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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - February 9, 2009

Q's re: Knesset election prospects; apparent pendulum swing in Israeli public opinion; 30 years after the Islamic revolution in Iran; Dealing with Iran today...

Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst, co-founder and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian internet dialogue bitterlemons.org and Middle East roundtable bitterlemons-international.org. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior official with the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency. His views do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.


Q. How do Tuesday's Knesset elections shape up in terms of prospects for a stable, peace-oriented government?

A. Very badly. Even if the present Kadima-Labor coalition were able to pull a rabbit out of a hat on election eve and announce a prisoner exchange and long-term ceasefire with Hamas, thereby boosting the two parties' electoral chances, the best outcome one could hope for is a Kadima-led centrist coalition that includes the Likud. This means an inbuilt right wing veto over the kind of territorial and other concessions needed to advance peace processes with the Palestinians and Syria.

More likely, Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud will lead the next governing coalition. Labor and Kadima will have to decide whether to join an ostensibly centrist coalition under Netanyahu, who himself presents views that are actually more moderate than most of his party, or to abandon Netanyahu to the right wing and religious parties, thereby placing Israel on a potential diplomatic collision course with the Obama administration as well as neighboring Egypt and Jordan that might well generate new elections within two years.

One intriguing alternative being bandied about by Kadima is for it to lead a coalition with Labor and Yisrael Beitenu. This scenario assumes both an unlikely Kadima victory over the Likud and the possibility that Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman would agree to shelve his pseudo-fascist ideology in return for the secular legislation he demands on personal status issues for his Russian immigrant constituency. But as we saw when Lieberman briefly served in the outgoing Olmert government, he would ultimately remain loyal to his right wing voters, thereby guaranteeing an unstable coalition.

All of these scenarios are virtually dictated by the grim prospect that the four leading parties--Likud, Kadima, Yisrael Beitenu and Labor--will end up with somewhere between (in descending order) 25 and 15 mandates. Four medium-sized parties whose philosophies encompass nearly the entire spectrum of secular Zionist views are a recipe for lack of governability, to say nothing of lack of a viable peace process.

Once again we are reminded that the Israeli political system, while offering ultra-democratic representation to the most isolated minority and sectarian views, is ill-suited for the task of governance, and particularly for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, this election featured an unusual emphasis on personalities over issues, thereby to some extent alienating the public and ensuring a low voter turnout. Only Lieberman chose to stake out an easily recognizable (albeit repugnant) position on the Palestinian issue, and this may account for his almost certain electoral gains.

Q. The outgoing Knesset held a left-center majority. Now the polls show the Likud and right/religious parties set to win a majority. What caused the pendulum of Israeli public opinion to move to the right in this election?

A. The move to the right began after the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. This is when the Likud's rating in opinion polls began to climb. The idea of unilateral withdrawal (from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza a year earlier) was judged by the public to have failed, generating aggressive attacks on Israel on two fronts. Netanyahu had predicted these attacks, hence could persuasively take an "I told you so" position. Moreover, unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was predicated on the contention by Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak that Israel had no viable Palestinian partner for peace. Hence a new peace process could not convincingly be held up as an alternative.

Nevertheless, Olmert and FM  Tzipi Livni proceeded to opt for a new negotiating process. It too failed, thereby further reinforcing the move to the right.

Throughout this period, an additional factor strengthening the Israeli political right has been the growing radicalization of the Arab citizens of Israel, whose political and intellectual leaders increasingly call for Israel to cease to be a Jewish state in order to accommodate them. This Israeli Arab ideological trend is in many ways an outgrowth of the failed Oslo process. Lieberman, with his slogan "no citizenship without loyalty" has capitalized on the Jewish public's negative perception of these Israeli Arab opinion trends.

Most recently, Israeli Arabs staged demonstrations to protest Israel's war on Hamas in Gaza--a war that enjoyed broad Jewish support. This development, too, helped Lieberman to attract voters. Interestingly, other aspects of the war did not apparently reinforce the Israeli political right. Indeed, Defense Minister Barak, who heads Labor, was able to leverage his leadership of the war effort to improve his otherwise dismal standing with the voters.

Finally, another factor that relates to Likud leader Netanyahu is the widespread view that he is better equipped than leaders from the left and center to shepherd Israel through tough economic times. He is perceived to have succeeded in the early part of this decade as minister of finance under Sharon.

Note, in conclusion, that all the gains on the right belong to Netanyahu and Lieberman. The extreme right wing is hopelessly fragmented among several lists, most or all of which may fail to pass the two percent threshold.

Q. This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Three decades later, how do the strategic consequences look for the region and the world?

A. I experienced the revolution in 1978-9 as Israel's chief intelligence analyst for Iran. Because the entire concept of an Islamic revolution in the Middle East was foreign at the time, neither I nor any of my contemporaries in friendly intelligence services were fully able to grasp in real time the dynamic and the impact of what was happening. This is known as "intelligence surprise": for me, the Iranian revolution was a particularly traumatic experience.

Ever since, those dramatic events in Iran have contributed to the emergence of additional revolutions in places like Algeria, Sudan and Somalia, and of Islamist movements like Hezbollah and Hamas. You don't have to be a Shi'ite Muslim or even a friend of Iran (al-Qaeda, for example) to be inspired by the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini fomented. Today, three decades later, we can describe the Iranian Islamic revolution as belonging to the same category as the Bolshevik revolution of 1918 in terms of its regional and even global impact.

I am struck by the fact that many of the very same western and Middle Eastern political and security establishments that, in 1978-9, failed to grasp the impact of what was transpiring in the Shah's Iran, still don't seem to understand the relative permanency of that revolution. Witness the insistence of the Bush administration and neo-conservatives generally in recent years that the Islamic revolutionary regime does not enjoy the support of Iran's youthful masses, who prefer western culture, and that under the right circumstances (military attack? revolts by minorities?) the regime could be overthrown--even as those same masses nevertheless turn out regularly at Iranian elections to choose among candidates who have been carefully vetted for their Islamist credentials.

I have encountered veterans of the close pre-Khomeini Israeli relationship with the Shah who swear up and down that, with "just $100 million" they could project broadcasts into Iran that would bring down the Islamist regime. In other words (at least by my way of thinking), there are still people in key positions in the US, Israel and elsewhere who have not fully understood the dynamic and the impact of what transpired in Tehran in mid-February 1979. They insist that the "real" Iran is moderate, pro-western and anxious to work together with Israel against the radicals of the region. After confronting the Islamic regime for 30 years, they still are not reconciled to its permanency.

American diplomats have in recent years been careful to state that the US does not have a regime-change policy regarding Iran. Nevertheless, the Iranians have been able to make a persuasive case that the US has indeed sought the demise of the regime rather than seeking contact with it. This points to the first (and easiest) task for the Obama administration concerning Iran: signal convincingly that Washington recognizes, legitimizes and accepts the Islamic Republic even though it disagrees with many of its policies. Notably, in his Munich speech a few days ago, US Vice-President Joe Biden did not do this.

Finally, while there is abundant evidence that Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlevi was no true friend of Israel, he nevertheless collaborated closely on certain issues and formed a key pillar of Israel's productive relationship with the non-Arab Middle East "periphery". His demise signaled the collapse of the periphery strategy. It is no coincidence that this took place in the same year (1979, the year of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty) that Israel began to be accepted by the Sunni Arab core of the Middle East. In this sense, the Iranian revolution was a key component in a major and prolonged regional strategic shift regarding Israel.

Q. Apropos Israel's elections and Iran, how would different possible Israeli coalitions address the Iranian nuclear threat and Obama's intention of dialoguing with Iran about it?

A. First, it is important to recall that the outgoing Olmert government effectively bowed to the demand of the now-departed Bush administration that Israel not initiate military activity against Iran. If President George W. Bush demanded that Israel stand down from attacking Iran, President Barack Obama undoubtedly does so, particularly as he pursues efforts to open a dialogue with Iran. So the question is, how would the leaders of the main Israeli parties--anyone who could conceivably be prime minister or minister of defense--address this American stance.

Here we have to distinguish between electoral bluster and a sober assessment of Israel's interests. Netanyahu and Lieberman talk tough regarding Iran, whereas Livni and Barak do not. If the right wingers take power in Israel, there will undoubtedly be some uncomfortable moments between them and Obama administration officials regarding Iran as well as other issues. Still, I doubt they would contemplate any sort of uncoordinated near-term preemptive action against Iran. Even if Lieberman were given security responsibilities and sought to take action against Iran concomitant with his threats in the past to drop nuclear weapons on Egypt and Gaza, the security establishment would not let him. (Having said that, Lieberman as minister of defense in a right/religious government is clearly the worst nightmare of sane people in both Israel and the US.)

The centrists and left-wingers, and (hopefully) after a bellicose delay the rightists as well, would set about seeking to ensure that Washington coordinates its diplomatic moves regarding Iran with Jerusalem--in effect (and speaking metaphorically), that Obama stops in Jerusalem on his way to Tehran.

If, and only if, after all is said and done between the US and Iran, the latter proceeds to develop a nuclear weapons program and Washington fails to toughen its policy and seemingly has no solution, it is conceivable that an Israeli leader of the left, center or right would consider unilateral military action.

This, however, is not likely even in this worst-case scenario, for two reasons. First, even Obama's rhetoric has not closed off the possibility that the US itself would act militarily under these circumstances. Secondly, it would be next to impossible for Israel to attack Iran without close air force coordination with the US, with its heavy aerial deployment in Iraq and the Gulf region. This gives Washington a near 100 percent veto on major Israeli military action against Iran.