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Hard Questions and Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- November 29, 2010

Alpher answers questions about how the new Wikileaks revelations affect Israel, and the Knesset passage of the referendum law.

Q. How do the new Wikileaks revelations of American diplomatic correspondence affect Israel?

A. Based on the initial wave of publications, not to any great extent--and if so, then positively in terms of Israel's security interests. The primary thrust of the leaks that relate to the Middle East appears to establish, in terms of critical mass, first, America's heavy preoccupation with Middle East issues, and second, the Arabs' preoccupation with Iran. 

Arab leaders from the Gulf and elsewhere are caught out advocating a much tougher US approach to Iran and its nuclear program. This merely bears out Israel's insistence that Iran is a regional threat and not merely an Israeli problem. Indeed, the leaked cables document apparent Iranian possession of North Korean missiles that can target Europe, thereby validating another Israeli argument concerning the near-global nature of the Iranian threat. Israeli claims that Syria supports Hezbollah with arms deliveries are also documented in the leaks.

This "good news" for Israel might be balanced by criticism of Israel exposed in the leaks, if we were not already so aware of our leaders' drawbacks. That the Olmert-Peretz-Livni team was dysfunctional during the Second Lebanon War of summer 2006, the Israeli public was well aware: it punished them at the polls in 2009. That Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak thinks PM Binyamin Netanyahu is polished and smart but can't keep his word, the Egyptian president has said before. 

And we knew the US spies on Israel.

If anything, the leaks confirm that when it comes to American involvement in the Middle East and particularly with Israel, the really sensitive communications are handled not by diplomats but by the relevant security establishments. And Wikileaks has not broken their codes. 

Q. Last week the Knesset passed a law virtually requiring a referendum if, as part of a peace deal, Israel gives up territory that it has annexed. Is this good or bad for peace with Israel's neighbors?

A. First, a few clarifications are in order so we can understand the context. The territories in question are the Golan Heights, annexed in 1981, the areas north, east and south of Jerusalem ("East Jerusalem") to which Israeli law was applied in 1967, and any parcels of sovereign Israeli territory inside the green line that might be included in "land swaps" in return for Israel annexing settlement blocs as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians. Any other lands Israel gives up under a final status agreement, such as the Jordan Valley, do not require a referendum under this new law. 

The referendum law passed last week was not defined as a basic law with quasi-constitutional status, even though the coalition mustered more than an absolute majority of 61 Knesset votes to pass it. This means it is subject to review on appeal by the High Court of Justice, which could easily rule it unconstitutional insofar as (see below) it virtually neutralizes the role of the Knesset as Israel's primary legislative institution. By the same token, a future government that can muster the support of a majority of the Knesset in favor of a peace deal involving the Golan or East Jerusalem can also, if it chooses, apply the same majority to cancelling the referendum law.

Note, too, that the acts of annexation under which Israel extended its sovereignty to East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan in 1981 required nothing more than simple Knesset majorities and were never submitted to the public for approval. Hence at the ethical level there is room to question the thinking behind a referendum law that refers to the return of those territories, whether it comes from the political left or the right.

Indeed, the law's origins are on the left. It was originally discussed by the Rabin government (1992-95) as an option for circumventing Knesset opposition to a final status deal. Rabin, it will be recalled, had great difficulty even obtaining Knesset approval for the Oslo interim agreements. The left approached the idea of a referendum as the sole sovereign decision-making mechanism for a deal with the Palestinians involving Jerusalem or a deal with Syria--bypassing the Knesset, where the toxic interaction between the Palestinian issue and Israeli politics renders decision-making extremely problematic. The right-wing version passed last week, in contrast, approaches the referendum mechanism as a fall-back option for scuttling a peace deal that has actually been approved by the Knesset. 

Thus, a referendum will be called if at least 61 but fewer than 80 MKs have approved a peace agreement involving return of annexed territories. The public then will have the option of vetoing or approving the Knesset vote. But if the Knesset rejects the peace deal, no referendum will be called to possibly reverse the Knesset decision. Nor will a referendum be deemed necessary if at least 80 MKs have approved the peace treaty--a virtual impossibility when it comes to the Golan and East Jerusalem.

There appears to be at least one "hole" in this new law, too. The question the public will be asked is, "Are you for or against the agreement approved by the Knesset?" But suppose the government of Israel and the Knesset decide to withdraw from previously-annexed territories on the basis of a United Nations demand, or simply unilaterally, i.e., without a treaty or agreement: will the law apply? 

Ultimately, in last week's Knesset decision, the right voted for the referendum law and the left against. It is no secret that the Israeli public is today considered highly suspicious of our potential peace partners. Moreover, the political right has in recent years displayed far more activism than the left, leading to the assumption that its referendum propaganda would ensure a public majority against a peace agreement involvement the territories under consideration. That Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a declared advocate of a two-state solution, supported a law making it more difficult for him to win approval for such a solution clearly reflects the ambiguous nature of his commitment to peace. Perhaps he merely gave his right-wing critics a throw-away law while he schemes to make peace. But it seems more likely that he really is not interested in compromise peace agreements.

One way or another, public rejection of peace will not necessarily be the case if and when an agreement is reached. Suppose, for example, that Syrian President Bashar Assad comes to Israel to appeal directly to the public to support a peace deal involving the Golan, and sweeps the public behind him much as Anwar Sadat did in 1977 concerning Sinai. Moreover, around 14 percent of the Israeli voting public, Arab citizens of Israel, can be expected to vote automatically for any withdrawal agreement, thereby reducing the percentage of the Jewish public that has to be convinced.

So the actual fate of a referendum, if and when it is held, is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Q. Large gas and oil reserves have been discovered in Israel's Mediterranean waters. What new strategic issues does this place on Israel's agenda?

A. The first and most obvious is the security of drilling platforms located anywhere from 90 to 145 km from Haifa, deep in the Mediterranean, and the security of the infrastructure that must now be erected to transport gas and possibly oil to Israel or to export in Europe. Hezbollah in Lebanon has already claimed that Israel's discoveries at the Tamar and Leviathan platforms are really in Lebanese waters. While this claim appears to have no basis in international law--no one questioned Israel's right to drill during the frustrating years before gas and oil deposits were actually discovered--this could easily be Hezbollah's way of preparing the groundwork among Arab public opinion for launching aggression in future against Israel's energy infrastructure.

Meanwhile both Lebanon and Cyprus, encouraged by Israel's success, are initiating their own drilling operations in nearby waters. This could reduce the security risks, since Lebanese drilling operations would be exposed to retaliation for attack on Israel's.

Secondly, the gas discoveries in particular will allow Israel to increase its use of natural gas for electricity production from the current 40 percent to 70 percent within a decade. The Tamar field, with its proven reserves of 240 bcm of gas, can supply Israel's domestic needs for the next 25 years, while the Leviathan field will, if current assessments prove true, nearly triple that quantity. All this is good for Israel's carbon footprint and international environmental image (though the environmentalists are already protesting plans for coastal piping and refining stations). Leviathan will also allow Israel to create a strategic gas reserve to see it through possible crises of war and blockade.

And gas exports need not be confined to Europe; Israel will soon be ideally situated to export to the West Bank and Jordan, creating infrastructure links that are good for peace. The fact that Israel is committed to natural gas imports from Egypt in coming years--yet another positive element in the regional energy infrastructure integration picture--could increase Israel's capacity to export even further.

Then there is the potential financial reward for the country of becoming an energy exporter. Here a huge controversy has arisen over an attempt by the Ministry of Finance to levy a larger percentage of the profits from the entrepreneurs who initially drilled for the gas under very generous Israeli incentives and permits. This is the first time in Israel's history that it's possible to conceive of the aggregation of a major national financial reserve that could be devoted to causes like poverty, education and the environment. Meanwhile, pragmatists fear that the controversy over money, along with pressures by environmentalists, could delay the laying of the necessary infrastructure for pumping the gas to Israel at a time when its electricity usage is skyrocketing.