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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - April 30, 2007

Alpher offers initial comments to Winnograd Commission report, the Dayton plan to strengthen Fateh against Hamas, and Turkey's motivation for a Gaza economic project...

Q. The Winograd Commission interim report was published late this afternoon in Israel. Any initial comment?

A. The report's criticism of the decision-making performance of PM Ehud Olmert and Minister of Defense Amir Peretz in last summer's Lebanon war will undoubtedly constitute the main focus of Israeli politics in the weeks ahead. More comment next week, following a careful reading of the report and taking into account initial reactions.

Q. What is the Dayton plan to strengthen Fateh against Hamas?

A. General Keith Dayton, the US security coordinator for the territories, has formulated a plan to strengthen the security apparatus at the disposal of President Mahmoud Abbas. The 3,000 or so troops of the Presidential Guard, a unit loyal to Abbas, are being reequipped and retrained to fulfill sensitive security tasks like protection of Gaza crossings and guarding presidential facilities as well as sensitive buildings and foreign visitors. The US is not arming these troops; that task is left to Egypt and Jordan, which together with Europeans and others are also doing much of the actual training, all in coordination with Israel. The US Congress has appropriated $59 million to fund American provision of "services" to the force. The Gulf countries will fund new weaponry.

The Dayton plan also envisages beefing up the office of the Palestinian national security adviser, who is appointed by Abbas. That position is now filled by Mohammad Dahlan, a veteran Fateh security official from Gaza who is considered a close supporter of Abbas and a determined opponent of Hamas. Dahlan has been involved, with a loyal lieutenant, Rashid Abu Shabak, in ordering Fateh attacks against Hamas in Gaza.

It appears to make sense for the US to invest in strengthening Abbas' security presence as a counter to Hamas--but only up to a point. For example, only if the Palestinian approaches to the Gaza passages at Karni, Erez and Rafiah are secured by forces dedicated to combating terrorism can plans be laid to expand the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza and improve economic conditions there. But the Presidential Guard is essentially Fateh's old Force 17, a kind of commando unit that Yasser Arafat brought with him from Tunis in 1994. It is loyal, but has never been particularly effective in clashes with Hamas, and it is doubtful whether it can be depended on to deal harshly with terrorists. At Rafah, the Presidential Guard will not even be asked to intercept weapons smuggled in tunnels under its feet.

The US investment in a more effective pro-Fateh force in Palestine is part of a broader pattern of strengthening anti-Islamist forces--in Iraq (the army and police), Lebanon (the army), Afghanistan and Somalia/Ethiopia as well. In many cases it sends a muddled and problematic message to local peoples, to the effect that the US first supports democratic elections in which Islamists are elected, then arms the Islamists' enemies with the effective aim of nullifying the election results. Nor can this approach be said to have neutralized the militant Islamists in any of these countries.

In the Palestinian case, the Dayton plan is liable to bring about new clashes between Fateh and Hamas. Ultimately, it appears to be designed to encourage Fateh to leave the newly-formed unity government that has Saudi backing, or at least challenge Hamas' leadership. The Olmert government, which has welcomed the Arab League's peace initiative sponsored by Riyadh, could find itself caught in the middle between clashing American and Saudi policies with regard to the Palestinians.

Moreover, it is doubtful that even a beefed-up Presidential Guard will outweigh Hamas in renewed internal Palestinian fighting. Worse, renewed clashes could bring down the entire fragile Palestinian Authority, confronting Israel with total anarchy and poverty and forcing it to contemplate massive intervention.

Q. One of the areas the Presidential Guard is destined to protect, the Erez crossing, is the site of an ambitious Turkish project to rebuild the joint industrial zone and bring jobs and investment to Gaza. What is motivating Turkey to initiate such an ambitious plan?

A. Turkey's sights are set on joining Europe. It also has rapidly developing relations with Russia and the Turkish-speaking bloc of Central Asia. The post-Ottoman Kemalist revolution in Turkey in 1923 sought not only to secularize this 99 percent Muslim country but to distance it from its imperial past, which for 500 years was rooted solidly in the Islamic Middle East. Hence Turkish interest and involvement in the neighboring Middle East are by no means a foregone conclusion.

But Turkey's concern over events in neighboring Syria, Iraq and Iran has motivated it in recent years to seek to play a more active role in Arab-Israel and other Middle East affairs as well. Turkish-Israeli relations peaked during the late 1990s, when Syria's support for the Turkish Kurdish revolutionary and terrorist movement PKK led to close military and intelligence relations between Ankara and Jerusalem. Today Turkey's relations with the Arab world are more balanced, with the fate of Iraq and its Kurdish autonomous minority a major preoccupation that has introduced tensions into ties with Washington.

The highly influential Turkish military, constitutionally the guardian of Kemalist secularism, continues to press the government to maintain a close security relationship with Israel. This tends to balance the inclination of Turkey's ruling AK party with its Islamic underpinnings to tilt toward the Muslim world. The AK party enjoys a solid majority in the Turkish parliament, will probably soon install a president and has provided the current head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference that groups all the states in the world with significant Muslim populations. So it has a vested interest in helping resolve regional Middle East disputes. There is a commercial interest, too: Turkish-Middle East commerce has in a few years jumped from three to 35 percent of Ankara's total international trade.

The list of Turkish involvement in Israel-Arab-related issues is impressive. Turkey is one of six countries serving in TIPH (Temporary International Presence in Hebron) since the mid-90s. It played a key role in shepherding multilateral talks on arms control at that time. Since last summer it has deployed units in southern Lebanon under the UNIFIL II regime. Its former president, Suleiman Demirel, served on the Mitchell Commission and it recently sent an investigating commission to Jerusalem to offer a third party opinion on the controversy over the Mughrabi gate ramp entrance to the Temple Mount (the commission, welcomed by PM Olmert, will report in a few days). It sponsors aid and development programs throughout the West Bank and Gaza. And a number of influential Israelis consider it the ideal go-between to jump-start talks between Israel and Syria.

Now the economic role heralded by the Erez enterprise signals an even more ambitious departure. Known by its Turkish initials, TOBB-BIS, the Erez plan calls for a huge investment by Turkish business entrepreneurs in garment, furniture and other industries to be established on the site of the Erez industrial zone. Erez, at the northern end of the Gaza Strip, housed a bustling joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial zone (200 companies, 5,000 employees) until Palestinian terrorist attacks forced its closure by Israel a few years ago. By the time Israel left Gaza in August-September 2005, little was left but infrastructure. Now Turkish industry wants to rebuild the zone, with Turkish firms employing cheap Palestinian labor and exporting tax free via Israel's Ashdod port and Ben Gurion airport in order to sell Turkish goods more cheaply than the growing competition from China.

TOBB-BIS is the brainchild of the Ankara Forum, a trilateral Turkish-Palestinian-Israeli chamber of commerce union and economic planning group established by the Turks several years ago. It is to be built on about 200 acres and is projected to employ 10,000 Palestinians and provide a livelihood for some seven percent of the Gazan population. The Forum met in Washington a month ago and garnered congressional support for the project. The only problem remaining to be ironed out by the three sides is security.

But security is the biggest problem. Even the Turks don't have a lot of faith in the Palestinian Presidential Guard to protect their businesses from attack by extremists. And assurances by Hamas spokesmen that a Turkish enterprise will not be attacked appear non-credible given the splits within Hamas and the proliferation of splinter terrorist groups in the chaotic Gaza Strip. The Turks look upon security as yet another "cost" to be factored into a project that can only succeed if it turns a profit. Hence they are reportedly considering bringing their own civilian security firms to Erez--a problematic proposition for Israel, which is wary of third party armed forces entering the region and fears the zone will attract terror right up to the Gaza-Israel border.

Still, the Israel Ministry of Defense is looking for ways to make the project a reality. Turkey's friendship and involvement are important to Israel.