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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - June 25, 2012

Alpher186x140.jpgAlpher discusses how we should we understand the situation in Egypt, whether Mofaz's, leader of the Kadima party who recently joined the Netanyahu government as a deputy prime minister, visit to Washington last week where he promoted his ideas for renewing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process points the way toward some sort of new peace initiative, and if the new enlarged and more "central" Netanyahu coalition might constitute a first step toward a Likud-Kadima-Atzmaut union and a pragmatic peace plan.


Q. How in the world should we understand the situation in Egypt in view of the military's delay in determining the outcome of the presidential election, its decisions to disperse parliament and appropriate some sovereign powers, and finally its announcement of the election of a Muslim Brotherhood prime minister?

A. Factor into this question the uncertainty over the health of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, and we confront a genuine dilemma in interpreting recent developments. The most obvious observation at this point is that, despite all the seemingly orderly provisions originally made for multiple elections, for the drafting of a constitution and for the transfer of power to democratically chosen representatives, Egypt remains very much in a "revolutionary situation". That means there is no obvious objective basis for predicting what comes next.

Accordingly, all we can do is try to frame the relevant questions. Not the long-term ones, such as the fate of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, Egyptian-American relations and the country's increasingly catastrophic economic situation. It is simply impossible to come to grips with these and similar grand-strategic issues until the smoke of the current acute dilemma begins to clear. And before that can happen, there are far more immediate questions that need to be addressed this week and this month.

First and foremost: in what way, if at all, can the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, clearly the two predominant actors on the political scene, agree to share power? If they can't, or as long as they can't, uncertainty will prevail, very likely along with some degree of violence.

Secondly, and as a corollary of the first question, when will an agreed constitution, or some alternative consensual new "rules of the game", be written and proclaimed, and by whom? And when will a parliament be installed, whether by dint of new elections--the SCAF dispersed the recently chosen legislative body following a judicial determination that one-third of its members were elected illegally--or due to a rescinding of the SCAF's decision? Note that President-elect Mohamed Morsi insists on taking the oath of office in parliament.

Finally, from Israel's standpoint, the most important question that hinges on immediate developments concerns Gaza and Sinai. In the current atmosphere of anarchy, these two distinct territories threaten to "merge" into a single jihadist entity in which Palestinians, Bedouin and, increasingly, al-Qaeda-affiliated Arabs from elsewhere exploit the Egyptian power vacuum to target Israel.

Last week's attack on an Israeli border-fence-building crew, led by Egyptian and Saudi suicide bombers from a new group called the Mujahidin Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem, or MSC, produced Israeli retaliation and a new round of rocket fire into Israel from Gaza. It appears to be a harbinger of things to come--until and unless a coherent and concerted Egyptian regime sets its mind to restoring order. Meanwhile, in an ominous sign of the times, Israel apparently feels obliged to tone down its military response lest the resultant escalation somehow drag Egypt into the fray, politically or even militarily.

The overall thrust of last week's political events in Cairo and military developments in Sinai and Gaza was to convince a number of prominent Israeli analysts that a serious escalation of Egyptian-Israeli tensions is inevitable, with all that this is liable to mean for Israel's military deployment in the Negev and the consequent burden this will impose on the Israeli economy. Note, meanwhile, that Morsi has pledged to maintain the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Indeed, precisely because the situation in Egypt remains so "revolutionary" and uncertain, pessimistic assessments, however tempting, must be deemed premature.

Q. Shaul Mofaz, leader of the Kadima party who recently joined the Netanyahu government as a deputy prime minister, visited Washington last week and reportedly promoted his ideas for renewing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in an "unscheduled" conversation with President Barack Obama. Does this point the way toward some sort of new peace initiative?

A. Obama's decision to "drop by" the office of National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and chat with Mofaz for half an hour last Thursday was clearly a presidential gesture intended to signal US interest in and support for moderate elements in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's coalition--elements who, like Mofaz, openly support a more forthcoming Israeli approach to the peace process with the Palestinians. Obama has been known to do this with Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well.

Mofaz champions an interim measure that would award the Palestine Liberation Organization additional West Bank territory, state recognition, and a firm international commitment to complete a negotiating process based on the 1967 lines within a set period of time, during which Israel would provide incentives for settlers to leave. The US presidential meeting will help Mofaz persuade his party and its supporters that Kadima did not compromise its centrist identity and peace commitments when it joined the Netanyahu government, despite having gotten little by way of political capital in return.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Netanyahu is in no way committed to Mofaz's plan, while PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has no faith in negotiations with the current Israeli government and rejects outright proposals for interim measures like that of Mofaz. In this regard, it is apparently more difficult for Mofaz to persuade the Palestinian leader to meet with him than it is to stage a "chance" meeting with Obama.

Yet Obama, too, does not currently appear to be interested in actively sponsoring a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process. With US presidential elections barely four months away, the administration is wary of the political risks entailed in such an initiative. Further, based on my own inquiries, there appears to be a near consensus view among the Washington think tanks that usually prepare a peace process "agenda" for incoming administrations, according to which at least in its initial phase a second Obama administration would not actively and energetically sponsor a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Unless it perceived a genuine change of heart by Netanyahu.

But that is precisely what could at least conceivably happen if political developments in Israel cause the right wing of Netanyahu's coalition to abandon it. The reason could, for example, be the removal of key settlement outposts in the months ahead. Such a development might give Mofaz and Barak more influence within the government. But even here, the outcome would more likely be slightly earlier elections than Netanyahu had planned for, rather than immediate renewal of a peace process.

Q. In this regard, there is a lot of talk about the new enlarged and more "central" Netanyahu coalition in fact constituting a first step toward a Likud-Kadima-Atzmaut union that enables the prime minister to part company with, or at least seriously weaken, the far-right wing of his own party with its extremist agenda. Wouldn't such a centrist political coalition have to present a pragmatic peace plan?

A. The idea of the Likud merging with Mofaz's Kadima and Barak's Atzmaut faction is indeed making the rounds. It assumes, of course, albeit with no solid basis in fact, a decision by Netanyahu to adopt a more centrist orientation. This might reflect either a genuine "awakening" as to the risks posed by the bi-national state that his settlement policies are leading Israel toward (he recently made a statement highlighting the dangers of an apartheid reality), or a response to international and domestic pressures. Indeed, in view of the Obama administration's preoccupation with US elections and Europe's preoccupation with its economic and structural problems, it is domestic pressures that might, in this highly speculative scenario, predominate, as testified to by the proliferation of proposals from a host of prominent "security doves" for unilateral Israeli withdrawals on the West Bank--an idea tentatively endorsed even by Barak--as well as the Mofaz plan.

There are interesting precedents whereby a hawkish prime minister felt it impossible to ignore criticism of his policies and the parallel floating of peace or withdrawal initiatives by his former colleagues in the security community. Ariel Sharon, for example, initiated the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which led to the creation of Kadima primarily by former Likudniks, at least in part due to his sensitivity to the popularity of the Geneva accords and to criticism of his Palestinian policies by a consortium of former General Security Service (Shin Bet) heads. And I believe Netanyahu invited Mofaz into his coalition at least in part in consideration of criticism of Netanyahu's and Barak's Iran policy by a large number of serving and retired security chiefs, Mofaz included.

Consider, then, the following speculative scenario. At Netanyahu's initiative and capitalizing on his considerable popularity as an undisputed leader, Likud, Kadima and Atzmaut announce their merger, under a new name. About a third of Likud members of Knesset, the party's extreme right wing, bolt and declare themselves the true Likud. The large new centrist party presents a negotiating platform to Abbas that the latter rejects, possibly after renewing negotiations for a trial month or two, because it still does not come close to his demands.

The new party, under pressure to break the current deadlock and produce results that mitigate the damage done to Israel's Jewish and democratic nature by the settlements, adopts a synthesis of the current proposals for unilateral withdrawal: turning, say, 20 percent of West Bank Area C over to the Palestinian Authority and removing some settlements while leaving the IDF in place elsewhere, including in the Jordan Valley. It voices the hope that this will persuade the Arab world and the international community to pressure Abbas to negotiate on more flexible terms. Netanyahu initiates new elections before the November 2013 deadline, based on his new party and new platform.

Pure speculation? Absolutely. But is something like this conceivable in the year ahead? Certainly.

Correction: Last week I wrote, with reference to the report by Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss on the Mavi Marmara incident of May 2010, that the Israel National Security Staff had been upgraded under current National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror. In fact, the upgrade in the Staff's status and functioning are the product of a determined effort made by Amidror's predecessor, Uzi Arad, who left the position a year ago.