Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: February 24, 2014


This week, Alpher discusses a government legislative initiative intended to lead to increased military service for the ultra-orthodox; the Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah motives in supporting Assad; and what is the strategic significance of the first export deal signed with Jordan in Israel's Tamar Mediterranean gas field.

Q. Last week a key Knesset committee approved a government legislative initiative intended to lead to increased military service for the ultra-orthodox. Is this a breakthrough toward more equal burden-sharing in Israel?

A. This is most likely a breakthrough toward burden-sharing in the employment and tax-paying realm rather than in military service.

The key provision of the proposed law is to make Haredi yeshiva students, beginning in 2017, eligible for the draft until age 24. Draft-dodging will be subject to criminal penalties unless the entire ultra-orthodox establishment "delivers" at least 5,200 draftees. On the face of it, this is a step toward greater Haredi military service and more egalitarian burden-sharing.

But there are so many loopholes and "landmines" in this initiative that its ultimate outcome is not at all clear. For one, by postponing full implementation for three years, the door has been left open for the ultra-orthodox to join the coalition or even exercise political blackmail over a critical Knesset vote in order to reverse or soften the law. Then too, by age 24 most young Haredi men are married off and many have children; the IDF won't want their service since it will involve too many family allowances.

Further, the drafters of the law included several ridiculous political concessions. Men's compulsory service was reduced from 36 to 32 months while the service of national religious "hesder" yeshiva students was left at 17 months. The latter provision is particularly disturbing because the Jewish Home party that represents the hesder yeshivot has been a primary advocate of enhanced burden-sharing. On Sunday, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz criticized these provisions, noting that they are liable to leave the IDF with a manpower shortfall.

Some supporters of the new initiative, which ostensibly fulfills a key campaign promise of the Yesh Atid party, make little effort to hide their real intention: to free Haredi yeshiva students of the threat of conscription at a young enough age that they can join the work force and become productive individuals more integrated into Israeli society. That would undoubtedly be an accomplishment; these young men would no longer live off of government entitlements and, as productive members of society, would pay taxes. The Haredi rabbinical leadership, recognizing that its power and its assets are in danger, is planning large-scale demonstrations against the new measure.

But why is it that politics, even among the secular majority, still prevent passage of a law mandating all 18-year olds, without exception, to register for and engage in some sort of national service, thereby truly equalizing burden-sharing? This remains one of the uglier mysteries of Israeli society.

Q. In discussing Syria last week, you largely left out the Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah role on the side of the regime. What are their motives to support Assad?

A. First and most urgent among their motives is the decimation of Syria's armed forces, which leaves Assad hard put to defend his regime without outside help. Figures recently released by Israeli military intelligence indicate that in three years of fighting, Assad's 400,000 strong army has been reduced to 200,000. The remainder have either been killed (30,000), wounded (90,000), or have deserted. Conscription barely replaces ten percent of these losses. The army today controls only about 25 percent of Syrian soil.

In other words, without Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah help, the Assad regime would fall and Alawite rule in Syria would end. As matters stand, extremist Islamist elements would then rule over large parts of the country, if not all of it.

This is where the external powers' diverse motives come into play. Iran has been heavily invested in the Assad regime and in Shiite Hezbollah in Syria virtually since the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979. In fact, ties between Iranian anti-Shah forces, mostly Islamist, and Damascus and southern Lebanon even precede the Iranian revolution. Clearly, one key factor promoting this solidarity is the religious proximity of the Alawite sect to Shiite Islam. Since Shiites became dominant in Iraq (thanks to US-imposed democracy), Iran can look to a "Shiite arc" (a term first used by Jordan's King Abdullah II) stretching from parts of Afghanistan westward all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran dominates this arc and uses it to exercise regional influence. In the past decade or so, since becoming a near-nuclear power and escalating its threatening rhetoric against Israel, Iran has counted on its heavily-armed "base" in Syria and southern Lebanon to deter Israel.

In this context, Hezbollah must be understood as Iran's strategic arm in the Levant. Ultimately, as its leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledges, it takes orders from Iran's supreme leader.

So if the Alawite regime in Damascus falls, Iran stands to lose its access to Hezbollah and a large measure of its regional conventional deterrent against Israel. It will also lose a base for launching terrorist operations and undermining Sunni-dominated regimes in the region. And Hezbollah stands to be weakened radically.

Russia's motives for supporting Assad are more complex. For decades, Syria has been a Russian client regime, buying Russian weapons and providing a Mediterranean naval base at Tartus and a degree of influence in the region. These are assets Moscow would almost certainly lose if Assad falls. Then too, Moscow objects in principle to any attempt to alter the Middle East state system by overthrowing regimes. This is partly a reaction to the western-led overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, in which, as Russia sees it, the US and NATO abused its readiness at the United Nations to allow humanitarian intervention. But today Russia can point to events even closer to home, in Ukraine, as an indication of the dangers of condoning regime change. Russia perceives in these dangers a degree of western meddling, and seeks to prop up the Assad regime as a response.

Then there are two religious issues behind Russia's support for Assad. Russia has a large Sunni Muslim minority in both the Caucasus and the Volga region that in recent years has become radicalized. Not all the instances of Islamist terrorism and assassination in those areas have been publicized. While Alawites and radical Shiites (Iran, Hezbollah) are not seen by Moscow as a threat, Salafist Sunnis are. Russia's concerns regarding Salafi terrorism in (and ultimately exported from) Syria are slowly entering mainstream western thinking, too, as evidenced in their prominence in last week's UN Security Council resolution mandating humanitarian aid to Syria.

At the other end of the religion scale, the Pravoslavic or Russian Orthodox Church is an active lobbyist on behalf of several hundred thousand Greek Orthodox and other Christians in Syria, most of whom support the Assad regime and fear the Salafist wave.

There are thousands of Hezbollah fighters and hundreds of Iranian and Russian advisers in Syria today. This means that if Assad survives in all or even part of Syria, his and the Alawite sect's dependence on these external powers will be near absolute. Some of those powers could end up close to Israel's border with Syria.

Q. The partners in Israel's Tamar Mediterranean gas field just signed a first export deal, with Jordan. What's the strategic significance?

A. Two Jordanian companies have contracted to buy 1.8 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Israel at a cost of $500 million over the next 15 years. The gas will be delivered by pipeline to Jordanian mining firms working across from Israel at the Dead Sea.

Tamar, discovered in 2009, holds more than 300 billion cubic meters of gas. A second major Israeli field still under development, Leviathan, holds even more. Tamar has already been linked by pipeline to the Israeli mainland. While Leviathan gas is largely earmarked for export, the Netanyahu government has designated 60 percent of Tamar's production for Israeli domestic use over the next 30 years. But in an astute move, it has agreed that exports to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority be permitted from Israel's own allocation. This could link Israel's immediate neighbors to it economically and at the energy infrastructure level.

Until the Egyptian revolution, Israel and Jordan purchased Egyptian gas that was transported through a pipeline in northern Sinai. Repeated sabotage attacks by anti-regime Salafists and Bedouin in Sinai have rendered the pipeline useless, while the post-Mubarak regimes in Cairo have cited financial irregularities in the gas supply contract to nullify it. Jordan's loss of this energy source has caused a two percent drop in its gross domestic product. This explains Jordan's immediate and urgent need for natural gas supplies.

Egypt, incidentally, is now turning into a net energy importer rather than exporter. Egypt also has relatively idle facilities for liquefying gas that could be useful if Israel wants to export to Europe or the Far East. Ideally if Egypt settles down, stabilizes, and agrees to enter into mutually profitable energy cooperation, Israel could also export natural gas to it by reversing the direction of the Sinai pipeline, then re-export it by supertanker after liquification.

All told, Israel's gas discoveries offer the region a positive incentive for development in an otherwise unstable reality.