November 17, 2014 - Jerusalem, Gaza and the Shin Bet, new elections? -and more


This week, Alpher discusses the meeting last week between Secretary of State John Kerry, King Abdullah II and PM Netanyahu, and whether that meeting signals a new departure in Israeli-Palestinian and Israel-Arab relations regarding Jerusalem; the talk of new elections in Israel brought on by the government's lack of cohesiveness; how the current borders of the "united" Jerusalem come about and what the rationale was, and whether it is still valid; and why the Shin Bet, an internal security service, is still responsible for intelligence regarding Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005.

Q. The violence in Jerusalem seems to have died down following a meeting in Amman, Jordan, last Thursday, involving Secretary of State John Kerry, King Abdullah II and PM Netanyahu. Does that meeting signal a new departure in Israeli-Palestinian and Israel-Arab relations regarding Jerusalem?

A. Hardly. A measure of quiet appears to have been achieved because Netanyahu yielded to Jordanian and American pressure and banned right-wing Temple Mount rabble-rousers from visiting the Mount. Netanyahu also allowed male Muslim worshippers of all ages to attend prayers on the Mount last Friday--a risky measure that went off without incident. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who met with Kerry and Abdullah earlier Friday, also contributed by reining in incitement, while Netanyahu apparently prevailed on right-wing members of Knesset to put their own volatile language on temporary hold.

Abdullah and Kerry deserve credit for putting on the pressure. Abdullah, in particular, who is official Arab custodian of the mosques on the Mount, has intimated that Jordan's relations with Israel will suffer further--Amman has already withdrawn its ambassador--if the situation doesn't improve.

But neither Netanyahu nor Abbas is likely to maintain a moderate pose for long. Netanyahu, in particular, faces Likud party primaries in early January and growing talk about new elections brought on by his coalition's lack of cohesiveness. And coalition politics, we know, cause Netanyahu to move to the right, where his "natural" ideological constituency lies.

Abbas, for his part, will have to account to his own constituency for the general anti-climax that is likely to follow his current gambit to achieve United Nations Security Council approval for a Palestinian state. The Obama administration, now "lame ducked" by the Republican victory in congressional elections and pre-occupied with the Iran and Islamic State issues, will almost certainly use its veto power to scuttle or water down the Palestinian statehood motion, thereby sending Abbas in search of new and possibly more provocative ways to keep his statehood cause alive.

Yet even if somehow the Security Council experience ends up with a Palestinian triumph, the utter failure of the Palestinian unity government to restore the Palestinian Authority to a leadership position in the Gaza Strip and thereby spur post-war reconstruction efforts means that the countdown has begun to the next Gaza war, with all that means for overall Palestinian stability and quiet.

Q. You mentioned talk of new elections in Israel brought on by the government's lack of cohesiveness. Can you elaborate?

A. Netanyahu's coalition embraces moderate centrists (Lapid, Livni) alongside right wing extremists (Bennet, most of the Likud), with Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu tilting of late in both directions. Now, nearly two years into its existence, these built-in coalition fissures are beginning to show.

The coalition rightists want to pass a "Nation Law" declaring Israel a Jewish state (note: not "Jewish and democratic") and denigrating the status of its large Arab minority. Bennet is threatening to bring down the government because, in his view, Netanyahu is not building enough in the settlements. Livni and Lapid promise to vote against the proposed law and oppose settlement expansion. Lapid, as finance minister, has introduced a budget that includes liberal reforms the right cannot stomach, and wants to market low-cost housing without value added tax, which Netanyahu opposes.

So the coalition partners are all threatening one another to bring down the government. If that happens, the only alternative is almost certainly elections. True, the opposition Labor party sat down and figured out that, on paper, it could muster an alternative left-center-"moderate" right coalition of 61 MKs without the far right, the Arab parties or the ultra-orthodox. But this would require that Meretz on the Zionist far left sit together with Lieberman's quasi-racist Yisrael Beitenu, with Labor, Kadima, Yesh Atid and HaTnua in between--hardly a formula for a cohesive platform or a stable government. It would also place Lapid, as head of the largest party in the new coalition, at the head of the government. Yet, after only two years in politics, he is hardly "ripe" for the job.

Ostensibly, Netanyahu should be making every possible compromise to avoid new elections. After all, his primacy even in his own party is no longer a given, and the only party projected by the polls to gain from elections is Bennet's Jewish Home, whose additional votes would come at Likud's expense. Nor, in view of Obama's lame-duck status, is Netanyahu likely to need the excuse of a prolonged process of elections and coalition formation in order to fend off serious international two-state solution pressures in the coming year (though a gathering cloud of serious European Union sanctions could still provide a rationale for the delays implied by elections.)

But in Israeli politics, it is precisely this sort of situation that gives the coalition partners additional leverage to try to get what they want from the prime minister. That leaves plenty of room for the kind of miscalculation that easily snowballs into new elections.

Q. Returning to the recent violence in Jerusalem, here's a history question that might provide some needed background. How did the current very expansive borders of the "united" city come about? What was the rationale, and is it still valid?

A. We've touched on this issue before, but it's worth recalling. Immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War, the unity government in Israel, led by Levi Eshkol but including Menachem Begin, contemplated the disposition of the IDF's huge territorial conquests. Based on the experience of past wars (1948, 1956), heavy pressure was anticipated from the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, to withdraw everywhere--from Sinai, the Golan, and the West Bank and Gaza. The Eshkol government decided to create one and only one preemptive fait accompli in this regard--the one easiest to defend: annexing East Jerusalem with its "holy basin" of sites sacred to Jews, including the Western Wall, Temple Mount, Old City and Mount of Olives cemetery. The Jordanian municipal boundaries of East Jerusalem that had prevailed since 1949 encompassed little more than these sites together with the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarah and Wadi Joz that bordered on the walled Old City.

A military committee was appointed to sketch the annexation boundaries of East Jerusalem. It took a military approach, drawing on the previous 18 years of sporadic conflict between Israel and Jordan in and around Jerusalem. Thus it made the mistake of "fighting the last war" and basing its calculations on the assumption that Israel would soon be forced to withdraw from the West Bank and return it to Jordanian rule and would again face conflict with Jordan. Any hilltop or mountain ridge from which Jordanian snipers had fired at Israeli West Jerusalem during those 18 years would now be part of the united city.

In this way, the huge enlarged Jerusalem municipality extended south to Bethlehem, north to Ramallah and east to the desert descending to the Dead Sea. It included a large number of Arab villages that had historically never been part of municipal Jerusalem. Needless to say, Israel never returned the West Bank to Jordan, which in turn renounced its claim to that territory and made peace with Israel. And international pressure to withdraw unilaterally from the territories never materialized. The rationale for drawing the present borders of Jerusalem proved totally fallacious.

Jerusalem's Palestinian Arab population has now expanded to around 300,000. It is not surprising that most Jewish-Arab clashes and terrorist incidents of recent weeks involve that population. Israel simply does not know what to do with it.

Q. A second historical question refers to last week's revelation regarding IDF accusations that the Shin Bet was falsely taking credit for having warned of last summer's Gaza war. Why is the Shin Bet, an internal security service, still responsible for intelligence regarding Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005?

A. Once again, the history begins with the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel emerged from the war as the occupying power in territories--the West Bank and Gaza--with large Palestinian populations. The Shin Bet (long known in Israel as Shabak, the acronym of Shin Bet Kaf, or General Security Service) was accustomed to dealing with Israel's own Palestinian Arab population since 1948. Following the 1967 war, Israel's borders with the West Bank and Gaza were thrown open to free passage. Accordingly, it was pointless to speak of cross-border intelligence gathering against a neighbor in a state-of-war with Israel, which might have involved other Israeli intelligence agencies. So the Shabak got the job.

And it kept it after intifadas, the security fence and the 2005 Gaza withdrawal because Israel to a large extent still controlled Gaza's borders, and because in the years since 1967 the IDF and the Shabak had established remarkably smooth procedures for cooperation. But since 2005 the Shabak has been asked, for the first time in Israeli intelligence history, to warn not of terrorism or espionage against Israel from within a population under total Israeli control, but of a war launched by Hamas from within territory, the Gaza Strip, that Israel pointedly does not control any longer.

Hence the jolt the Israeli public experienced when informed, by a letter from IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to PM Netanyahu, that Shabak chief Yoram Cohen was falsely claiming (on prime time television, to boot) that he had warned as far back as last January that Hamas was planning to launch a new war against Israel in July. The IDF claims the Shabak failed to warn of Hamas's war plans.

Eventually, apologies were made and a face-saving formula found. But the controversy hasn't died down. One possible ramification would be a move to reconsider the question of who is responsible for early warning regarding Gaza. Here it would be helpful to recall that, during last summer's war, Israel had excellent field intelligence regarding the location of Hamas attack tunnels and the like, but seemed to possess very spotty political intelligence regarding the intentions and thinking of the Hamas leadership, which is dispersed among a number of Middle East countries. That's why no one can be certain that we are not in a countdown to yet another round.