Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: June 23, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses the West Bank hostage drama, the Israeli response, and how it's affecting Netanyahu, Abbas, and other key figures.  Also discussed is the recent flare up in the Golan and how the Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq impacts Israel's immediate interests.

Q. Can the West Bank hostage drama simply continue from day to day in its current open-ended manner without serious consequences?

A. Almost certainly not. We are now well into the second week of an all-out search and arrest operation in the West Bank by the Israeli security establishment and the danger signs are proliferating.

Five West Bank Palestinians have been killed in recent days by the IDF. Ramadan begins Saturday, with Israel apparently not prepared to ease restrictions on travel by Palestinians as it did last year during Ramadan. And, in the last few days, serious security incidents have occurred along two other Israeli borders, the Golan and Gaza.

Q. But the West Bank operation appears to have radically reduced the Hamas presence in the West Bank. Surely this is good for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well as for Israel.

A. Abbas allowed Hamas greater freedom of political activity in the West Bank in keeping with his commitments under the new Palestinian Authority unity government. As it has done in the past, Hamas--or at least certain Hamas activists, perhaps operating on their own--took this as a license to engage in terrorism. Israel's sweeping arrests of Hamas activists presumably reduce the Hamas danger in the West Bank. But because Abbas has supported and facilitated Israel's efforts, they also portray him in the eyes of Hamas and not a few Fateh activists as a traitor.

In this connection, Abbas has now been humiliated publicly by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Last week Abbas courageously condemned Hamas, argued it was trying to destroy the PA, and pledged to cooperate with the Israeli effort--all in an extraordinary speech to a Muslim leadership forum in Saudi Arabia--only to be dismissed by Netanyahu, who blamed him for the abduction and demanded to see results, not words.

One outcome of all these events could be the emergence of a new intifada, or popular uprising. Meanwhile, Abbas has to decide whether, when the smoke clears, he wants to try to rescue the unity government--a prerequisite for holding Palestinian elections--or discard it, blaming Hamas, and in effect reverting to Palestinian disunity. Part of Israel's not-so-hidden agenda in its current West Bank crackdown is to maneuver Abbas into a situation where he feels obliged to cut his renewed ties with Hamas.

Assuming, as is increasingly apparent, that Israel does not succeed within days in solving the abduction mystery, it will presumably wind down its current West Bank operation in order to avoid both a very unwanted escalation of tensions as well as the impression of blatantly abusing the carte blanche that the US and the international community have given it to carry out such a comprehensive military crackdown in the West Bank. The IDF, too, is likely to conclude that the operation has lost its focus and should be ended. But closing down this operation could be a problem for Netanyahu, who through the medium he controls so well--much publicity and many photo-ops--has promised results. His knee-jerk reaction to failure is liable to be--you guessed it--more settlement construction.

Q. Let's return to Netanyahu's seeming inability to show gratitude for Abbas' unusually brave rhetoric and the Palestinian Authority's genuine security effort on Israel's behalf. Why does the prime minister sulk whenever Israel's neighbors and even enemies say something nice?

A. The charitable explanation for Netanyahu's ingratitude toward Abbas is that he doesn't want to embarrass Abbas any further in Arab eyes with an Israeli "embrace". The more likely explanation is that gestures like that by Abbas contrast so strikingly with Netanyahu's world view of Arab and Muslim hostility and enmity, that he simply cannot deal with them according to the rules of basic decency. We saw a similar response last Rosh HaShana, when Iran's President Rowhani and Foreign Minister Zarif wished Jews a happy new year and Netanyahu could only grumble in frustration.

Q. Abbas said the kidnappers were seeking to destroy the PA. Yet an Israeli Arab member of Knesset, Hanin Zoabi, refused to label the kidnappers "terrorists".

A. Zoabi belongs to the Balad party, which completely refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel. The founder of Balad, Azmi Bishara, fled the country after being caught red-handed in the summer of 2006 helping Hezbollah by cell phone connection to target Israeli civilians with its rockets. It's to the credit of Israeli democracy that Balad still functions and that Zoabi, who identifies with all Israel's enemies, is still in the Knesset.

There are two interesting aspects to the storm over Zoabi's remark. First, it was made in response to online gestures by young Israeli Arabs who sought to identify with the three kidnapped Israeli Jews. Zoabi almost certainly does not represent the Israeli Arab mainstream.

Second, the controversy also reflects the difficulty of defining terrorism. We've all encountered the maxim that "one man's [or woman's] terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." The most straightforward definition I know states that terrorism is the use or threat of force against civilian non-combatants, usually by a non-state actor, to achieve a political objective. According to this view, the abduction of the three boys is an act of terrorism, even if we still don't know what the precise objective is: a prisoner exchange or a blow against the settlements. And Zoabi is plain mistaken, blinded by her own extreme ideology.

But, by the same token, the abduction in June 2006 of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was not an act of terrorism, because it was directed at the Israeli army, a legitimate target of warfighting. And "price tag" attacks on Palestinian civilian targets by radical settler youth in the West Bank are acts of terrorism. This means that a lot of Israeli politicians also routinely abuse the term "terrorism".

Q. Returning to the flare-up of recent days on the Golan, it reminds us that beyond Israel/Palestine, events of historic significance for the Middle East are taking place. What aspects of the escalating Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq are relevant to Israel's immediate interests?

A. First, still in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, the phenomenon of Sunni Arabs rallying for lack of an alternative to the extreme and brutal ISIS in Iraq could be repeated among Palestinians, particularly if Hamas is seriously weakened by Israel's response to the abduction. In other words, the decline of one extremist group, Hamas, could catalyze the rise of an even more extremist group. The phenomenon already exists in the Gaza Strip and Israel must beware of it in the West Bank.

Next, ISIS is already reportedly on Jordan's borders with both Iraq and Syria. Bear in mind that the second "S" in ISIS stands not for "Syria" but for "Sham", the Levant (i.e., the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham), and that Jordan, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine are all part of historic Sham that ISIS seeks to "liberate" in the name of Islam. Any success by ISIS in infiltrating Jordan must set off alarm bells in Israel, which views the Hashemite Kingdom as a strategic buffer to its east.

Then there is the question of possible US intervention to bolster the Iraqi Army against ISIS as it moves south toward Baghdad. Such a move inevitably serves Iran's interests in Iraq. Iran supports the Shiite-dominant Maliki government in Baghdad. Iran also needs free passage through Iraq for its military supplies to reach both the Assad regime in Damascus and Hezbollah units fighting in Syria and deployed in southern Lebanon on Israel's border. While Israel understands that the US has an interest in bolstering its investment in the Iraqi government and army against extremist Sunni aggression, Jerusalem has good reason to oppose any move that strengthens Iran's interests and its posture vis-a-vis the more moderate actors in the Sunni world. Israelis are very uncomfortable hearing Iran's leaders trumpet their country's opposition to "terrorism" in Iraq when in fact Iran's "deep state", the Quds force that is propping up the Assad regime, cultivates and supports terrorism in Syria, Lebanon and beyond.

Israel also has an obvious interest in maintaining the integrity and security of the Kurdish autonomous government in northern Iraq. Israeli-Kurdish security relations go back to the 1960s and are linked to the perception that two non-Arab peoples with deep roots in the Middle East, Jews and Kurds, have the right to self-determination in their native homelands. Thus far the Kurds have benefited from the collapse of central government in northern Iraq by occupying Kirkuk, a city of great historical and economic importance for the Kurdish people. Kurdistan is now functioning independently in exporting oil--an Israeli company reportedly purchased a shipload last week. Any threat to the Kurds emanating from ISIS, which now occupies the territory to the south of Kurdistan, would therefore be of concern to Israel.

Mention of Kurdish oil exports also points to the role played by energy resources in the entire Syria-Iraq drama. ISIS's conquests in northeast Syria and northwest Iraq were designed in part to secure oil reserves and refining capacity and thereby enrich the coffers of the emerging Islamist "state". The wages of anticipated Sunni-Shiite conflict could affect global oil prices, hence the global economy and by extension Israel's highly globalized economy.

Are Israelis deeply troubled by the prospect that Syria and Iraq will fragment into several component ethnic parts? Yes, to the extent that those emerging entities could threaten its borders, threaten Jordan, empower Iran, and destabilize the entire Middle East. No, where the fragmentation brings to the fore more non-Arab or non-Muslim minorities like the Kurds of Iraq and Syria and the Druze in southern Syria, all of which potentially identify with Israel.

Israelis are undoubtedly more troubled by the specter of yet another setback, in the form of ISIS victories over the American-trained and supported Iraqi army, for American prestige and deterrence in the Middle East. This directly affects Israeli (and Palestinian) calculations regarding security aspects of the peace process, where the US aspires to play a dominant role. If, following upon Washington's backtracking on commitments to enforce chemical weapons red lines in Syria and to support the territorial integrity of Ukraine (that's how these issues are broadly perceived in the Middle East), the American-trained and armed Iraqi army can collapse so easily, then what does this say about US offers to maintain security in the Jordan Valley in the event of Israeli withdrawal?