The framework agreement and more: Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: January 13, 2014

Alpher_gazawarThis week, Alpher discusses how the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are positioning themselves in anticipation of being presented with some sort of framework agreement by US Secretary of State John Kerry, the story of Ariel Sharon's meeting with Alpher in 1994 to discuss his use of the settlements to "divide and rule" the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, what he thinks of the Palestinian allegation that Israel could do far more to prevent settler attacks, and whether there is a broad strategic significance to the internecine fighting in Sunni areas of both northern Syria and western Iraq.

Q. The Israeli and Palestinian leaderships anticipate being presented soon with some sort of framework agreement by US Secretary of State John Kerry. How are they positioning themselves?

A. By digging in on highly polarized positions. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas insists the Palestinian capital must be the whole of Arab East Jerusalem while Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu declares that Israel will not compromise on "united" Jerusalem. The Arab League, at Abbas' bidding, reportedly told Kerry on Sunday that it would not amend the Arab Peace Initiative to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The State Department has denied that Kerry made such a request. Both Netanyahu and Kerry insist on the Jewish state condition.

Netanyahu has told his ministers that the parties would not be asked to sign off on Kerry's framework proposal, but would not criticize it publicly. He appears to be signaling to his right-wing coalition that the framework agreement, by describing the gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions, will set the scene for many more months of negotiations. This suits Netanyahu's narrow political needs perfectly: he can claim to be negotiating seriously with the Palestinians and cooperating closely with Washington, while not risking the unity of his coalition by reaching agreements based on far-reaching compromises.

In contrast, Abbas continues to insist that negotiations will end after nine months, meaning in late April, whereupon the Palestinians will renew their efforts to achieve state recognition in international forums.

Are these real positions or tactical maneuvering in anticipation of Kerry's next visit?

Q. Ariel Sharon was buried on Monday. Last week you described meeting with him in 1994 to discuss his use of the settlements to "divide and rule" the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Is there more to this story?

A. There is. My meeting with Sharon in 1994 was part of research I did for a paper on "Borders and Settlements" for a project at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, where I was acting head of center at the time. The paper was the first to recommend what became known as the "blocs map" whereby Israel would annex the West Bank settlement blocs and offer the Palestinians territorial or alternative compensation; Gaza would be completely evacuated. One of the alternative strategies for the Palestinian issue that I investigated at the time was Sharon's, which he explained to me in great detail over a map of Israel and the territories. Sharon was then out of government and had time on his hands.

Several months after that meeting, the study was published. Both my proposal and Sharon's strategy were embodied in a total of 10 maps included in the study. Naturally, I sent Sharon a copy. A few days later, he phoned me. "Yossi, what have you done to my map?"

"What do you mean?" I asked. "I didn't represent your ideas faithfully?"

"In Judea and Samaria, yes, perfectly," Sharon replied. I looked at my map of "The Sharon Plan", where the West Bank was divided into no fewer than five large and two small Palestinian cantons, separated by concentrations of settlements that had been strategically located by Sharon. "But look at the Gaza Strip", he said.

I looked. It was represented on Sharon's map as a single Palestinian unit. "Don't you remember how I divided up the Strip into three cantons, separated by settlements like in the West Bank?" I was mortified: I had neglected to apply Sharon's divide-and-rule principle to the map of the Gaza Strip as well--8,000 settlers fragmenting the Gaza polity of 1.5 million Palestinians. I apologized and promised to rectify the error in my presentations to journalists and scholars.

Sharon laughed, forgave me and wished me well. When he turned on the charm at the personal level he was hard not to like. I met him several times thereafter and he never mentioned my mistake. Eventually he even fulfilled my erroneous version of his plan for Gaza by withdrawing from the entire Strip.

Q. Still on the Palestinians and the settlements: Last week a group of hilltop settler youth from the Esh Kodesh outpost near Shiloh in the northern West Bank who were apparently on a "price tag" mission were captured by Palestinians in the nearby village of Qusra, who then turned them over to the IDF. The Palestinians allege that Israel could do far more to prevent settler attacks. What do you think?

A. I think they're right. Recent video clips of IDF soldiers standing by while settlers attack Palestinian farmers and villagers are damning. Now we confront a report by the Council for Peace and Security, which is made up of retired senior security personnel (full disclosure: I'm a member of the Council), that alleges that "price tag" violence is carried out by a well-organized settler outpost network that seeks by attacking Arabs to deter the Israeli establishment from dismantling settlements. The violent outpost settlers benefit from the refusal of the more veteran settler establishment to cooperate with the authorities against them, enjoy the blessings of key settler rabbis, and are enabled in their crimes by a relatively indifferent police force and inexperienced IDF personnel in the field.

Indeed, too many soldiers and officers serving in the West Bank either sympathize with the settlers or fear opposing them lest they be ostracized and even attacked. One additional factor not mentioned in the Peace and Security report is the growing presence of settlers themselves among IDF and Israel Police personnel serving in the West Bank.

The report, authored by a former West Bank Israel Police chief, a former head of the IDF's Civil Administration there and a former commander of the IDF's Samaria brigade, correctly places ultimate responsibility for the increasingly vicious price tag attacks on the government of Israel. It calls upon the government to empower the security establishment with proper training and a much more decisive mandate. Otherwise, the situation is liable to deteriorate into major Jewish-Arab violence of the sort narrowly averted last week when a Palestinian mayor protected the captured settler attackers from a Palestinian lynch mob.

Will the Netanyahu government, with its heavy settler and pro-settler component, begin acting responsibly to head off violence and round up the price tag attackers? Doubtful.

Q. Is there a broad strategic significance to the internecine fighting in Sunni areas of both northern Syria and western Iraq?

A. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria nearly three years ago, analysts (this one included) have suggested that we are witnessing the collapse of the post-WWI Levant state system--the colonial-era borderlines sketched by the Sykes-Picot agreement. Some have gone farther and begun to draw possible new maps for the Levant that join up Sunni-majority areas of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and separate them from the region's many minorities: Shiite, Alawite, Christian, Druze, etc.

Now we confront the emergence of a fanatic Sunni Islamist group, ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also rendered Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham--Sham is another name for Syria--and ISIL, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). ISIS appears less interested for the moment in fighting the Assad regime in Syria than in fighting its fellow Sunni rebels, both Islamist and secular, whose Muslim credentials don't meet its extremist and often barbaric standards. In parallel, an ISIS-affiliated group took control of the city of Fallujah in the Anbar province of western Iraq, where it is fighting both tribal-organized Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

The advent of ISIS is significant because, as the movement's name suggests, it is the first coherent Islamist expression of the drive to change the national borders of the Levant. It also renders more concrete the prospect that northern Syria and possibly parts of Iraq will turn into an Islamist terrorist state that sows chaos throughout the region and beyond. The issues raised by its emergence reach as far as Saudi Arabia, which supports some of the Salafist groups financially, Iran, which supports the Assad regime, Russia, which supports Assad and argues forcefully that Middle East-based Islamist terrorism is being exported to the Muslim regions of southern Russia, and Turkey, which separates Syria from Russia's sphere of influence and has aided the Islamists. Israel is well aware that if extremist Sunni Salafists become entrenched on the Syrian Golan they will use it as a springboard to attack Israel. In both Syria and Iraq, strong counterattacks led by more moderate forces against the extremist Islamists have helped, at least temporarily, to push ISIS back. There is some evidence of modest American support for the anti-ISIS forces, which include the Maliki government in Baghdad and ostensibly more moderate Islamists in northern Syria. This is significant in particular in the run up to the Geneva 2 conference that is scheduled to convene on January 22 to discuss the future of Syria. There a strong, united showing by the opposition is deemed important by all the anti-Assad forces.