Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: June 30, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses new policy departures, including in the Palestinian sphere, that Netanyahu has justified by citing events in Iraq that affect Israel (see also last week's Hard Questions, Tough Answers); Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's new "peace initiative," whereby a solution to the Palestinian issue would be part and parcel of broader Israel-Arab peace arrangements; Netanyahu's support for an independent Kurdistan, which contradicts US policy; and the continuing West Bank kidnap drama.

Q. Last week you wrote about aspects of the events in Iraq that affect Israel. Now PM Netanyahu has cited some of them in justifying what appear to be new policy departures, including in the Palestinian sphere. Can you explain?

A. On Sunday night, Netanyahu delivered an important policy speech at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. He presented four updated security challenges, taking into account the ISIS conquests in Iraq: defending Israel's borders, "shaping" the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, regional cooperation against extremism, and preventing Iran from reaching a nuclear threshold.

Strikingly, Iran was relegated to fourth on the list, with the first three items reflecting the growing Islamist threat. Gone were the threats of a new Holocaust and the ominous innuendos regarding Israel maintaining its right to use military force against Iran's nuclear program. Criticism of the negotiating positions taken by the P5 + 1 was articulate, but muted. Netanyahu will still lobby the P5 + 1, but will apparently acquiesce in whatever agreement they reach.

Now ISIS's "Islamic State" and Hezbollah are the primary threats, and they dictate several lines of defense. One is a fence along Israel's entire border with Jordan, similar to the Golan and Sinai fences. Another is an open-ended Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley. A third is the Israeli right to intervene military anywhere in the future Palestinian state without prior coordination; that appears to be what Netanyahu means by "shaping" the territory.

There is of course strategic logic in rethinking Israel's security requirements in accordance with developments, and Israelis are anxious to hear that the prime minister is on top of events. But Netanyahu takes this a step further, exploiting Israeli, regional and international concerns to redefine his negotiating demands with the Palestinians, thereby rendering those demands even less acceptable than before to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas or any likely successor.

The Palestinians, Netanyahu allows, can enjoy political and economic independence, but Israel reserves for itself the same privileges in Palestine that American forces have enjoyed for decades in Germany, Japan and South Korea. There is ample food for thought in this comparison: after all, those countries (in case Netanyahu didn't know) now field large, sophisticated armies and even send troops to missions abroad while maintaining defense treaties with the US.

Note that the demand for future freedom of Israeli military movement throughout an "independent" Palestine also reflects the current, momentary reality, whereby the search for the three abducted yeshiva students ignores, with Palestinian Authority acquiescence, Israel's obligation to stay out of West Bank Area A (Palestinian cities), which is ostensibly under Palestinian Authority security control. Here again, Netanyahu has astutely exploited the current reality and turned it into a new negotiating demand.

As for a border fence with Jordan, isn't it time Israel accepted that the Hashemite Kingdom is here to stay and can defend itself? The Israel-Jordan border is Israel's quietest; Jordan can deal with ISIS 400 km. away, along its border with Iraq; Israel and Jordan can quietly coordinate the latter's real security needs without putting another sophisticated fence at the top of the list.

Yes, Israel does need to maintain a military capability in the Jordan Valley for the time being. Here Netanyahu is on reliable consensus ground, as he is when he openly supports Kurdish independence in what used to be northern Iraq--though I'm not sure the Kurds appreciate his endorsement at this critical juncture in their history. And there is certainly nothing wrong with advocating greater security cooperation with moderate Arab states. But I doubt they can accept Netanyahu's offer when his formula for a Palestinian state has been reduced to little more than a Bantustan.

Q. This last item on Netanyahu's priority list dovetails in part with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's new peace initiative, whereby a solution to the Palestinian issue would be part and parcel of broader Israel-Arab peace arrangements.

A. Lieberman reportedly presented his ideas last week to US Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. Note that his advocacy takes a somewhat different tack than Netanyahu. (Ignore for now the fact that the Netanyahu government is incapable of coalescing over a single agreed strategy.) Instead of mere security cooperation with the Arabs, Lieberman advocates a comprehensive Israel-Arab peace treaty in the spirit of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. He avoids security and territorial details regarding the Palestinians. And he introduces into the equation the future status of the Arab citizens of Israel--an otherwise taboo topic in talks with Palestinians and other Arabs.

Lieberman's point of departure is his assessment that a bilateral two-state deal with the PLO is currently impossible, and that the Arab world is sufficiently concerned regarding Islamist conquests and Iranian inroads that it is ripe for a diplomatic deal with Israel. He throws in the Israeli Arab dimension because he is a long-time advocate of a two-state deal that attaches large settlement blocs to Israel and in return turns over to the Palestinian state portions of Israel that are heavily populated by Israeli Arabs, whom he believes are incorrigibly loyal to the Palestinian cause and incapable of being good Israelis.

Why Lieberman believes the Arab world is ripe for such a deal is hard to understand. With so many dysfunctional and fragmented Arab states and a near dormant Arab League, there really is no "Arab world" any longer. Note Kerry's recent failure to recruit even a modicum of serious Arab support for his failed two-state effort. Under these circumstances, all Israel has to offer the Arabs as its "dowry" for a peace package is its US connection--and the US is perceived to be on its way out of the Middle East. At least Netanyahu's proposal for closer security ties has the presumed advantage of dealing with each Arab country separately and keeping ties clandestine.

So Lieberman's ideas sound pretty unreal. But Lieberman's political star is still on the rise, so we need to pay attention to his thinking, which is at one and the same time imaginative, creative . . . and (regarding Arab citizens of Israel) racist!

Q. Netanyahu's support for an independent Kurdistan contradicts US policy, which emphasizes the need to maintain the integrity of the Iraqi state. Any comment?

A. Israel's ties with the Kurds of northern Iraq go back to the 1960s. The two peoples, Israelis and Kurds, have cultivated a strong link based on their unique status as non-Arab peoples striving for independence in what is generally considered the Arab Middle East. So this is one area--unfortunately, not the only area--where Netanyahu and the Obama administration will disagree.

If Iraq is collapsing and fragmenting, I doubt there is much the administration can do about it. Israel and some of its Arab neighbors are understandably concerned lest the effort to artificially hold Iraq together empower Iran yet further. At the realpolitik level, that explains Netanyahu's open support for Kurdish independence.

Why is a US effort likely to fail? I recently came across remarks written about his country in the early 1930s by King Faisal I of Iraq. Note that Faisal himself was an outsider, a Hashemite revolutionary who was catapulted to power by the British and who died in 1933. Little appears to have changed since then:

In Iraq, there are ideas and aspirations that are totally antagonistic. There are innovating youngsters, including the government officials; the zealots; the Sunna; the Shi'a; the Kurds; the non-Muslim minorities; the tribes; the shaykhs, [and] the vast ignorant majority ready to adopt any harmful notion. . . . Kurdish, Shi'i and Sunni tribes who only want to shake off every form of [central] government. My heart is full of sadness and pain because, to my mind, there is no Iraqi nation in Iraq as yet. Rather, there are human masses devoid of any patriotic notion, full of traditions and religious nonsense and absurdities and there is nothing that is binding them together. They are quick to do mischief, inclined towards anarchy, ready to rise at any time against any government whatsoever, and we want . . . to mold a nation out of these masses.

Q. Meanwhile, the West Bank kidnap drama continues. Is it too early to evaluate success or failure?

A. The IDF and Shin Bet are gradually downsizing their thus far unsuccessful search mission. Since Saturday night, the Ramadan fast and a heat wave are slowing the pace of Palestinian life. It may take months to unravel this abduction mystery, even after Israel released the names of two leading suspects, both from Hebron.

Meanwhile, rocket fire from Gaza is on the increase--some 30 rockets over the past week or so--apparently reflecting support there for the Hamas abductors (though Hamas is not directly involved in the rocket launches) as well as tit-for-tat tactics in response to Israel's reprisal bombings. And the Gaza-based Hamas leadership appears to be increasingly considering dissolving the still-born Palestinian unity government.

In the sea of commentary sweeping through Israel in the course of three weeks in which the abduction drama has dominated the news, I found two comments by retired Major General Shlomo Gazit regarding ramifications of the abduction to be particularly worthy of note.

First, Gazit, who served as the first coordinator of the occupied territories after 1967 and later as chief of military intelligence, wrote a few days ago that "the kidnappers and the Palestinian violent struggle movement have registered a huge achievement: . . . they were able to fundamentally alter the [Israeli] security establishment's routine work agenda, [thereby] demanding a huge [Israeli] financial investment and changing the government's and treasury's position regarding the defense budget."  This proved the validity of a rule of thumb coined by Gazit back in 1951: "The success of non-conventional warfare is not a function of the small number of forces it deploys. . . but rather, first and foremost, of the size of the conventional forces deployed to combat it."

And second, Gazit notes the IDF mission of emptying household cisterns where Palestinians in the Hebron region collect rainwater. The IDF is looking in caves, wells and cisterns for the three abductees, and accordingly defines this particular mission as "sufficiently high-value to justify it". But the residents of the southern Hebron hills, many of whom do not have running water, now remain without water for their flocks and themselves. "Thus", concludes Gazit, "is born a counter high-value reason that could start a new [Israeli-Palestinian] conflagration."