This week, Alpher discusses the ceasefire talks; whether Israel should cooperate with its investigation of the conduct of the Gaza war; the Obama-Netanyahu tensions; and remembers Leibel Fein.
Q. The past week witnessed an extension of Gaza war ceasefire talks in Cairo, the appointment of a United Nations war crimes commission to investigate Israel, and new tensions between President Obama and PM Netanyahu regarding the war. There seems to be considerable difficulty in ending this war favorably from Israel's standpoint.
A. Let's begin with the ceasefire talks. At the time of filing this Q & A, Monday early afternoon in Israel, the current deadline of Monday night for reaching an agreement appeared unrealistic.
The primary issue at stake from Israel's standpoint is security: ensuring that Hamas cannot attack Israel, including means for preventing the entry to Gaza of weaponry and monitoring the entry of dual-use items like building materials. For Hamas, the primary issue appears to be an immediate commitment to the opening of an airport and a sea port that would ostensibly enable Gaza to interact with the world without reliance on Israel or Egypt.
Qatar-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is reportedly holding out for agreement on the ports, while the Gaza-based military and civilian leadership is prepared to postpone discussion of the issue. Meanwhile, the solidarity of the Fateh-Hamas unity government delegation negotiating in Cairo is cracking, and not only over ceasefire issues: Fateh accuses Hamas of incarcerating its activists in Gaza during the war. Israel, for its part, reportedly agrees to most other elements in the Egyptian ceasefire package, which focus on the opening of border crossings, payment of Hamas salaries, extension of the Gaza fishing zone and reduction of the Gaza-Israel border buffer zone, along with non-aggression commitments by both sides.
Palestinian commentator Ghassan Khatib summed up the current quandary nicely a few days ago: "As long as Hamas is unable to end this war without any progress towards ending the blockade, and Israel refuses to ease the blockade in a way that might enable Hamas to resume its military arsenal build-up, it will be difficult to create a lasting and durable ceasefire." (Then again, one could ask how a ceasefire can be durable if Hamas with its aggressive ideology toward Israel enjoys a new military build-up.)
Meanwhile, the concessions PM Netanyahu is apparently offering Hamas in Cairo while consulting only with Defense Minister Yaalon are generating unease and even open opposition among the non-Likud members of the Security Cabinet. Right wingers Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Lieberman want to resume all-out war on Hamas. Centrists Lapid and Livni want, respectively, to organize regional and international "umbrellas". Once a stable ceasefire is reached, Netanyahu will almost certainly encounter heightened political opposition and heavy recriminations from all sides.
By Tuesday morning there will be a new reality of one sort or another. No one seems to be able to predict what it will be, and while both belligerent sides have been using threatening language, neither appears interested in renewing the fighting. All four parties--Israel, Hamas, Fateh, and Egypt--face a number of options: resume the war, extend the deadline for talks, "agree" to an informal ceasefire with no formal understandings, or agree to a formal bare-bones ceasefire with new deadlines for discussing all other issues on the agenda.
Q. Let's move on to the War Crimes Commission. Should Israel cooperate with its investigation of the conduct of the Gaza war?
A. This is not an easy call. Israel's boycott of the Goldstone war crimes commission, set up after the 2008-9 Gaza war, proved problematic and possibly even counter-productive. Judge Goldstone himself stated after his commission had issued its report that had he possessed during the investigation information made available to him afterward by Israel, he would not have endorsed accusations that Israeli forces deliberately engaged in war crimes.
Israel's primary problem with the new commission, which like its predecessor will ostensibly investigate possible war crimes by Hamas as well as Israel, is that is has been established by a United Nations body, the Human Rights Council, whose membership is stacked against Israel and which exercises a blatant double standard in repeatedly castigating and investigating Israel while ignoring widespread human rights violations elsewhere in the Middle East and the world. Israel's secondary problem is the identity of the man appointed to head the commission. William Schabas not only agrees that the Human Rights Council exercises a double standard regarding Israel but is also on record as having stated that the first world leader he'd like to see "in the dock of an international court" is Netanyahu. Indeed, when Shimon Peres was still president of Israel Schabas asked, “Why are we going after the president of Sudan (at the International Criminal Court) for Darfur and not the president of Israel for Gaza?” So Schabas is, by his own admission, someone who has prejudged Israel's elected leaders and who will be serving a biased international body.
In fighting this latest war, Israel has sought to apply lessons learned from the Goldstone commission findings, to the extent that IDF experts on the laws of war took part in all wartime decisions regarding target selection and munitions, including at the battlefield level. The IDF also appointed a general to monitor and study all incidents in which civilians were killed, and it has now appointed its own fact-finding body to review those incidents. At a minimum, and even if Israel chooses not to cooperate with the Schabas commission, it should conclude its own independent (i.e., non-IDF) investigation before Schabas does, and publish the results--including possible unpleasant findings about the lethal mistakes that are made in all wars and those responsible for them--so that the IDF's findings can both preempt Schabas's findings and be available to him in real time. It should also prepare its own file regarding Hamas's war crimes, for which, in terms of international law, the Palestinian Authority is responsible, in case the latter decides to take Schabas's findings to the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court and pursue Israel there.
Q. And the Obama-Netanyahu tensions?
A. The immediate cause of the latest tensions was a decision by the Obama administration (as reported by the Wall Street Journal) to place a hold on Israeli withdrawals of ammunition from stocks of pre-positioned US war materiel on Israeli soil--hellfire missiles for attack helicopters. The alleged reason for the decision was "disproportional" Israeli use of US-supplied ordnance, almost certainly meaning the large civilian casualty toll in the Gaza Strip generated by Israeli counterattacks against Hamas. In particular, for several hours following the apparent abduction of an Israeli officer near Rafah that violated one of the ceasefires that have punctuated this war, Israeli forces inflicted heavy losses on Rafah civilians who received no early warning, in what turned out to be a vain effort to stop the abduction (it later emerged that the abducted officer was dead).
The broader backdrop to this act of protest on the part of the US is more complex. First, it is critical to note that Israeli-American security cooperation across a wide spectrum continues uninterrupted. Second, and unusually, the US is barely involved in the Cairo-based ceasefire negotiations. This gives it few levers of protest and pressure toward Israel when it feels a need to establish an independent position in the conflict. A single American attempt at mediating a ceasefire in the current Gaza war ended badly when Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority all protested a decision by Secretary of State Kerry to involve Qatar and Turkey, both supporters of Hamas, in the negotiations.
Third, at the leadership level relations between President Obama and PM Netanyahu are known to be poor. Not only is the personal chemistry apparently bad, but the conservative Netanyahu has openly bypassed America's liberal president by consulting with and supporting congressional Republicans, accepting massive support by major Republican campaign financier Sheldon Adelson, and appointing an Israeli-American with strong Republican roots as his ambassador in Washington. Even Netanyahu's relations with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro ("Don't ever again second guess me on Gaza") have reportedly been problematic of late.
Fourth, the current dynamic by which the US is lowering its military profile in the Middle East (even current US air support for anti-ISIS forces in northern Iraq must be understood as a minor exception that proves the rule) and avoiding new strategic entanglements there is a source of major concern not just for Israel, but for Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well. This concern is compounded by these countries' unhappiness when Washington seeks dialogue with the region's Islamists, such as Iran, Qatar and Turkey and, earlier, with the Muslim Brotherhood government that ruled Egypt from mid-2012 to mid-2013.
Regardless of what happens next between Israel and Hamas, the foundation of US-Israel relations remains solid. We have to exercise our memories and go back to 1973, when Kissinger and Nixon delayed military aid so as to shape the outcome of the Yom Kippur War, and 1981, when Reagan held up delivery of combat aircraft in protest over Israel's bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq, to find precedents for this recent hold on ordnance supply. Then the ramifications were far more significant strategically. Back then, too, Israel did not enjoy zero-delay access at wartime to American munitions stored on its soil. Further, under prevailing Middle East strategic circumstances even if the White House puts a brief hold on additional arms deliveries to Israel, this will not cause undo damage to Israel's overall security.
Yet damage there is, at the political-strategic level. The degree of Netanyahu's involvement in partisan American politics, against a serving president who has actually done more for Israel's security than any of his predecessors, is without precedent and is foolish. The centrist segment of Netanyahu's government led by Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni has been openly critical. Here is another area in which post-war political score-settling can be expected.
Q. Sadly, Leibel Fein died suddenly last week. What would he have said about all this?
A. I'm tempted to assert that he would have castigated Netanyahu and defended Israel. But I certainly can't speak for Leonard Fein after his sudden and tragic death, much as I could never anticipate his views when he was alive.
Leon Wieseltier said in eulogizing Leibel, "he was a joy to disagree with". I'd go further: it was invigorating to discuss anything with him. I first met Leibel back in the early 1980s when he asked to republish in Moment magazine an outside-the-box article of mine entitled "Why Begin should invite Arafat to Jerusalem" after it had appeared in Foreign Affairs. We got along so well that he made me a guest editor. From Moment back then to APN in recent years, I looked forward to every contact ever since.
We last met a year or so ago, when Leibel sat with me in my garden, having surprised me by appearing at my home with a walker that he had quietly navigated along narrow sidewalks from where he parked his rented car; it never occurred to him to ask me to clear a closer parking place. We talked shop. We never seemed to agree completely on anything, yet I treasured every single point this wise man made.