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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: April 22, 2013

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Alpher discusses possible scenarios for the future of the post of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, What Egypt is doing to restore order to the Sinai Peninsula and why isn't it working, the conjunction of US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's trip to Israel with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's resolution supporting Israel in the event it attacks Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Q. Last week you wrote about Salam Fayyad's resignation from the post of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Are the possible scenarios for the future of this post any clearer now that the resignation is a fait accompli?

A. A former senior Palestinian political figure offered me the following possibilities for what happens next. First, he noted, President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is bound by his preliminary reconciliation agreement with Hamas to form an apolitical technocrat government headed by himself and tasked with organizing elections throughout the West Bank and Gaza. With Fayyad out of the way, this step may be slightly easier for Abbas, since he himself no longer has to "fire" Fayyad.

But Abbas' Fateh movement and Gaza-based Hamas are in reality not close to finalizing their agreement because each movement remains highly suspicious of the motives of the other. Still, efforts continue by Qatar and Turkey to effect Fateh-Hamas reconciliation. As long as no new prime minister is appointed, the way will remain open for Abbas to realize this option.

This points to a second scenario. Abbas could conceivably reach quiet agreement with Fayyad that he will remain indefinitely as caretaker prime minister, meaning that he could easily be removed if and when Abbas reaches a deal with Hamas. This is by no means a far-fetched possibility. After all, Abbas himself is a caretaker president--the date for presidential elections having long passed and been forgotten due to the Fateh-Hamas split.

A variation on this scenario that distances Abbas from the reconciliation option would be for him to ask Fayyad to form a new government. Here the politically-independent Fayyad would presumably proffer conditions, such as cooperation on the part of Abbas in blunting political and financial pressures by Fateh that constrain his freedom of maneuver, and a pledge by Abbas not to interfere in the running of the government and particularly the appointment or dismissal of a minister of finance (the immediate catalyst of Fayyad's resignation). It is not clear whether Abbas would be able to deliver on commitments of this nature.

Finally, if Abbas insists on replacing Fayyad with someone other than himself, he will look for a relatively independent and respectable candidate who is both acceptable to the Fateh rank-and-file with its demands for patronage and entitlements and to the international community, which holds the purse-strings for the PA. That may not be easy.

All in all, Abbas' options are not attractive. Based on past experience, I would assess that the easiest way for Abbas to navigate this new political challenge will be to do nothing, meaning leave Fayyad as caretaker pending developments on the reconciliation and/or peace negotiation fronts.

Q. Last week, rockets were again fired at Eilat from Sinai. What is Egypt doing to restore order to the Sinai Peninsula and why isn't it working?

A. The Egyptian army, with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood-led regime in Cairo, has lately taken more serious steps to restore its control in Sinai than did even the Mubarak regime in its last year or two. It has finally begun to close down the Gaza-Sinai smuggling tunnels, reflecting recognition that part of the problem in Egyptian Sinai is weapons and terrorists entering from Gaza. It has declared a five-km-wide no-man's-land strip along the Egyptian side of the Sinai-Negev border. And it has brought much of the Sinai Bedouin-based smuggling and other criminal activity under control--a move rendered more feasible by nearly-completed construction of Israel's border fence. The Egyptian army has also introduced more armored vehicles and sophisticated weaponry into Sinai, facilitated by an AAM--Agreed Activities Mechanism--under which Israel permits a temporarily augmented Egyptian military presence in Sinai, above and beyond the provisions of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

Yet Sinai-based terrorism against Israel continues. Green Islamist flags can reportedly be seen from Israel at Sinai Bedouin encampments across the fence. According to a retired Egyptian general I spoke with recently, the explanation for the army's failure in this regard lies in its reticence to use force against the Islamized Bedouin population in Sinai. Instead, the army prefers to enter into deals with the desert peninsula's Bedouin sheikhs that leave a growing Salafi infrastructure in place.

In this regard, Egypt's move to close some of the Gaza-Sinai tunnels and Israel's initiative to build a Negev-Sinai border fence do not necessarily make the terrorism situation in Sinai better. If the Bedouin can't support themselves by smuggling, their traditional vocation, they are more likely to accept money from outside Salafists in return for firing rockets at Israel.

This situation worries not only Israel and the Multinational Force and Observers who police the peace treaty in Sinai. Several months ago, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) reportedly held a five-day workshop in Tampa regarding the potential terrorist threat from Sinai to shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba and to air traffic in the region.

There are alternative approaches to suppressing Sinai-based terrorism that might work better. Back in Anwar Sadat's day as president of Egypt, plans were laid to pacify Sinai by settling 3.5 million Egyptians in the largely empty desert. Mubarrak long ago abandoned that scheme. Then too, Israel would welcome a move by Cairo to extend its security sway over the Gaza Strip, thereby rendering control over Sinai-Gaza traffic in arms and terrorists more efficient. Now that the Muslim Brotherhood rules both Egypt and (through Hamas) Gaza, this would seem to be a logical approach. Yet Egypt continues to insist on viewing Gaza as an Israeli responsibility, in keeping with its overall approach to the Palestinian issue.

We can expect more attacks from Sinai. Israel, which often has better intelligence than Egypt on impending attacks, can and does warn the Egyptian army. But the latter does not always act successfully on the intelligence--for example last August when, despite an Israeli alert, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in El Arish in Sinai by Salafists with Gaza links. What the IDF does not dare do is penetrate Egyptian territory itself to thwart or deter terrorist attacks: that could start a war with an Egyptian regime that is still essentially in the throes of revolution but that continues to maintain the two countries' all-important peace treaty from 1979. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi confirmed to al-Jazeera a few days ago that peace and security cooperation with Israel will continue. That declaration alone is worth a great deal of restraint on Israel's part.

Q. US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel arrives in Israel on Sunday at the start of a Middle East tour. Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed a resolution supporting Israel in the event it attacks Iran's nuclear weapons program. Escalation?

A. Only--however superficially--on the part of the Senate committee. From the standpoint of the administration, which in conjunction with Hagel's visit announced that it is supplying Israel with weapons systems like refueling planes that increase its long-range capabilities, the visit appears to be part of a broader effort to reassure Israel that it can continue to give sanctions and negotiations a chance and not feel pressured by "red lines" to attack Iran.

The Senate resolution recognizes Israel's right to act in "legitimate self-defense" against "Iran's nuclear weapons program" and offers US "diplomatic, military, and economic support". Basically, this statement does not affect the foundations of the US-Israel security relationship; after all, one could have expected such US support even without a Senate resolution (the full Senate has yet to approve the resolution). Further, it is virtually a given in Israeli security circles that an attack by Israel on Iran's nuclear project, if and when it happens, is unthinkable without prior coordination with the United States.

The Senate committee statement, pushed by AIPAC and opposed by APN, which ultimately was able to contribute to moderating its language, is thus bombastic but negligible in its effect on Iran's calculations. This is not the case with the new American weapons supply, not only to Israel but to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates--two countries that are liable to feel the brunt of Iranian retaliation for an attack. The weapons send a message to Iran that if it responds to an attack by targeting Israel and the Gulf Arab states, it will be at an even greater military disadvantage than before. This knowledge, in turn, should contribute to deterring Iran from pursuing its nuclear project. That, to my understanding, is what Hagel is coming to discuss--in addition, of course, to the worsening situation in Syria, where evidence is accumulating that the Assad regime is employing chemical weapons and where, consequently, American involvement, via Jordan and Turkey, is growing.