This week, Alpher discusses the prospects of nuclear negotiations with Iran and Gaza negotiations in Cairo; whether a new intifada has erupted in East Jerusalem; is the resignation of a senior Likud minister who was conflicted with Netanyahu, leaving the party second in size to Yesh Atid in the Knesset, the beginning of the end for the current government;
Q. Nuclear negotiations with Iran have resumed in New York. On Tuesday, Gaza negotiations resume in Cairo. Both sets of talks potentially affect Israel's security. What are the prospects?
A. The P5 + 1 negotiations with Iran officially have until late November to find an agreed formula, so no finite outcome should be expected now. The latest wrinkle in these talks to worry Washington's closest friends in the Middle East--Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the emirates--is the possibility that US-Iranian collaboration regarding the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq will generate a softer American position regarding Iran's nuclear project. On September 19, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated with regard to the anti-IS (in US parlance, anti-ISIL) coalition, "There is a role for nearly every country in the world to play, including Iran."
In forming an anti-IS coalition, the US is seemingly hoping to present its Middle East partners with a priority that overrides both tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the perception of an Iranian threat to Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors. The latter, in contrast, are far less concerned than Washington over the collapse of the Iraqi state and far more concerned over Iran's overbearing influence among Iraq's majority Shiites and its exploitation of this position to ensure geostrategic access to Syria and to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. They also fear that the nuclear deal taking shape in New York, perhaps softened by Washington's need to collaborate with Iran in Iraq, will not provide sufficient guarantees and safeguards against an Iranian nuclear breakout. Herein lies one area of potential complication in selling an agreement with Iran to the region.
Apropos, the latest news from Yemen, where the Shiite-affiliated Houthi group from the north of the country has taken over the capital, Sanaa, and forced its way into the national government, has merely added to Saudi and other Sunni Arab concerns about Iran, which has reportedly armed and supported the Houthis. Note that both Yemen and Iraq border directly on Saudi Arabia.
It's easier to address the Cairo talks because they so clearly appear headed for deadlock. In the month that has elapsed since a ceasefire was reached in the third Gaza war, Israel has reached temporary working arrangements with Hamas via the United Nations to enable construction material to flow into Gaza in order to commence reconstruction efforts. In contrast, the agenda of the Cairo talks centers on Israeli and Hamas strategic demands: the former wants to demilitarize the Strip, the latter, to open the Strip to independent links with the outside world through construction of a harbor and an airport.
Under current circumstances, there is little likelihood the parties will register agreement on these issues. Israel has good reason to fear that Hamas air and sea ports would be used to smuggle in weaponry. Hamas, from its standpoint, believes it imperative to maintain a significant military capability for use against Israel.
But this strategic agenda was precisely the ultimate condition for achieving the ceasefire a month ago. Hence the question arises: if and when the Cairo talks fail, will the Gaza fighting resume? Official Israeli security sources are optimistic that quiet will be maintained. I am not. Last week witnessed the first instance of Gazan rocket fire into Israel since the ceasefire began. Inevitably, Hamas claimed the perpetrators were renegade Islamists. But the pattern is familiar.
Hamas has nothing to show for its latest war. The Palestinian unity government that was supposed to materialize out of the war and supervise the Gaza crossings is thus far a non-starter, with Ramallah-based PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas alleging that Hamas tried to launch a West Bank intifada to undermine his leadership. Thus the Cairo talks will commence on Monday with an initial attempt by Fateh and Hamas to resolve their own internal Palestinian differences even before talks with Israel begin.
Apropos a UN role, talk of a Security Council resolution to project a long-term plan for Gaza has run into Hamas skepticism and Netanyahu government fears lest the resolution mandate the 1967 lines as the basis for a two-state solution. Meanwhile, the UN is talking about introducing several hundred monitors to ensure that building materials are neither abused nor redirected by Hamas toward constructing fortifications. Israel approves; Hamas has yet to state its position.
Then there are the international donors who are supposed to finance Gaza reconstruction. In the absence of Palestinian unity and of an assured Fateh monitoring presence on the ground in Gaza, will the donors again agree to give--for the third time in six years--at a conference in mid-October in Cairo? The Palestinian Authority government estimates the reconstruction cost at $4 billion.
Given these sorry circumstances, renewed Hamas attacks on Israel seem inevitable. They will likely encounter the same Netanyahu government that fought this summer's prolonged and bizarre war without a coherent strategy for anything: not for winning, not for doing something rational about Gaza, and not for dealing with the overall Palestinian issue.
Q. That brings us back to the West Bank. Has a new intifada erupted in East Jerusalem?
A. If intifada can be defined as prolonged and violent Palestinian unrest directed against the Israeli occupation, then there apparently is a mini-intifada in East Jerusalem. It may be said to have commenced with the wanton killing last spring by Israelis of a Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem in revenge for the Hamas murder of three yeshiva students--events that constituted one factor in the tensions that erupted into warfare in early July. The unrest picked up momentum during the Gaza war and has intensified since, with Palestinian teenagers leading stone-throwing attacks against Jewish targets in and around Arab East Jerusalem. Over the past two months, the Jerusalem Police have arrested more than 250 Palestinian children under the age of 18.
One major target of the stones--and in several cases, arson--has been the Jerusalem light rail system that links Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in northeast Jerusalem with the Jewish city center. This first line of the system was built specifically to help "unite" the Arab and Jewish parts of the city. While its cars feature shatter-proof glass, Arab attacks have radically reduced light-rail service.
The first intifada, which erupted throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip in late 1987, ultimately ushered in the Oslo accords. The second, which began in September 2000 and was far more violent, led to prolonged Israeli-Palestinian fighting but ultimately produced the unilateral Gaza withdrawal and the emergence of the anti-violence leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. Is anyone now getting the message of this new mini-intifada: that Arab East Jerusalem was never really integrated with Jewish West Jerusalem and that ultimately it will have to be linked with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and function as its capital?
Not in this Israeli government. It is far more likely to opt to augment the provocative Jewish settler presence in East Jerusalem as a "suitable Zionist response" to the Arab unrest. Here, for example, is veteran settler leader Yisrael Harel, writing in Haaretz in settler Newspeak that "If it weren't for the few footholds Jews have purchased in the Old City and a few other neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, only Arabs would go there."
This year, Yom Kippur and the Muslim feast of Id Al-Adha fall on the same day, October 4. Here lies the potential for more unrest in mixed Arab-Jewish areas like Jerusalem.
Q. Last week, yet another senior Likud minister who was conflicted with Netanyahu resigned from politics, leaving the party second in size to Yesh Atid in the Knesset. Is this the beginning of the end for the current government?
A. That question is the focus of considerable speculation today. With the decision by Interior Minister Gideon Saar to take temporary leave from politics and his replacement in the Knesset by a Yisrael Beitenu politician (Likud and Yisrael Beitenu ran in the January 2013 elections on a joint list, but have since fragmented back into two separate parties that remain coalition partners), Likud now has 18 members of Knesset, compared with the 19 of Finance Minister Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party.
Saar is by far not the first senior Likud minister to leave politics in recent years. He was preceded by the likes of Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and others. One recent Likud deserter, the popular Moshe Kachlon, is setting up an opposing party; Saar vows to remain a Likudnik. The overall impression is that it is increasingly difficult for a Likudnik to maintain leadership potential or status in the shadow of Binyamin Netanyahu, who is now the second longest-serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion, but that Netanyahu is increasingly isolated within his own party. Much of the remaining Likud faction in the Knesset tends to adopt positions to Netanyahu's right on issues of war (the recent Gaza war) and "peace" (the slightest hesitation to set up new settlements or readiness to talk about a two-state solution). And unlike Ben-Gurion (or, for a more recent example, Ariel Sharon), Netanyahu does not have the courage or the conviction to adopt political positions unacceptable to his party.
Saar's major falling-out with Netanyahu came a few months ago when he successfully backed Reuven Rivlin for the presidency, against Netanyahu's will. He knows there will be no forgiveness for this transgression. One immediate outcome of the shrinking of Likud has been to strengthen Lapid's hand in negotiations for the 2015 budget; in Israel, coalitions have fallen because of disagreements regarding the budget. But Lapid is not interested in new elections, and Netanyahu's detractors within his own party have no bright ideas regarding a replacement for the prime minister and party leader. Because of rising security costs generated by the Gaza war and the growing regional Islamist threat, Netanyahu and Lapid seem set to lead Israel into an economic slowdown without paying a political price. As matters stand, only another war with Hamas or some other militant Islamist neighbor in which Netanyahu again displays a distinct lack of strategic thinking could conceivably cost him his premiership.