Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: February 10, 2014


This week, Alpher discusses what motivates pro-settler critics of Kerry; what the Israeli public thinks about the danger of sanctions; whether there is more than meets the eye to the issue of the controversy provoked by Netanyahu's remark that he "doesn't intend to remove a single settler;" and with two Iranian warships are currently crossing the Atlantic and heading toward the US territorial water boundary, what is Iran trying to tell us.

Q. Last week you wrote that vicious verbal attacks on John Kerry reflect Netanyahu's panic that Israel will be blamed and punished politically and economically for a failed peace process. Yet pro-settler critics of Kerry want the process to fail as soon as possible. So what motivates them?

 A. Indeed, it does seem possible to distinguish between two types of Israeli criticism of Kerry, both represented in the Netanyahu government. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, another critic who is close to Netanyahu, want the peace process to continue for as long as possible precisely in order for Israel to avoid condemnation for its failure and to avoid the sanctions and political isolation that would likely follow such condemnation. They seem to criticize Kerry when he talks about those sanctions--albeit acknowledging that he is a friend of Israel--lest he "give the Europeans ideas" and encourage the BDS campaign.

That Netanyahu fears economic sanctions more than the peace process is evident from his constant efforts to "sell" the Israeli economy--particularly the high-tech sector, whose product is essentially "invisible" hence relatively sanction-proof. Netanyahu's drive to boost Israeli-Chinese economic ties even to the extent of allowing huge Chinese investments in Israeli infrastructure (to promote east-west trade via Israel) and university knowledge-based programs is another indicator. This effort ignores the risk that China, whose economic agenda includes close ties with radical oil-producers like Iran and banking ties with the likes of Hamas, could abuse its penetration of Israel.

In stark contrast, critics from the settler lobby like Jewish Home's Naftali Bennett and the right wing of the Likud, a number of whose members are deputy ministers in the Netanyahu government, are not convinced the two-state solution negotiations can simply be strung out ad infinitum without risking the "danger" of success. Hence they attack Kerry's "messianic" attributes and portray him as a menace to Israel in the apparent hope of discrediting him in the eyes of the public or even driving him away from his Israeli-Palestinian peace project. They also make it clear that sanctions are preferable to a two-state solution. Note, for example, Economy Minister Bennett's argument that "a Palestinian state will wreck Israel's economy" and his assertion that the threat of an international boycott against Israel pales in comparison to the economic damage likely to be caused by a two-state solution.

That these two contrary points of view co-exist within Netanyahu's government alongside a peace process is a tribute to the prime minister's political skills. But suppose Kerry's anticipated "framework agreement" includes reference to the 1967 lines as the point of departure for a territorial solution. Suppose it also comprises components congenial to Netanyahu and anathema to the Palestinians like "Jewish state" and a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley. If Netanyahu agrees to coexist with the framework, even though it is still very far from a two-state agreement, Bennett's suspicions of his intentions could well lead to Jewish Home departing the government.

Enter the new Avigdor Lieberman, an emerging third force among the coalition's right-wing components. Since being reinstated after overcoming his legal difficulties, the once brash and outspoken foreign minister--the "bad boy" who spouted racist epithets against Arabs and was boycotted by Washington--has become a paradigm of moderation and civility when it comes to Kerry and the US peace effort. According to Lieberman, Kerry is "a true friend of Israel" and "the unity of the people is more important than the unity of the land", whereas Bennett is unwisely "turning friends into foes". Lieberman is positioning himself as the "responsible adult" in this government and in the political right in general. Considering that Netanyahu has no known near-term intention of stepping aside, it is not quite clear where this pose of civility and centrality is supposed to lead Lieberman politically. But it is welcome.

 Q. What does the Israeli public think about the much trumpeted danger of sanctions?

A. The highly reliable IDI-TAU monthly poll looked at this issue last month. The responses to its questions seem to be totally subjective and politically driven. If you're a right-winger, you tend to believe the chances of a widening of sanctions are relatively low while Israel's chances of withstanding them are high. If you're a left-winger, you see a major danger of wider sanctions and a low Israeli capacity to withstand them.

This certainly explains Bennett's preference for sanctions over a two-state solution. But it also indicates that public perceptions on this issue are not strongly based on objective analysis of the issues. Right-wing wishful thinking about holding on to the West Bank appears to dictate optimism regarding sanctions. Left-wing opposition to the settlements seemingly comes with certainty that sanctions and isolation are in the offing and that Israel will be hurt by them. It's all political.

Q. Two weeks ago, you discussed the controversy provoked by Netanyahu's remark that he "doesn't intend to remove a single settler". Is there more to this issue than meets the eye?

A. As noted then, Netanyahu later responded to criticism from the pro-settler camp by explaining that he was simply trying to "unmask the real face of the Palestinians" by showing that they were unwilling to contemplate a Jewish presence in the state they envisage. Now it turns out, according to Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea, that in 1995 Prime Minister Rabin sent Meretz leader Yossi Sarid to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to ask if settlers could continue to reside in a Palestinian state and that Arafat responded in the affirmative.

Then as now, there are two relevant yet theoretical aspects to this issue when it comes to the peace process. First, if settlers really can remain in place peaceably, then there might in theory be fewer settlers to remove in the course of turning territory over to a Palestinian state. But second, even if not a single settler wants to remain and live under Palestinian sovereignty, Palestinian willingness to accommodate them enables the government of Israel at least in theory to threaten to abandon militant and recalcitrant settlers. But all this is theory only, because militant settlers "left behind" would almost certainly invoke violence against their Palestinian hosts, thereby endangering the entire peace process.

Back in 1995, I succeeded in convening a unique series of secret meetings between the leaders of the settler movement and leaders of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. At the time, under the Oslo interim process the Rabin government was transferring West Bank land to Palestinian jurisdiction almost weekly and the settlers, understandably afraid their settlements would soon be on the negotiating table, were ready to talk quietly to the Palestinian leadership. One of the issues discussed was the option for a committed ideological settler--for whom the Land of Israel is ostensibly more important than the State of Israel--to remain in place in a Palestinian state.

Hassan Asfour, then Arafat's chief negotiator with Israel, responded as follows (as quoted in my 2001 book And the Wolf shall dwell with the Wolf: the Settlers and the Palestinians, which is available in Hebrew only):

There is no room in our region for ethnically "pure" states. An Israeli who wishes to live within the state of Palestine will be a Palestinian citizen, not a "resident". We'll also permit dual Israeli-Palestinian citizenship. We don't want any discrimination, we want a democratic country. The presence of Jews will help us ensure democracy, and will also enable us to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world. As for the settlements per se, they are a consequence of occupation. Where their location doesn't constitute a problem for us, we'll consider the possibility of leaving them in place. . . . Kiryat Arba [a settler town adjacent to Hebron], for example, was created as part of the occupation. A settler can remain there as an individual, but the Jewish municipality will disappear, and Kiryat Arba will merge administratively with Arab municipal units.

The settlers, leaders of the Gush Emunim settlement movement, asked for clarifications regarding the obligations and rights of Palestinian citizenship. When they heard from Hassan that all Palestinian institutions would apply to them--Palestinian courts, Palestinian police, Palestinian taxes, Palestinian land laws in the event their settlement's land is deemed to have been stolen--they visibly paled. The topic never came up again. I would report quietly on these talks to Rabin through one of his senior aides, and it certainly is possible the Sarid mission to Arafat was a by-product.

Asfour was a communist by ideological training and some of his rhetoric, e.g., rejecting ethnically pure states, seemingly reflected that fact. Today's Palestinian leadership, under the threat of stronger Hamas Islamist influence than 19 years ago, appears to take a somewhat tougher line. Regardless, as the settler reaction to Asfour demonstrated, the idea of settlers living in Palestine is almost certainly not a viable proposition.

Q. Two Iranian warships are currently crossing the Atlantic and heading toward the US territorial water boundary. What is Iran trying to tell us?

A. Iran, with its 80 million or so inhabitants, large land mass and Islamist leadership aspirations, wants to be taken seriously as not only a dominant regional power but an emerging global power as well. In addition to a nuclear option, it seeks to build for itself all major weapons systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. It is apparently the only country outside the US that divides the world up into regional military commands. The US has EUCOM, CENTCOM and USPACOM; Iran has a Latin America command, an Africa command and of course a Quds (Jerusalem) command, which we currently encounter in Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon. Lebanese Hezbollah, incidentally, is an integral player in all these commands.

 The current negotiating process with Iran regarding its nuclear project is a good thing and will hopefully succeed in stopping Iran permanently short of nuclear weapons. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that containing Iran's nuclear ambitions will contain its global ambitions. The two warships are a reminder.