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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- November 23, 2009

Alpher answers questions about recent IDF troop demonstrations, films about Israel's war experience in Lebanon, and how the fall of the Berlin wall has influenced European attitudes toward the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst, co-founder and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian internet dialogue bitterlemons.org and Middle East roundtable bitterlemons-international.org. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior official with the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency. His views do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.

Q. There have been three recent instances of IDF combat troops demonstrating against being ordered to dismantle unauthorized settlements in the West Bank. What's the backdrop and what are the ramifications?

A. We are witnessing the delayed reaction of extremist rabbis who educate young religious men in West Bank yeshivas to the summer 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and dismantling of settlements there. The soldiers currently in question have themselves never even been asked to dismantle settlements or outposts, so it's clear they are not acting out some sort of personal trauma, but rather responding to directives from their rabbinic mentors who wish to prevent a similar withdrawal in the West Bank by paralyzing the IDF.

The response of the Israeli legal establishment, military and civilian, to the instances in 2005 of refusal to obey orders and to settler violence against soldiers involved in the withdrawal has not helped matters. Too many of those violators have been pardoned in a spirit of presumed national conciliation and unity. Nor has the IDF ever followed through on its threats to sever its ties with the yeshivas whose rabbis do the inciting, preferring instead to punish the soldiers in question with a few weeks in the brig. This has merely encouraged National Religious movement soldiers and their rabbinic mentors to incite to further mutinous actions. 

The concerted effort of the National Religious movement, which provides the ideological and at times financial support for the religious settler movement, to educate its young men to seek service in IDF combat units, has, after decades, begun to pay off. Some 35 percent of combat officers are now graduates of the movement's yeshivas. Make no mistake, the religious soldiers are by and large dedicated and highly motivated and the IDF has good reason to value their service. But the recent instances of mutiny--there is no other way to define it--reflect the other, ugly side of the coin. Not only are there left-wing soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories because of the existence of the settlements; there are, in effect, right-wingers as well.

At the legal level, the religious right argues that soldiers should not be used to dismantle civilian settlements and remove civilian settlers; that this is a job for the Israel Police and the Border Patrol, while the army is for fighting Israel's external enemies. There might be something to this argument had the settlers themselves, including those in "unauthorized" outposts, objected to being protected day and night by the army, or if the IDF's Nahal brigade had not itself been involved for the past 60 years in creating new settlements.

At the security level, there is evidence that extremist settler factions are backing the new mutiny tactic because their attempts to deter the dismantling of new outposts by exacting a "price tag"--in the form of vigilante actions against neighboring Palestinian villagers--have been successfully thwarted by the security services.

One way or another, if and when we arrive at a time when tens of thousands of West Bank settlers have to be removed, the IDF rank and file is liable to be highly conflicted about the task and the Police and Border Patrol lacking in sufficient manpower. In other words, it may ultimately be easier for an Israeli government to agree to withdraw than actually to implement the withdrawal. Accordingly, I can envisage the sad possibility of Israel requesting--within the framework of final status negotiations--that assistance with this task be added to the duties of an international force charged with implementing a two-state solution.

Q. Apropos the IDF's war-fighting duties, how do you view the recent crop of Israeli films about Israel's war experience in Lebanon?

A. They are superb movies, and have been picking up prizes in film festivals all over the world. "Beaufort" (2007) deals with the Israelis defending a Crusader-era fortress in southern Lebanon prior to the 2000 pullout. The nearly all cartoon-form "Waltz with Bashir" (2008) deals with the Sabra and Shatila massacre. And "Lebanon" (2009) shows the 1982 invasion of Lebanon as seen from inside an IDF tank. 

Each of the three films tells the personal story experienced by the writer and/or director. The films do not examine the broad strategic picture of how we got drawn into Lebanon; rather, they offer a soldier's eye view, two decades later. All are gritty and realistic about Israel's war against non-state guerilla actors, first the PLO and then Hezbollah, embedded in the Lebanese civilian population, and portray a lot of seemingly inevitable civilian casualties. They can be described as realistic and balanced, anti-war in general or anti-Lebanon war in particular, depending on the viewer's orientation and reaction. They are very original, professional, nuanced and bloody, and certainly do not fit the "Exodus" genre of Zionist heroism. 

Accordingly, while the films have swept prizes in Israel and abroad, they have also sparked considerable controversy in Israel. This is really the first time Israeli soldiers have, after a 20 year period of introspection and maturing, told their war stories in movies. Some critics and viewers fear a negative effect on Israeli morale and accuse the filmmakers of "shooting and weeping about it". They assume Europeans are praising the films because Europe is anti-Israel.

I recently talked to a Lebanese colleague about the films. Lebanon bans the showing of Israeli films. But because Lebanon is Lebanon, you can get them under the counter in any DVD rental shop, and Lebanese are viewing them eagerly. Their reaction was described by my Lebanese colleague as a cross between, "so, those Israelis are finally doing some soul-searching," and "but we have no empathy left for them". Lebanese, apparently, are not moved by the films to do soul-searching of their own as to how the disintegration of their country brought about attacks on Israel and led the IDF to respond.

The films are nuanced. Accordingly, some proponents of the Goldstone report regarding the IDF's behavior in Gaza last January will see in these films justification for claims about gratuitous civilian casualties. Critics of Goldstone, myself included, will see just the opposite: decent Israeli soldiers and officers doing their best in the chaos of war against an enemy that uses civilians as human shields ("Lebanon" has exactly this scene) and doesn't fight by the rules. 

The films are recommended viewing, especially "Waltz with Bashir".

Q. On a very different note, last week you noted the five-year anniversary of Arafat's death but ignored another important milestone: 20 years to the fall of the Berlin wall. How has this event shaped European and other attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

A. First, there is the obvious: if the Berlin wall fell, why can't the Israeli "wall"? Of course, the latter is actually a security fence (only nine percent wall) and is meant to keep people (suicide bombers and other terrorists) out, rather than in. In some cases, it's also a land-grab. None of these differences prevented the comparisons and even a symbolic Palestinian act of pulling down a section of fence.

More significantly, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc that is symbolized by the end of the wall 20 years ago ushered in an era of democracy and renewed western orientation for former Eastern Bloc states like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. By and large, their response to their experience with communism has made them at least as pro-American as they are European, and generally conservative in political orientation. They tend to be among Israel's more enthusiastic supporters. 

But these countries have had relatively limited contact and experience with the Middle East. The former Communist Bloc EU members had no independent foreign policy experience--Moscow dictated their moves in the international arena--until 20 years ago. Not surprisingly, then, some Central Europeans (do not under any circumstances call them Eastern Europeans) are inclined, for fairly understandable reasons, to analyze recent post-election protests and disturbances in Iran through the lens of their own liberation from Soviet rule. This is arguably not the best way to understand events in the Islamic Republic. Nor, for that matter, is it particularly helpful when well-meaning Europeans, including Western Europeans, argue that the lessons of democratization and peace in Central Europe are immediately applicable to the very different Middle East.

Two weeks ago, I participated in a conference in Warsaw devoted to issues of war and peace in the Middle East. The state-supported think tank that arranged it wants to help prepare Poland for its turn as president of the European Union, coming up from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2011. Poles are keenly aware that the Czech presidency, from Jan. 1 to June 30 this year, had serious difficulties dealing with Israel's Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza, to the extent that the French and Germans went over the heads of the Czechs in intervening and trying to mediate and neither Israel nor the Arabs knew who was representing Europe. The Poles, and the Hungarians who will hold the presidency before them, want to make adequate preparations so as to avoid this sort of fiasco.

This may not be easy. I spoke in the first panel of the Warsaw conference, on Israel-Palestine. Nabil Shaath, a very distinguished Palestinian invited to balance my presentation, cancelled at the last minute. The organizers had neglected to invite a second Palestinian who could replace Shaath (there were four Israeli participants at the conference). The PLO ambassador in Warsaw agreed to take Shaath's place. Then, literally at the last minute, his secretary called to say he had suddenly (and mysteriously) taken ill with the flu.  

As the session was about to begin, with an Israeli but without a Palestinian, I found myself facing five other Arab ambassadors to Warsaw and the Iranian ambassador, all sitting in the front row of the audience. Sensing an impending crisis, I opted for preemption and introduced myself to each, noting that I was distressed by the absence of a Palestinian speaker and hoped that they, at question time, would compensate by offering remarks. 

They shook my hand politely (even the Iranian). The session began. When my turn came to speak, they demonstratively rose and walked out, never (with the exception of the Egyptian ambassador) to return to the conference.

The Polish organizers of the conference didn't bat an eyelash. They were superb hosts and didn't want to cause me or anyone else any discomfort or disruption. I was obviously more taken aback by the walkout than they were. But what this says about the vagaries of Polish-Arab relations and the preparations still ahead for the Poles in the course of the next 19 months is another matter.

On the other hand, the Polish preparations may be unnecessary. Under the new EU constitutional reform process, a Belgian, Herman van Rompuy has been elected president of the European Union and Lady Cathy Ashton of Britain named foreign minister. The rotating state presidency will continue to exist, but apparently it will no longer deal with foreign affairs--something the Poles were seemingly not aware of two weeks ago. 

Hopefully, this greater concentration of foreign affairs in the hands of officials appointed for a term of years rather than months will improve the attitude of Obama administration Middle East experts regarding coordination with Europe. Right now senior EU officials complain that, unlike during the Bush administration, EU-US policy coordination on Israel-Arab issues barely exists.