October 6, 2014 - Equating ISIS and Hamas, the East Jerusalem settlement announcements, and more


This week, Alpher offers further comments on Netanyahu's UN General Assembly speech; whether ISIS and Hamas are both "fruits of the same poisonous tree", as Netanyahu stated; how, as Netanyahu mentioned, Israel improving relations with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi (i.e., the United Arab Emirates) in order to counter Iran and ISIS could "eventually" benefit the two-state solution; were the East Jerusalem settlement announcements a deliberate provocation by Netanyahu to humiliate Obama, or yet another case of cognitive dissonance between the two sides?

Q. Last week you offered some first impressions of Netanyahu's UN General Assembly speech. The commotion that was raised by the speech, coupled with the subsequent Netanyahu-Obama meeting and the East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood settlement announcements, has not died down. Any further comments on these events?

A. Netanyahu's obvious rhetorical abilities seem to leave even hostile Israelis expressing grudging admiration, to the extent that an Haaretz columnist remarked, "nobody can best Netanyahu in this arena". I don't share this assessment: it is mainly Netanyahu's die-hard supporters who are swept away by the smug performance before a half-empty hall of a leader so certain Israel cannot survive without him that we Israelis have become "my people".

But beyond matters of style, Netanyahu's speech raised two specific issues that demand our attention: equating ISIS and Hamas; and the idea that an expanded Israel-Arab relationship can be based on a shared assessment regarding militant Islam while postponing a two-state solution.

Q. Now to the East Jerusalem settlement announcements: were they a deliberate provocation by Netanyahu to humiliate Obama, or yet another case of cognitive dissonance between the two sides?

A. Probably half and half, despite Netanyahu's protestations that there is nothing new here. Like most of the Israeli right and much of the center, Netanyahu distinguishes between "United Jerusalem, eternal capital of Israel" and the West Bank. Regarding Jerusalem, he is technically accurate when he remarks that Jews buy homes in Arab neighborhoods and vice versa, although in fact Jews buy or otherwise "obtain" Arab homes in East Jerusalem whereas East Jerusalem Arabs have been buying homes almost entirely in new Jewish neighborhoods across the green line like Pisgat Zeev—not in West Jerusalem. Similarly, the Givat HaMatos project for several thousand homes at a location that virtually completes the sealing of greater Jerusalem from greater Bethlehem to its south features a provision for a few hundred homes for Jerusalem Arabs, though not in accordance with a construction schedule that parallels the Jewish units and probably not for many years.

If, as Netanyahu believes, Israel has a unique right to Jerusalem and therefore a unique right to use construction to render all of Jerusalem permanently Israeli, of course he can be "surprised" at the publicity and angry at Peace Now for making sure the world knows about the new construction plans. (In fact, the government itself published the plans, on the eve of Rosh HaShana in the hope of avoiding publicity, but undoubtedly with Netanyahu's full knowledge.)

Netanyahu knows perfectly well that the Obama administration and most of the international community object to these housing starts and takeovers in East Jerusalem. On the other hand he presumably thinks, flying in the face of reality, that he can compel the Palestinians (with Saudi help?) to acquiesce in a mini-autonomy in the West Bank without a capital in East Jerusalem, where Israel will continue to build freely. He and his good friend, Republican and Likud financial supporter Sheldon Adelson, presumably discussed this over a very public lunch in Manhattan the day before the Obama meeting.

Thus there is clearly a case here of an "in your face" Netanyahu provocation directed at Obama, just as there was a few years ago when the former smugly lectured the latter about Middle East "realities" in the Oval Office in front of the world. Netanyahu's UN speech was directed first and foremost at his Republican US base, just as Netanyahu's condescending attitude toward Obama is intended to find favor with Republicans, Likudniks and settlers. He clearly thinks he can get away with it.

And if he does? Arabs today constitute nearly 40 percent of the Jerusalem population--constantly rising from 25 percent in 1967. Most of the remaining 60 percent are ultra-orthodox who have no use for sovereign Israel. And even they and the city’s relatively few secular and orthodox Israelis are departing at a rate of 8,000 a year.

It remains only to ask: is Netanyahu's long-term grand strategy for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict an apartheid state with its own Arab-dominated capital in Jerusalem?

Q. Netanyahu mentioned Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi (i.e., the United Arab Emirates) as countries with which Israel could improve relations in order to counter Iran and ISIS--an enhanced relationship that could "eventually" benefit the two-state solution. How would this work?

A. Significantly, none of these four Arab countries objected publicly to Netanyahu's UN declaration about an Israeli relationship with them. Apparently, this issue had been finessed two days earlier by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who met over dinner with their foreign ministers at the UN. Livni later wrote on her Facebook page that Mahmoud Abbas was about to "waste years in his demand for the UN to set a date for the establishment of a [Palestinian] state". Instead, she stated, "international and regional cooperation against Islamist terrorism can create new opportunities, and this is where we should concentrate." US Secretary of State John Kerry is, according to Israel's Channel 10, seeking to hold new and intensive Israeli-Palestinian talks under the auspices of countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even Qatar with its notorious pro-Islamist stance.

Undoubtedly, Israel is cooperating strategically more closely than ever against the Islamist threat with Egypt and Jordan, with which it has peace treaties. Apparently, clandestine ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also improved. That no Arab leader objected to Netanyahu's statement reflects the fact that the perception of some sort of "alliance" with Israel enhances Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian deterrence against ISIS--the dominant strategic preoccupation right now.

But where does the Palestinian issue enter the picture? Netanyahu apparently assumes that by projecting Israel as a vital member of a regional anti-Islamist coalition, he can isolate the Palestinians and generate Arab pressure on them to acquiesce in his version of a Palestinian state. Such a state will, for the security reasons cited by Netanyahu, function as little more than an autonomous entity that is entirely dependent territorially and functionally on Israeli strategic requirements as Netanyahu projects them in the ISIS age. Yet the Saudis have stated repeatedly that without an Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement there can be no open relationship with Israel. Netanyahu prefers to ignore this reservation.

The idea attributed to Kerry is more a throwback to the Madrid process that commenced in 1991. Then, the regional shock of the first Gulf war enabled Secretary of State Baker and President George H. W. Bush to sit Israel down with 14 Arab states and jump-start several bilateral Israel-Arab peace processes and a parallel multilateral process. The multilateral tracks petered out even before Netanyahu's first term in 1996, and none of the bilateral processes has succeeded, though they did catalyze the Oslo process in 1993.

Today, it's fair to say that the Middle East is in a state of even greater chaos than in 1991. Hence, a repetition of the Madrid exercise qualifies as an interesting idea. But we recall that it took brutal pressure on Baker's part to bring a reluctant Israeli PM Yitzhak Shamir to Madrid and beyond, and that it was only the advent to power in Jerusalem of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 that enabled the process to flourish. Netanyahu is today in many ways in a stronger position vis-a-vis Washington than was Shamir. Is the Obama-Kerry team, which seemed very much on its way out of the Middle East until the emergence of the ISIS threat, up to the task of replicating Madrid under current Middle East circumstances?

Q. Aren't ISIS and Hamas both "fruits of the same poisonous tree", as Netanyahu stated?

A. It's a nice metaphor, but its intent is deceptive. Netanyahu wants to justify in international eyes Israel's repeated wars with Hamas on the basis of the criteria cited by President Obama for the US undertaking to form a broad coalition to eliminate ISIS (known as ISIL in Obama's parlance, IS in most of the world, Daish in the Arab world and Israel). The first and most obvious deception here is that Netanyahu does not want to eliminate Hamas in Gaza precisely because in its place he is liable to encounter ISIS or something similar.

Secondly, Hamas is not a pan-Arab or pan-Islamic movement like ISIS. Hamas wants to Islamize only Palestine, including the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. As Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar stated just last week, "we don't want to establish an Islamic emirate in Gaza; we want an Islamic state in all Palestine." This is the Islamist version of Palestinian nationalism; it is entirely foreign to the Islamic State, which wants to envelop the entire Sunni Arab world, and perhaps more, with a new caliphate.

Then too, for all its Islamist excesses, Hamas does not enslave women or behead its enemies and it does not recruit foreign jihadists. It does, however, deliberately target Israeli civilians. And in the last war it publicly executed prisoners without trial, presumably as a means of deterring criticism by beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza.

Hamas is the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, it and ISIS are definitely on the militant Islamist spectrum, but situated at opposite poles. Netanyahu was wise to leave Hamas in power in Gaza. He has enough legitimate ammunition against Hamas without trying to hitch his horse to Obama's wagon on this issue.

Incidentally, the Egyptian leadership under President a-Sissi equates its militant Islamist enemy in Sinai, Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, with ISIS too--presumably with a motive similar to Netanyahu's. The Sinai Islamists are affiliated primarily with al-Qaeda and lately have engaged in beheadings. But their origins, too, are local and are linked to Sinai Bedouin grudges against a succession of Egyptian regimes. Certainly it is not beyond the realm of possibility that ultimately, if ISIS is perceived to succeed despite the opposition of a US-led coalition, most of the region's militant Islamists will adopt the ISIS mantle--including those in Sinai and Gaza. But that is not currently the case.