Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (August 26, 2019) - What are the Elections about, anyways?

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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. Until now Israel’s second round of elections has focused on issues of religion and state. Is the agenda now changing? Are they now about the Palestinian issue? The coming war with Iran and its proxies?

A. The religion and state issue has been driven by Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beteinu party. He helped precipitate repeat elections by refusing in coalition talks to compromise with the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox). He has been campaigning successfully ever since on an aggressive “secular right” platform.

Religion and state issues are discomfiting and inconvenient for most of the other parties except the Haredim and secular Meretz/Democratic. But even Meretz and Ehud Barak would like to see the Palestinian issue more in the spotlight. And Blue-White with its ex-IDF chief of staff leaders has been trying to shift the focus to security, particularly with regard to Gaza and Hamas.

Something indeed appears to have shifted in recent days. Security has become central as armed clashes and terrorist incidents have been recorded on no fewer than five fronts. In Syria the Netanyahu government proudly took credit for preempting and foiling attacks by an Iranian proxy. In Iraq and Lebanon, attacks on Iranian proxy forces and ordnance were neither claimed nor denied by Israel. (Israel was not known to have attacked in Lebanon or, until recently, Iraq, for decades.) In the West Bank a highly sophisticated Hamas or Islamic Jihad explosive charge claimed one Israeli life. In Gaza, Hamas rockets and fence-breaching attempts have escalated and drawn Israel Air Force retaliation. By the by, in Syria and Lebanon quadcopter attack drones (Iranian in Syria, possibly Israeli in Lebanon) made their operational debut.

Some of this activity portrays Defense Minister Netanyahu in a positive, protective light (defense minister is only one of several titles held by the prime minister in this interim government). Some doesn’t. The pro-Iran forces are threatening retaliation, which could escalate the situation, endanger stability and jeopardize Netanyahu, with the Blue-White generals breathing down his neck. To stay in office, Netanyahu has to look strong, pro-active and in full control, yet incur minimal damage on the home front. In this regard Iran and Hezbollah, despite their threats, appear currently to fear a full-fledged confrontation. Hamas, based on its past record, has little to lose. Stay tuned.

Q. Turning to a different alternative election agenda, does Aiman Odeh’s proposal that the Joint List of four Arab parties join or support a center-left coalition now energize the Palestinian issue? Does the Netanyahu government’s offer to incentivize Gazan Arabs to leave the Strip have this effect?

A. Both of these fascinating proposals were floated last week with the objective of altering the electoral agenda: Odeh’s, in a moderate direction; Netanyahu’s, in either a hawkish or a pathetic direction.

Q. Specifically?

A. In terms of Jewish-Arab relations within Israel, Odeh’s proposal is historic. Truly historic, and worthy of our attention. For the first time, an Arab party leader is declaring his readiness to support a Zionist coalition. The four conditions he has listed to enable his Joint Arab List to recommend Blue-White leader Benny Gantz for the post of prime minister and then support a center-left coalition, focus mainly on “local” Arab issues. Odeh wants Gantz to commit to deal with property rights and law and order in the Arab sector along with revoking the provocative “Nation-State law”. Odeh also floated an open-ended demand that the next government commit to reopening two-state negotiations with the PLO, without specifying any details. This last condition was later amended by Odeh to the more specific “ending the occupation”.

As for trying to help Gazans emigrate, this proposal from the Netanyahu government is a perfect illustration of Karl Marx’s maxim that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. So both proposals involve Palestinians and history, but in diametrically opposed ways.

Q. Let’s start with Odeh’s agenda. How are his fellow Palestinian citizens of Israel reacting? How are Israeli Jewish politicians reacting?

A. Odeh, it emerges, acted on his own without consulting his fellow candidates (from four different parties) on the Joint Arab List. They all proceeded to condemn his initiative for fear of seeming soft on Israel. Yet on the Israeli Arab “street” reactions were mixed, with some praising Odeh particularly for focusing on genuine Arab sector problems like rampant crime.

The leadership of Blue-White, the main primarily-Jewish electoral list to which Odeh addressed his initiative, responded negatively to the prospect that the Joint List would be part of a coalition it hopes to form. Odeh, Blue-White stated, has to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. This was not surprising: Blue-White is trying to poach right-wing voters away from Likud and Liberman’s Yisrael Beteinu, two nationalistic parties not friendly to Arabs.

All these negative reactions put the spotlight on Odeh’s political courage and on the possible “greyer” implications of his proposal. Gantz will need Odeh’s recommendation to President Rivlin. There are precedents from PM Yitzhak Rabin’s day for an Arab party supporting the coalition “externally” in return for satisfaction on some of that party’s demands. Odeh’s agenda is in no way bluntly antithetical to what we know of Gantz’s. We can imagine a variety of modes of cooperation. Besides, one of Odeh’s motives is undoubtedly to encourage a somnolent Israel Arab public to wake up and get out the vote.

Above and beyond these speculative thoughts, Odeh has done something extremely forward-looking. Unlike Arab parties awarded deputy minister posts by the pre-1967 Mapai party that actually sponsored and nourished the parties in order to control the Israeli Arab vote, the four parties of the Joint List are composed of outspoken pro-Palestinians. Some, like Odeh and Ahmed Tibi, are relatively moderate and anxious to reach out to the Jewish public for votes and support. Others, e.g. the Balad list, verge in their views on anti-Semitism and fascism.

It is Balad’s inclusion in the Joint List that makes Odeh’s proposal particularly difficult for Zionist parties to deal with. Odeh undoubtedly knows this. Nevertheless, he has taken a major step in the direction of Arab political integration in Israel, and for this he should be commended and encouraged.

Q. And Gaza emigration. Why tragedy? Why farce? Why second time?

A. Gaza’s reality of over-population, mainly with refugees from what is today southern and central Israel, has been the focus of demographic initiatives since Israel’s 1948 War of Independence when the “Strip” was created under Egyptian occupation. At one point in the ceasefire talks that followed, an American mediator suggested to PM Ben Gurion that Israel absorb 100,000 refugees from the Strip. The figure of 200,000 was even mentioned. Ben Gurion agreed on condition that this be part and parcel of an overall Israel-Arab peace deal. That still hasn’t happened.

After Israel occupied the Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War, a number of formulas were floated for alleviating demographic crowding in Gaza. One involved resettling Gazans in the West Bank; a few Gazan families remain there to this day. Another involved the offer of $10,000 in cash and a one-way ticket to Paraguay to any Gazan willing to leave. I don’t know how many Gazans grabbed at the opportunity. But it ended (see Marx) in tragedy when an Israeli diplomatic envoy was murdered in the Israel Embassy in Asuncion by a disgruntled Gazan migrant.

Notably, this was not the only politically-motivated Israeli socio-economic initiative back then aimed ostensibly at improving the lot of Gazans. Building materials were provided free to any Gazan refugee willing to erect a house outside the crowded UNRWA refugee camps. Upon moving into its new house on land allotted by Israel outside the camp, the refugee family had to destroy its old makeshift dwelling inside the camp. In later years, after Israel withdrew from the Strip in 2005 and Hamas seized power in 2007, the Islamist movement forced some of these families to destroy the houses they had built under Israeli rule.

Now (Marx’s farce), some of Netanyahu’s spokespersons, followed by Yamina far-right party leader Ayelet Shaked who served in Netanyahu’s previous government, have revealed that the Cabinet approved a plan to assist Gazans willing to leave. Financial support would be provided, along with a flight from an Israel Air Force base in southern Israel. Feelers were sent out to select countries (probably Gulf emirates that suffer from a chronic labor shortage but tend to prefer Baluch and Pakistani guest workers to fellow Arabs) to absorb skilled Gazans. Shaked summed up: “It is in the interests of both Israel and some of the Gaza Strip residents who want to leave to allow them to do so comfortably and easily.” Why farce? Netanyahu authorized the leak about the plan to boost his electoral chances by showing he is “doing something” about Gaza. Shaked refused to let the Likud take exclusive credit. As for Gazans, beyond the obvious stigma of accepting Israeli aid and facilitating Israeli-Gulf Arab cooperation, the same Islamist Hamas that destroyed houses built with Israeli materials is not going to allow Gazans to leave via Israel. Besides, like after 1967, even if a few thousand Gazans somehow decide to take advantage of the Israeli offer, this will not make a dent in Gaza’s huge overpopulation problem. Here, incidentally, Netanyahu’s spokespersons noted that, without any help at all from Israel, some 35,000 Gazans including 150 doctors and pharmacists had left on their own volition over the past two years via Egypt. Is Netanyahu aware that emigration from Gaza inevitably favors the wealthier and more educated and impoverishes life in the Strip even further?

By the way, the alternative socio-economic approach to Gaza following the 1967 war and right up to Trump’s “economic peace” concept is the “Singapore model”, according to which a peaceful, productive Gaza needs all two million of its occupants and lots of investment to fuel an economic powerhouse on the Mediterranean. Here Trump and his real-estate-lawyer peacemakers might recall another quote from Marx: “I do not like money. Money is the reason we fight.”

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