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Hard Questions and Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- November 22, 2010

Alpher answers questions about US-Israeli negotiations for a three-month settlement construction freeze, and the potential impact of an international tribunal indictment against senior Hezbollah officials in the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri.

Q. The past two weeks have witnessed new US-Israel tensions over construction in an East Jerusalem neighborhood, followed by an intense and thus far unsuccessful effort to negotiate a new settlement-construction freeze in return for American concessions to Israel. What dynamics are at work?

A. Let's begin with the announcement, released as PM Binyamin Netanyahu arrived in the United States for the GA and additional meetings, of a new stage in the planning of housing construction in the East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa. It is instructive to compare the American-Israeli interaction over this issue to what took place in March of this year, when construction in Ramat Shlomo--also a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem--was announced during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.

Note that Har Homa is a much more strategically-located construction site than Ramat Shlomo, insofar as its location radically reduces Palestinian access from the West Bank to Arab East Jerusalem, thereby further closing the door on a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Yet, while the ruckus over Ramat Shlomo seriously embarrassed the Netanyahu government, causing it to apologize profusely and undertake to prevent such incidents in the future, Netanyahu essentially breezed through the Har Homa incident, arguing that construction in the capital of Israel is of marginal relevance to any peace process.

One obvious explanation for the difference in Netanyahu's behavior this time is the Republican victory in the Nov. 2 mid-term elections. Netanyahu, who "speaks Republican," clearly felt far better positioned to stare down the administration in November than in March. Witness, too, his deliberately provocative criticism in America of the administration's military threat against Iran--a popular position with Republican hawks. Indeed, one cannot rule out the possibility that Netanyahu, far from being taken by surprise by Interior Ministry bureaucrats who announced the Har Homa construction with ostensibly poor timing, orchestrated the whole affair as a display of his new-found confidence in confronting the Obama administration.

One way or another, this time around the administration's relationship with Netanyahu quickly moved beyond Jerusalem housing issues and took the form of marathon negotiations over a new settlement-freeze-in-return-for-renewed-peace-negotiations deal. Here the dynamic pitted, perhaps more starkly than ever in the past 20 months, Netanyahu's tactical political needs concerning his right-wing coalition against his strategic need for close coordination with the Obama administration on issues ranging from Palestine to Iran. The result thus far seems to be a particular farcical juncture in US-Israel relations. 

Q. Why farcical?

A. There is no way Netanyahu can carry his right-wing coalition with him in a serious peace process. This, always assuming the prime minister himself is really seriously dedicated to a genuine two-state solution. Nor is it likely that a three-month renewal of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will be any more successful than the non-negotiations of the past year. Not only must one doubt Netanyahu's sincerity and capacity to deliver, but Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is boxed in by Hamas, his own Fateh hawks and the Arab world, has displayed a roughly comparable lack of negotiating energy in recent months. Thus, the interaction between the administration's drive to renew negotiations and Netanyahu's quandary with his coalition produced the following shaky give-and-take equations last week:

The hawks/skeptics in Netanyahu's coalition want US quid-pro-quo commitments to Israel in writing, ignoring both the blatant lack of confidence this displays between the two allies and the dangerous precedent this implies: why shouldn't President Barack Obama ask Netanyahu to commit to writing his two-state vision, the one he imparted to Obama in a recent Oval Office meeting, the one his coalition partners cannot stomach? Will there now be any basis for quiet understandings on critical issues between Obama and Netanyahu?
Shas wants a written commitment that a construction ban would not apply to Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Not a quiet commitment in exchange for Netanyahu's quiet commitment not to build in Jerusalem (as well as the West Bank) for the next three months, but a written commitment that no US administration could conceivably deliver or honor.
In return for a new construction freeze, the US reportedly pledges to maintain the opacity of Israel's nuclear stance. For how long? Three months? And how does this grand-strategic issue get factored into the bargaining over a brief settlement-construction freeze.
Netanyahu's assurances to the Israeli public that Washington was offering Israel another 20 F-35 stealth aircraft for free--again, in return for three months of a freeze--turned out to be baseless. So did his assurance that Washington agrees not to ask to extend the new three-month freeze, regardless of progress or lack thereof in negotiations. Shas and Avigdor Lieberman might have a problem understanding American English, but Netanyahu?
Nor did the government in Jerusalem appear to understand the real significance of the reported administration commitment to veto Palestine-related resolutions in the Security Council while negotiations continue. Not only are such UN resolutions almost by definition precluded if the two parties are negotiating seriously but, by implication, the administration is not undertaking to exercise the veto once the negotiations fail and the Arab League asks for UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

All in all, Netanyahu demonstrated last week once again that he is capable of mortgaging Israel's strategic needs--e.g., regarding Iran and security vis-a-vis a Palestinian state--to his own tactical political desire to hold onto his coalition. As former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer argued in the Washington Post on Sunday, under Netanyahu, "Israel's security requirements are now merely a bargaining chip with which to negotiate what Jerusalem will or will not do to advance the peace process. . . . [H]ow seriously should our defense planners. . . take Israel's arguments about its security needs when it is prepared to market different elements of its policy for another squadron of advanced aircraft?"
Q. Any day now, the Hariri international tribunal is expected to deliver a verdict indicting senior Hezbollah officials for murdering the former Lebanese prime minister. Hezbollah is thought likely to react angrily. Are we on the verge of a new Lebanese civil war or Hezbollah attack against Israel?

A. The conventional wisdom says no, for a number of reasons. Renewed civil strife in Lebanon is not likely insofar as the vast majority of Lebanese reject it, and no other single faction among Lebanon's 17 recognized sectarian groups appears to be capable of challenging Hezbollah militarily. On the other hand, Lebanon's reconstituted army, now 60,000 strong and increasingly armed with improved American weapons systems, has shown resolve in recent years' confrontations with Sunni Islamist extremist groups. Some believe it could conceivably oppose a genuine Hezbollah coup attempt.

Moreover, Hezbollah's leaders recognize that any serious internal fighting that affects the UNIFIL mission on Lebanon's southern border with Israel could invite Israeli military involvement. Most observers agree that, following the fighting of summer 2006, Hezbollah does not feel ready to take on Israel again. This explains why Hezbollah would presumably hesitate before acting out its frustrations with the anticipated Hariri tribunal accusations by attacking Israel.

The rest of the Arab world, too, is keenly aware of the need to head off any outbreak of major unrest if an indictment of Hezbollah is delivered. Saudi Arabia and Syria have been dialoguing for months over the need to maintain stability in Lebanon. Israel, for its part, is likely to display a lot of forbearance in dealing with border unrest following an indictment, in the hope of avoiding escalation and allowing wiser Lebanese and Arab heads to prevail. This is one of the lessons drawn from the Second Lebanon War of summer 2006, when Israel responded to a Hezbollah provocation with a knee-jerk major offensive, then found itself unprepared to protect the Israeli civilian rear against Hezbollah rockets supplied by Iran and Syria.

But conventional wisdom does not always prevail, particularly in Lebanon. If Hezbollah interprets an international indictment as a threat to its growing hegemony in the country, it could conceivably respond with a military takeover attempt, effectively daring the ethnically-mixed army, the weak Christian and Druze militias and Lebanon's neighbors to respond. Iran, Hezbollah's patron, could be a major factor in encouraging such a response, particularly if this suited Tehran's tactical needs with regard to tensions with the US over its nuclear program or its designs on Iraq. The overall weakness of the Arab state system, coupled with the failing health of the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, could prove a temptation for Hezbollah and Iran to act to expand Shi'ite power on the shores of the Mediterranean.

If this scenario were indeed to unfold in Lebanon, many in the Arab world would probably look to Israel to do something about it.