Hard Questions, Tough Answers (11.20.17) - Grand strategies for the Middle East: promises and pitfalls


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 40 year anniversary of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel and the launch of the Middle East peace process; additional grand strategies from that era; indications of an emerging US-Israeli-Saudi grand strategy; the publication of protocols from Israeli government deliberations held in the months immediately following the Six-Day War of 1967; and whether we are witnessing the emergence of an Iran-Russia grand strategic axis for controlling at least the northern tier of the Middle East.


Q. This week marks 40 years since the arrival in Israel of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the effective launching of the Middle East peace process. Did Sadat’s grand strategy for peace succeed? Did Begin’s?

A. Sadat sought more than Egyptian-Israeli peace. He hoped the Camp David agreements, with their separate protocol regarding the Palestinian issue, would usher in an additional successful peace process between Israel and the Palestinians that would justify his initiative as one of comprehensive peace. In this he failed, for two reasons.

One reason was the refusal or ideological inability of PM Menachem Begin to approach in good faith the notion that a Palestinian state would emerge after a brief period of autonomy. Two key moderate ministers in his government, Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, resigned over this issue. A second reason was the lack of a viable Palestinian partner. The Palestine Liberation Organization had not yet evolved to a point where it would cease violence and recognize Israel. Meanwhile, it worked consistently, including by assassination, to thwart the emergence of an alternative Palestinian peace spokesman.

Begin, in contrast to Sadat, sought a separate peace with Egypt and was never reconciled to anything beyond limited autonomy for the Palestinians. In this regard his grand strategy succeeded more than Sadat’s. On the other hand, peace with Egypt has never matured into normal relations, and Palestinian autonomy remains a demographic time bomb for Israel. Indeed, Begin apparently thought the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, scarcely a year after Israel’s final withdrawal from Sinai, would as Ariel Sharon projected bring about a PLO move to Jordan, the Palestinization of Jordan and a “solution” to the Palestinian issue. In this regard, he bought into Sharon’s disastrous grand strategy for the Palestinian issue.

Despite the disappointments, the Sadat-Begin peace has survived. Today, strategic relations are better than ever. Nor did Sadat pay with his life for the peace, as is often argued. The militant Islamists who assassinated him in 1982 had prepared a list of their grievances against him: peace with Israel was number 18; the “liberated” behavior of Sadat’s wife Jihan was much higher on the list.


Q. Were any additional grand strategies involved back then?

A. Yes, US President Jimmy Carter’s. Throughout 1977 and prior to Sadat’s visit, when Dayan and Hassan Tohami, Sadat’s emissary, were preparing the peace initiative behind the scenes in Morocco, Carter was trying to launch an international initiative for a comprehensive peace. He intended to work with the USSR to bring Israel and all Arab parties, including the PLO, to the negotiating table in Geneva.

Neither Israel nor Egypt was enthusiastic about an international forum. Israel had no relations with Moscow, while Sadat was intent on recruiting Washington as his superpower patron and arms supplier instead of Moscow. In October 1977 Dayan lobbied the administration to desist. Sadat went further, launching his offer to visit Israel directly, generate a bilateral process and short-circuit the US initiative.

Of course, once this happened both Begin and Sadat hastened to ask Carter to chaperone the process. The administration, wedded to its Geneva initiative, hesitated for weeks to endorse the Sadat-Begin initiative. Sadat tried to force Carter’s hand by asking that, to facilitate initial Egyptian-Israeli contacts, Israel send a secret emissary to Cairo who could pretend, with US connivance, to be an American posted to the US embassy. If Carter agreed, this would commit him to the nascent bilateral process.

Carter refused. I know, because I was supposed to be that emissary, sent by the Mossad with Begin’s blessing. Nevertheless, circumstances eventually forced Washington’s hand, the US endorsement was delivered and the peace process launched. Carter’s strategy of internationalizing the solution failed. That strategy would be renewed, a bit more successfully, by the Bush 41/Baker team at Madrid in late 1991.


Q. Apropos multilateral initiatives, a number of indications point to an emerging US-Israeli-Saudi grand strategy. It would deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel-Arab peace and an anti-Iran coalition.

A. Indeed, the Israeli media was full of unconfirmed leaks about this last week. The Trump peace team has indicated that its proposals will be presented only in March 2018--a determination which would seem to cast doubt on the validity or at least the finality of the current leaks and media reports.

Still, the substance of what is projected is interesting. The basic deal would involve the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, with land swaps not based on the 1967 lines--perhaps a reference to Defense Minister Lieberman’s veteran proposal to swap land based on demography rather than territory. Israeli settlements would remain in place and Israel would be responsible for overall security. Jerusalem would not be dealt with; nor were indications offered regarding resolution of the refugee and holy places issues. Evidently the deal presumes that the Gaza Strip will be conclusively reunited with the West Bank and under PLO rule.

So far, these ideas seem to be highly congenial to PM Netanyahu’s concepts and broadly unacceptable to any likely Palestinian leadership. Nor is progress on Gaza-West Bank reconciliation promising. This explains the general lack of reaction on the part of many on the Israeli mainstream right wing who reject any Palestinian state whatsoever: let the PLO reject the Trump proposal, they say; easier for us.

To sweeten the deal for the Palestinians, the Trump team is apparently trying to recruit extensive financial investment in Palestine from the Gulf states, presumably along with some sort of guarantees by the Arab states. The Arabs for their part would gain Israel as a firm ally against Iran, and Israel would effect a peace breakthrough with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the others.

To oil the wheels of peace, the Trump team evidently led Israel and Saudi Arabia into loose agreement on a series of confidence-building measures (CBMs). These are particularly needed by Saudi strong man Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in order to accustom Saudi public opinion to the idea of coexistence with Israel, as part and parcel of his overall package of reform measures in Saudi Arabia.

This would explain the unprecedented interview given last Thursday by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot to a Saudi news outlet, Elaph. It also explains recent op-ed pieces in the Saudi press arguing for a more conciliatory attitude toward Israel.

On the other hand, all the additional reported or rumored CMBs have not happened, at least not yet. Netanyahu has not reaffirmed his commitment to two-states. Israel has not ceded additional West Bank land to Palestinian Authority control. Nor has it embraced the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi creation. As for the Saudis, they have not opened their skies to flights from Israel, have not opened direct telephone links and have not openly welcomed Israeli businessmen.

In other words, if indeed these gestures are supposed to usher in a peace process, the Trump team has a long way to go. Here Trump would do well to learn from Carter and even from Bush/Baker. The only successful Israel-Arab negotiations on record began clandestinely, without even the full knowledge of the US: Israel-Egypt and Israel-Jordan. The only halfway-successful negotiations, that produced the Israel-PLO Oslo accords, took place behind the back of Washington. If the parties--Israel, the PLO, the Saudis--are not “ripe” for progress reached quietly and of their own volition, no amount of pro-active American activity will help.

Here two additional peace process lessons appear to be relevant to Trump’s emerging grand strategic initiative. First, “economic peace” does not deliver peace. Saudi billions will not persuade Palestinians to forego their basic demands, whether those demands (e.g., the right of return) are logical or not. And second, beware of a failed peace initiative: it makes things worse. Better not to try if all the odds point to failure.

Finally, beware not only of Trump initiatives, but of the projected Saudi role as well. MbS has thus far made a mess of all his foreign policy initiatives: the Yemen military intervention, the Qatar boycott, and most recently the forced resignation and virtual imprisonment of Lebanon’s PM Hariri.


Q. Last week witnessed the publication of protocols from government of Israel deliberations held in the months immediately following the Six-Day War of 1967. They concern the fate of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Seen 50 years after the fact, did any grand strategies emerge here?

A. Not really. And that, in retrospect, is where the seeds of today’s creeping apartheid reality were born. Back then, the “security” branch of the government--ministers Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, Moshe Carmel--but also PM Levi Eshkol, sought ways to hold on to the territories. They discussed plans to “empty Gaza (of population) first” (Eshkol): perhaps “if we don’t supply them enough water, they’ll have no alternative” (Eshkol). The three former generals in the Cabinet were in no hurry, either: “If we stay 20 years, the world will get used to it” (Carmel).

Eshkol, Dayan and Allon all gave their blessing to the first West Bank settlement, in Hebron, yet without in any way discussing the strategic implications of settlement. Then too, a half-hearted plan was hatched to encourage Palestinian emigration from the already crowded Gaza Strip. It lasted a few years and perhaps 10,000 Gazans departed (out of Gaza’s population then of 400,000), supplied by Israel with a generous financial grant, travel documents and visas to South America. That program ended when one of the Gazan emigres entered the Israel Embassy in Paraguay and murdered an Israeli diplomat.

Who had the sense to warn of the consequences of ignoring the strategic ramifications of the occupation? The “civilians” among the ministers: Zalman Aran, Yaakov Shimshon Shapira and Pinchas Sapir. Shapira called for immediate withdrawal, otherwise Israel would not remain a Jewish state. Sapir said remaining in the territories would be a “disaster for the state of Israel”. Aran challenged the security lobby: “Suddenly, after all these victories, we can’t exist without these territories? Without all these things we never dreamed about before the six days of that war?”

Not a single grand strategic decision was taken regarding the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. The government of Israel was clearly surprised and overwhelmed by the territorial fruits of war. Twenty years of letting the world get used to our occupation are now fifty. The mindless ad hoc approach--by now ideological and messianic rather than security-minded--took another step toward disaster last week when the attorney general ruled that Israel can legally expropriate private Palestinian land to pave a road to an illegal settlement outpost, because the settlers are as much residents of the West Bank as the Palestinians and eminent domain must apply to all.


Q. Finally, are we witnessing the emergence of an Iran-Russia grand strategic axis for controlling at least the northern tier of the Middle East?

A. Last week witnessed a seminar in Tehran devoted to “500 years to cooperation between Iran and Russia”. Foreign Ministers Zarif and Lavrov sent their blessings. Iranian bases on Syrian soil are proliferating; the Iranian and Iranian-proxy force in Syria is now estimated to number 70,000. Russia, by direct treaty with Syria, is there to stay. Turkey, seeing the writing on the wall, is increasingly a partner to Russian-Iranian high-level consultations regarding the fate of Syria. The Trump administration is increasingly acquiescing.

Of course, Iran/Persia and Czarist Russia were very much at odds for most of the past 500 years. Nor do their interests necessarily coincide today in the Levant. But Moscow and Tehran clearly have coherent grand strategies for the region and are undoubtedly trying to coordinate them. Their chances of success seem much better than those of the Trump-Saudi-Netanyahu grand strategy.