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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- November 1, 2010

Alpher answers questions about the status of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, including the newly surfaced idea of Israel leasing land in East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, and the strategic impact of the recently-thwarted FedEx package bomb plot.

Q. With the peace process stalled, we confront the possibility of its complete breakdown, more or less coinciding with an administration setback in mid-term elections. Assuming the breakdown is not clearly or entirely blamed on Israel and does not appear to seriously harm US-Israel relations, will PM Netanyahu regard this as a "victory"? How will he proceed?

A. Netanyahu certainly won't call it a victory, but there is room to assess that he will feel relieved and vindicated. He will claim to have made an honest effort, to have offered unprecedented compromises, to have maintained more or less solid relations with the Obama administration--and to have been thwarted by none other than the Palestinians! He will feel relieved because he remains with his natural ideological partners, the Israeli right wing, and vindicated because he took political risks and never had to pay a political price.

So far, ostensibly, so good--from Netanyahu's standpoint. But there will be severely complicating factors.

First, the settlers and their supporters will now pressure for the government to permit unbridled construction in the settlements, including those in the sensitive West Bank mountain heartland and sensitive parts of East Jerusalem like Silwan/City of David. Indeed, this is already happening. But even if the Obama/Mitchell settlement construction freeze policy could at this point be deemed a failure, it is fair to say that settlement construction will never be the same: it will continue to be castigated in many circles, including inside Israel, as the principal obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. This is particularly likely in an era of near-zero Palestinian violence against Israelis: in the past, terrorism against Israelis was correctly held up as an equally problematic obstacle to peace.

Any effort by Netanyahu to even partially restrict settlement construction in the absence of a peace process would be further complicated by Labor's departure from the coalition, which is a virtual certainty if there is no process and in view of unrest over the peace process issue within Labor. While Netanyahu would still command a working majority in the Knesset without Labor, any remnant of centrist balance in the government would be gone: no one in the coalition would object to settlement construction or mention the demographic threat (with the possible exception of someone like the Likud's Dan Meridor, if he chooses to remain), while the parliamentary opposition would be strengthened as Labor joins Kadima and Meretz in an effort to bring down the ruling coalition.

Then there is the question of US-Israel relations under these new circumstances. Even if part of the blame for failure of the peace process falls on PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and even assuming Republican gains in Tuesday's US elections that are understood by Netanyahu to soften the pressure on him from Washington, his relations with the Obama administration would be hurt by the collapse of the process. This could be particularly important with regard to US-Israel coordination against Iran. Israel would also be subject to sharper criticism from Riyadh, Cairo and Amman, and this too could become a negative factor in Israeli-American relations.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, a collapsed peace process means the Palestinians would now put all their eggs in the unilateral/international basket: presenting themselves to the international community as having satisfied the institution-building requirements of statehood, and asking for UN recognition. Netanyahu would be in a much better position to petition Washington to coordinate its Security Council position on this issue with Jerusalem if he were presiding over some sort of functioning bilateral peace process. In contrast, under circumstances of a failed US-sponsored peace process, the tensions would probably hasten both a new international focus on real or alleged Israeli intransigence and the collapse of Netanyahu's government.

Q. According to two reputable Arab newspapers published in London, Israel and the US have been discussing peace arrangements in which Israel leases land in the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem from a nascent Palestinian state. Is this a serious possibility?

A. These reports, from al-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat, perhaps the two leading newspapers in the Arab world (both Saudi-owned but published in London, thereby ensuring a high degree of independence), dovetail with rumors we reported last week from the Palestinian camp about secret Israeli-American negotiations on final status issues. If true, the reports at least verify that from the American standpoint the process has not, or at least not yet, failed.

The idea of Israel leasing land from an Arab neighbor as part of a peace settlement with that neighbor is not new; that solution was discussed but rejected by Egypt in the Taba negotiations in the early 1980s and was invoked in the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. It has been discussed in the past with Palestinians, too. For example, in past rounds of informal talks the PLO invoked the Cyprus precedent, wherein the departing British leased two large bases from the newly independent Cypriot government back in the 1960s (and maintain them to this day). The key concept here is that Palestinian sovereignty in the leased areas would be acknowledged, thus not disrupting the balance of minor land swaps Israel needs in order to hold on to settlement blocs, while Israel would continue to use land it deems vital for security or other purposes and would compensate the Palestinian state financially or in some other way that is not mentioned in the reports. In postponing de facto return of the land for 40 or 99 years (the time spans mentioned in these reports), the two sides assume that by that time their relationship would be very different, thereby facilitating new arrangements that are impossible today.

Nowhere is the PLO reaction to these ideas reported. Nor is it clear whether Israel and the US are in agreement. We have to assume that, if the reports are true, Washington is trying to develop new final status ideas in consultation with Israel in the hopes of presenting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and perhaps other Arab leaders as well with a concept tempting enough to enable them to muster support for a return to negotiations.

Q. Is there anything significant at the strategic level about the recent thwarting of an attempt, apparently by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to send explosive printers to Jewish targets in Chicago?

A. First, we have evidence that al-Qaeda, the presumed perpetrator, continues to come up with sophisticated modus operandi (the explosives, the means of concealment and delivery) and that it continues to flourish in Yemen, its recent operations center of note. On the other hand, the fact that no human terrorist was chosen to deliver the explosives, as in the recent case of the Nigerian "underpants bomber" whose plot went afoul in the sky over Detroit on Christmas day and the Times Square bomber in May, could point to a perception in al-Qaeda that human delivery doesn't work against the US. Either the terrorist perpetrators prove too clumsy or direct access to targets in the West is being circumscribed successfully. 

The alternative--the roundabout means of delivery and the bizarre choice of concealment object--exposed the operation to possible detection at several stations along the way. After all, while a printer cartridge emptied of its toner powder is a perfect place to hide a powdered explosive, why would anyone in a Chicago synagogue want or expect to receive a computer printer fedexed from Yemen.

This leads us to a second tentative conclusion, regarding the efficacy of American-led international efforts to thwart terrorism. One fairly obvious tactic adopted by US security authorities in recent years has been to try to intercept terrorism before it reaches the shores of the US. Anyone traveling from abroad to America or sending an express parcel to the States has encountered these new standard security demands that at times appear to be oppressive and intrusive. In the course of the past 18 months, I personally have had to provide passport details at the purchase of ticket, completely dismantle a cell-phone I fedexed; and describe in excruciatingly minute detail a pair of hearing aids sent via UPS. 

While the booby-trapped printers from Yemen may not have been quite so closely monitored, the system nevertheless worked. Early-warning intelligence arrived from Saudi Arabia and planes were grounded in England and Dubai--all very far from the US. That's impressive.

Third, there is AQAP's choice of American Jewish institutional targets in Chicago, President Obama's home town. What precisely this tells us about the thinking of Jihadi elements in Yemen is not entirely clear--particularly in view of the likelihood that the printer bombs were actually meant to explode in transport or passenger planes and bring them down. Several hundred American Muslims, led by radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaqi, are estimated to have joined the ranks of AQAP in Yemen, and they know America well. The American Jewish community should certainly be alert for more to come.

Finally, how will all this now affect air travel safety measures? The delays of removing your shoes and monitoring carry-on liquids were caused by single failed terrorist events. Now powders will undoubtedly be isolated and monitored, too, if not prohibited altogether. Before air travel becomes impossible, better technology would be helpful. Meanwhile, we remain dependent on good early-warning intelligence, in this case thanks to the Saudis.