Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: January 20, 2014

Alpher_gazawar This week Alpher discusses whether there is any chance of replacing Assad with a transition regime as discussed at the Geneva I talks, who else agrees with Israeli Defense Minister Yaalon's labeling of Kerry by  as "obsessive and messianic," or if this is "last week's news," and whether there is anything really new on the Israeli-Palestinian scene.

Q. The Geneva II talks on Syria begin Wednesday. The declared US objective, based on what was agreed at Geneva I, is to replace Assad with a transition regime. Is there any chance of this happening?

A. Virtually none. In fact, the Geneva II meeting (which actually begins in Montreux, Switzerland, not Geneva) increasingly resembles anything but a project for regime transition. Rather, it looks more like an exercise in four alternative outcomes or courses of action: triumphalism for Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Hezballah allies; hypocrisy for the anti-Assad forces; irrelevancy in the eyes of the rising Salafist tide of opposition; and ultimately, humanitarian aid and succor for suffering millions of Syrians.

First, triumphalism. Assad's regime comes to Geneva with his military situation considerably improved. His regime is also increasingly re-legitimized through cooperation with an international effort to remove chemical weapons from Syria, to actually convene Geneva, and to oppose the radicalized Islamist coalition that dominates the opposition.

That brings us to the hypocrisy. Those opposition forces that have agreed to attend Geneva do so under duress and pressure applied by the western/Sunni Arab alliance that supports them financially and logistically. They are hardly representative of the hard-line Islamists who are calling the shots in Syria's rebel-held north and for whom this conference or for that matter any international effort regarding Syria is irrelevant.

Hypocrisy, also, because while Geneva II is ostensibly based on an earlier agreement at the "Geneva I" conference in 2012 to replace the Assad regime with a transition government in which the opposition is represented, it would appear that the only participant that still pledges fealty to this slogan is the United States. Russia and Assad, both of which signed on to Geneva I, belittle the notion of a transition regime. On Sunday Iran--which did not attend Geneva I, has no obligation to regime transition and supports Assad wholeheartedly--was invited to Geneva II unilaterally by UN Secretary General Ban ki-moon, to the chagrin of Secretary of State John Kerry. Iran's participation can only be seen as an unwanted (in Washington) and unanticipated spinoff of Tehran's nuclear agreement last week with the P5+1.

What, then, can the Geneva II participants possibly agree on? Humanitarian aid: rescue corridors to starving and beleaguered Syrians (and Palestinians, in Yarmouk Camp in Damascus), better care for displaced refugees inside Syria and in the surrounding countries; and perhaps prisoner exchanges. The civil war will continue, with the opposition dominated by extremist Islamists, including along Syria's border with Israel.

Q. Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Yaalon called Kerry obsessive and messianic. Who else thinks this way in Israel? Or is this by now "last week's news"?

A. There is a lot of evidence, in the press, in comments by right-wing politicians, and even in PM Netanyahu's half-hearted insistence that Yaalon issue a half-hearted apology, that lots of Israelis agree. Even the Palestinian leadership, which rejects those planks in Kerry's peace platform that he has revealed thus far (Jewish state; Jordan Valley) and continues to insist that at the end of nine months of negotiations it will return to the course of international recognition and sanctions pressure on Israel, might be said to agree.

More substantive than the term "messianic" and more explicit in addressing specific positions espoused by Kerry were Yaalon's assertions last week that the US military security plan for the Jordan Valley was "not worth the paper it is written on" and that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas "lives by our sword" and will fall from power "the minute we leave Judea and Samaria" as part of a peace-deal withdrawal. In specifically addressing the peace process, Yaalon also asserted that the only negotiations Israel is really involved in are with the US, not the Palestinians, and that "if we are trying to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for so many years, perhaps the diagnosis of those who think they know how to solve the issue is incorrect."

Is this the epitaph for John Kerry's peace process? Even President Obama (in a New Yorker interview) is now apparently rating the chances of success at below 50 percent and hoping to suffice with a Sisyphean achievement of pushing the stone of a two-state solution a little further up the hill. So while there could be some basis for some of Yaalon's assertions--particularly regarding Kerry's diagnosis of how to go about making peace between Israelis and Palestinians--Israel's defense minister last week displayed incredible lack of strategic savvy regarding where Israel's genuine interests lie (even if his own short-term political interests apparently lie in winning over Likud and other coalition hawks by poking Kerry and Abbas in the eye).

First, even if you don't believe in Kerry's efforts, you don't insult the American secretary of state in that language--especially if you are the Israeli minister of defense and you know how dependent Israeli security is on American support. That's why Netanyahu, who may well agree with Yaalon but has been around politics (and America) a lot longer, would never make this mistake.

And second, even if you believe Mahmoud Abbas is weak and is propped up by Israeli bayonets, the last thing you want to do is weaken him further. Abbas, after all, is genuinely committed to a non-violent approach to Israel. Like it or not, Abbas is the most moderate Palestinian leader we are likely to see for a long time. Only Salam Fayyad was more moderate--which is unfortunately one of the reasons he is no longer prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and has effectively disappeared from the scene.

Last week's news? In the Middle East, probably. In the halls of power in Washington, they presumably have longer memories.

Q. So beyond the furor and embarrassment over Yaalon, pushing aside all the hype and spin from both Ramallah and Jerusalem, and pending Kerry's unveiling of the American framework agreement, is there anything really new on the Israeli-Palestinian scene?

A. What caught my eye last week was the prospect of a radically changing relationship between Egypt and the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. Egypt, we know, is busy with its own political evolution--sometimes revolution--which last week took the form of a carefully engineered referendum approving a new constitution. This was apparently a critical step toward the election of General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to the presidency and a formal restoration of the military's dominance over what's left of Egyptian politics.

But the Egyptian military authorities are now also addressing the issue of Hamas rule in Gaza. They appear increasingly to view Hamas (the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood) as an out-and-out enemy of Egypt that will continue to support the now-outlawed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood until it is suppressed and removed from power. Egypt's generals have collected a lot of evidence that allegedly points to active Hamas support for the Brethren in Egypt and for salafists in Sinai who have launched attacks on Egyptian forces and installations. Last week, "senior Egyptian security officials" told Reuters that "we cannot get liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza, which lies on our borders."

The current authoritarian course of events in Egypt hardly reflects American standards for democratization in the Middle East. But Egypt's tougher approach to Hamas should be good news for Washington, Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority that is dominated by Fateh, Hamas' rival for leadership. Israel, after all, does not dare invade and reoccupy Gaza to cleanse it of Islamists and re-install the PLO in power. Such a move would only produce huge casualties and make Mahmoud Abbas look even more like an Israeli puppet than Yaalon imagines. But perhaps Egypt will have fewer compunctions about finding a way to remove Hamas and the more extreme Islamists it harbors in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Hamas appears to have heard the Egyptian threats. Last week, as the funeral of Ariel Sharon was held within striking distance of Gaza-based rockets, two such rockets were fired, inaccurately, by Islamic Jihad, despite Hamas' apparent efforts to maintain quiet. In an unprecedented move, Hamas appealed immediately to Egypt to relay to Israel a request not to retaliate and a commitment by Hamas to deal with the shooters itself. Israel did respond, albeit not massively, and the tit-for-tat ever since has been escalating.

If nothing else, the incident illustrated how fearful Hamas has become of provoking either one of its two neighbors, Egypt and Israel. In parallel, Egypt's threats demonstrate just how close the current regime in Cairo has moved toward adopting the Israeli approach to Hamas, but without the gloves.