Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (September 14, 2020) - On Arab solidarity and Israeli solidarity


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. On Tuesday of this week, PM Netanyahu signs normalization treaties with the UAE and Bahrain. Last week the Arab League rejected a Palestinian demand to condemn these treaties. What are the strategic ramifications for Israel, the Palestinians and the region?

A. The normalization treaties are without doubt an achievement for Jerusalem. Formalized and open relations with two additional Arab countries give Israel enhanced strategic (against Iran) and commercial advantages. They deter enemies and impress potential friends. To achieve these agreements, Netanyahu backed off a West Bank annexation initiative that was in any case doubtful. His ‘doctrine’, according to which Israel can advance its relations with the Arab world without bending to Palestinian demands, has for the first time scored a clear win.

Still, there are clouds on the horizon that should not be ignored. First, to be clear, these are not peace treaties even if that is how these normalization agreements are deceptively billed by Mssrs. Trump and Netanyahu for their own domestic political purposes. Israel never fought wars with the UAE and Bahrain, hence does not need to ‘make peace’. It has had informal relations with these two countries for years.

Second, this is not a normalization stampede. The Saudis’ only gesture, other than permitting Bahrain, a virtual vassal state, to normalize, is to allow Israeli overflights. To date, no other Arab state has joined.

Third, both the UAE and Bahrain, who have made this deal at least as much in return for American weapons and security guarantees as for Israeli hi-tech and tourists, are signaling a low profile in the Washington signing ceremony by sending their foreign ministers, not their real rulers. That their counterpart is PM Netanyahu and that he left Foreign Minister Gaby Ashkenazi at home reflects Netanyahu’s megalomania, his increasingly desperate need to show a corona-plagued Israel what a great leader he is, and Israel’s ridiculously dysfunctional politics. Even President Trump is including Secretary of State Pompeo in the celebration.

Fourth, and most important at the grand strategic level, Israel’s welcome enhancement of relations with Gulf Arab states has quite predictably nourished a degree of regional disunity and angered two key regional actors: Iran and the Palestinians.

Q. How has the anger played out so far?

A. Iran is threatening to incite Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, not for the first time, against that country’s Sunni ruler. Bahrain’s Shi’ites are already vocally critical of the normalization deal. The Bahraini regime will now be more dependent than ever on the Saudis, who maintain an armed contingent in Manama, and the American Fifth Fleet which is based there. Regional Sunni-Shi’ite friction is likely to escalate.

Iran and its “Resistance Front” allies, Syria and Hezbollah, with occasional limited Islamist support from Qatar and Turkey, view the Israel-UAE-Bahrain treaties as no less than a military alliance. Here is how Conflicts Forum, a regional think tank that broadly reflects Resistance Front thinking, describes the situation:

The Emirates have, of their own volition, elected to ‘sleep with the enemy’ . . . and must bear the consequences. The Iranian Supreme Leader said as much. . . . Will then, Israeli bases inside UAE worry Iran? Hardly. All the Gulf energy and military infrastructure is exposed . . . and not concealed in fortified bunkers. . . . Iran’s strategy [is] no head-on confrontation with the US or Israel [but rather] a dispersed and sometimes outsourced threat to infrastructure hubs. . . . [This has] given Iran a deniable strategic edge. To the extent this analysis reflects Iranian thinking, it suggests a genuine threat to punish the UAE and Bahrain through attacks by semi-deniable Iranian proxies while continuing to fight Israel and pursue nuclear ambitions. Note, by the way, that Israel is not known to have bases in the UAE.

But can Israel, in response, now take the battlefield as a member in good standing of an anti-Iran, Sunni Arab-Israeli military alliance armed in part by the US and in part by Israel itself? Is Israel now even an accepted and legitimate player in the broader Middle East region? It appears much too early for such assertions. Older Israelis remember the process of disillusionment that characterized Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan within barely a few years after euphoric peace treaties with them were signed. Gulf ruling political and religious establishments may now be boosting Arab-Jewish reconciliation and Jews as legitimate Middle Easterners, but the Arab street has not stopped demanding a better deal for the Palestinians as a condition for genuine street-level normalization and warmth.

Q. And the Palestinians?

A. They are angry and frustrated, but isolated. A PLO initiative last week to convene a zoom meeting of Arab League foreign ministers backfired when the League refused to condemn the Israel-UAE normalization agreement because of UAE, Bahraini and even Omani opposition. Indeed, the League ended up ritually reiterating support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the very pillar of Arab unity that conditioned normalization on a two-state solution and that the two new Arab-Israel agreements violate. This was an exercise in hypocrisy. “Sadly, money defeated dignity”, commented Hussein al-Sheikh, a Palestinian minister.

How long will the Palestinian response be confined to rhetoric and meek protests? The latest Hamas incendiary balloon campaign from Gaza just ended temporarily thanks to a new Qatari bribe and in the shadow of a serious corona outbreak in the Strip. As matters stand, at some point frustration is liable to overflow into violence, not only from Gaza but in the West Bank as well. Everything we know about the Palestinian-Israeli dynamic points in this direction. This month, incidentally, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the very bloody Palestinian Black September revolt in Jordan. Back then the Palestinian national movement also sensed a lack of broad Arab solidarity. A smart Israeli government would exploit this moment of Israeli strength and Palestinian dismay to offer Palestinians a few conciliatory concessions. But not Netanyahu.

Q. Meanwhile, back in Israel, the country is entering a corona lockdown this Friday for at least the extent of the Jewish High Holidays, which begin Friday evening. Unlike a previous lockdown last Spring, large sectors of the population are angrily threatening non-compliance. Why?

A. The lockdown reflects the failure of the Netanyahu government to manage the corona epidemic. That failure in turn stems from a whole series of systemic and leadership debacles and blunders. Israel’s prime minister sees everything, including repeated corona, economic and coalition setbacks, through the narrow prism of his efforts to avoid prosecution for corruption.

The public--increasingly tribalized, incited and exploited--is reacting to all this with decreasing confidence in government lockdown edicts and restrictions. There is also a rising tide of anger at the Haredi and Arab sectors, who are perceived as the principle cultivators of the virus due to their lifestyles and lack of commitment to the Zionist Israeli sovereign state. The public has little confidence in the Netanyahu government’s capacity to tame the virus outbreak. Open flouting of the lockdown can be expected on all fronts.

So here we have lack of Israeli societal solidarity to complement lack of Arab solidarity.

Q. On a related note, Netanyahu has not blatantly lied to the Israeli public about corona the way we now know (thanks to Bob Woodward) Trump did beginning back in February 2020. Is there an Israel-Arab link to Trump’s insistence that telling the truth about the pandemic should be avoided because it would be bad for public morale (meaning, presumably, the stock market)?

A. Here, to conclude, is an anecdote that illustrates the centrality of false optimism about peace in certain Middle East business quarters. In a sense, it illustrates the problematic foundations of the ‘economic peace’ school championed by Trump and Netanyahu--an approach which has just ostensibly triumphed in Israel’s deals with the UAE and Bahrain. And perhaps it indirectly explains Trump last February.

About a decade ago I was invited to participate in a panel at a Davos conference held on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. The Jordan meeting is an annual offshoot of the main annual World Economic Forum held at Davos in Switzerland every winter. The annual Davos convocation is a big deal, peopled by celebs, VIPs and heads of state. The Jordan derivative meeting is lower key. But it does bring together businessmen, economists, politicians, experts and some senior officials from the region to talk about the political and economic picture in the Middle East.

I found myself on a prestigious panel alongside the foreign ministers of Jordan and Afghanistan, an Iraqi Kurdish leader, and the chair of a US congressional sub-committee on Middle East Affairs. The topic was Middle East peace. The Davos custom is to give each panelist a mere two minutes to present a single main point about the topic, then to take questions and open discussion with audience participation.

I should have realized from the start that two-minute opening statements are by design meant to be banal and devoid of substance. Since I was clearly the lowest ranking participant on the panel, protocol dictated that I be last to speak. Eight minutes later I was disgusted. Each of the preceding speakers outdid their predecessors in devoting two minutes to optimistically predicting an imminent Israeli-Palestinian peace process that would enjoy huge chances of success. One praised Netanyahu as a candidate for peace, another Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). A third spoke approvingly of the Obama administration’s capacity to advance the process. A fourth suggested the Arab world was poised to help.

By the time my turn came, I was fed up with this charade. I told the distinguished convocation that the peace process was on life-support and that no one had bothered to learn and apply the lessons of cumulative failures to find an Israeli-Palestinian solution. Consequently, we were on a slippery slope toward an ugly one-state reality. The future was bleak. The moderator invited questions and discussion. Again I was taken aback. No one mentioned my gloomy assessment. No one directed a question at me or challenged my argument. Everyone, fellow panelists and audience, ignored me. I sat silently and glumly as the faux optimism of the speakers who had preceded me played itself out in the discussion, which from my standpoint was a pointless ritual.

Session over. As we filed out of the hall back into the foyer of the conference center I was intercepted by a prominent and wealthy Israeli industrialist whom I knew slightly and had seen in the audience. “Yossi”, he chided. “This is Davos. These businesspeople come from all over the region and the world to hear optimistic assessments that encourage investment. Otherwise they wouldn’t come. You’re out of step. I just lost a deal because of your little two-minute speech. Save your doomsday predictions for learned academic seminars back in Israel.”

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