To return to the new Peace Now website click here.

Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - January 26, 2009

Assessment of the Gaza war outcome? Mitchell to deal with the aftermath of the Gaza war? Qaddafi's comments re: bi-national Jewish-Arab state?

Q. More than a week after the Gaza war ended, has your assessment of the outcome changed?

A. It has, in a number of areas.

First, from accounts by IDF soldiers involved in the fighting in Gaza, it emerges that the IDF never really encountered serious opposition on the part of any sort of organized Hamas force. Rather, Hamas followed the classic precepts of guerilla warfare and retreated in the face of a superior IDF force. It left behind snipers as well as houses and entire streets that were booby-trapped with considerable sophistication. This accounted for the large-scale destruction visited upon the Strip by the ground forces' artillery and bulldozers as a means of avoiding IDF casualties; indeed, Hamas' tactics invited the destruction by obliging the IDF to use more fire-power than maneuver. But by the same token, Hamas' forces emerged from the war relatively intact.

Apropos the damage and the concomitant civilian deaths in Gaza, Israel's political and military leadership clearly did not envisage the inclination in some quarters in Europe and elsewhere to accuse IDF combat officers and senior staff of war crimes. This lacuna is reflected in a late decision to hide the faces and names of battalion commanders from the media.

Third, the international and Egyptian effort being invested in interdicting future smuggling of weapons into the Strip, both by land and by sea, is impressive. This improves the chances of success in this critical venture.

Fourth, the Palestinian internal political fallout from the war points at this juncture to a low likelihood that any sort of renewed Palestinian unity government will soon emerge. Hamas feels too victorious politically and is proffering terms that the Fateh leadership, weakened by its avoidance of supporting Hamas during the war, cannot accept. If indeed this is the case, it reduces the likelihood that PLO personnel will be stationed on the Gazan side of the passages to Israel and Egypt, and this in turn has far-reaching consequences for the dilemma of importing construction materials into the Strip so Gazans can rebuild.

Israel insists on a control process that ensures Hamas is not using the materials to build new fortifications; the outlines of such a process are thus far absent. Assuming Israel, Egypt, other moderate Arabs and the international community, led by the US, combine to try to force a PLO presence at the passages and adequate monitoring of the use of reconstruction funds as a condition for providing them, it is not at all clear that Hamas will comply. It might well prefer to leave thousands of Gazans in tents as a means of leveraging direct aid, recognition and international sympathy.

Besides pointing to the broader strategic question of whether Israel and the world have to address one or two Palestinian entities in the foreseeable future, this is also an immediate issue for the Obama administration's emissary to the region, former Senator George Mitchell, who arrives this week.

Q. So you think Mitchell will begin by dealing with the aftermath of the Gaza war?

A. Yes, if only by default. It's hard to imagine him delving into peace process negotiation issues between Israel and the PLO, i.e., picking up where the Annapolis/roadmap process left off, if only because Israel is two weeks away from national elections and an additional six weeks or so will pass before we know what its next ruling coalition looks like. More likely, Mitchell will now seek to coordinate the US end of security and rehabilitation operations centering on the Gaza Strip as a prelude to an attempt to reintegrate the PLO into both Gaza and a future peace process.

It will be interesting to see whether, and how, Mitchell engages Hamas. Given that he represents an administration dedicated to engaging America's antagonists in the Middle East, and bearing in mind the complexity of the task of coordinating reconstruction aid for Gaza without in some fashion talking to Hamas and winning its cooperation, this certainly has to be considered a possibility.

Meanwhile, the impact of the Mitchell appointment has registered clearly with the Israeli media and body politic. Mitchell is recalled as someone who didn't hesitate back in 2001 to demand that Israel truly freeze settlements, including "natural growth", in parallel (rather than sequentially, as the Sharon government preferred) with a Palestinian clamp-down on terrorist violence, thereby laying the foundations for the roadmap.

The Israeli media picked up quickly on Mitchell's "Arab American" identity, contrasting it with a number of American Jewish contenders for the job, and concluded that this enhanced his objectivity (the liberal media) and presaged a hostile approach toward the settlements enterprise (the right wing). Personally, I hope we can all soon endorse both characterizations. In any event, Mitchell's early appointment, along with President Obama's phone calls to Israeli and Palestinian leaders the morning after his inauguration, sent a clear message that the Israeli-Palestinian issue would receive priority treatment from the Obama administration.

All these factors have already prompted FM Tzipi Livni, leader of Kadima, to warn that a right-wing government led by the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu would embroil Israel in tension with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The idea was to conjure up memories of Netanyahu's last government, which was seen as "non grata" with President Bill Clinton, thereby contributing to Netanyahu's election loss to Ehud Barak in 1999. Netanyahu quickly responded by reminding the voting public that he knows America well and offering reassurances that he would cultivate a good working relationship with Obama.

Q. On a very different issue, Libyan leader Muammer Qaddafi published an op-ed in the New York Times on January 21 calling for a bi-national Jewish-Arab state as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any comments?

A. Normally, an article or statement by a leader with Qaddafi's record of support for terrorism, suppression of human rights, ignorance and generally quirky behavior should not rate much commentary. But I was struck by two elements in the Libyan leader's analysis that merit our attention, if only because they are so antithetical to the classic Arab line and inadvertently so accommodating to the thinking of many Israelis and supporters of Israel. It may be useful at some point to quote none other than Qaddafi in order to reinforce a pro-Israel argument.

Qaddafi opposes a two-state solution for several reasons; one is that "a two-state solution will create an unacceptable security threat to Israel. An armed Arab state, presumably in the West Bank, would give Israel less than 10 miles of strategic depth at its narrowest point". This argument, by an Arab leader, reinforces the need for a West Bank-based Palestinian state to be demilitarized and for Israel to have adequate security arrangements along the Jordan Valley.

In discussing the Palestinian flight from the 1948 war that created the refugee issue, Qaddafi mentions the image of Palestinians "fleeing in fear of violence at the hands of Jews after 1948--violence that did not occur, but rumors of which led to a mass exodus. It is important to note that the Jews did not forcibly expel Palestinians. They were never 'un-welcomed'."

This is a complete reversal of the Palestinian narrative regarding the birth of the refugee issue, which argues that the refugees were all forcibly expelled, thereby rendering the birth of Israel somehow illegal. In an age when Israel's "new historians" have fairly convincingly documented instances in which some Palestinian Arabs were indeed expelled violently in 1948--even as most left of their own volition or that of their leaders--this is certainly a refreshing portrayal of the events of 1948 by an Arab leader.

To be sure, there is plenty of nonsense in Qaddafi's argument in favor of creating "Isratine". Take, for example, "Arabs sheltered Jews and protected them from maltreatment at the hands of the Romans." Or, citing the existence of more than one million Arabs in Israel, the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Israeli factories that depend on Palestinian labor, Qaddafi's determination that "assimilation is already a fact of life in Israel." The West Bank settlers will certainly be pleased to read this. But not the rest of us, who are aware of the settlers' segregated and privileged existence on the West Bank and the growing gap of alienation between the Arab and Jewish populations of the State of Israel.

Undoubtedly, few in the Arab world would endorse Qaddafi's proclamations regarding Israel's security needs and the origins of the refugee issue. Still, there's always something refreshing in Qaddafi's pronouncements. Perhaps it's a personal prejudice on my part. He and I were the same age and shared the same rank in our respective armies in 1969. He then took over his country, while I. . . .