Hard Questions, Tough Answers (11.6.17) - Leaders and their legacies: Rabin, Balfour, the Hariris, Mohammed bin Salman


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 the officially cultiated legacy of Yitzhak Rabin and whether it corresponds with the man himself; his take on the Balfour Declaration; the legacy of Rafiq and Saad Hariri for Lebanon and the Levant; and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's arrest of tens of princes, ministers and former ministers for “corruption.”


Q. The past week seems to have been dominated by specific personalities and their legacies. The most obvious, with the twenty-second commemoration of his assassination, is Yitzhak Rabin. Does the legacy currently being officially cultivated correspond with the man himself?

A. No. The main commemorative gathering was held on Nov. 4 under the slogan “We are one people”. Earlier there was an official ceremony at Rabin’s Mt. Herzl grave. The organizers of the public gathering, organizations that seek a wide consensus of Israeli support far beyond the traditional peace camp, preferred “moderate” speakers from West Bank settlements rather than Peace Now leaders or two-state solution supporters from the Knesset. Media notices for the demonstration avoided the mention of “assassination”.

Education Minister Naftali Bennet gently described Rabin’s murder on IDF Radio as “a man who disagreed with his views shot him in order to neutralize his views”. Presumably, that’s what Bennet thinks should be taught in Israel’s schools. His fellow Jewish Home party member, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel from the messianic right that produced Rabin’s assassin, went to the demonstration presumably to show how the Rabin legacy has been reengineered to embrace his murderer. Earlier, PM Netanyahu, speaking at the Mt. Herzl cemetery, tried to “Rabinize” himself: we both want a strong Israel and oppose violent politics, he told the gathering; we both know what hostile media can do, we both recognize that fateful decisions have to be made at the polls and not by assassins.

What emerged Saturday night at Rabin square was a “feel-good” new-age convocation that, in Rabin’s name, papered over the deep divides within Israeli society and promoted fake unity over the real meaning for Israel of peace and democracy. Ephraim Sneh, who served as deputy minister of defense under Rabin, commented, “The organizers commissioned polls, and based on the outcome determined the message [of the commemoration]. . . . [But] leaders should influence public opinion and not the opposite”.

Yitzhak Rabin was not an enthusiastic supporter of “one people” as a slogan for whitewashing our differences. He called the settlers “propellers” and noted that the Palestinians dealt brutally with dissent because they did not have B’tzelem and the High Court (i.e., the watchdogs of human rights) on their backs. In other words, in his very blunt way he understood that the task he confronted in advancing a highly-controversial peace process by democratic means required resolute leadership and hard decisions that would leave a large portion of Israelis very unhappy. He was well aware of how the Uri Ariels (Ariel was in 1995 head of the Council of Settlers) were inciting against him, even against his life. He did not flinch.

At Mt. Herzl, Rabin’s son Yuval attacked Netanyahu directly, albeit not by name: “Rabin felt no pleasure in dealing with the High Court and with well-financed ex-parliamentary organizations. He was not embraced by the media. Nevertheless, he initiated no legislation and acted in no other way against the democratic rights of his opponents. He silenced no one, he did not evade responsibility and he didn’t complain.” Today, in contrast, “The [Netanyahu government’s] list of traitors grows from day to day. The reserve of targets is augmented regularly by chiefs of staff, chiefs of police, heads of Mossad and even artists whose views are inconvenient--and there is no one to stop this madness”.

The politically correct insistence on unity above all did not begin with this anniversary of Rabin’s death. His successor in November 1995, Shimon Peres, insisted on not pursuing the settler rabbis and leaders who had issued death warrants for Rabin and inspired assassin Yigal Amir. That was almost certainly the original sin. Peres preferred instead to pull the country together in the hope of getting himself elected as a consensus candidate. Instead, in May 1996 Netanyahu was elected.


Q. PM Netanyahu went to London to observe the one-hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, amidst widespread protests from pro-Palestinian and BDS quarters to the effect that the declaration was a one-sided colonialist land-grab. What’s your take on Balfour?

A. Of course, as its contemporary detractors argue, the Balfour Declaration was a colonialist and imperialist creation. That’s what the world was all about back in 1917 and for decades thereafter. But the detractors ignore, at their peril, two key aspects of the declaration.

First, in the years after 1917 and the end of WWI, the declaration was ratified by the League of Nations. The Treaty of Sevres recognized it. The dying Ottoman Empire and its immediate successors, the Saud dynasty that fought alongside the British and initially governed Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Trans-Jordan, all briefly recognized it. This means the declaration enjoyed full and sustained international legitimacy, ultimately confirmed by the United Nations when it created the State of Israel. That gives Israel full international legitimacy. Palestinians who argue that their case against Israel is justified under international law and that international legitimacy is on their side, should take notice.

Second, the Balfour Declaration must be addressed part and parcel with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which delineated the Levant’s post-war political borders. Yes, the latter too is a colonialist creation. But together these two documents set the borders for the sovereign states of the modern Middle East. Today, Iraqi Arabs trying to hold Iraq together and the Assad regime in Syria seeking to restore sovereignty within that country’s Sykes-Picot borders are falling back on these documents--and indirectly ratifying Israel’s legitimacy.


Q. Lebanese PM Saad Hariri resigned Saturday, while in Riyadh. He accused Iran and Hezbollah of seeking to assassinate him, like his father Rafiq. There is a clear Saudi role here. What is the legacy of the Hariris, father and son, for Lebanon and the Levant?

A. PM Rafiq Hariri was assassinated by Hezbollah in 2005. Syria and Iran were almost certainly involved in some way. Rafiq Hariri had opposed Hezbollah’s and Syria’s pernicious influence in Lebanon. The ensuing popular protest led to the withdrawal from Lebanon of Syrian forces.

Rafiq’s son Saad undertook as prime minister (his second go at the job, beginning a year ago) to conciliate and integrate Hezbollah. This happened shortly after parliament elected a president, Michel Aoun, who is closely allied with Hezbollah. That Saad agreed to sit in the same government with the movement that murdered his father is one of those convoluted twists of politics and history that only Lebanon seems capable of producing.

Now Saad has resigned, citing Iran and Hezbollah and alleging they were plotting to assassinate him too. “Wherever Iran settles, it sows discord, devastation and destruction, proven by its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries,” he stated in Riyadh on Saudi Arabia’s al-Arabiya TV network. “They have built a state within a state”, he added, presumably referring to the status of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

There is some evidence, and much speculation, that the Saudis compelled Hariri to resign against the backdrop of their confrontation with Iran (see below). Still, within the Lebanese-Syrian-Israeli context, the message is that Hezbollah now openly controls Lebanon. And Hezbollah means Iran.


Q. Apropos the Saudis, over the weekend Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) ordered the arrest for “corruption” of tens of princes, ministers and former ministers. How stable is MbS’s rule and reform movement? Where does Hariri’s resignation come in? What does the Saudi domestic drama mean for the Middle East?

A. MbS is in line to become, any day now, king of Saudi Arabia when his aging father steps aside. The arrests (“jail” is a luxury hotel in Riyadh) are not so much for corruption--insofar as the entire huge Saudi royal family is corrupt--as for opposing the tightening rule of the 32-year old crown prince. By detaining the richest Saudi businessman and Prince Mutaib, his main rival for the crown and the head of one of the kingdom’s security services, MbS appears to have consolidated power in a totally unprecedented manner. In recent weeks he has also cracked down on some of the more independent-minded intellectuals and journalists in Riyadh. Another prince, a deputy governor of a province bordering war-torn Yemen, just died in a mysterious helicopter crash.

Who is left? Why does the future crown still seem to lie uneasy on the head of MbS?

One explanation may lie in the unorthodox audacity of MbS’s rule. Domestically he unnerved economic conservatives by launching far-reaching plans to liberalize the economy and slightly privatize Saudi oil. And he unnerved religious conservatives by reducing the authority of the religious police, moving to allow women to drive, and (gasp!) permitting the opening of cinemas. So far these moves are considered relatively popular and successful. But not so MbS’s regional initiatives. He has plunged the kingdom into a winless war in Yemen. He and three other Gulf rulers are locked in a confrontation with Qatar that also seems winless. These campaigns have escalated the Saudi-Iranian confrontation: Iran opposes the Saudis in both arenas. This apparently explains Saudi anger at Hariri for accommodating Iranian-proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hariri’s resignation speech was almost certainly dictated to him by MbS.

MbS still enjoys the support of US President Trump, who telephoned King Salman to reaffirm it. But his far-reaching roundup of presumed opponents can hardly be good for business. A wet-behind-the-ears Saudi prince virtually usurping power in all relevant circles is likely to generate yet more internal opposition--and more regional instability, possibly beginning in Lebanon.