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Hard Questions and Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- November 14, 2011

Alpher186x140.jpgAlpher tackles many regional developments, including new Knesset legislation that targets human rights and peace groups, the departure of Dennis Ross, and Syria's ouster from the Arab League.

Q. On Sunday the Netanyahu government decided to submit to the Knesset two legislative proposals that would seriously constrain the capacity of many Israeli NGOs, including Peace Now, to receive funding from foreign governments and would, in effect, brand Israeli human rights and peace organizations as subversive. Again McCarthyism?

A. Indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu has approved in principle another attempt to pass these laws, after a previous attempt in the last Knesset session was delayed and canceled under heavy international pressure as well as criticism from senior Likud figures like ministers Dan Meridor and Beni Begin and Knesset Chairman Reuven Rivlin.

The international and internal Likud pressures are still there, and Netanyahu has already acknowledged them by promising to moderate and modify the legislative proposals, which must still be approved by three Knesset votes and committee hearings. But he supports them in principle. One extraordinary manifestation of the pressures on Sunday was an unusual appearance before the ministerial legislative committee by Major General (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, who is generally perceived as a hardliner, but was reportedly persuaded by the European Union and British ambassadors that the damage to Israel's international cooperation agreements inflicted by the laws--including retaliatory cutting of heavy funding for university research by the EU--would far outweigh the benefits of silencing human rights campaigners who are identified with the political left and the anti-occupation and anti-settlements movement. So Amidror spoke out against measures supported by his own boss, Netanyahu.

But his appearance pointed to the crux of the matter. The pro-settler right wing that dominates this government identifies human rights and peace campaigners with the political opposition to the settlements. Hence these legislative initiatives are not really about an allergy to foreign "interference" through funding--after all, the Israeli settler movement and religious right receive heavy funding from Jewish and Christian supporters abroad, albeit not from governments--but rather about shutting down domestic opposition to the spread of settlements and suppression in the West Bank, regardless of what many Israelis and the rest of the world think. They are promulgated by reactionary Israelis who have no qualms about silencing free speech when the thrust of that speech strikes at their disastrous agenda.

Stay tuned for more.

Q. Sarkozy considers Netanyahu a liar and Obama appears to agree. What does this tell us about US and European attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

A. First, let's add that, in widely quoted remarks made to her aides, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly also said she "doesn't believe a word Netanyahu says" when the two leaders meet or speak on the phone. Second, for the record, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is indeed a liar, particularly when it comes to reassuring Israel's friends in the West and leaders of good will in the Arab world of his good intentions regarding compromise with and gestures to the Palestinians. 

But then, aren't most politicians liars? Netanyahu, argued veteran commentator Nahum Barnea tongue-in-cheek in his weekend column in Yediot Aharonot, is actually not a liar."He talks from time to time with world leaders and invokes his famous powers of persuasion. They are convinced by what he says, and so is he. Then Netanyahu talks to other leaders. Interests change, as do opinions. Netanyahu doesn't remain fixed on one view. He's not a liar: he's dynamic."

Unfortunately, what is significant here is that French PM Nicolas Sarkozy, US President Barack Obama, Merkel and who knows how many other international leaders do not intend their remarks about Netanyahu's lies for publication and, now that they have leaked, will not confirm them publicly. None of them appears to have the political freedom of maneuver to confront the Israeli leader openly and threaten to invoke diplomatic, economic or other sanctions against his behavior. 

Netanyahu knows this. With regard to his dealings with the Palestinians--the prime issue that presumably leads him to make empty promises--he is simply not under serious international pressure.

Q. Dennis Ross has resigned his peace process-related post with the Obama administration? Is this related to the pressure issue? How does this affect both the process and Israeli-American relations?

A. Ross has never been known to apply serious pressure on Israel. Rather, he has a long record of coming up with ingenious proposals that soften Israeli opposition to compromise with its peace partners by offering American promises, reassurances and benefits. He last tried to do this around a year ago, but failed to persuade Netanyahu to renew a brief settlement freeze in return for a basket of goodies from Washington. Since then Ross, like everybody else involved in the Israeli-Palestinian process, has been sitting on his hands. Everybody, that is, except the Palestinians, whose disappointment with the efforts of Ross and others has led them to the United Nations.

So closely is Ross identified with Israel in Arab eyes that a few months ago King Abdullah II of Jordan, speaking in Washington, labeled him a "Zionist agent". Ross's departure from the administration appears to confirm with a degree of finality that there will be no US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the year ahead, during the build-up to American presidential elections. It could conceivably also have something to do with the potential for a US response to the Iranian nuclear program as described in the IAEA report, insofar as Ross also advised President Obama on Iran-related issues.

Ross is not responsible for the fiasco of the Obama administration nearly three years ago demanding but failing to enforce a comprehensive and open-ended settlement-construction freeze. That was promulgated by the president himself with the advice of Senator George Mitchell, his special peace envoy, before Ross came on board. But Ross certainly shares responsibility for the lack of progress since then. Hopefully, and assuming Israelis and Palestinians get through the coming year without a major dislocation like an intifada or the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, a reelected Obama or his Republican successor will recruit a new team and provide them with more workable concepts--and more muscle.

Q. Now that the International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran has been released, are we closer to tighter sanctions or to military action against the Iranian nuclear program?

A. Possibly both: tighter sanctions by the West, rendered less than fully effective by the refusal of China and Russia to cooperate; and another step in the countdown to a military response to the Iranian nuclear weapons project that is so clearly portrayed by the IAEA report.

In general, international reactions to the latest IAEA report have had the effect of making Israel feel more isolated in its concerns. Beyond Russian and Chinese cynicism and commercial interests, many international commentators seemed to be addressing the evidence of Iran's nuclear weapons program the same way they have come to address North Korea's achievement in producing nuclear weapons: after having stood by and let it happen, we now can and indeed may have to learn to live with it, an option rendered more palatable by the fact that it is far away.

I participate in a web-based exchange of views on Persian Gulf-related issues. Many of the participants are Americans and Europeans with a great deal of experience in the Arab and Islamic worlds. It was fascinating to see how many agreed with one former diplomat--no particular friend of Israel, but no enemy, either, and a very smart man--who fully recognized that the IAEA report meant Iran had essentially achieved the capability to assemble a nuclear weapon and its delivery system if it chooses to do so, but opined that the world should and could learn to live with it. Then he added the clincher: "If I were Israeli, I would of course be more worried about this scenario, but I am not Israeli."

Additional sanctions, then, may no longer prevent Iran from possessing the wherewithal to go nuclear, but could possibly persuade it not to do so. Here, Israel confronts a set of dilemmas. If, despite sanctions, Iran decides to go nuclear, should Israel try to live with a nuclearized Middle East and specifically with nuclear weapons in the hands of an extremist regime that preaches its destruction? Can Israel rely on US administration assurances that it will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons? Are international assurances for Israel's security sufficiently reliable, when delivered by people who may be less worried because they are not Israeli? 

Or should Israel preempt, and if so, when: before Iran makes the decision to weaponize, or after? And if after, will there remain a window of opportunity to try to do so? Finally, how big a price in loss of life and livelihood and regional and international outrage can Israeli society be expected to pay? Who, at the end of the day, will stand by it?

Meanwhile, efforts to sabotage and delay the Iranian nuclear program--hence, delay Israel's day of decision--appear to be continuing apace. An explosion at a missile base near Tehran on Saturday killed a senior Revolutionary Guards officer engaged in missile development. And Iran acknowledged it had been attacked by a new computer virus, successor to Stuxnet.

Q. Syria has been effectively suspended from the Arab League. What effect will this have on the revolution there?

A. It is no every-day event when the country that is the cradle of modern Arab nationalism is told it will no longer be welcome in the forum of Arab states unless it stops killing its own civilian population. Yet there is not the slightest chance that President Bashar Assad will now feel impelled to yield to inter-Arab and international pressure. He appears to believe, and not without reason, that if he stops killing Syria's protestors and enters into dialogue with them regarding democratic reform, he and his Alawite clique will not only be removed from their positions of absolute power, but are liable to pay with their lives in the bargain. Meanwhile, Assad still enjoys some support from Syria's other non-Sunni Arab minorities--mainly Christians and Kurds--who fear a Sunni-majority successor regime that is militantly Islamist.

So it's a fight to the death, regardless of the Arab League. But the League's decision last weekend appears to have two possible operational ramifications that are extremely relevant to Israel's calculations. 

One is international military intervention in Syria. Obviously, the conditions on the ground in Syria are vastly different than they were in Libya when NATO intervened there. Gaddafi supporters in the western half of that country were set to overrun the eastern half, which could easily be protected from the air. No such obvious divide exists in Syria. But NATO's move regarding Libya was not possible until the Arab League invited it to intervene, and that is now a logical prospect for Syria, too. Moreover, by meeting with the leading Syrian opposition group and denouncing Assad's regime in the aftermath of Libya, the Arab League is virtually normalizing the precedent whereby it intervenes politically to decide the fate of violent and problematic Arab regimes. No wonder Yemen (along with Lebanon and Syria itself) voted against the League decision regarding Syria.

Incidentally, Turkey is apparently already intervening militarily in Syria by providing training and launching facilities for operations across the two countries' long border by Syrian army deserters, who now may number as many as 25,000. 

A second key ramification of the League decision is an increasingly stark drawing of the lines between Syria and its Shi'ite allies in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq and especially Iran on the one hand, and the Sunni Arab world on the other. Whether and how this could bring Israel's interests into line with Saudi Arabia, the emerging leader of the Sunnis and prime Arab enemy of Iran, remains a matter for conjecture. But Assad has threatened that Syria and Hezbollah will attack Israel if the West intervenes in Syria. 

This underlines another difference between Libya and Syria in the eyes of potential interveners: Muammar Gaddafi had no friends who might come to his aid, whereas Assad does. This means there is plenty of room for escalation and miscalculation involving not only Arabs if the violence continues in Syria.