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Hard Questions and Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- November 7, 2011

Q. The wave of publicity over a potential Israeli attack against Iran appears to have become almost hysterical. Can you put it into proportion?

Q. Last week, the state of Palestine was awarded full membership by UNESCO. Israel and the US have responded by "punishing" the PA. Can you put this issue, too, into proportion?

Q. The wave of publicity over a potential Israeli attack against Iran appears to have become almost hysterical. Can you put it into proportion?

A. There can be little doubt that the immediate motive for the broad publicity over war preparations against Iran emanating from Israel--as well as from Britain and elsewhere--is the report on Iran's nuclear project expected this week at International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna. The report, to be submitted by IAEA Director Yukiya Amano, will apparently provide an unprecedented look at Iran's efforts to weaponize its nuclear program. Israel, the United States, the UK and France are all expected to support a United Nations Security Council initiative to significantly tighten sanctions on Iran as a consequence of the IAEA report. In keeping with its policy that places responsibility for preventing the emergence of an Iranian military nuclear option on the international community, Israel appears to hope that the severity of the report, coupled with the by-now well-advertised threat that Israel will take matters into its own hands, will persuade Russia and China as well.

That, in a nutshell, is the "diplomatic" explanation for the barrage of discussion of war with Iran that Israelis have been exposed to lately. Just last week, this included extensive reporting as to the inclination of every member of PM Binyamin Netanyahu's "cabinet of eight" (they are apparently opposed to attacking by a majority of one), an Haaretz opinion poll purporting to show that 41 percent of the public favor an attack while 39 percent oppose it, and recriminations between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the one hand and a variety of retired security officials on the other, as to who launched the public debate and why.

In the midst of the public shouting match, Israel carried out a test launch of a missile, the Jericho 3, alleged to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Iran, and publicized the fact of recent joint long-range air maneuvers with Italy in Sardinia and, in the weeks ahead, with both Italy and Greece in the Negev. The Guardian chipped in by claiming that British armed forces were making preparations to attack Iran. The IDF held a civil defense drill in the Tel Aviv area that simulated a missile attack. In communities throughout Israel, authorities launched renewed efforts to distribute gas masks to homes. Haaretz reported that, as of January 1, 2012, Israeli aircraft would be able to overfly Iraq on their way to Iran without violating a US-Iraq no-fly zone agreement, which would expire with the American withdrawal. On the other hand, aviation experts opined that an attack in winter would be impossible due to the weather.

The "buzz" went on non-stop. President Shimon Peres proclaimed that world leaders should keep their word about preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy warned against attacking Iran, remarking that, "The growing Haredi radicalization poses a bigger risk than Ahmadinejad." His successor, Meir Dagan, rebuffed accusations by ministers in the Netanyahu government that it was he who leaked the entire option of attacking Iran when, several months ago, he labeled it "the stupidest thing I've heard of". Barak appeared on American talk shows to advocate tougher sanctions but without compromising Israel's independence of action. Israeli sources were quoted in the media stating that, when US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Israel last month, Barak had refused to commit Israel to requesting an American "green light" before attacking Iran.

Behind all the smoke and mirrors of the Iran nuclear issue in Israel, a few apparent kernels of truth and reality--some of them actually contradictory--stood out. 

For one, Dagan and other recently-resigned security officials have spoken out due to genuine concern that irresponsible (in their eyes) operational initiatives regarding Iran by Netanyahu and Barak that they had successfully prevented when still civil servants, might be renewed now that they were no longer in a position to oppose them. On the other hand, their successors, appointed by Netanyahu and Barak, are reportedly also opposed. 

Then too, Barak is confronting serious Finance Ministry demands to reduce the Defense Ministry budget in order to free up funds to support urgent social and economic measures that would at least partially satisfy the demands of the politically volatile social justice movement. Everyone knows that talk of war--in this case with Iran, and regardless of Barak's true intentions--is a tried-and-true means of preventing defense budget cuts. Everyone also understands that talk of war is a good way for Netanyahu to reestablish his security credentials in view of criticism from within his own hawkish camp that the Shalit prisoner-exchange deal reflected weakness.

Still, Netanyahu and Barak are ultimately responsible for Israel's security. Whatever their political and personal faults in recklessly deliberating the issue, their concern is real and cannot be dismissed out of hand. Even assuming a nuclear-armed Iran would not directly attack Israel, it would create a new and very negative Middle East reality for Israel whose consequences must be weighed seriously against the consequences of a preemptive Israeli attack. And the public, arguably, should be made aware of the price it will pay and the need to prepare.

This, in turn, points to a very real dilemma that the Iran discussion has plunged the country into: the government's responsibility (and that of recently retired security officials) to maintain secrecy regarding sensitive security issues, versus the need for public discussion of major decisions that could alter the way we live for many years to come. On Monday Prof. Yehezkel Dror, the "guru" of systematic decision-making in Israel on national security issues, weighed in with the opinion that public discussion of the Iran nuclear issue had a certain "ritual" and "unfocused" nature to it, because it is impossible for the Israeli public to possess all the knowledge needed to make an intelligent decision--unlike the situation, for example, with regard to the question of peace with the Palestinians. 

Obviously, Dagan and Halevy, in pointedly addressing the public, disagree.

Q. Last week, the state of Palestine was awarded full membership by UNESCO. Israel and the US have responded by "punishing" the PA. Can you put this issue, too, into proportion?

A. The UNESCO decision appears not to have played out precisely the way Palestinian strategists had hoped. Initially, it was followed by a Palestinian declaration of intention to apply for membership in another 16, or 14--the number kept varying--UN agencies and organizations. Then came a series of retaliatory blows that apparently gave pause to the Palestinian leadership.

First, the US State Department announced that under binding American law, Washington would herein withhold its annual contribution to UNESCO--some 25 percent of its budget. Israel followed with what Netanyahu described as "punishment": freezing the transfer of Palestinian tax monies collected by Israel, building another 2,000 housing units in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, and cancelling VIP permits for prominent Palestinians to enter Israel. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared that Palestinian efforts to join additional UN agencies were "not beneficial for Palestine and not beneficial for anybody"; he was referring to the budget cuts that would be necessitated by US withdrawal of funds.

Meanwhile, it was becoming increasingly likely that the Palestinians would not muster a nine-nation majority at the Security Council in favor of full membership. Britain, Bosnia, Colombia and France will apparently all abstain. If the balance of forces does not change, the US will not have to use its veto to prevent membership when the issue comes up for a vote later this month. 

In response to these developments, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki, a key figure in the UN membership drive, announced that, for the time being, the Palestinians would not apply to additional UN agencies. A separate statement by him appeared to imply that, even if rejected by the Security Council, the PLO would not even apply to the General Assembly for observer-state status, but would continue to insist on full membership. Then, too, PA President and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas continued to hint at the possibility of dissolving the PA in response to failure both at the UN and in the peace process. Alternatively, Abbas has projected the prospect of new PA elections in May in his thus-far sterile "reconciliation" contacts with Hamas under Egyptian auspices. 

A growing number of Israeli observers of the Palestinian scene suggest that Israel should begin taking seriously Abbas' threat to dissolve the PA and resign. Here, by the way, the dual roles played by Abbas and especially Malki are indicative of the ambiguity seemingly cultivated deliberately by the Palestinians. The Palestine Liberation Organization is Israel's official negotiating partner under the Oslo agreements. It is also the only official Palestinian interlocutor with the United Nations. PA Foreign Minister Malki, a political independent and not a Fateh member, has no position in the PLO. Indeed, under Oslo, the PA is not even supposed to have a foreign ministry. Yet Malki has spearheaded the Palestinian UN drive. Abbas, who heads both the PA and the PLO, is now threatening to disband the PA in response to UN refusal to change the PLO's status from observer to member state.

Confused? So are a growing number of experts and observers who consistently confuse the PLO and the PA in their analyses. The most logical way to look at this is to view the PA as the prototype or kernel of Palestinian statehood. Abbas seems to be threatening that if there is neither statehood nor a productive peace process leading to statehood, there should no longer be a state in-the-making. 

The consequence of a unilateral Palestinian decision to dissolve the PA would either be chaos in the West Bank, Israeli reoccupation with all that entails, or both. While Palestinians would be foregoing their autonomy and their impressive state-building accomplishments under the PA, Israel's international and regional status--including its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan--would be very seriously compromised. The Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip would effectively evolve into a state. All this is not a pleasant prospect for either the Netanyahu government or the Obama administration.