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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: April 15, 2013

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Alpher discusses Israel's security situation on this, the sixty-fifth anniversary of its independence, the ramifications of PA Prime Minister Fayyad's resignation, and why the Netanyahu government reportedly rejected Secretary of State John Kerry's proposal to renew two-state talks with the Palestinians on the basis of discussing borders and security first.

Q. On Tuesday, Israel celebrates the sixty-fifth anniversary of its independence. How do you assess its security situation at this point in its history?

A. The contrasts suggested by such an assessment are quite striking.

On the positive side, Israel is clearly not in danger of being dragged into a conventional war against its neighbors, who are far more preoccupied with their own revolutionary chaos and whose armies, especially in Syria, are deeply involved in domestic conflict. The fighting in Syria almost certainly also bespeaks a weakening of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis that in recent years has brought the Iranian threat up to Israel's borders.

Then too, both of Israel's Palestinian fronts--with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip--are relatively quiet. There is talk of a new intifada and a trickle of rocket fire from Gaza has been renewed, but neither Fateh in Ramallah nor Hamas in Gaza City seem to be interested in renewed heavy violence.

Finally, Israel's overall economic resilience is quite strong by international standards. Natural gas discoveries in the Mediterranean have certainly improved the long-term outlook. (Ostensibly, Finance Minister Yair Lapid's current highly publicized attempt to cut the budget and the deficit paints a more problematic picture. But this is largely a reflection of Lapid's lack of experience and his penchant for making policy by facebook.)

On the negative side, the Palestinian issue remains the biggest challenge to Israel's ongoing integrity as a Jewish and democratic state. It also accounts to a large extent for the international isolation that successive Israeli governments, but primarily Netanyahu's, have maneuvered Israel into. The question is no longer whether the Palestinian question will drag Israel into a war, but rather whether Israel's insistence on swallowing up the territory designated for a Palestinian state will eventually change Israel from within in ways that distort the heart and soul of the Jewish state.

Looking beyond Israel's borders, the rise of varieties of political Islam--from the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza and Egypt via Salafists in Syria to Shiite fundamentalism in southern Lebanon--poses a growing risk of long-term regional isolation and hostility that is largely not of Israel's doing. Getting the Palestinian issue off the international agenda might not solve Israel's problems with its Islamist neighbors, but it would certainly strengthen the international and moderate Arab support (where it still survives in the Arab world--in Jordan, the West Bank and the Gulf emirates) that Israel will need to deal effectively with these neighbors. Meanwhile, the growing chaos in Syria and the likelihood that the Golan border will become violent constitute Israel's most urgent security preoccupation.

Finally, the Iranian nuclear threat still looms large. At least in theory, this is the only military existential threat to Israel's existence. It also poses the danger of catalyzing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Here Israel needs American and regional cooperation, which can be radically enhanced only by movement on the Palestinian issue.

On Sunday, the eve of Israel's Memorial Day for the fallen in wars and victims of terrorism, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz stated, "Do not let the quiet fool you. A storm is brewing." The next day, 1.5 million Israelis visited military cemeteries.

Q. What are the ramifications of PA Prime Minister Fayyad's resignation?

A. This is not the first time Salam Fayyad has resigned the Palestinian Authority premiership. But it is the first time President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has defied US and other international pressures and accepted the resignation. The 61-year old Fayyad served in the post from 2007.

Fayyad is a political independent with no grassroots political base to speak of. Israel's peace negotiating partner under the Oslo accords is the PLO, spearheaded by Fateh, and not the PA. However, Fayyad was a partner, and a reliable one, for coordinating security and economic issues.

A number of reasons can be cited for Fayyad's departure. Most significantly, he is not and has never been a member of Fateh, Abbas' movement that is dominant in the West Bank. The Fateh rank and file has long pressured Abbas to replace Fayyad with one of their own, thereby ensuring both patronage and credit for achievements on the ground.

Second, those achievements for which Fayyad could take credit over the years--building infrastructure, establishing law and order and due process, maintaining security, introducing accountability to a notoriously corrupt system, ensuring international support--have been threatened to some degree in recent months as the PA's deficit has grown along with unemployment, and foreign contributions have not materialized. The Netanyahu government looked upon Fayyad's achievements with ambiguity lest they fuel international pressure to create a Palestinian state. Then too, Hamas, with which Abbas has been negotiating a reconciliation agreement that would reunite the West Bank and Gaza Strip into a single political unit, sees Fayyad as an obstacle.

A prelude to Fayyad's resignation was the departure a month ago of Finance Minister Nabil Qassis. Until Qassis' appointment less than a year ago, Fayyad--whose professional background is in international economics--had doubled as prime minister and finance minister. Qassis had been forced upon Fayyad by Abbas and Fateh, and Fayyad rebuffed Abbas' demand that he reject the resignation.

Fayyad, it must be recalled, was originally appointed finance minister, then prime minister, as a consequence of heavy pressure from the United States and the European Union, which refused to continue to support the PA unless it cleaned up its finances and eliminated corruption. In recent days, Washington and even Jerusalem tried to pressure Abbas not to accept Fayyad's resignation; conceivably, international pressure will now be translated into a quiet decision by Abbas to leave Fayyad in place as caretaker PM for a long period of time.

But if Abbas now either takes on the premiership himself or appoints someone more acceptable to Fateh, the international donor community is liable to react, at least in the short term, by suspending financial aid. And if the PA's finances decline further, the outcome is liable to be unrest and deteriorating security. One additional complicating factor could be Fateh-Hamas reconciliation: if, after endless delays, the two movements surprise everyone and make progress toward reunification of the West Bank and Gaza, the identity of the prime minister would have to be agreed on by both.

Of course no one is irreplaceable, and there are many highly capable politicians and administrators in the West Bank. But unless extremely suitable persons who inspire great confidence are quickly appointed prime minister and finance minister of the PA, the ramifications of Fayyad's resignation for Israel, the US and any possible peace process are negative.

Q. Speaking of a peace process, the Netanyahu government reportedly rejected Secretary of State John Kerry's proposal to renew two-state talks with the Palestinians on the basis of discussing borders and security first. Why?

A. The idea that borders and security would be discussed first between Israelis and Palestinians, while other final status issues like refugees and Israel's demand to be recognized as a Jewish state would be deferred until a later stage of negotiations, was put forward officially by President Barack Obama in his May 2011 State Department speech. It makes sense to this writer, because borders and security are the more solvable "post-1967" issues on which significant negotiating progress has already been made, whereas the fate of the holy places, the issue of the right of return, and the "Jewish state" demand are "pre-1967" or "narrative" issues that reflect radically divergent views of history and religion and have defied negotiators for nearly two decades. Note that the question of borders, or the 1967 lines, is at the heart of the Palestinian request for UN statehood recognition, with the pre-1967 issues essentially ignored.

Accordingly, the Palestinians appear to be more flexible regarding Kerry's alleged request to begin with borders and security. For its part, the Netanyahu government's rejection of the request appears to reflect one of three approaches to the issue--depending which minister is asked about it and how honest they are in their reply.

The most moderate of these three approaches presumably reflects the views of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is nominally in charge of negotiations and took this position when she was negotiating under PM Ehud Olmert in 2008. It holds that Israel must adhere to the Oslo formula of "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" and insist that borders and security not be resolved separately from the refugee issue, because creating a Palestinian state with agreed borders while leaving open the issues of refugees and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would sabotage any long-term chance of peace. Even as a philosophical question, the right of return demand reflects Palestinian difficulty in coming to terms with Israel's existence as a Jewish state--hence Palestinian insistence that Israel was "born in sin" in 1948. Accordingly, it would continue to haunt relations and would generate new generations of hostile Palestinians.

The most extreme position held by ministers in the Netanyahu government, certainly reflecting the view of Jewish Home head Naftali Bennet, is that because the creation of a Palestinian state is dangerous for Israel, because the right of return is a "deal breaker", and because the settlement movement covets the land of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as part of the Greater Land of Israel, any excuse that works should be invoked to delay or complicate negotiations. Strict adherence to the Oslo formula thus becomes a sacred principle for settlers and their supporters who in fact have always opposed the entire Oslo idea.

A third position that presumably characterizes at least some of the Likud ministers in this government insists that the West Bank is an "asset" held by Israel--rather than a burden whose prolonged occupation endangers Israel's very being. Because assets have to be traded in negotiations in return for concessions and because recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, meaning negation of the right of return, is the only real concession Israel can demand in return for the West Bank, the territorial issue cannot be negotiated separately.

The first and third positions are both legitimate (the second is essentially pro-apartheid). The problem with them is that they assume that if Israel stands its ground (while the settlements expand and expand), the Palestinians can indeed be persuaded to recognize a Jewish state and concede the right of return--in other words, to trade pre-1967 narrative issues for post-1967 statehood issues. I would argue that 20 years of negotiations under Oslo have proven this assumption incorrect, and that the Obama-Kerry position reflects realities: a Palestinian state is possible now; an end-of-conflict, end-of-claims agreement is not.

Israel has to decide whether the inability to end all claims--even if satisfactory security arrangements can be reached, with international guarantees--justifies holding onto the West Bank and eventually ceasing to be a Jewish and democratic state.