here was another case of superfluous and even damaging loose talk by an Israeli minister. But beyond the verbal damage, there are some dangerous connections.

North Korea has indeed supplied missiles and nuclear knowhow to Iran and Syria. The Syrian reactor near Deir a-Zour that was bombed in 2007, reportedly by Israel, was North Korean and North Korean technicians apparently were casualties. North Korean MiG pilots reportedly also fought for Egypt in the 1973 Yom Kippur War: one was shot down by mistake by Egyptian surface-to-air missiles.

Israel has a strong interest in American efforts to disarm North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. US success would send an important deterrent signal to Iran. In contrast, to the extent Pyongyang emerges from the current confrontation with its nuclear threat intact, Iran will draw encouragement that it too can get away with violating its international nuclear commitments. By the by, from Netanyahu’s standpoint US-North Korean tensions are a welcome distraction from any inclination on Trump’s part to pressure Israel in the Palestinian context.


Q. Sorry, one more question. You mentioned Independence Day. How does someone like you deal with the holiday in view of the present mood? Are you planning to watch the two ceremonies: the lighting of the 12 commemorative torches and the Israel Prize awards?

A. Not this year. When a torch is lit by Rabbi Marvin Hier, I can’t watch. Hier is the rabbi who blessed Donald Trump at his inauguration. He is also building a Museum of Tolerance on the site in Jerusalem of a Muslim cemetery. He has the curious distinction of being the first non-Israeli to be invited to light the torch. Trump can be proud. I’m insulted.

Nor can I watch when the Israel Prize is given to David Be’eri. Be’eri is the engine behind the City of David settlement and excavations in Silwan in East Jerusalem. When Palestinians are thrown out of their homes to make room for Be’eri and when archeological layers of non-Jewish civilization in Jerusalem are ignored or distorted, I can’t watch.

That’s the face of Israel today. But I’ll still fly the flag.