Hard Questions, Tough Answers (October 17, 2018) - Who’s afraid of criticism?


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. In two very different cases, Israel has refused entry to a Palestinian-American woman accepted for MA studies at the Hebrew University due to her alleged ties to BDS, and the Saudi regime has apparently murdered a mild self-exiled critic. Do the two instances have anything in common?

A. Israel is a democracy currently led by a strong ultra-nationalist and at times racist political current. Saudi Arabia is a totally dictatorial monarchy. With all due respect to the many important differences between the cases of Lara al-Qassem in Israel and Jamal Khashoggi, the apparently murdered Saudi journalist, they have one thing in common: paranoid fear on the part of headstrong leaders confronted by what can only be termed weak and ineffective opposition.

Israel’s action in barring al-Qassem is undoubtedly also influenced by PM Netanyahu’s political need to stoke the ardor of his ultra-nationalist base. In Saudi Arabia, decisions made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) appear to reflect at one and the same time the pure paranoia of every dictator and the arrogance of a truly clumsy leader who has been led to believe that anything he undertakes, however ill-conceived, will be accepted by the world. In both cases, the Trump administration appears to be aiding and abetting these dynamics.

Q. Let’s start with Lara al-Qassem. Assuming, as alleged, that she has BDS ties, isn’t it understandable that Israel defends itself by preventing her entry?

A. First, note that al-Qassem is still at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel where, two weeks after her arrival with a valid visa issued by the Israel Consulate in Miami, she awaits a final appeal on her ban before the High Court of Justice. Note too that she claims she is no longer a member of a BDS organization that calls for boycotting Israel and that the Hebrew University, which accepted her for an English-language MA program, is supporting her case. As the damage to Israel’s image piles up, even Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, a far-right figure, now acknowledges that barring al-Qassem is “right but not smart. . . . when this becomes an international issue we lose more than we gain.”

Incidentally, the Hebrew University accepts residents of Ramallah in the West Bank to its programs. Does anyone pretend they are Zionists? Their presence at the university simply enriches an intellectual community, which is what universities are supposed to be about.

The Netanyahu government has passed laws banning entry to the country by boycott adherents (BDS, “boycott, divestment, sanctions”, is the most prominent such organization). An otherwise underemployed ministry that is ostensibly devoted to strategic affairs has been charged with collecting information on BDS adherents and promoting programs to counter BDS, particularly on US campuses. One or two American Jewish organizations and Israeli non-profits are apparently involved in supplying data to the ministry. The Trump administration has backed off from protesting the case of an American citizen seeking entry to Israel, stating that the decision regarding al-Qassem is up to Jerusalem. The Israeli regional court that turned down al-Qassem’s last appeal on October 12 ruled that there is a danger that in Israel she will “advance the boycott cause”.

This boils down to two issues. First, why does Israel exaggerate the dangers posed by BDS to the extent of banning its adherents from entering the country? Does the Netanyahu government have so little confidence in Israel’s vitality and resilience and in the justice of its positions that it fears exposing its critics to the country? The BDS movement and additional boycott initiatives, for example by European countries, have not even scratched Israel’s vibrant economy, while at the public relations level even Hotovely admits that Israel’s ban can be counter-productive. Besides, while many BDS supporters reject Israel’s very right to exist, some, including not a few Israelis, boycott only settlement products, an (admittedly ineffectual) act not illegal in Israel.

As Yedioth Aharonoth’s Sever Plocker, an economist and hardly a left-winger, wrote on Sunday, “The government of Israel is the principal if not the exclusive advertiser for the BDS movement. It exaggerates its influence, provides it with propaganda material, addresses it as a very important factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Over the past year, Israel’s paranoia about boycotts and criticism has caused it to detain at entry for questioning several prominent American Jewish activists, not all identified with the left. Why is it using legislation to police opinions even among devoted Zionists? Is it not fair to conclude that the Netanyahu government is itself embarrassed about some of its policies?

Second, here we are confronted by a Palestinian-American woman whose original link to BDS consisted of an internet sign-up list, who now publicly takes her distance from BDS, and who wants to study at an Israeli university--one of those the BDS movement calls to boycott! She should be welcomed with open arms, even by the fiercest Israeli supporter of the BDS witch-hunt.

Q.Can Israel’s tough approach be explained in terms of local factors influencing government policies?

A. Yes. I would cite four factors that push Netanyahu to endorse a hawkish stance on the current al-Qassem/BDS issue in order to cultivate his ultra-nationalist political base. One is elections, which must be held within a year but could be advanced to March 2019 if Netanyahu’s coalition doesn’t hold. A second is the threat of indictment on multiple charges of breach of trust and corruption; here again, the reasoning goes that mainstream support, cultivated by ultra-chauvinist acts, will help the prime minister rebuff the charges. Third is the Gaza border, where tensions flaring weekly could inadvertently (neither Israel nor Hamas is interested) escalate into another war that would involve Israeli losses. And fourth is Syria, where the aftermath of the September 17 downing of a Russian aircraft still haunts Israel’s efforts to prevent Iran from building bases and moving weaponry to Hezbollah and where dangerous clashes with Iran and even Russia are possible.

From all these standpoints, and bearing in mind Trump’s backing and the Arab world’s general indifference, Netanyahu presumably judges he has little cause to give in to arguments of reason and elementary justice. Still, at this stage in the controversy both he and Hotovely would probably not mind a High Court decision that leaves al-Qassem in Jerusalem.

Q.Turning to Khashoggi, and assuming that Saudi agents indeed killed him in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, what are the possible ramifications for Israeli and US interests in the Middle East?

A. Khashoggi is an unlikely martyr to the cause of liberalizing Saudi Arabia. For years he worked for Saudi pro-regime media. Since leaving for the US three years ago, he has openly professed his allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood, arch enemy of many Arab regimes including Egypt, and the parent organization of Hamas. He supported the Islamist opposition in Syria despite its record of atrocities. As recently as August 28 he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled “The US is wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood--and the Arab world is suffering for it” in which he extolled the democratizing influence of the Islamist organization. Could that have signed his death warrant in Riyadh?

Incidentally, over the years he met openly with Israelis, myself included--something not every Saudi would do.

The Saudis, had they chosen to do so, could have made the case--for what it’s worth--that he was no better than them in terms of western liberal values. Instead, they mounted an elaborate and extremely clumsy operation to eliminate him. This should not surprise anyone. This is the MbS regime that over the past two years detained the prime minister of Lebanon, declared economic war on Qatar, invaded and got stuck in Yemen where it is responsible for the starvation of millions, arrested and extorted hundreds of its own millionaires, allowed women to vote then arrested advocates of this move, and withdrew students and investments from Canada over a tweet justifiably protesting Riyadh’s human rights record.

In his irresponsible behavior MbS has been egged on by his Trump administration booster Jared Kushner and by Trump himself. He undoubtedly has taken note that Russia’s Putin can assassinate his enemies on British territory and get away with a slap on the hand. In recent days the Arab League and a number of Arab countries have issued statements of support for MbS. Even Turkey, where President Erdogan is closer ideologically to Khashoggi than to Saudi Wahabi Islam, is looking for a way to put this behind him.

Here is Joe Bahout, a Lebanese currently at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace in Washington, speaking last week to NPR: “What's different now is certain regimes, even if they were fierce and bold and sometimes ruthless with their own opponents, did not do this level of things abroad or in the daylight, OK? Mubarak could make opponents disappear in Egypt. He would never dare to touch someone in the streets of London or Berlin. The Saudi leadership used to kidnap some princes for family reasons in Switzerland or elsewhere, but they would not kill someone in the streets of Paris or Rome, OK? So this is now different. These countries today feel that they have weathered an extraordinarily enormous storm, which is the Arab revolution that started in 2011, OK? So they are today on a full-blast quest and hunt against anybody who could threaten their political existence.”

One obvious consequence of Khashoggi’s murder should be to convince the region and the world that the Riyadh regime is in extremely irresponsible hands and that if it gets away with Istanbul it will convince itself that it can get away with anything, e.g., attacking Iran, swallowing up a neighboring emirate or (literally) butchering more of its citizens. Sadly, as Bahout implies, MbS will indeed get away with Istanbul. Trump has already signaled that US arms sales to Saudi Arabia must not be sacrificed. Tony Blair meekly states that the issue should be “explained” by the Saudis “because otherwise it runs completely contrary to the process of modernization”. MbS reads that and smiles.

Here’s how the Saudis explain not the assassination but rather getting away with it. They hint at the damage they could do by pulling their investments in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Turki Aldakhil threatened Sunday on the Riyadh regime’s al-Arabiya news channel that “if US sanctions are imposed on Saudi Arabia, we will be facing an economic disaster that would rock the entire world. Riyadh is the capital of its oil, and touching this would affect oil production before any other vital commodity. All of this will throw the Middle East, the entire Muslim world, into the arms of Iran, which will become closer to Riyadh than Washington.”

Kushner and Trump take note: the bastion of anti-Iran policy whom you champion is threatening that if he can’t kill a dissident without consequence he’ll move closer to Iran!

Q. Bottom line?

A. Between MbS (the gruesome Khashoggi affair), Netanyahu (the meek and benign but worrisome al-Qassem affair), and Trump who supports them both, you have an ugly microcosm of the current Middle East. Get used to it. . .