Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: March 10, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses how serious Netanyahu's reported sponsoring of a study of the existence of Belgian and Dutch sovereign enclaves in each other's territory with a view to proposing a similar model for Israeli settlements that remain inside Palestinian territory under a two-state solution; the similarities and differences of Israeli operations: the Israel Air Force reportedly destroying Syrian-supplied strategic weaponry at a Hezbollah base and the Israel Navy captured a ship in the Red Sea carrying Syrian rockets sent by Iran to Islamists in Sinai or Gaza; was there anything unique about the circumstances of the alleged IAF attack against a Hezbollah base; why all the publicity on the Red Sea operation.

Q. Netanyahu has reportedly sponsored a study of the existence of Belgian and Dutch sovereign enclaves in each other's territory with a view to proposing a similar model for Israeli settlements that remain inside Palestinian territory under a two-state solution. Is this a serious option?


A. The Belgian and Dutch enclaves and counter-enclaves (one country's enclave within the other's) have existed for hundreds of years, encompass a few hundred people, and concern primarily farming country. None of this is relevant to the status of isolated settlements inside Palestinian territory. Moreover, the history of enmity between the settlers and the Palestinian majority population would appear to preclude any notion of leaving a few dozen settlers in a sovereign Israeli enclave deep inside Palestinian territory.


So the option is not serious. In my own research on an Israeli-Palestinian solution going back 25 years I examined and rejected this option, even without reference to the placid nature of Dutch-Belgian relations. But the very fact that Netanyahu asked to study it is interesting. It appears to highlight his quandary of wanting to appear forthcoming regarding a territorial solution but without taking steps that anger his settler supporters, and all the while building more settlements. One can only conclude that there is a strong component of hypocrisy in his alleged interest in an "enclaves" solution.

Q. In the course of the past 10 days, the Israel Air Force reportedly destroyed Syrian-supplied strategic weaponry at a Hezbollah base and the Israel Navy captured a ship in the Red Sea carrying Syrian rockets sent by Iran to Islamists in Sinai or Gaza. What are the similarities and differences between these operations?


A. These are both instances of Israel preemptively preventing strategic weapons from reaching non-state Islamist actors on its borders--actors that preach Israel's destruction and that have a record of attacking it. This is a formally declared Israeli security policy. Israel's actions took place in two geographically distant arenas and were directed at Syrian and primarily Iranian support for Islamists who operate on two different fronts, in Israel's north and in the south.



Q. Let's take them one by one. Was there anything unique about the circumstances of the alleged IAF attack against a Hezbollah base? Wasn't this just another in a series of such actions?


A. This instance was unique in several ways. First, in the past it was anonymous American security sources who revealed the Israeli attack. This time, a senior Israeli officer reportedly revealed the Israeli role to the American media. This seemingly reflects either a step toward more overt Israeli involvement or an Israeli attempt to preempt the inevitable American leak. Second, according to Hezbollah the attack took place on Lebanese territory; until now, the IAF has taken pains to limit these interceptions of weapons transfers to Syrian territory, the (thus far, correct) assumption being that a country in the throes of civil war would not retaliate. Thus an Israeli attack on Lebanese territory could also be understood as a form of escalation.


Certainly Hezbollah claimed to understand it this way. It argued that the attack was against weapons it was using to assist the Assad regime in retaking the key Syrian town of Yabroud near the two countries' mountainous border. Yabroud has reportedly been the launching point for Sunni jihadist suicide bombing attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian sites in southern Beirut. Hezbollah argued that Israel's attack constituted direct intervention in the war it was fighting in Syria and that its retaliation against Israel would take the same form. And sure enough, within days Hezbollah fired rockets at an IDF emplacement on Mt. Hermon and a Hezbollah unit tried to plant an explosive device at the Golan fence.


These developments would appear to place Hezbollah for the first time on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and involve it in the complex drama that has been unfolding in southwest Syria over recent weeks. Arab sources allege that Jordan, with US and Saudi backing, has stepped up its support for moderate rebel units there and that Israel is moving beyond the mere provision of medical and humanitarian aid to beleaguered Syrians, with the overall effort pointing to the creation of some sort of moderate rebel buffer separating both Jordan and Israel from the brunt of the Syrian civil war and particularly from extremist rebel jihadists that might target them. The Jordanian effort is alleged to constitute preparation for a rebel move against Damascus from the south.


While the accuracy of these reports is difficult to verify, Hezbollah's appearance in southern Syria, citing the alleged Israeli attack as an excuse, would tend to confirm that the Assad regime and its Iranian and Lebanese Shiite backers are preparing to rebuff such an offensive. Look for more fighting in Syria's south, near Israel and Jordan.


Q. And the Red Sea operation? Why all the publicity? Isn't it bad for operational and intelligence secrecy?


A. Undoubtedly it is harmful. The publicity appears to reflect PM Binyamin Netanyahu's desire for useful PR ammunition against Iran. The "reality"-like publicity circus whipped up by the government over capture of the Turkish-owned and Panama-registered arms ship Klos-C off the coast of Sudan managed to persuade parts of the public to join a celebration of Israel's military prowess that appeared unnecessary and even disturbing in its jingoism. And the early revelation of this operation while Israel Navy ships and the captured Klos-C were 1500 km away from Eilat appeared to favor the need for immediate anti-Iran publicity (while Netanyahu was in the US) over the security of IDF units far from home. (It may also have been dictated by lessons learned from the Mavi Marmara fiasco of 2010 and the need to keep Turkey and Panama informed.)


The Klos-C smuggling operation was spearheaded by the al-Quds unit of the Revolutionary Guards that reports directly to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Netanyahu argues that the existence and activities of this extremist wing of the Iranian security establishment render unacceptable and illegitimate the activities of the official Iranian government under President Rowhani, which is negotiating with the international community regarding Iran's nuclear program.


Leaving the problematic publicity aspect aside, this was an important operation from several aspects that concern Israel's security. First, the fact that Iran's Quds Force was able to remove rockets from Syria's arsenal at a time when the Damascus regime presumably needs them to attack the opposition and sympathetic Syrian civilians reflects the degree of Iran's control over what happens in Syria. The roundabout route chosen for delivering the weapons--by plane to Iran, then by boat via Iraq to Sudan and from there overland to Sinai and Gaza--appears to reflect lessons drawn by Tehran from Israel's success thus far in interdicting Iranian arms deliveries to jihadists targeting Israel. In other words, Iran apparently hoped in this circuitous way to evade Israeli countermeasures.  


The operation reflects a considerable achievement for Israeli intelligence: tracking the weapons, knowing exactly what was loaded on the ship in an Iranian port and where it was concealed on the ship, and monitoring the entire operation over a period of months.


One key question remains unanswered, at least in the eyes of the public: how did the smugglers of these large rockets, mortar shells and ammunition intend to move them through Egypt and past the tight Egyptian security belt that now cuts Gaza off from Sinai? The question assumes the weapons were indeed intended for jihadist elements inside the Gaza Strip. According to a recent AP interview with one of the Gazan jihadist leaders, Abu Bakir al-Ansari, there are six such groups in the Strip and they number several thousand combatants. They do not necessarily feel bound by Hamas' ceasefire understandings with Israel.


And if the weapons were not intended for the Gaza-based jihadists? Then perhaps for Salafists in Sinai, who are engaged in ongoing combat with the Egyptian armed forces. The Sinai Bedouin jihadists could fire them at Israel or, conceivably, from Sinai toward Cairo.


To sum up, when we reduce the two operations that were carried out to Israel's north and south to their bare strategic essentials, they are a successful part of what the IDF calls its ongoing "war between wars" to weaken and deter the extremist Islamist enemies gathered at its borders and their primarily Iranian backers. In stark contrast, the publicity awarded these operations by the Netanyahu government has been less than successful in convincing the international community that the existence of an Iranian terrorist "deep state" is a reason not to negotiate with the official Iranian state headed by President Rowhani.