Meanwhile, on the periphery - Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (November 16, 2020)


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. What periphery? Whose periphery?

A. In Israeli strategic, political and economic parlance there are quite a few ‘peripheries’. All are particularly relevant these days, when the transition between administrations in the United States has become the victim of Trumpian ‘fake news’, covid denial and conspiracy theories. Beyond, the world watches, befuddled, appalled, but also on the lookout for rare opportunities.

Q. Does Israel have domestic peripheries?

A. There is the Jerusalem periphery, the area on the outskirts of the city where the Netanyahu government is taking advantage of the interregnum in Washington to initiate a new housing project at Givat HaMatos on the city’s southern edge. The idea is to render a two-state solution yet more difficult and distant by creating urban barriers that prohibit a fair partitioning. Ironically, a similar initiative by Netanyahu was launched ten years ago during a Biden visit to Jerusalem, provoked Obama administration ire, and was aborted.

That was bad timing. The latest Givat HaMatos launching appears to have been calculated precisely with timing in mind. Just in case the incoming Biden administration is contemplating applying pressure on Netanyahu regarding a two-state solution, here is a new fait accompli to signal Netanyahu’s determination to resist.

There is the Gaza periphery, where Hamas rockets fell late last week, yet again threatening the tenuous ceasefire negotiated by Israel, Egypt, Qatar, the UN and the Gazan Islamist movement.

Then there is the periphery of Israeli politics. PM Netanyahu, who is constantly in search of political allies who might rescue him from his fast-approaching trial, has struck a tactical alliance with MK Mansur Abbas, who heads the Islamist faction in the Joint Arab List. The Islamists, one of four components of the 15-MK Joint List, are ostensibly the most ‘peripheral’ of Knesset parties from the standpoint of the Likud and its right-religious allies that dominate Israel’s ruling coalition.

The ultra-nationalist Likud would never ally itself with an Arab party in a coalition. (Blue White and Yesh Atid on the political center are, each separately, finally beginning to discuss the prospect of a coalition with the Joint List.) Yet it turns out that Islamists and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties have a lot in common when it comes to the socio-economic needs of their constituents. Fundamentalists are fundamentalists. Suddenly, Netanyahu is happy to oblige with funds and displays of political friendship in return for opportunistic Arab Islamist support.

So much for domestic peripheries and strange bedfellows. The more dynamic periphery during these unstable times is Israel’s external geographic periphery, the outlying regions that border the Arab Middle East. From Iran to Ethiopia, from Nagorno Karabakh to the Western Sahara, conflicts and confrontations are bubbling over, being resolved, or merely being leaked, seemingly because the period between Trump and Biden invites the players to break rules and establish precedents.

Q. Where do we start?

A. Iran. A few days ago US Intelligence leaked via the New York Times that in early August, Mossad operatives had assassinated a very senior al-Qaeda leader, Abu Muhammed al-Masri, in Tehran, on behalf of the CIA. Al-Masri had been sheltering in Iran under various aliases for years.

From a global strategic standpoint, this is a multi-dimensional event. First, we are reminded once again how deeply Israeli Intelligence appears to have penetrated Iran. In the recent past it reportedly blew up a nuclear facility at Natanz, stole a nuclear archive, and launched a destructive cyber attack on the Bandar Abbas port.

Second, the level of US-Israel intelligence and operational cooperation is unprecedented; it presumably exists elsewhere. From Israel’s standpoint, this sends an important deterrent message.

Third, when opportunity beckons, Shi’ite Islamist Iran emerges despite its frequent denials as a willing collaborator with the most notorious Sunni Islamist terrorists. Al-Masri was responsible for devastating al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

The fourth and most intriguing dimension of this affair is the timing of the CIA leak regarding the assassination. Not last August, when President Trump could have taken credit for electoral purposes and accusations would have been bandied about regarding the politicization of security. But during the presidential transition, when President-elect Biden is presumably contemplating moves to renew the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal. Here the CIA, Israel and the Saudis, who apparently provided operational intelligence for the mission, are issuing a kind of warning about Tehran. The Iranians are, in Trumpian terminology, ‘bad hombres’.

Q. The al-Masri assassination is an American and Israeli triumph. But elsewhere on the Middle East periphery developments do not appear to be as positive for American interests . . .

A. Indeed, take Nagorno Karabakh for example. Last week Russia brokered a deal that ended the latest round of fighting over this disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The winners are Moscow, the Azeris, and Azerbaijan’s Turkish backers. The losers are the Armenians.

There is every indication that the Azeris, backed by Ankara, started this war and the Russians ended it at this particular point in time because the US was preoccupied with its own internal presidential mess. America with its large and influential Armenian diaspora was conveniently neutralized.

Both Russia and Turkey have expansionist ambitions in the Caucasus--as they do in Libya and the Red Sea, also on the Middle East periphery. In Libya the Russians and Turks back opposing sides. In the Red Sea, on the Sudanese coast, they have contracted to build naval bases that represent far-flung and potentially contradictory power-projection aspirations.

In Nagorno Karabakh, on the other hand, Moscow and Ankara were happy to collaborate. Missing from the picture is Washington. Mentioned in dispatches is Israel. Jerusalem supplied Baku with some of the attack drones that made victory possible. But in so doing it ‘lost’ Armenia.

Q. And Ethiopia?

A. This is yet another area on the Middle East periphery where the US should be deeply involved in restoring tranquility but isn’t.

In Ethiopia a civil war has broken out between the central government in Addis Abeba and the province of Tigray. Fighting and refugees are spilling over into neighboring Eritrea and Sudan. Regional stability and Ethiopian territorial unity are endangered at a time when Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile has become a major focus of tension with downstream Egypt.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending Ethiopia’s long conflict with Eritrea, is now at odds with the Tigrayan leadership that ruled the country for the better part of three decades. Long simmering ethnic tensions throughout Ethiopia are in danger of bursting.

Israel has relations with all the countries involved. Even Sudan. Those with Ethiopia go all the way back to the 1950s, when Addis was an early ally in Israel’s “periphery doctrine” of ringing a hostile Arab world with non-Arab allies.

The fighting with Tigray appears to have been timed for the US presidential transition: Ethiopia attacked Tigray province on November 4. The consequences for the Horn of Africa will be felt well into the Biden administration. A smooth Trump-Biden transition would have enabled US diplomacy to go into action in real time to try to stop the Horn of Africa mayhem. Instead, Donald Trump’s only contribution was made just days before US elections when he warned that due to Cairo’s anger at Ethiopia over water issues, Egypt “will end up blowing up the dam”.

Q. Western Sahara, too?

A. Here we encounter the same presidential-transition timing for renewed fighting. In this case it is between Morocco and the Polisario, and has ended three decades of ceasefire. Morocco controls around 80 percent of the disputed, mineral-rich Western Sahara, a former Spanish colonial possession. Each side in this long dispute apparently deems the US transition period to be ripe for registering territorial gains.

Israel’s informal ‘periphery’ ties with Morocco are as old as its formal ties with Ethiopia. Over the decades, Morocco has facilitated Jewish immigration to Israel and brokered initial peace ties between Israel and Egypt. And Israel has provided arms and military know-how regarding Morocco’s Western Sahara problem.

Q. Is there a bottom line to all this?

A. There is, and it is related to the troubled presidential transition times the United States is going through at the hands of outgoing-President Trump. The period between Nov. 3, 2020 and January 20, 2021 is dangerous not only for the US. In the Greater Middle East region, it is becoming precarious on multiple fronts as a wide variety of regional actors take long-planned audacious initiatives to exploit the unique international situation.

Watch for Russia and Turkey, two hugely ambitious regional players, to seek new and original ways to register strategic gains at US expense. Nagorno Karabakh may be just the beginning.

Elsewhere, China just signed a major new trade pact with Asian and Pacific nations but without Trump’s US, thereby outflanking Washington. And Russian jets are buzzing American territorial waters off Alaska.

In unsettling times, the US has vulnerable peripheries too.

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