Netanyahu "doesn't intend to remove a single settler," and more: Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: January 27, 2014

Tbenjamin-netanyahu-settlements320x265his week, Alpher discusses Netanyahu's comment at Davos last week that he "doesn't intend to remove a single settler" and the reactions it provoked; whether Livni has joined the chorus of Israelis despairing of this peace process, and if so, why doesn't she resign; why is the Israeli security establishment returning to the tactic of targeted killings of Gazan extremist now, after a two-year lull, and a few last words in memory of Shulamit Aloni.

Q. What's your take on Netanyahu's comment at Davos last week that he "doesn't intend to remove a single settler" and the reactions it provoked?

 A. Netanyahu managed to anger just about all sides in the conflict--which may be what he intended to do. The statement was certainly not a casual slip of the tongue; it was backed up on Sunday by the Prime Minister's Office.

 First, note that Netanyahu stated he "doesn't intend" to remove settlers. This is a soft commitment. If and when he does remove them, he can always note that while this was not his intention, he was compelled to do it, etc., etc.

The Palestinian reaction was easily anticipated. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat reiterated a standing position, according to which no settlers will remain on Palestinian land.

The response of Naftali Bennett, head of the far-right Jewish Home party and Economy Minister, was easily the most antagonistic: Netanyahu's idea "reflects an insane loss of values "; how could settlers be left under the protection of Palestinian security units? Many additional Likud and coalition right-wingers joined in to condemn the prime minister for "abandoning Jewish communities to Palestinian sovereignty".

To his right-wing critics Netanyahu responded that they were "irresponsibly damaging a step meant to unmask the real face of the Palestinian Authority." In other words, Erekat's response is what Netanyahu wanted US Secretary of State John Kerry to hear: the Palestinians want a "Judenrein" country even as they insist that Israel continue to be the homeland of Israeli Arabs, some 18 percent of the population, and presumably that it also absorb some Palestinian refugees.

 What the Israeli right refused to recognize in Netanyahu's statement is his unwillingness to remove those who live outside the settlement blocs by force--an almost certain demand of any successful territorial agreement. In this sense, Netanyahu rendered Kerry's position more difficult in two ways: no forcible removal of settlers, and no Palestinian readiness to continue to host the settlers.

 Needless to say, most (but not all) settlers, if and when confronted with an Israeli government decision to withdraw and "leave them behind", would hasten to pack up and leave. But a minority of militants would stay on precisely in order to cause violence and mayhem and send the newborn two-state solution up in smoke.

 Q. Meanwhile, on Sunday chief negotiator Tzipi Livni condemned the "unacceptable positions" of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and threatened the Palestinians would "pay the price". If Livni has joined the chorus of Israelis despairing of this peace process, why doesn't she resign?

 A. Judging by the two sides' public statements regarding the process, they are in total disconnect on a series of issues: Jewish state, right of return, Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, holy places, Jordan Valley, and the fate of settlers. Since Livni joined the coalition with the express purpose of negotiating a two-state solution, her eventual resignation from the government could be a key turning point in the life of that coalition, and she knows it. So assuming she agrees there is little chance of success in the negotiations, she is presumably biding her time to find the right opportunity.

 It seems inconceivable that, having resigned the negotiating portfolio, she would remain in the coalition. She needs to be able to say she pursued every possible path to agreement. But she also has to be able to claim convincingly that the collapse of negotiations is not her fault, but rather that of the entire right-tilting coalition. Thus far she has publicly accused Bennett and Jewish Home of sabotaging the talks, but has said nothing critical about Netanyahu and his positions.

 Livni would have to be able to persuade her own HaTnua party along with the centrist Yesh Atid that the collapse of peace efforts justifies leaving the coalition. This could in effect force either new elections or agreement by Netanyahu to replace Jewish Home with Labor and Kadima and, together with HaTnua and Yesh Atid form a more centrist government that redoubles peace efforts based on moderate positions.

 Meanwhile, blaming the Palestinians for failure of the talks is hardly consistent with the idea that Livni would leave the government because of peace process issues. Moreover, even if Livni can convincingly blame the Netanyahu government, her record at manipulating coalitions is not impressive, particularly when compared to Netanyahu himself.

 Livni's moment of truth could come if, in late April after nine months of negotiations, the Palestinian side withdraws and adopts an alternative strategy such as popular resistance backed by international pressure generated through membership in United Nations institutions and UN recognition of the Palestinian state.

 (Still, that nine-month period allotted for the current negotiations has three months to go, and Kerry seems as determined as ever. . . .)

Q. In the past two weeks, Israel has responded to rocket fire from Gaza by carrying out two targeted killings of Gazan extremist activists (one only wounded the target). Why is the Israeli security establishment returning to this tactic now, after a two-year lull?

 A. The lull commenced with the conclusion of Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, which actually began with the targeted killing of a Hamas military leader. The lull was based on the understanding, achieved through Egyptian good offices, that Hamas would prevent rocket fire against Israeli towns and villages on the Gaza perimeter.

 In recent weeks it has become clear that Hamas is either no longer able or no longer willing to enforce the ban when it comes to more extreme jihadist organizations in Gaza. Hamas has been weakened politically by Egypt's suppression of its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, and by Egypt's success in destroying the smuggling tunnels linking Gaza to Sinai, where the Egyptian army faces a salafi insurrection. Hamas could conceivably be permitting attacks on Israel as a response to Egypt, against which it dare not react militarily (though recent bombings in Cairo could reflect a Hamas contribution to Islamist escalation against the military regime there).

Israel's response to the rockets, decided by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, is a calculated risk. The tit-for-tat bombing or bombarding response that Israel employed for months prior to the targeted killings was calculated to send a deterrent message but could not stop the growing dribble of rocket-fire. Israel's drones are now targeting the very salafi militants responsible for the rocket fire, thereby hopefully enhancing the deterrent. True, there have been instances in the past when a single targeted killing in Gaza stopped rocket fire for six months. But collateral damage, internal pressures, or the deaths of anti-Israel leaders in Gaza could also oblige Hamas to abandon its reserve and commence a new and violent escalation.

 Q. Anything to add to the eulogies of Shulamit Aloni?

 A. Shula once said, "Only dead fish swim with the current." Indeed, it took a resolute nonconformist who delighted in provocation to do what she did in Israel, beginning in the mid-1960s, for human rights, civil rights, gay rights and recognition of the evils of occupation. She made them mainstream issues.

 I came to know Shula when Meretz was formed in the early 1990s. Meretz was composed of Aloni's Ratz movement along with Mapam and Shinui. As a member of the Shinui executive council, I was involved in discussions of the new party's position on Palestinian and security issues, many of which took place on Friday afternoons in Tel Aviv. My problem at these small meetings was that Shula (and Yossi Sarid) continually ignored my pleas not to smoke. This was typical of the way she lived life in general--by her rules. Apparently, since she died at 85 of "old age", her chain smoking never damaged her health. I finally gave up and abandoned the meetings, which were notable mainly for juicy political gossip.

Perhaps my aversion to smoke-filled rooms explains why I soon abandoned party politics--and why Shula was such a political and ideological survivor. Her career is a testament to how a highly dedicated and articulate individual can change our lives, even when he/she is in the minority. Following on Ariel Sharon's death, we are also witnessing the ultimate departure of the 1948 generation (Shula fought in the War of Independence) that did so much to mold Israeli life in the early decades.