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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - April 23, 2007

Q. primary strategic security challenges for Israel's sixtieth year.... Q. ...significance of Israeli Arab MK Azmi Bishara resignation from the Knesset and voluntary exile... ?

Q. As Israel enters its sixtieth year of independence on Tuesday, April 24, what are the primary strategic security challenges it encounters?

A. It's striking to contemplate the extent to which Israel's threat assessment list has changed in the course of the past five years or so. Back in 2002 the main security challenge was the intifada, and particularly the Palestinian suicide bombings. Further down the list were the Iranian nuclear threat and Islamist terrorism in general. Barely mentioned were war with Hezbollah and/or with Syria, the vulnerability of Israel's civilian rear and the consequences of civil war and internal collapse in Iraq. Only slightly more visible were the Palestinian demographic threat and the internal threat posed by the widespread Israeli Arab demand that Israel cease to be a Jewish state.

As Israel celebrates its fifty ninth independence day, Iran leads the list of security challenges it faces. But not just nuclear Iran; in recent years the Iranian drive for regional hegemony has developed into a powerful threat, not only to Israel but to its Sunni Arab neighbors as well. The Iranian threat is linked to Syria, Hezbollah and the Shi'ite majority in Iraq.

This brings us to the threat of war in the north. Another round with Hezbollah (whose deputy leader recently acknowledged publicly that all the movement's military initiatives are closely coordinated with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) is almost a foregone conclusion among many Israeli security circles. But a possible war with Syria now also looms large--after a period of a decade or so during which Damascus' regional isolation and outdated military equipment caused Israel to discount its war-fighting potential.

Iran and a resurgent Russia are rearming Syria, while the damage to Israel's deterrent profile caused by last summer's war has seemingly energized Bashar Asad to threaten Israel repeatedly--whenever, in a display of rhetorical zigzag, he is not offering to renew peace negotiations. Israeli military planners are particularly worried that mistaken assessments on one or both sides of the Golan could spark an accidental conflict that could involve large-scale armored warfare as well as a Syrian missile and rocket barrage that reaches deep into Israel. Meanwhile the Olmert government seems incapable of investing in negotiations as an alternative way of dealing with Syria.

With respect to threats from both Syria and Hezbollah, Israel's civilian rear has been revealed to be vulnerable to rocket and missile attack from the north. Preparing for this eventuality involves a huge investment.

Next on the list of strategic security challenges I would rank the threat of damage to Israel's strategic interests as a consequence of an American decision to end the occupation of Iraq without leaving in place a stable political system and a leadership interested in and capable of withstanding Iranian political and military incursion. As matters currently stand, a US withdrawal could fuel Sunni-Shi'ite civil war, empower Sunni extremists in Anbar province, reward Iran with a Shi'ite vassal state in the southern two-thirds of Iraq and weaken the Kurds' capacity to maintain de facto independence. All these developments could draw in Iraq's other neighbors (in addition to Iran). One consequence could be an even stronger Iran targeting Israel from the Iraqi-Jordanian border. Another could be extremist threats to Jordan's security--uncomfortably close to Israel. Already, huge Iraqi refugee flows constitute a heavy burden on the Hashemite Kingdom.

In the Iraqi context, Israeli security has become uncomfortably linked with American strategic mistakes in the region. Invading and occupying Iraq was one error. Engineering instant elections in which armed and militant Islamist extremist groups were encouraged to run and win power in Iraq and Palestine was another. A precipitate and ill-conceived withdrawal from Iraq could make matters even worse.

The 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip somewhat reduced the profile of the Palestinian demographic threat to Israel's integrity as a Jewish state. On the other hand, the growing radicalization of the Israeli Arab community, some 18 percent of the population, has accentuated that threat. While the ongoing security fence project and Israel's heavy military hand inside the West Bank have radically reduced suicide bomber incursions into Israel, these measures have also exacerbated the conflict. One likely expression of Palestinian hostility is rocket attacks on the Israeli heartland.

Finally, the broader terrorist threats posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates and Iranian-sponsored terrorist organizations--in other words, by both Sunni and Shi'ite regional and global terrorism--cannot be ignored. Israel clearly remains a target.

Israel has not yet found ways to rectify fully the weaknesses in deterrence, defense of the civilian rear, ground warfare capabilities and national security decision-making revealed by last summer's war. Hence the only positive strategic development in the region that can be pointed to at this juncture is growing Arab awareness of the Iranian and militant Sunni and Shi'ite threats, coupled with Saudi initiatives aimed at galvanizing a regional response. Israel will need a stronger and more strategically savvy leadership if it is to take advantage of this new reality and improve its options.

Q. Apropos the radicalization of the Israeli Arab community, MK Azmi Bishara resigned from the Knesset on Sunday April 22 and remains in voluntary exile in the Arab world after some two weeks of rumors and speculation regarding criminal and/or security charges that are being prepared against him. What is the significance of this development for Israeli security?

A. Bishara is the leader of a small Arab party, Balad (Hebrew acronym for "National Democratic Assembly"), that has three members of Knesset. He is a radical intellectual who prefers the title "philosopher" to "politician". He received his doctorate in philosophy at Humboldt University in cold-war East Berlin, and at the rhetorical level is an exciting and compelling speaker. Most significantly, it was Bishara who about a decade ago introduced into Israeli Arab discourse the demand that Israel become a "state of all its citizens" rather than a Jewish and democratic state.

Bishara's influence on the thinking of a generation of secular non-Islamist Israeli Arab intellectuals and politicians ( he himself is a Christian) is profound. A recent spate of "vision" documents and constitution drafts published by groups of mainstream Israeli Arab opinion-makers set forth demands for Israel to effectively become a bi-national, Jewish-Arab state in order to accommodate the concept that Israel's Arabs are the "indigenous" population and the Jews are colonialist conquerors. These ideas owe a great deal at the conceptual level to Bishara's thinking and political audacity.

Israeli tolerance for Bishara's views has been remarkable. Two elections ago, the High Court of Justice reversed Electoral Commission determinations that Balad's political platform violated the constitutional demand that all parties recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, thereby allowing him to run. His frequent visits to Syria and Lebanon, including during war-time--where he met publicly with Bashar Asad and Hassan Nasrallah, praised their policies and condemned those of Israel--were also tolerated by the security community, to the extent that some Israeli Arabs concluded that Bishara must be a collaborator.

In fact, all this took place in the name of Israeli pluralism and based on the assumption that it was better to have internal critics of Israel's existence, however extreme, out in the open than to drive them underground. But there can be no mistake that Bishara has become clearly identified by the Jewish public as an enemy of the state. His association with the most reactionary and oppressive of Arab leaders in Syria and Lebanon and his readiness to level outlandish accusations against Israel--e.g., "in the entire history of mankind there have never been acts of plunder like those carried out by Israel"--clearly belie his rhetoric about democracy and equal rights.

Bishara is a darling of the Arab media; he may aspire to the status of a Palestinian national leader (i.e., beyond the bounds of the small Israeli Arab community) or even a pan-Arab political philosopher. He will not lack for opportunities to speak out against Israel from exile. He has for some time argued that eleven years in politics is enough, and intimated that he would in any case eventually resign from the Knesset.

Bishara's specific reasons for resigning now were not spelled out in a letter he deposited with the Israeli consul general in Cairo. He apparently left the country to avoid the consequences of an investigation by the security establishment and the police. His enemies within the Israeli Arab community accuse him of embezzling funds. The press, hamstrung by sharp court-mandated restrictions based on security considerations, hints that he finally crossed the line in the course of his trips to Syria and Lebanon. A former associate at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, where he taught for several years before going into politics, told me that Bishara had received large sums of money from Syria and Hezbollah for use by his political party and had apparently kept them for himself: this could explain both the criminal and the security components in suspicions against him.

Bishara's legacy in Israeli politics is a negative one: greater polarization between Arabs and Jews and closer ideological proximity between Israel's Arab community and the most extreme elements in the Palestinian national movement. He is expected to remain abroad for at least two years, or until legal proceedings against him in Israel have been completed; if he is convicted in absentia he will undoubtedly remain in the Arab world, far from extradition proceedings. His absence from the country and the Knesset will remove an articulate and eloquent anti-Israeli voice from the Israeli public scene. But his provocative ideas have been firmly planted in Israeli Arab discourse and will proliferate without him. On the other hand, Bishara is now free to try to recruit broader support throughout the Arab world for his radical vision of the demise of Israel as a Zionist state.

P.S. The same day Azmi Bishara resigned from the Knesset, Avraham Hirschson voluntarily took a three month leave of absence from his post as minister of finance, while an increasingly serious corruption investigation against him gathers steam. This could be another nail in the coffin of the Olmert government. But in terms of broad strategic consequences, Bishara's political legacy is more significant than the story of one more corrupt senior public official.