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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- November 8, 2010

Alpher answers questions about next steps for the peace process following the US midterm elections, and how the southern Sudanese decision to secede from Sudan affects broader dynamics in the Middle East.

Q. With the US mid-term elections over and following upon Republican gains, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu will be meeting this week in the US with senior administration officials. What will have changed in discussion of peace process issues?

A. Ostensibly, nothing. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will continue to press Netanyahu to renew a settlement-construction freeze in return for a package of administration diplomatic reassurances and security support. The freeze they will discuss could be longer than the mere two or three months talked about back in late September, when the previous ten-month freeze expired. But the other terms of negotiations do not appear to have changed.

The PLO, incidentally, has obliged by extending until the end of November its (and presumably the Arab League's) deadline for renewing peace talks based on a freeze. PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat visited Washington recently to deliver this message. Considering that the alternative path threatened by the PLO is to pursue UN recognition of a Palestinian state and that this option is fraught with dangers unless adequately pre-negotiated with the US--meaning, at least indirectly, with Israel too--Palestinian readiness to push back the next crisis and extend deadlines is understandable. (Egypt, by the way, is proposing an alternative interim measure if the US plan fails: additional Israeli redeployments from the West Bank.)

Netanyahu is also expected to inform United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of Israel's intention to withdraw from the northern part of Ghajar, which is technically a part of Lebanon that Israel committed to leave back in May 2000. This is a goodwill gesture to the UN, and indirectly to the Obama administration and to Lebanon, which, due to Hezbollah influence, refuses to cooperate with Israel in effecting the withdrawal. Following withdrawal, Ghajar will be divided between Lebanon and Israel. All of Ghajar's inhabitants, who are Alawite, have asked for and received Israeli citizenship.

Netanyahu came to the US for an entire week. Presumably, he'll have some free time to meet with leading Republicans and assess the ramifications of their electoral achievements ("I speak Republican," he famously stated last year). A first indication that he senses a Republican wind in his sails was his public call, at the GA in New Orleans, for the US to project a credible military threat against Iran--an appeal immediately rejected by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

But if, and to what extent, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is going to affect administration positions and priorities regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it's still too early to predict.

Q. Two weeks ago, you predicted that Republican gains in the election might reduce American pressures on Netanyahu to block right-wing Knesset legislation that seeks to constrain civil liberties and hamstring judicial freedom in Israel. What is on the Knesset's current legislative agenda in this regard?

A. A lot, all sponsored by right-wing parties in Netanyahu's coalition, here and there with a few signatures from Kadima members of Knesset. The thrust of these bills, even before they are passed, has been to exacerbate Jewish-Arab tensions within Israel and to paint Israel internationally as a country whose historic commitment to human rights and pluralism is liable to be compromised. Here are some examples:

A bill that determines one year of imprisonment for anyone who denounces the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish democratic state if there is a reasonable chance such publication "will lead to the commission of an act of hate. . . or disloyalty" has been approved by the Knesset in a preliminary reading. Most Israeli Arabs, close to 20 percent of the population, do not accept Israel as a Jewish state.
Members of Knesset from the National Union, which can actually be described as being to the right of the coalition, are pushing a bill to imprison or fine anyone holding an event that "commemorates Independence Day, or the very establishment of the State of Israel, as a day of grief or mourning". Israeli Arabs generally subscribe to the Palestinian narrative, according to which Israel's independence came at the expense of the Palestinian Nakba, or disaster, in 1948.
Additional right-wing legislative initiatives would require all members of Knesset to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, something all ten members of Arab parties in the current Knesset would almost certainly refuse to do.
Another initiative would allow communities of fewer than 600 residents to decide who may or may not purchase a home there. This is directed against Arabs seeking to move into small Jewish communities that in recent decades were deliberately placed in their midst, for example in Wadi Ara. In all fairness, it must be noted that Arab communities are extremely hostile toward Jews seeking to live among them.

The Netanyahu government tolerates or even sponsors some of these measures. It views them as patriotic responses to criticism of Israel's human rights record, its settlement policy, demands from the Israeli Arab community and elsewhere that Israel become a bi-national state, and Palestinian demands regarding the right of return of the 1948 refugees. But the government is also clearly sensitive to pressure regarding where these initiatives are taking Israel. Critics inside Israel and in the US point out that it will be very difficult to defend Israel abroad against accusations that it is behaving in violation of international law if its supporters cannot argue in clear conscience that Israeli society is open, pluralistic and capable of dealing on its own with allegations of human rights transgressions. 

Thus, an earlier initiative to require NGOs that deal with human rights and related issues to register as foreign agents if they receive funding from foreign (usually European) governments, has been toned down considerably as a result of pressure.  And in response to widespread criticism of legislation he proposed that requires naturalized citizens to pledge allegiance to the "Jewish, democratic State of Israel"-- nearly all naturalized citizens are Palestinian Arabs marrying Arab citizens of Israel-- Netanyahu has asked the Minister of Justice to prepare a bill to apply the same pledge of allegiance to Jews becoming citizens based on the Law of Return. 

Conceivably, some of these initiatives will not pass, at least in their current form. Right-wing parties have proposed them unsuccessfully in the past. What is disturbing here is the Netanyahu government's knee-jerk jingoism in the face of the consequences of its policies. In the newly-elected American Congress, there will almost certainly be fewer key committee chairpersons who take the trouble to remind Netanyahu of those consequences.

Q. Moving far away, to the Middle East periphery, the southern Sudanese population votes on January 9 on a proposal to secede from Sudan and become a newly-independent African state. How and why is this relevant to the broader Middle East scene in general and to Israel-Arab relations in particular?

A. Sudan is the largest state in Africa. Its northern two-thirds are Arab; its southern third is Christian and animist. A pact brokered in 2005 by emissaries of the Bush administration laid the groundwork for the referendum, in which the southerners, after decades of abuse at the hands of the Arab north, are expected to vote to secede. 

This would be the first breakup of an Arab country in modern history. There are large disputed oil deposits on the north-south border and the South potentially controls some of the Nile waters that flow north and constitute the lifeblood of Egypt. How Arab Sudan and the rest of the Arab world react to a secession decision could be decisive for regional stability. And regional stability is important for moderate Arab efforts to counter Iran and its Islamist Arab allies and to support a peace process. Hence this issue should concentrate our attention for the months to come.

General Salva Kiir Mayardit, head of the Southern Sudanese Autonomous Authority and the Southern People's Liberation Movement and commander of the nascent southern army, is pushing for secession. He is already trying to balance contradictory Middle East pressures, hosting a high level Egyptian delegation in mid-October, then reportedly stating in late October that he would invite Israel to open an embassy in Juba, capital of the South. 

(Southern Sudanese-Israeli relations go way back, as I can testify from my own visit there four decades ago; then as now, the two peoples shared fears of Arab or Islamist hostility and encroachment. South Sudan is probably the most backward, isolated, oppressed and non-Arab part of the "Arab world".)

Some Arab sources purport to see southern independence as an Israeli and American plot against Egypt. This refers mainly to Nile water issues, over which Egypt is at odds with all the Black African Nile-source riparian states. Hassan Turabi, Islamist former prime minister of Sudan, stated a week ago that he feared Sudan being dismantled like Yugoslavia, with Darfur next on the list of secessionists. Indeed, the Kosovo precedent in particular weighs heavily on the minds of Arab observers. A Bahraini observer, Saleh al-Musaffar, asked last week in the radical al-Quds al-Arabi, "What would be the attitude of [Egypt] if the Nuba in southern Egypt or--God forbid--Egypt's Copts were to demand the right of self-determination?. . . The referendum will set a very dangerous precedent, flinging the gates open to secessions elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic worlds. . . . The right to self-determination can only be the right of states falling under colonialism and not of those seeking secession."

The US is gearing up to exercise influence. Last September, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Sudan referendum a "ticking time bomb", noting that secession is "inevitable". Washington is at odds with the Sudanese government, which has been accused of war crimes in Darfur. The Arab press has quoted State Department officials as intimating that sanctions on Sudan might be lifted if Khartoum acquiesces in the outcome of the referendum. Samantha Power of the National Security Council stated in late October that President Obama was being briefed daily on the Sudan referendum situation. Actor George Clooney came to Washington last month to lobby President Obama and Congress on behalf of the South.

As we watch the countdown to the Southern Sudanese referendum, we can only pose the relevant questions that should guide us on this issue in the months ahead. Will there be a new north-south war in Sudan, fought over southern independence or the oil in the border region (which votes separately on whether to join the North or the South)? Can the South, which like all of post-colonial Africa is rife with tribal divisions, hold together? Will war in or around the South spread to neighboring destabilized areas like Darfur and Chad? And will southern independence inspire similar movements elsewhere in the Arab world--from Iraq to Yemen to Morocco?