Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: May 12, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses Martin Indyk's remarks about his impressions from the now suspended Israeli-Palestinian peace process; accusations of Israeli spying on the United States; and why the Syrian Army's recapturing rebel strongholds in the city of Homs as rebels withdrew peaceably under a broader agreement is significant.

Q. US peace envoy Martin Indyk spoke in Washington last week on his impressions from the now suspended Israeli-Palestinian peace process. What most struck you about his remarks?


A. First Indyk, like Secretary of State John Kerry before him, expressed a sense of extreme urgency that Israel is liable to slip into bi-national status unless it moves toward a two-state solution. In many ways, the notion of urgency appears to be the key motive put forward by the American peacemakers--a factor that could rationalize some of the mistakes attributed to the American team in a variety of post-mortems. Indyk noted in parallel, while blaming both sides, that neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership seemed to share this sense of urgency.


Indyk, incidentally, went out of his way to deny the allegation that he believes that only after another round of Israeli-Palestinian violence will the two sides be softened up enough to talk seriously. A remark in this vein was attributed to the senior American official interviewed two weeks ago by Yediot Aharonot senior commentator Nahum Barnea. It has been widely alleged that the official was Indyk.

 Second--and here we return to the theme of violence as a precursor to negotiations--Indyk referred extensively to the American "reassessment" famously undertaken by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1975. At that time Kissinger, unable to persuade PM Yitzhak Rabin to offer Egypt territorial concessions in the Sinai Peninsula in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, walked away tearfully and instituted a five-month freeze in US-Israel relations that included a painful halt in arms supplies. Ultimately, Rabin yielded and a compromise withdrawal paved the way for Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem in November 1977.

 Indyk's remarks could be construed to imply or suggest a similar US reassessment now, even though all we have heard from Kerry is a call for a "pause". Indyk himself acknowledged that the sense of urgency instilled by Israel's losses and national trauma in the 1973 Yom Kippur War was currently absent in Jerusalem, which is far more interested in building the settlements that Indyk blames most of all for Palestinians' loss of confidence in the process.

 In the coming weeks and months it certainly seems possible that we shall witness an American pause. But the kind of military-supply pressure Kissinger applied back in 1975 seems highly doubtful for three reasons. One is the extended decline in US involvement in the region's crises. A second is impending midterm elections in the US. And the third is nuclear negotiations with Iran: Washington knows that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is unhappy with the direction those talks are taking; it does not want to give him a reason to try and derail or thwart the agreement that appears increasingly possible.

 Q. Newsweek has over the past two weeks laid out extensive accusations of Israeli spying on the United States. What do you make of the timing and content?

 A. The timing appears to reflect the contribution of anti-Israel elements within the American security community to efforts to pressure, or alternatively delegitimize Israel in the aftermath of the failed peace process. Another aspect of the timing mentioned by Newsweek is Israel's effort to obtain visa waivers for young Israelis seeking to travel to the US; the spying revelations are explained in this context as justification for insisting on Washington's right and duty to sift carefully through travel applications by Israelis. Israeli sources raised the possibility that repeated Israeli requests that President Obama pardon Jonathan Pollard also provoked the timing.

 As for the content, some of it is truly bizarre, like the contention that Israeli agents tried to enter the King David suite of Vice-President Al Gore during a Jerusalem visit 15 years ago via an air-conditioning duct. In fact, nothing is simpler for an intelligence agency working in its home country than obtaining a pass key to the room from the hotel management. Even allegations that Israelis have tried assiduously to wine and dine and otherwise tempt American officials are better explained in terms of our growing Levantinism rather than espionage. None of the allegations, incidentally, are backed up by concrete proof.

 In recent years, we have encountered similarly specious allegations against Israel that were attributed, like these, to US security officials. One such report grossly exaggerated Israel's influence in Azerbaijan, bordering on Iran. Another alleged that Israelis posing as CIA agents (!!) were recruiting spies in London. The intent seemed clear: hope some of the mud sticks and get Israel into trouble with its friends, particularly the US.

 Allowing that even friendly countries spy on one another and that, as Edward Snowden has revealed, the United States itself is an extremely energetic electronic snoop, Israeli security officials are adamant in insisting that since the Pollard affair Israel has studiously avoided even the meekest impression of collecting intelligence from the US. Here I can testify to my own experience: in 1991, during the countdown to the US-led invasion of Kuwait aimed at expelling Iraqi forces—what has become known as the First Gulf War—there was understandable concern in Israel regarding possible Iraqi "punitive" chemical weapons and missile attacks. (Ultimately, 41 missiles came, without chemical warheads, and caused minimal damage against which, at the behest of Washington, Israel avoided retaliation.)

 I was at the time acting head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. One day during that months-long buildup I received a package in the mail from a Washington address. I opened it to discover a highly classified Pentagon briefing book about the impending war and a cover letter from a "concerned" US citizen who was ostensibly worried about Israel's welfare. I immediately invited a member of the research staff into the room as a witness and in his presence phoned Major General Amnon Lipkin Shahak, IDF head of intelligence. I read Amnon the title of the document and the cover letter and suggested that if he agreed we would shred them on the spot, with witnesses. He agreed, and we did. I never opened the document. That was, and is, standard operating procedure where espionage and the United States are concerned.

 It bears emphasis that this is not a two-way street. Israelis visiting the US have been the objects of clumsy FBI recruitment attempts. Back home in Israel the incidents are greeted by security authorities with polite yawns. When I mentioned these stories to former CIA officials whom I know, their reaction was to laugh at the FBI "hicks" whose recruitment techniques are so amateurish--but not to condemn or apologize.

 In other words, this US spying on Israel goes on all the time, but the lopsided superpower-client state relationship between us prohibits making a fuss.

 Bottom line: it takes real chutzpah to level this kind of accusation against Israel.

 Q. Last week the Syrian Army recaptured rebel strongholds in the city of Homs as rebels withdrew peaceably under a broader agreement. Why is Homs significant?

A. Homs is where the most successful rebel takeover of a major Syrian city took place, early in the revolution. As a cursory look at the map will demonstrate, Homs is also located at the geopolitical center of Syria: more so than the capital, Damascus in the south, and Aleppo, the largest city, in the north. All major roads linking those two metropolises pass through the Homs region, which also links Damascus with the Syrian Mediterranean coast--the historic redoubt of the ruling Alawites--and guards part of the Syria-Lebanon border.

What the rebel withdrawal from Homs means is that the regime, bolstered strongly by Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite (Hezbollah) forces recruited and deployed by Tehran, has strengthened its grip on "Useful Syria"—the area between Damascus and Aleppo, including most of the coast. But this appears to be happening at the expense of regime control over the remaining 60 percent of the country, including the southern area bordering on Jordan and Israel and much of the northern area held by the Kurds and/or bordering on Turkey. There, external support for a variety of the more moderate rebel groups, including reported recent supply of anti-tank rockets by the United States, has strengthened the anti-Assad forces.

Control of "Useful Syria" (a Syrian term, by the way) includes many of the urban population centers and helps facilitate the presidential elections scheduled for June 3 in which Assad is expected to handily win a pre-arranged victory. But the emerging division of the country between a hated minority regime propped up by Iran on the one hand and, on the other, a spectrum of rebels that extends from moderates to extreme Islamists whose latest "stunt" is to crucify their opponents, does not bode well for regional stability. The flow of Syrians to neighboring countries will soon have created the world's biggest refugee problem since WWII. Sunni-Shiite fighting has overflowed into Iraq and Lebanon. Israel looks across its Golan border with Syria and sees only instability.