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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - June 4, 2012

Yossi Alpher 186x140.jpgAlpher offers some thoughts regarding Israeli strategic policies

Q. Suppose, as currently seems possible, the international community and Iran reach an agreement regarding Iran's nuclear program that does not satisfy Israel's official demands and criteria. What will Israel do?

A. An agreement that satisfies the international community but not Israel looks increasingly like the "best case" outcome Israel can expect from the current negotiations--the likely alternative being failure to reach any agreement. It has already become quite clear that the 5 + 1 (the UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany) are not demanding that Iran cease all enrichment, remove all stockpiles of enriched uranium of any grade including three percent, and definitively close the Fordow facility--as Israel insists. Rather, if there is an agreement it will probably focus only on 20 percent-enriched uranium stocks and a pledge to forego further such enrichment and improve international inspection arrangements.

Such a compromise agreement would leave Israel severely isolated in its protest. It would argue that Iran was simply biding its time with cosmetic concessions in an effort to remove international economic sanctions and that it would be free to continue to pursue a clandestine weapons program and "break out" toward producing a weapon whenever it judged the international climate appropriate.

But would Israel attack Iran under these circumstances? I doubt it. Without international legitimacy and, in particular, at least tacit American backing, such an attack appears unlikely. Rather, Israel would grumble, and warn that the agreement was insufficient. It would press for sanctions and inspections to be maintained and even tightened until Iran yields to a more demanding set of conditions. And it would lobby Washington for yet more security aid, particularly in areas like missile-interception where the Iranian threat remains palpable.


Q. Last week, Turkey announced it was indicting four very senior IDF officers, serving and retired, over the Mavi Marmara incident of two years ago. How should Israel react?

A. On the one hand, the Turkish move is outrageous. Ankara is indicting former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and others for the deaths of nine violent Turks on the high seas in the course of an act of Israeli naval intervention that was later vindicated by a United Nations commission that Turkey participated in. Israel can and should protest and insist that other countries refuse to honor Turkish requests for extradition.

On the other hand, Israel should avoid acts of diplomatic or economic retaliation that just worsen relations with Turkey. Not because the aggressive behavior of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is exemplary. But because Turkey has become a major player in the region, even as Israel has become more isolated regionally and internationally, and under these circumstances the Netanyahu government should concentrate on being "smart" even if not necessarily "right".

There are two possible avenues of productive Israeli endeavor in this regard. First, Israel should swallow its pride and give Erdogan the apology for the deaths of the nine at sea two years ago that was negotiated under UN auspices by Israeli lawyer and former senior security official Yossi Ciechanover and veteran Turkish diplomat Ozdem Sanberk. This need not compromise Israel's pride or honor; after all, Israel was indeed partly at fault. The deaths were incurred in part because, at the tactical level, the Israel Navy botched its takeover operation, while at a broader level Israel found itself in confrontation with Turkey because the Netanyahu government had developed no viable strategy for dealing with Gaza and Hamas. Even Netanyahu tacitly admitted as much when he exploited the Mavi Marmara fiasco to loosen the pointless and counterproductive economic blockade of the Strip.

When the Ciechanover-Sanberk compromise was presented to Netanyahu nearly a year ago, most of the Israeli prime minister's advisers supported it. It's not too late for Netanyahu to change his mind. Last summer, Israel apologized to Egypt for the deaths of Egyptian border guards in a clash with jihadist terrorists near Eilat even though Israel's response to the incident was reasonable by any military standard. The apology was necessary to keep relations with the Egyptian military rulers on a relatively even keel. No one in Israel or elsewhere registered damage to Israel's national pride, honor or even deterrence as a consequence.

Second, once the apology and accompanying financial compensation for the families of the dead (which Israel has offered) are behind us, and assuming relations remain correct if not downright cold (after all, good relations with Israel were not a priority with Erdogan even before the Mavi Marmara incident), Israel should seek ways to engage Turkey regarding regional strategic issues where the two non-Arab Middle East states confront a shared problem. At the top of the list: what to do about Syria, and how to handle the complexities of gas-drilling rights in the Mediterranean that are disputed between Israel and Lebanon and between Turkey and Cyprus.


Q. Apropos what to do about Syria: recent atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime elicited, for the first time, Israeli condemnation. Is Israel finally taking sides? Should it?

A. Until recently, the Netanyahu government studiously avoided taking sides. Its position was based on two assumptions. First, even the appearance of Israeli meddling could backfire and work to the detriment of the side it appears to favor. And secondly, while the Assad regime with its Iranian connection is repugnant and dangerous, it is deemed likely to be replaced by a Sunni Islamist regime that could turn out to be equally problematic.

Then last week, the Houla massacre was condemned by both PM Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who stated that that act of wanton bloodshed should "compel the world to take action". To date, that is about as far as the Netanyahu government has gone on this issue. But at the level of expert input into government decisions, Houla appears to have provoked a stronger response of advice to the government. Thus, also last week, two prominent experts on Syria, Professor Itamar Rabinovich, formerly Israel's ambassador in Washington and chief negotiator with Syria, and Channel 2 expert Ehud Yaari, weighed in with proposals that Israel find discreet ways to support the Syrian opposition. With 40 percent of the Syrian population non-Sunnis or non-Arabs, they opined, Israel's fears of a radical Sunni Islamist regime in Syria replacing Assad were overblown. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, a prominent critic of Netanyahu over Iran's nuclear project, was blunter in advocating Israeli involvement in toppling the Assad regime as a way to weaken Tehran.

There are two problems in this approach--one seriously warranting consideration, the other important only for the current Israeli government. First, Israeli meddling in the regime setup of its neighbors has nearly always backfired in some unanticipated way. This week, Israel is commemorating 30 years to its disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon in an abortive effort to crown "friendly" Maronites as that country's leaders. And second, Assad's replacement by a more moderate regime, with or without Israeli help, would place the Golan issue squarely at the center of post-Assad Syrian-Israeli relations--something Netanyahu is clearly not prepared to contemplate.


Q. Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani warned last week that in the event of international armed intervention in Syria "the ashes. . . will definitely bury the Zionist regime". What does this threat mean and how seriously should we take it?

A.  Larijani's threat follows on earlier threats uttered by Bashar Assad himself, his relative and confidant Rami Makhlouf and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, to the effect that if the Assad regime finds itself in serious danger, Israel will pay a price (or, alternatively, will be "destabilized"). Taken literally, these threats present the possibility of rocket and missile attacks on Israel that are somehow linked to serious escalation in Syria. Since the Syrian revolution began, the Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon/Hezbollah borders have been relatively quiet.

The presumed objective of the threats is to deter international or for that matter Israeli intervention in the Syrian civil war. Yet Assad, Nasrallah and the Iranians all must recognize that by dragging Israel into the conflict in Syria they would only be hastening the end of the Assad regime. Hence, this threat appears relatively spineless, albeit not an impossibility. In reality, the most serious danger of overflow into Israel of the Syrian revolution would be loss of control by the Syrian army over its large chemical missile arsenal. Regarding this eventuality, presumably not only Israel, but Turkey, NATO and the Syrian opposition have contingency plans.

Meanwhile, if the Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah threats continue, Israel might have to consider ways to advertise its deterrent.