Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: March 24, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses why Israel is hesitating to release another group of Palestinian prisoners this week; the Hamas connection; if the US-sponsored two-state talks will be extended; the upset in Israel-US relations by Israeli statements and actions, mainly regarding Iran; and whether there is an Iranian parallel to Yaalon's challenge to the current international effort to reach a nuclear agreement with the Rowhani government.

Q. Israel is committed to releasing another 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners later this week. Why is it hesitating?

A. The prisoner release issue is really a bigger question: will Israel and the PLO commit to extending two-state solution negotiations beyond the end-April deadline, as US Secretary of State John Kerry has requested? Currently PM Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Abbas are caught up in a chicken-and-egg tiff on this issue, with Netanyahu arguing that there is no point releasing more prisoners unless Abbas agrees to extend talks, while Abbas refuses to extend talks unless Israel honors its commitment and releases more prisoners.

Another dimension of the issue is the identity of the prisoners. It is agreed that, as with the previous three releases of 26 prisoners each time, all must have been incarcerated by Israel for terrorist offenses prior to the advent of the Oslo peace process some 20 years ago. But Abbas wants this final group to include Arab citizens of Israel and claims Kerry made this commitment, whereas Netanyahu argues that he never offered such a promise to Kerry. Then there are reports that Abbas has asked for the release of Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Fateh leader convicted of sponsoring a terrorist attack in Israel in 2002 who has been incarcerated 12 years. Finally, another set of rumors points to the possibility that US President Barack Obama will pardon convicted spy Jonathan Pollard as a sweetener for Israel to help facilitate the prisoners-for-extension deal.

Don't be surprised if this Wednesday's release deadline is not met. Netanyahu has to deal with a rancorous Likud party convention this week, too, where he will confront the movement's most outspoken hawks. He also confronts a threat by the right wing Jewish Home party to leave the coalition if more prisoners are released. In parallel, Abbas is planning to consult Arab League foreign ministers this week, and is under heavy pressure to toughen his stance after Israeli forces killed several Palestinians, among them Hamas militants, in the West Bank last week.

Q. So is there a Hamas connection in Abbas' calculations?

A. Gaza-based Hamas is in dire straits. As a Muslim Brotherhood organization, it has been declared illegal by Egypt and the Gulf emirates. Inside the Strip it is increasingly challenged by the even more extreme Islamic Jihad, which appears to have close connections to Egypt-based Salafists but also to Iran (an Iranian attempt to smuggle long-range rockets to Islamic Jihad by ship was thwarted by Israel two weeks ago). Egypt has cut off Hamas' smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Sinai border, and last week Israel uncovered Hamas' most sophisticated attempt yet to tunnel into Israeli territory and launch a mass terrorist attack.

In its distress, Hamas is apparently renewing attempts to organize terrorist attacks against Israel from the West Bank. Last week, an Israeli force killed three Hamas militants in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank. Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority administration has been neglecting the refugee camps both economically and in security terms--and whose security forces generally point the IDF at suspected West Bank terrorists, then step aside--nevertheless felt obliged to protest loudly.

Q. So will the US-sponsored two-state talks be extended?

A. My best guess is, yes. But not without delays and complications over prisoners and other issues. The logic of this assessment is simple. An extension is the most expedient way for both Israel and the PLO to avoid the short-term risk of serious economic and political sanctions by the United States and/or the European Union. But that doesn't mean the talks will suddenly become fruitful and productive. Rather, as we noted last week, the quest for an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement has become little more than a kind of metaphor for maintaining a fragile status quo in which neither partner takes extreme steps. Small wonder, then, that Kerry has delegated the task of negotiating the extension to a lower diplomatic level: special envoy Martin Indyk.

Q. Yet Israel-US relations appear to have been upset in the past week by Israeli statements and actions, mainly regarding Iran. . .

A. Last week, the Netanyahu government opened two completely superfluous fronts of confrontation with the Obama administration, both involving Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. One concerned Iran: Yaalon announced a reversal of his previous dovish or minimalist position regarding a possible Israeli military strike against the Iranian nuclear project. He remarked that he no longer had faith in the US attacking Iran and that therefore Israel had to prepare to do the job itself. He was backed by deliberate leaks indicating that, despite the ongoing international negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear project, PM Netanyahu had ordered Yaalon and the IDF to continue preparations for a military strike, with an annual budget of just under three billion dollars allocated once again for the task.

The statements about an Israeli attack can be understood as an indication that, as Yaalon himself stated, Israel has lost confidence that the US-led talks with Iran will produce an agreement that satisfies Israel's security needs. Alternatively, this is Israeli psychological warfare designed to pressure Washington into taking a tougher stance in the talks. Or it is both.

A second confrontation was generated by (again!) remarks by Yaalon to the effect that the US is "displaying weakness" on several fronts, including Ukraine, thereby "opening itself up to terror attacks". He went on to belittle American security aid to Israel, suggesting that the US owes Israel as much on the security front as Israel owes it.

This was not the first time Yaalon disparaged Washington's strategic stance: a few weeks ago he attacked Secretary of State Kerry for being "messianic" regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This time, the Obama administration fired back, expressing shock at Yaalon's rhetoric and noting that his comments "seriously call into question his commitment to Israel's relationship with the United States". Further, when Yaalon issued a watered-down apology to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel the administration allowed that this was insufficient.

Notably, PM Netanyahu did not publicly reprimand Yaalon for either remark, thereby adding to the impression that he either agrees with him or fears the reaction within Likud ranks if he dares to appear less belligerent. Yaalon is thought to be seeking to build up his right-wing political base in order eventually to seek the Likud leadership. Yaalon is also reportedly smarting from administration comments criticizing his hawkish position regarding the Palestinian issue and the Kerry-led talks.

Yaalon has always been blunt. When he speaks openly to the Israeli public about Israel-related issues, his candor is often tolerated or even appreciated. But he appears to have little or no understanding or appreciation for the true dimensions and depth of the US-Israel relationship. Netanyahu's passivity in this instance merely adds another dimension of concern. Put bluntly, Israel's dependency on Washington across a broad spectrum of security interests calls for a very different attitude on the part of Israel's most senior officials--regardless of disagreements regarding specific strategic issues.

Q. Is there an Iranian parallel to Yaalon's challenge to the current international effort to reach a nuclear agreement with the Rowhani government?

A. Definitely, and it is increasingly aggressive. Iran's hardliners seem set on embarrassing Rowhani and generating the impression that his stance on the nuclear issue and on Iran's international relations does not represent them. Two weeks ago we discussed the Israel Navy's interception off the coast of Sudan of a ship, the Cloz C, carrying long-range rockets sent by Iran to jihadist elements in Gaza and Sinai. More recently, the spotlight has focused on a sharp spike in executions in Iran: over 500 last year and at least 176 so far this year. Executions in Iran--of criminals, but also of political opponents and religious minorities--are overseen by the judiciary, which relative to Rowhani is close to the hawkish Revolutionary Guards. And it is the Guards who sent the Cloz C.

The man who commands the Guards, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, went a step further during last week's Nowruz (Persian new year) celebrations when he (again!) expressed doubts that the Holocaust ever took place. Here he was directly contradicting the efforts of Rowhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to make amends with the international community over this issue and to place Iran in the camp of civilized countries that recognize the facts of history and their import.

Even Hezbollah's recent repeated attacks against the IDF from Syrian territory can conceivably be seen as part of a campaign by Iranian hardliners to prevent Rowhani from succeeding by escalating Israel's conflict with Iranian proxies on another front.

At both extremes of the Iran nuclear divide, then, there are doubts regarding the nuclear process and pressure is being exerted. The impression throughout the Middle East that the Obama administration is "soft" on Iran even as it pulls back from the region--an impression Obama will undoubtedly try to repair this week in a visit to Saudi Arabia--could further embolden even Rowhani in his negotiating demands. Add to these elements intimations from Moscow that Russia might retaliate against Crimea-related western sanctions by abandoning all or part of the P5+1's consensus negotiating platform regarding Iran's nuclear project, and we confront growing challenges to the success of this endeavor.