Hard Questions, Tough Answers (August 27, 2018) - Israel-Palestine: dangerous summer doldrums

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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.

Q. The ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza is on and off. The UN, Qatar, Egypt and the UAE are all involved. President Trump is cutting US funds for Palestinians and reportedly planning to “cancel” the “right of return”. Yet he is also threatening that Israel will soon have to make concessions for his peace deal. Netanyahu says nothing is urgent. Is this chaos just the way late summer is supposed to look?

A. If we break down this list and analyze its component parts, each has either its Middle Eastern logic or its Trumpian illogic. That they are all happening at once probably has a lot to do with late summer, when so many Israelis, Arabs and Americans are just trying to escape from the heat.

 

Q. Let’s break the list down. Start with the on-off ceasefire.

A. The UN, Qatar, Egypt and the IDF all take credit for lowering the level of violence between Israel and Hamas. The Israeli establishment is careful not to call this an agreement (“hesder”) but rather something slightly less than an agreement (“hasdara”, a term seemingly invented for this purpose). Defense Minister Lieberman regularly denies any knowledge or involvement. Yet rocket and mortar fire from Gaza has stopped and incendiary balloon launchings have been sharply reduced. Israeli forces play down Gaza border incidents to avoid provocation.

At the time of writing, the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings from Israel into Gaza were open and goods and people were moving through. That is a sure sign of an Israeli quid pro quo. Yet open crossings could be closed at any moment if the shooting starts again.

On the sidelines, the near-dysfunctional West Bank-based Palestinian Authority regularly raises and then torpedoes the prospect of sharing funds with the poverty-stricken Gaza Strip. Only Qatar with its Islamist sympathies is offering aid to Gaza for paying Palestinian government salaries. Yet Qatari financial aid to Hamas irritates Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Then too Cairo, together with the United Arab Emirates, continues to promote the virtual candidacy of Mohammad Dahlan, an exiled nemesis of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, as a potential unifier of Gaza and the West Bank.

There is little new here: all these reports, some contradictory, have regularly been recycled for months. In the background, the Trump peace team is still pushing economic development projects for the Strip that will make no difference to Hamas’s fundamental rejection of peace.

By the same token, the prospect of any real agreement (“hesder” rather than “hasdara”) between Israel and Hamas, even one achieved through indirect talks, is anathema to the Ramallah-based PLO because it implies that Israel has an alternative Palestinian partner for agreements. Hence in deference to the PLO it probably won’t happen. This is also because unlike a “hesder”, the current “hasdara” non-agreement ostensibly absolves Netanyahu’s right-wing government of any blame for cozying up to an Islamist organization it had pledged to destroy.

 

Q. And the Trump administration’s pronouncements, recent and anticipated, regarding the “ultimate deal” on the Palestinian issue, reduced economic aid and the right of return?

A. Trump said last Wednesday that Israel would pay a “higher price” for his late-2017 recognition of Jerusalem. Palestinians, he added, would “get something very good” in return “because it’s their turn next.” Is the administration finally about to unveil its long-promised peace plan? PM Netanyahu’s response two days later was to note that Trump “occasionally comments on the matter, and it may come, though I see no urgency in the matter.” Netanyahu was speaking in Vilna, Lithuania, where he was meeting with the leaders of the Baltic states in his ongoing effort to blunt European Union peace pressures on Israel--an issue he evidently considers more urgent.

In any case, the Trump administration not only proceeded to downplay Trump’s new promise to the Palestinians. It also trumpeted a new cut of $200 million in US financial aid to the Palestinian Authority on top of recent reductions in Washington’s contribution to UNRWA, the UN agency that feeds, houses and educates millions of Palestinians. This was followed by a report in the Israeli media that Trump would soon announce, Jerusalem-recognition style, that the US no longer recognizes the “right of return” to Israel of 1948 refugees and their descendants and that from herein only half a million Palestinians would be recognized rather than the five million (and counting) on the UNRWA list of registered refugees.

(How the administration allegedly reached the half-million figure is anyone’s guess. Assuming the administration intends to exclude the descendants of refugees--the controversial component of the refugee figure--the number of original 1948 refugees still alive does not exceed tens of thousands.)

While this report has not been confirmed by the administration, there is apparently something to it. Trump peace envoy Jared Kushner reportedly has talked in recent months about eliminating the refugee status of some two million Jordanian Palestinians. Foreign Policy on-line magazine reported recently on a Kushner email that stated back in January, “It is important to have an honest and sincere effort to disrupt UNRWA. . . . This [agency] perpetuates a status quo, is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace.”

 

Q. UNRWA undoubtedly is in some ways part of the problem. Can crippling it and unilaterally impoverishing and disenfranchising several million Palestinians help?

A. The effect of “disrupting UNRWA” will almost certainly be similar to the negative consequences of the administration unilaterally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Obviously it makes sense that ultimately Israel’s capital be recognized and that the Palestinian refugee problem be neutralized. But is this the way to, as Trump says, get these issues “off the agenda”?

They are not off the agenda. Not only is Palestinian refugee status not determined by the US, hence not cancellable by it, but this policy direction is totally at odds with Trump’s statement about the Palestinians getting “something good” soon because it’s their turn.

In the real world, the immediate effect of all these unilateral US administration measures and statements is to anger and impoverish more Palestinians--in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon. This can only push them further away from discussing peace with Trump’s emissaries and closer to invoking desperate and violent measures. This, indeed, is the assessment of the Israeli security establishment. Note that the very same Trump administration that with no basis in reality boosts the benefits of “economic peace”, meaning it believes Palestinians who are better off economically will be more inclined to make concessions for peace, apparently also believes that denying the most basic means of sustenance to millions of Palestinians will somehow also benefit peace.

Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees are final status issues. If they cannot be resolved--and I happen to believe that neither the right of return issue nor the Jerusalem holy places issue is resolvable in the near term--they should be frozen and set aside for later deliberation. But uninformed, reckless and counterproductive attempts by a clueless US administration to preempt unilateral solutions to them are guaranteed to make matters worse.

 

Q. The Trump people obviously are incapable of serious long-term strategic thinking. Is Israel’s ruling ultra-nationalist right wing as shortsighted?

A. Here is where we encounter the confluence of the burdens imposed on the Middle East by Trump’s ill-considered pronouncements and decisions on the one hand, and on the other, the apparent realization in at least some Israeli circles that the current US administration will implode. An Israeli right-wing think tank, one of many that have proliferated in the current messianic ultra-nationalist era, recently advised that “Israel must prepare for the day when the socialist/left/anti-Israel current gains control of the Democratic Party and then the government of the US.”

Is this an example of yet more unhinged late-summer illogical reasoning? How can coalition leaders Netanyahu, Bennet and the ultra-Orthodox manage this task? After all, they are the dominant political mainstream today and they, with their settlement spread, creeping oppression of pluralism and human rights and increasingly obvious one-state objective, will almost certainly still be in power when the “social/left/anti-Israel current gains control” in the US.

I don’t know how the ultra-nationalists in Israel can manage this task. But credit them with at least thinking ahead.

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