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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: April 29, 2013

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Alpher discusses what is the strategic significance of the controversy over chemical weapons use by Syria that was ignited last week in remarks by a senior Israeli intelligence officer; what he makes of media reports in Israel that Naftali Bennet is considering introducing a bill requiring a national referendum over any peace treaty reached with the Palestinians, and that he is trying to enlist the support of Yair Lapid; whether Kerry's plan to have a four-way Middle East peace summit in June, along with a comprehensive economic program to encourage US and European investment in the West Bank makes sense.

Q. What in your view is the strategic significance of the controversy over chemical weapons use by Syria that was ignited last week in remarks by a senior Israeli intelligence officer?

A. I would expand the question. At the same conference in Tel Aviv, and in succession, Brigadier General Itai Brun announced that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against rebels, after which retired Major General Amos Yadlin claimed that Iran had already violated the nuclear "red line" drawn last September at the United Nations by PM Netanyahu and that by this summer Tehran would be a short decision away from making a nuclear weapon. Brun is head of the Research Division of IDF Intelligence. Yadlin is a recent head of IDF Intelligence and currently heads INSS, the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

I was in the audience when Brun and Yadlin spoke. Brun spoke as a serving professional officer who feels obligated to present an accurate picture to the public. That his remarks surprised Netanyahu, who had recently briefed the American leadership--Obama, Kerry and Hagel--and had not mentioned hard evidence of Syrian chemical weapons use, appears to indicate that there was no Israeli intention to deliberately embarrass the US administration. Still, Washington was initially taken aback by the report and was clearly uncomfortable in trying to square Brun's allegation, President Obama's original warning that chemical weapons use by Syria would be a "game changer", and US "non-action" at least for the moment.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that Brun's claim is being taken more seriously than earlier claims by Britain and France that they too had evidence of Syrian chemical weapons attacks on civilians. Washington has now grudgingly acknowledged that some evidence does exist. It is also interesting to note that in response to the Brun controversy Syria hastened officially to proclaim that it would not use chemical weapons against Israel. It is very possible that those documented instances in which such weapons have indeed been used of late refer to local initiatives by junior Syrian officers or even to improvised chemical weapons, for example using readily available chemicals like chlorine.

What really worries Israel is the possibility that Syria's chemical weapons storage depots, some 12-18 in number, will fall into the hands of Salafist extremists whose ultimate ideological objective is Israel's destruction. Syria under the Assads accumulated one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical and possibly biological weapons.

Yadlin is a moderate and has in the past criticized Netanyahu's dramatic warnings about Iran crossing nuclear red lines. Yadlin comes across as an extremely level-headed intelligence professional. If he now states that the moment of truth with Iran's nuclear intentions is fast approaching, we had best pay close attention.

The Obama administration undoubtedly has solid reasons for not--or not yet--acting against Syria on the "game changer" warning. It wants firmer evidence regarding sarin gas attacks by the Assad regime against its own people, and in the current fog of war that is hard to come by. It plans within a year to complete its pullback from both Iraq and Afghanistan and does not want to involve the US in yet another costly Middle East war. It is increasingly aware that any blow it deals to Assad and his regime is likely to advance the cause of extremist Islamists who lead the Syrian opposition. It does not want to repeat the mistake of acting on the basis of possibly inaccurate assessments regarding weapons of mass destruction, of the sort that informed the US decision to attack Iraq in 2003. So the administration is right to be cautious and the president is justified in responding "prudently" and "deliberately".

Even critics like Senator John McCain take pains to emphasize that their proposals for American action do not involve US "boots on the ground"--thereby rendering some of their proposals for effective no-fly zones and the like a bit convoluted. By way of damage control to US-Israel relations, Netanyahu on Sunday loyally hastened to forbid his ministers from making pronouncements on the issue, lest they exacerbate Obama's predicament at this critical decision-making juncture.

But Israel, from its standpoint, has solid reasons to be concerned regarding the ongoing validity of Obama administration warnings and red lines concerning non-conventional weapons use or development by Iran and Syria. Brun and Yadlin are not bombastic politicians, but solid and cautious analysts. They appear to be telling the Israeli public that, once again, we may have to rely on ourselves to protect our vital interests against potential existential threats. If indeed we are "not alone", as President Obama reassured us scarcely a month ago, some sort of US act regarding Syria that goes beyond the supply of non-lethal materiel appears to be in order.

Q. What do you make of media reports in Israel that Naftali Bennet is considering introducing a bill requiring a national referendum over any peace treaty reached with the Palestinians, and that he is trying to enlist the support of Yair Lapid?

A. Finance Minister Lapid and Economics Minister Bennet have maintained a close relationship during and since the forming of the Netanyahu government, in which both hold senior posts despite their lack of previous parliamentary or government experience. Neither knows the Palestinian issue well. Bennet, as the head of a settler party, has adopted a clear anti-two-state platform that constitutes a virtual call for apartheid in the West Bank, whereas Lapid favors a two-state solution but does not rank this issue high on his order of political priorities. A prior commitment to a referendum would enable the two to maintain their political alliance even in the event that an American-sponsored peace process registers genuine progress.

The idea of a referendum regarding territorial concessions in the West Bank has been broached before. The Knesset has even legislated referenda for the event that Israel signs peace treaties in which it concedes territory on the Golan Heights or in East Jerusalem--territories conquered in 1967 and formally annexed to Israel--and if the Knesset does not approve the treaties by a weighted majority. Bennet would in effect extend this provision to the West Bank even though it has not been annexed by Israel.

There are two major problems with this initiative, as with the previous legislation mandating referenda. First of all, the public was never consulted by referendum when Israel annexed territories after 1967; nor was there ever a referendum regarding the decision to build settlements in any of the territories. Indeed, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 without consulting the public by referendum. In all these cases, the government and the Knesset were considered to have the sovereign authority to annex or withdraw from territories. Why then shouldn't they be the ones to decide on withdrawal from the West Bank?

Second, a referendum has never been held in Israel. The institution of referenda has no place in the Israeli parliamentary scheme. In the case under consideration, the notion that a referendum would have to be legislated in order to maintain the integrity of a particular coalition partnership, even if Bennet rationalizes the idea by talking about preventing rancor and division among the public, is ludicrous.

Justice Minister and chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni has already gone on record opposing the referendum initiative. Without her approval, it would be hard to push through new legislation for a referendum. In any case, many in Lapid's Yesh Atid party oppose such an initiative, which is seen in the peace camp as a right-wing ploy to cancel a peace treaty approved by the Knesset.

At the end of the day, the real significance of the Bennet initiative may be that it reflects an assessment on the political right that, under the new US initiative spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry, genuine progress toward a two-state solution is possible.

Q. Indeed, Kerry is now reportedly planning a four-way Middle East peace summit in June, along with a comprehensive economic program to encourage US and European investment in the West Bank. Do these ideas make sense?

A. A peace summit--as reported, involving the US, Israel, the PLO and Jordan, with Egypt and Turkey possibly invited also--makes sense if there is a sufficiently detailed and agreed agenda that ensures the summit will generate progress. That is apparently not yet the case: Kerry continues to float a variety of ideas for agreed confidence-building measures and regional involvement, none of which have reached fruition.

If Washington issues invitations to a summit without sufficient foundations, the parties will presumably all show up, but the outcome could be counter-productive. At a minimum, a summit should generate renewed peace negotiations for a two-state solution based on a firm commitment by both Israel and the Palestinian leadership to an agreed set of parameters. Embedding the negotiation process within the regional framework of the Arab Peace Initiative, as Kerry apparently hopes, would be welcome icing on the cake.

As for the investment idea, of course it is desirable to promote economic growth on the West Bank. It has been hard hit by the global recession as well as by the withholding of funds by Israel and the US following the PLO's decision to seek United Nations confirmation of Palestinian statehood. Economic growth and governmental institution-building are part and parcel of the successful Fayyad state-building project of recent years.

But a US-sponsored economic development project alone--rather than in coordination with a broader peace process--is almost certain to be viewed by the Palestinians as an echo of the "economic peace" platform on which PM Netanyahu ran for office in 2009. Then, Netanyahu argued that Palestinian prosperity would moderate PLO territorial and other demands within the framework of peace negotiations.

This is a familiar and plainly abortive school of political thought in Israel's relations with the Palestinians. It is patronizing and colonialist because it argues that all Palestinians really want or need is full stomachs. It blew up in Israel's face when the first intifada broke out in 1987 after 20 years of Moshe Dayan's policy of opening the Israeli-Palestinian border to trade and labor migration that generated substantive economic gains for Palestinians, while denying political rights.

Economic development cannot serve as a substitute for a genuine two-state solution. The conflict is political, not economic.