While Israeli Democracy Convulses, Bibi and Sara Visit European Capitals (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- March 20, 2023)


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. Last week Israel and the US were surprised to learn that China had brokered renewed relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. They also learned that Iran’s nuclear enrichment is now up to 84 percent. Ramadan begins this week, and with it possible escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Is Israel so busy with domestic convulsions that it ignores all these developments?

A. First, a little contemporary history. In the inaugural Cabinet meeting of his sixth government, held less than three months ago on January 3, Prime Minister Netanyahu presented “four main goals . . . . First, stop Iran . . . . second, restore security and governance within the State of Israel. Third--deal with the cost of living and housing scarcity. And fourth . . . is to dramatically expand the circle of peace”--meaning, in Netanyahu-speak, normalization with Saudi Arabia.

Netanyahu did not mention plans for a judicial reform or revolution. It was not on his agenda in that first meeting early in January 2023. Yet judicial reform--which has turned out to be a kind of government coup d’etat--quickly took over his agenda at the initiative of his extremist Likud and coalition partners. Ever since, Israelis have become totally preoccupied with this issue, to the detriment of everything else, and particularly everything else on Netanyahu’s original agenda for this government.

Q. Let’s leave aside the agenda item of restoring governance, which is plainly connected to the ‘judicial reform’ struggle, and the cost of living, wherein Israel is in good company (inflation) with other developed countries in the post-covid era. That leaves Iran, Saudi Arabia and security vis-à-vis the Palestinians. What has happened in three months regarding these goals of Netanyahu?

A. Let’s start with the China-engineered Iran-Saudi Arabia restoration of relations. It is a momentous development for the Middle East.

Iran is Israel’s only state enemy in the Middle East or elsewhere. Saudi Arabia has for a couple of years been the focus of Israeli diplomacy, clandestine and overt, aimed at recruiting it to the Abraham Accords concluded in 2020 with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Israeli plans for dealing militarily with Iran’s nuclear program appear to rely heavily on some sort of collaboration with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which incidentally upgraded its relations with Iran and froze its arms deals with Israel last week.

The apparent failure of Israeli, US and other western intelligence to anticipate the China-Saudi-Iran breakthrough is troublesome, to say the least. While Netanyahu was escaping an angry public at home with clumsily organized weekends in Rome and Berlin (and, next weekend, London), senior Chinese, Iranian and Saudi officials secretly met for five days in Beijing and seriously set back Netanyahu’s and Israel’s strategic objectives.

Dealing with Iran’s nuclear project militarily is now more difficult in view of Iranian-Saudi rapprochement and the upgrading of Iran-UAE relations. If, as reported, Iran and Saudi Arabia now come to an understanding regarding rolling back their roles in the Yemen civil war, Iran’s Houthi proxy in northern Yemen may now be available to fire missiles at southern Israel.

Further, a near-term Israeli normalization breakthrough with Saudi Arabia now looks doubtful. Relations with China, a key Israeli economic partner, have now been complicated because China’s role in brokering the Tehran-Riyadh deal suggests a bid for a higher Chinese strategic profile in the Middle East, behind the backs of Jerusalem and Washington. Indeed, among Middle East experts there is rampant speculation that China seeks to replace the United States, which is preoccupied with Ukraine and the Far East, as dominant power in the region.

All these prospective developments affect vital Israeli strategic interests. Israel slept through them.

Q. Surely there is a silver lining somewhere . . .

A. Speculatively, sure. If Iran’s domestic turmoil and economic situation are dire enough to soften up the hard-line Iranian clerical establishment sufficiently that it pledged to the Saudis not to interfere in their domestic and regional interests, perhaps Tehran is also interested in talking to Israel. Former Mossad Head Ephraim Halevy suggested last week that Israel give this option a try.

Then too, now that Saudi Arabia is patching up relations with Iran, perhaps if will assess that it has secured its radical flank sufficiently in order precisely to normalize relations with Israel while incurring minimal criticism from the region’s radicals. And if Iran is butting out of Saudi Arabia’s regional interests, perhaps Yemen can now be removed from Israel’s list of Iranian proxy concerns.

If China is flexing its Middle East muscles, and in view of its technological and strategic interest in Israel, perhaps it can be helpful regarding Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas regime in Gaza. Last week, a prominent Chinese international relations expert suggested as much. Note that China, unlike the US, has no interest in the human rights record of any of the relevant players, including Israel, thus making it in some ways a more welcome mediator.

All of this, as noted, is speculation. In a well-ordered Israel, Netanyahu would be meeting with his security and diplomatic chiefs to assess the damage, tighten intelligence, and explore options like those noted above. But Netanyahu is busy with hostile mass demonstrations. His security chiefs are contemplating rebellion by IDF reservists who, protesting the judicial steal, refuse to report for duty. The security chiefs’ predecessors, all the retired heads of Israel’s security services, have now gone on record attacking the judicial ‘reform’ and warning of dire security consequences for Israel if it is enacted by the Knesset.

Iranians, Saudis, Chinese and others are watching. They are most likely busy right now contemplating ways to exploit Israel’s apparent internal weakness rather than ways to dialogue with Jerusalem.

Then again, like so many kiss-and-make up deals in the Middle East, it is also perfectly possible that the Iran-Saudi deal will not hold. After all, there is no love lost between Shi’ite-fundamentalist Iran and Sunni-fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, each of which aspires to broad regional hegemony at the expense of their mutual neighbors. Not a few Middle East leaders are hoping this is precisely what will happen.

Q. Turning to Ramadan and the assessment in Israel and elsewhere that the month-long Muslim holiday beginning this Wednesday will witness an escalation in Palestinian (and Israeli) violence . . .

A. Here at least Israel’s security establishment has not been caught napping. Nor has the region. The relevant parties--the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the US--sent their security advisors and specialists to Egypt’s Sharm a-Sheikh on Sunday for a meeting aimed at heading off violence. The Sharm convocation was a follow-up to a similar get-together in Jordan’s Aqaba in late February that reportedly reached some crisis-prevention understandings. But those went up in smoke later the same day when a Palestinian killed two settler brothers in the West Bank town of Hawara and marauding Jewish settlers followed up with a pogrom.

True to form, the Sharm meeting produced another Palestinian attack on settlers traversing Hawara, this one not fatal. Of greater interest is the Israeli confidence-building commitment delivered in Sharm to freeze discussion of settlement building for months to come. How Netanyahu, who as prime minister has never looked or sounded weaker, will finesse this promise with settler extremists Smotrich and Ben Gvir--key ministers in his government--remains a mystery.

What’s more, none of these understandings will matter if governance--item number 2 on Netanyahu’s now forgotten January 3 agenda for this government--is absent. More than half of Israel is rebelling against the anti-democratic agenda of a minority of extremists. Violence and civil (and military) disobedience are on the rise. Both Hamas and the Kahanist-messianic branch of Netanyahu’s coalition would be delighted to provoke Ramadan-Pesach violence on and around the Temple Mount. The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority has lost control over the angry young men of Jenin and Nablus in the northern West Bank.

All the extremists on either side need in the month ahead is a match to ignite conflict. If and when that happens, Jordanian, Egyptian and American good intentions won’t help very much.

Q. Bottom line?

A. It is instructional, and sad, to reread Netanyahu’s original agenda for Israel from January. Back then, he had a fairly respectable idea of what had to be done. But he had already put together a coalition of Haredi fundamentalists, Kahanist messianics, and cowed or fanatic Likudniks, all of whom have very different ideas for the country. Did he really think this was a realistic agenda?

Nothing on that January 3 agenda appears relevant today. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israeli-Palestinian security issues? Not on Netanyahu’s watch--when and if he’s not busy imposing his presence on bewildered European leaders in Rome, Berlin and London.

In his Cabinet meeting on Sunday this week, Netanyahu mentioned a revised agenda. Three “struggles” (note: struggles have replaced “goals”) now head it: Iran, terrorism, and “anarchy”. Anarchy is Netanyahu-speak for the orderly democratic protest against his legislative agenda, a protest that is sweeping the nation.

Last Saturday evening I attended, for the ninth straight week, the anti-government rally in Ramat HaSharon, where I live, one of over a hundred held simultaneously. The crowd of thousands in our little suburb is actually growing by the week. Amazing!