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: Usually an incoming government is given a 100-day grace period before assessing its performance. Are you giving Prime Minister Bennett only half that time span?
A: That would indeed not be fair. It is too early to assess the Bennett government’s performance. Rather, the 50-day mark is significant because it finds the new government dealing with a host of rapidly developing strategic issues that could radically affect both its agenda and its fortunes, not to mention Israel’s overall strategic wellbeing.
Q: One significance of the 50-day mark is the launching, on day 50, of Israel’s audacious covid vaccine booster (third) vaccination drive. Bennett is taking a risk here. Not even all his ministers and senior medical officials seem to agree that it is wise to give a third shot to Israelis aged 60 and over prior to extensive testing and FDA and CDC approval . . .
A: Full disclosure: I interrupted the writing of this Q & A at noon on Monday, the second day of the new campaign, to go with my wife to get our booster shots. So I have a vested interest in the success of this third Pfizer injection.
Here it must be noted that Bennett is operating in the mold of former prime minister Netanyahu, who for weeks has been campaigning on social media for an immediate booster, thereby once again mixing COVID-19 and politics in order to embarrass and pressure Bennett. On the other hand, objectively this might be a no-brainer, whether for Netanyahu (whose record with COVID-19 prior to mid-June this year was relatively good by international standards) or for Bennett. Israel has the vaccine reserve, it has the scientific backing of Pfizer for which Israelis have thus far happily served as covid guinea pigs, and it has one of the most vaccinated populations in the COVID-saturated world.
Q: Another significance of the 50-day mark appears to be Iran’s decision to escalate its armed confrontation with Israel, thereby confronting Bennett and his ministers with the prospect of a serious military clash . . .
A: Last week the oil tanker “Mercer Street”, managed and partially owned by an Israeli firm, was attacked by explosive drones off the coast of Oman. An Iranian state media outlet took credit for Iran. It claimed that the attack was launched in retaliation for a recent Israel Air Force attack on an Iranian military logistics project in Syria. Israel claims it has proof from intelligence sources of the Iranian role. The UK and the US concur.
This appears to be a deliberate escalatory act on Iran’s part. It violated the informal ‘rules of the game’ of Israel-Iran military confrontation that in recent years delineated two separate theaters of operations.
In the naval theater, Israel allegedly has sabotaged Iranian ships bearing oil for delivery to Syria via Lebanese Hezbollah--because the fuel fed Iran’s hegemonic drive into the Levant where it threatens Israel. Iran or its proxies responded with low-level attacks on Israeli-owned or managed ships in the Arabian Sea-Persian Gulf region.
In the Syrian theater, Israeli aircraft and missiles allegedly targeted the Iranian military project in Syria. Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah occasionally responded against Israel near or across the Israel-Syria border.
Now Iran has responded to a reported Israeli air attack near Homs in Syria with a maritime attack. It has integrated the two previously separate theaters of operations: land and sea. One Iranian source alleged that the trigger was the death of a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer in the Homs attack; in fact, according to latest reports, he was only wounded. Iran’s apparent response killed two non-Israeli civilians on board the Israeli-managed ship: another maritime escalation.
Was this an isolated flare-up in the otherwise ‘choreographed’ IDF ‘campaign between wars’ or grey zone war against Iran on land and at sea? Or is this the beginning of a long-feared escalation? Iran hardly seems poised right now to ratchet-up its aggression against Israel. It is in the midst of not only a presidential transition but also ongoing nuclear talks with the world’s most powerful nations over renewing the JCPOA, as well as a horrific covid outbreak.
Following upon Netanyahu’s provocatively antagonistic approach to pre- and post-Trump America, Bennett appears to have successfully mended relations with the Biden administration regarding Iran. He is due at the White House later this month to advance those ties further. A genuine escalation with Iran is the last thing he needs right now. Look for the Israeli response to Iran’s Arabian Sea attack to either be moderate, or be postponed until after the Biden-Bennett summit.
Q: Bennett also inherited a radically changed Palestinian situation. During last May’s eleven-day war with Gaza, Hamas staked out a claim to replace Fateh and the PLO as leader of all Palestinians. What might this mean for the Bennett government?
A: Bennett’s fiftieth day in office also marked the publication of an important strategic assessment, by preeminent Ramallah-based Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki, regarding the challenge presented to Israeli-Palestinian relations by Hamas. In the aftermath of May’s 11-day Israel-Gaza war with its widespread conflictual manifestations throughout Israel and indeed globally, Shikaki assesses that
[I]n a rare moment in the history of the Palestinian people, the majority of those living under [sic] in these occupied areas declared that Hamas is more deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people. It is certain that the public meant to convey a mandate to Hamas to take the initiative in responding to and addressing Israeli threats to the interests of the Palestinian people living under the occupation. It is also certain that the public did that because it believed that Hamas own something that the PA did not: capacity, political will, and the readiness to take the initiative and lead. This development, if sustained and consolidated, could represent a paradigm shift in internal relations and in Palestinian-Israeli relations.
(Note: APN welcomed Dr. Khalil Shikaki for a webinar several weeks ago. The recording of that webinar can be found here, for those interested in listening.)
Hamas launched the May war in response to the abject weakness displayed by the Fateh government of Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Gaza may have suffered heavy destruction, but Hamas emerged the more popular and dynamic movement. Accordingly, Bennet faces a dilemma that is quite unique in the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations since the 1993 Oslo accords: Israel’s traditional negotiating partner, the PLO/Fateh, is now overshadowed, even in the West Bank, by an Islamist terrorist movement affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter, we recall, is disliked by Arab states--Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE--that are friendly with Israel and are generally fed up with the Palestinian cause.
Negotiate with Abbas and the PLO despite their weakness? Bennett, who opposes the two-state solution and covets West Bank territory, has little to offer Abbas. Negotiate with Hamas? It refuses to talk directly to Israel and has no peace agenda whatsoever, which is fine with Bennet and the Israeli right-religious mainstream.
Israel talks indirectly with Hamas, via Egypt, about limited ceasefire, economic and humanitarian issues. But anything more is conditioned by Israel on Hamas returning the remains of Israeli soldiers. Hamas demands in return the release of so many jailed Palestinian terrorists as to render this option unrealistic. These demands by Israel and Hamas mean that nothing strategic will happen between Gaza and Israel; the next military confrontation with Hamas is just a matter of time.
Accordingly, it was interesting to note last week that Bennett’s regional cooperation, health and environment ministers, Issawi Frej, Nitzan Horowitz and Tamar Zandberg, all from the dovish Meretz party, held a meeting in Jerusalem with their PA counterparts to discuss specific areas of what might conveniently be termed non-political cooperation. In this way Bennett can, without angering his right-wing base, demonstrate to a concerned Biden administration and to superficially concerned Emiratis, Jordanians and Egyptians that Israel is “doing something”--for the first time in years--to generate movement on the Palestinian issue.
But this barely symbolic move will not be sufficient to bolster Abbas’s public standing or to weaken that of Hamas. The triangular Israel-PLO-Hamas dilemma will blow up in Israel’s face; the only unknown is the timing.
Q: What about Lebanon’s economic disaster? The collapse of Tunisian democracy? Egypt and Ethiopia are on the verge of war over the latter’s Blue Nile Renaissance Dam. The Middle East appears to be ‘going south’ on Bennett’s watch . . .
A: Ostensibly, the plight of Israel’s northern neighbor, last week’s ‘coup’ in Tunis, and the Egypt-Ethiopia dispute are not Israel’s concerns. Tunisia is far away and Lebanon’s national institutions, or what remains of them after long months of anarchy, refuse to solicit help from Israel. And there are plenty of volunteers to mediate between Cairo and Addis Abeba even without Israel.
Yet these simmering crises should command the Bennet government’s attention. Here it can score relatively risk-free points regionally and internationally by taking the initiative. And as Foreign Minister Lapid will undoubtedly attest, Israel badly needs these points to bolster its problematic international image, especially after the recent Gaza war.
The humanitarian situation in Lebanon is so critical that hungry Lebanese could soon be charging the border fence with Israel. Lebanon is running out of food, fuel and medicines. Its inflation rate is mind-boggling. Why not deliver Israeli food and medical aid across the fence unsolicited?
The back story to Tunisia’s ‘coup’ (no one is quite sure it actually qualifies as a coup) is a move by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to back President Saied and oppose the pro-Muslim Brotherhood forces that dominate the elected Tunisian parliament and that are backed by Turkey and Qatar. This is the same inter-Arab, inter-Islam drama that is being acted out in neighboring Libya, in Arab relations with Gaza’s Hamas, but also regarding the role of the Raam party (also linked to the Brotherhood) in Bennet and Lapid’s coalition. In other words, Israel should pay attention to what is transpiring in Tunis between pro- and anti-Brotherhood forces in the Middle East because this drama is closer to home than it looks.
Finally, the Nile dam drama. Israel has strategic relations with both Ethiopia and Egypt. It now has relations with Sudan, which is also involved, and it has been accepted by the African Union as an observer. Why not offer to mediate? True, there are already plenty of mediators and wannabe mediators. And Cairo will almost certainly say no. But the offer would position the Bennet government positively at the broadest regional strategic level.