Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: June 2, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses the challenges the new Palestinian "technocrat" unity government sworn in in Ramallah this week presents to Israel and the US; the strange melodrama over the election of Israel's next president and what this tells us about PM Netanyahu's functioning; the US swap of five Guantanamo prisoners with the Taliban for an imprisoned US army sergeant; and why does either country need a "hot line" emergency phone connection between Netanyahu and Putin?

Q. On Monday, a new Palestinian "technocrat" unity government was sworn in in Ramallah. What are the challenges this presents to Israel and the US?

A. The Netanyahu government has announced that it will boycott the new government because it is supported by Hamas, and has called on the international community to follow suit. It claims to have US assurances that Washington will at least delay recognition. Actually, at the last minute it was Hamas that took its distance from the unity government and refused to endorse it because its creation involved dissolution of the Ministry of Detainees (see below). In any case, in practice any Israeli or international boycott will be partial at best, for several reasons.

First, neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority can afford to cease security cooperation in and around the West Bank, as the resultant chaos and bloodshed would not benefit either side. The IDF and Israel Defense Ministry are currently embroiled in a budget battle with the Ministry of Finance that has caused the IDF to suspend many dimensions of training; this is hardly the time for a West Bank security crisis.

Second, any protracted move by Israel, the United States or the European Union to cease transferring funds to the PA (in the Israeli case, customs and excise taxes collected by Israel on behalf of the PA) could bring about its collapse. And no one really wants to witness the demise of Palestinian governing institutions, schools and courts.

Third, if any new initiative takes place to resume peace negotiations, Israel's partner is the Palestine Liberation Organization, not the PA. And the PLO has yet to integrate Hamas. Indeed, Hamas is technically not directly represented in the new unity government, either. The new Palestinian cabinet was carefully composed so as to retain a few holdovers from the outgoing West Bank-based Fateh government, along with a-political technocrats, including three drawn from the Gaza Strip. Notably, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki, both moderates, retain their posts.

The innovation that angered Hamas is one designed to make the new government less controversial internationally: elimination of the Ministry of Detainees that deals with Palestinian prisoners currently or formerly in Israeli jails. By converting this function into an "authority" under the PLO, President Mahmoud Abbas apparently hopes to rebuff accusations that the PA government uses US and EU funds to "support terrorists".

Netanyahu has announced that from herein he will consider the unity government and Abbas responsible for acts of terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip. Here he has put his finger on the real weakness of the new unity arrangement. It does not merge Fateh and Hamas security forces; Hamas hopes to create a fait accompli whereby its security forces function along the Hezbollah model in Lebanon, i.e., outside the government and outside the national army. The 78-year old Abbas, whose prestige has grown with his success at forming this government despite the odds, apparently hopes to effect a grand exit from the scene half a year from now after the newly-unified "state of Palestine" is accepted to additional UN bodies and a new president is elected. Yet he could easily witness the entire house of cards that he just built collapse over a serious security incident instigated by Hamas or by more radical jihadist elements it harbors in Gaza.

On the other hand--and here only time will tell--this could be an important first step toward renewed Palestinian political and territorial unity that eventually leads to heavier pressure on Israel to engage seriously in two-state negotiations. Meanwhile, no renewed peace talks are likely, not only because of the unity government but because Abbas' eyes are currently set on the alternative objectives of elections and full UN membership. Nor is a new American initiative likely soon. Look at President Obama's West Point security policy speech last week: he never even mentioned renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as a near-term goal.

Q. The strange melodrama over the election of Israel's next president continued last week right up to the nomination deadline. Elie Weisel as president of Israel? What did this tell us about PM Netanyahu's functioning?

A. Netanyahu's desperate and futile effort in recent weeks to present an alternative Likud candidate to his political enemy Reuven Rivlin seemingly put on display a dysfunctional prime minister--or at least one heading a dysfunctional team of advisers. Late last week Netanyahu gave up and reluctantly endorsed Rivlin, but in such a way that some of the ultra-orthodox members of Knesset who intended to vote for Rivlin now will not. After all, Netanyahu's blessing makes Rivlin the official Likud candidate whom the ultra-orthodox want to punish for the government's endorsement of measures to compel young yeshiva students to do military service.

Prior to making the decision to endorse Rivlin, Netanyahu tried crudely to a) abolish the presidency; b) postpone elections and extend Shimon Peres' term for six months; c) persuade retired Likudnik David Levy to run; and finally, d) persuade Nobel Prize-winner Elie Weisel to take on the Israeli presidency. All these desperate initiatives flopped miserably, with the 88-year old Weisel pushing Netanyahu into Rivlin's by-now reluctant arms by explaining that he is not even an Israeli citizen.

Netanyahu emerged from the soap opera drama looking worryingly inefficient. Will Rivlin now win the presidency and conceivably make Netanyahu's life miserable? It seems more than likely that neither Rivlin nor any of the other five candidates will win an outright majority in the first round of the Knesset's presidential vote on June 10. By the second round runoff between the top two scorers, there is every likelihood that all Knesset members who are either anti-Rivlin or anti-Netanyahu will, under cover of a secret ballot, vote for Rivlin's opponent. And while it's easy to like the affable, modest and honest Rivlin, it's not easy to forget that he openly advocates a single-state solution that will quickly render Israel either non-Zionist or non-democratic: a position not endorsed by most Israelis or by most MKs.

Q. The US swapped five Guantanamo prisoners with the Taliban for an imprisoned US army sergeant in circumstances all too familiar to Israelis. Did the swap make sense to you?

A. Indeed, this read like a replay of the Gilad Shalit drama, except that President Obama got a better deal for ransoming Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban than Netanyahu got from Hamas for Gilad Shalit. So the transaction, unpleasant and distasteful as it is, made sense. Still, announced against the backdrop of the arrest in Marseilles of a French Muslim who returned from "jihad" in Syria to kill four people in the Brussels Jewish museum last week, the release of yet more jihadists--very senior ones--is disquieting.

So are the similarities with Israeli-Islamist prisoner exchanges, including the most recent one, for Shalit. They begin with negotiating with a radical Islamist enemy (Taliban for the US; Hamas and in the past, Hezbollah for Israel) that does not seek peace or accommodation and will not talk directly, necessitating reliance on third parties (Qatar for Bergdahl, Egypt for Shalit). They involve the release of hard-core terrorists (only five from the Taliban, compared to over a thousand in the Shalit case) and transferring them (for how long?) to a "neutral" country (in the current case, Qatar). Those terrorists are released from highly problematic incarceration (in the US case, at Guantanamo with its lack of due process; in the Israeli case, from sentences that offer no legal possibility of parole, ever).

The release involves rebuffing criticism by those at home who find all this horrific and distasteful. Both Washington and Jerusalem have to explain why they violated their own precept of never negotiating with terrorists in favor of the precept of never leaving a soldier behind. Ever since the Shalit deal, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and even in Israeli prison have been hatching schemes to kidnap more IDF soldiers in order to ransom more terrorists. It's fair to assess that from herein every US soldier stationed somewhere in the world must keep in mind that he/she too could be a target for abduction.

When Ariel Sharon was prime minister, he released dozens of terrorist to ransom an Israeli reserve colonel who was abducted by Hezbollah while dealing drugs in a Gulf emirate. Criticism then focused on the question whether indeed even a reserve soldier involved in criminal acts must be ransomed at any price. The circumstances of Bergdahl's captivity remain to be clarified. Let's hope there are no parallels here too.

Q. A "hot line" emergency phone connection between Netanyahu and Putin? Why does either country need this?

A. Obviously, it can't hurt to have another hot line from Jerusalem to an important capital. But the announcement of this new step toward drawing Israel and Russia closer just pours salt on the wound inflicted on Israel-US relations when Israel avoided voting at the United Nations to condemn Russia for its invasion of Crimea. So why is this happening?

The list of likely explanations is long and offers food for thought regarding the Netanyahu government's attitude toward relations with the US in the Obama era. First and foremost, the Netanyahu policy team appears to have concluded from events in Syria (the US "non-attack" over chemical weapons), Ukraine (US acquiescence in the events in Crimea) and the peace process (Kerry's failure, without sanctions against Israel) that Washington is striking a weak profile in global and particularly Middle East affairs, where the US military "drawdown" is palpable.

Conversely, Moscow is striking a strong posture in the Middle East. Russia has become a key player in vital matters relating to Syria on Israel's northern border. Israel and Russia share a strong sense of alarm over jihadist terrorism. And it is imperative for Israel to possess sufficient leverage with Moscow to prevent or at least reduce Russia's supply of strategic weaponry to Iran and Egypt as well as Syria. Russia may also be a key commercial partner for Israel's Mediterranean natural gas project.

Second, Israel's Russian-speaking foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, representing a large Israeli Russian-speaking community, has long favored stronger Israeli-Russian relations to balance Israel-US relations. Recent events have provided the opportunity he sought.

Third, Israel has important interests in Russia and Ukraine that just became more important with the Russian takeover of Crimea and in view of the impression that Russia might remain the more influential power in the semi-disfunctional state of Ukraine. The size and strength of the remnant Jewish communities in both countries dictate cultivation of positive relations and avoidance of taking sides.

Finally, Kerry's abortive peace initiative left a bad aftertaste among some quarters in Jerusalem. A largely superfluous hot-line that has no specific negative effect on the Israeli-American strategic relationship may be just the gesture Netanyahu sought to project an image of independent Israeli policymaking.