Hard Questions, Tough Answers (June 11, 2019) - Two ME conferences with Trump administration involvement to watch this month

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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. Your title for this Q & A presumably refers to the Bahrain economic “workshop” to advance the economic peace aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian “deal of the century”. It’s scheduled for June 25-26. What’s the other one?

A. Sometime this month, the national security advisors of Russia, the US and Israel are scheduled to meet in Jerusalem to discuss Iran and Syria.

Q. It looks like the Trump administration is busy advancing a combined peace agenda for the region.

A. Hardly. The Bahrain workshop is conceived in ignorance and arrogance. The national security advisors meeting is so low-key not even a date has been publicized. It could be serious, is certainly intriguing and might conceivably contribute to the stabilization of Israel’s northern border.

Q. What’s wrong with the Bahrain meeting?

A. It appears to be based on a failed concept for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Even the principal sponsor or formulator of Trump’s deal of the century, Jared Kushner, acknowledged last month at a Washington think tank that, “If we are going to fail, we don’t want to fail doing it the same way it’s been done in the past”.

This was a prescient yet pathetic statement. It hints that Kushner, on behalf of the administration, is aware that a peace concept based on Palestinian autonomy in an area smaller than the West Bank, with security in Israel’s hands and refugees left in place where they currently live, is going to be rejected by the PLO in Ramallah. No matter how much Arab investment money is promised in Bahrain to the Palestinians and to refugee host states Lebanon and Jordan, all will reject the deal. To exacerbate Ramallah’s frustration with these US plans, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman just went on the record supporting Israel’s right to annex “some, not all” of the West Bank.

Kushner’s statement was prescient because he appears to know he’s going to fail. It was pathetic because, given this knowledge, why proceed, especially now that Israel is heading for new elections in September and the US enters an election cycle in November. Neither Netanyahu nor Trump needs to campaign against the backdrop of an abortive peace process.

Yet the Bahrain meeting has not been canceled. Here we meet another pathetic aspect of the deal of the century. True, there is potential value in a peace plan that obliges Palestinians everywhere, along with the sovereign hosts of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, to finally confront the counterproductive delusion of the “right of return” concept. And it makes sense to set aside funds for refugee absorption and rehabilitation in Arab host countries.

This last, by the way, is hardly new. I recall my own task as special advisor to PM Ehud Barak in July 2000, to explain to the US media and the American Jewish community that success at that month’s Camp David US-Israel-PLO summit would demand American leadership in recruiting tens of billions of dollars in international investment in refugee rehabilitation and compensation.

But I was making the rounds of American Jewish leaders at the very moment Barak, Arafat and Clinton were talking about a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem, land swaps and temporary security measures. In other words, a two-state solution. In contrast, in Bahrain they will be discussing “economic peace”: the concept that by showering Palestinians with prosperity they will be persuaded to forego both land and sovereignty.

Kushner is right: this is different from Camp David 2000. And this too will fail. At least Camp David (and previous and later attempts based on two states) left us with a working strategic model. Bahrain is based on some sort of Trump business model according to which the Palestinian national movement can be bought off because it too is sustained by greed alone.

Perhaps Trump, Netanyahu and Trump’s lawyers (Friedman, Kushner, Greenblatt) really believe this is feasible. After all, in their world “everyone has a price”. But every nation? The Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas, do not. This, despite their impoverishment at Trump’s hand (denial of UNRWA and USAID funds) and at their own hand (refusal to accept Israel’s tax transfers because Israel is discounting Palestinian payments to convicted terrorists).

The PLO/Palestinian Authority is not coming to Bahrain. Some Palestinian businessmen might, looking for Gulf Arab investment money. Other Arabs might, out of deference to Trump. But whatever they cook up there won’t work. Ultimately, the Arabs who show up will defer to Abbas even if they are critical of his leadership errors. Moreover, in view of Israel’s elections, the timing of this Bahrain “workshop” is problematic.

Q. What sort of agenda are the national security advisors meeting in Israel likely to have?

A. Here we enter into informed speculation--no more. Clearly there is some sort of prospective overlap of interests between the US, Russia and Israel to justify this unusual meeting bringing together John Bolton, Nikolai Patrushev and Meir Ben Shabbat. (Note: technically, President Putin chairs the Russian National Security Council; Patrushev is secretary of the Council.) Each of the participants brings a strategic requirement to the table.

Israel, backed by the US, wants Russia to pressure Iran to withdraw from Syria. Until it does, Israel will consider the presence in Syria of Iranian and Iranian-sponsored troops as a threat to its security that requires it to respond militarily and raises the risk of a Russia-Israel clash. Russia wants US and Israeli acknowledgment of the renewed legitimacy of the Assad regime in Syria, along with an Israeli commitment not to attack in Syria once Iran has withdrawn. It also wants the US to cease or at least reduce its sanctions on Iran and on Russia. It seeks Arab funds for rebuilding and rehabilitating Syria. And Moscow will presumably have something to say on Damascus’s behalf about Trump’s recent recognition of the Golan as part of Israel.

Can Russia push Iran out of Syria? It recently closed down an Iranian project to set up some sort of port facility on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. On the other hand, Moscow initially failed to enforce its commitment to Israel to keep the Iranians at least 80 km. away from the Israel-Syria Golan border. (More recently, Israel claims to have successfully braked Iran’s progress on its own.) Tensions between Moscow and Tehran regarding division of the spoils of their support for Damascus appear to be growing, even as the two collaborate in a brutal campaign to clear anti-regime elements from the Idlib area of northwest Syria--the last major concentration of anti-Assad Islamist and other forces.

And does Trump, who is committed to lowering the US military profile in the Middle East, have sufficient interest in the kind of deal outlined here to reduce economic sanctions? Moreover, can any of the economic aspects to be discussed in this meeting (e.g., Arab investment in rebuilding Syria) tie in with the Bahrain meeting?

Q. Interesting questions to follow up on. Meanwhile, as Israel’s election campaign heats up, Netanyahu will take credit for both conferences as proof of his status as a global strategist and statesman.

A. Netanyahu has indeed astutely leveraged the Syria situation to a point where he can sit at the table with the Russians and Americans. Hopefully, this has not gone to his head: the two superpowers are still conceivably capable of doing a Syria-Iran deal at the expense of Israel’s freedom of strategic maneuver along its northern border.

As for the Bahrain meeting, the limits of Israel’s clout are clear: the Gulf Arabs may do business with Israel, but they will not sacrifice the Palestinian issue and will not formalize relations with Israel. Netanyahu, now with Trump’s active assistance, will continue guiding Israel down a slippery slope toward becoming a binational entity: either apartheid and non-democratic, or binational and non-Zionist. The indifference of the rest of the Arab world is not necessarily a good thing.

Q. You just referred to President Trump’s vow to remove US forces from the Middle East in favor of greater strategic focus on threats to the US from China and Russia. Is the Middle East half of this formula happening?

A. Not really. Lately, there is actually a US naval buildup confronting Iran and small numbers of US troop reinforcements have arrived in the Middle East. American nuclear know-how is being sold to Saudi Arabia, along with more weapons for Saudi and UAE deployment in the bottomless pit of the disastrous Yemen theater.

True, the US contribution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not military but rather financial and diplomatic: economic penalties against the PLO (see above) somehow “balanced” by the largess to be dangled at Bahrain, and of course the US embassy move to Jerusalem which in Palestinian eyes and Trump’s rhetoric removed that city from the peace agenda.

Incidentally, the expectation a year ago that the embassy move would be emulated by a growing list of additional countries has fizzled. Only Guatemala and Paraguay followed suit and Paraguay has already changed its mind. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Brazil have announced the opening in Jerusalem of minor commercial offices but not embassies. That is apparently the extent of Netanyahu’s global clout among his evangelical and ultra-nationalist friends.

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