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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: February 11, 2013

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Alpher discusses the interaction of the dynamics of President Obama coming to Israel shortly after PM Netanyahu is expected to present his new coalition, where does Netanyahu's coalition-forming project currently stand, the positions Netanyahu and Obama will present to one another on the key issues at stake, and what should the administration consider proposing when Obama comes to Jerusalem, in order to ensure a degree of harmony and the prospect of progress on the Palestinian issue.

Q. President Obama is coming to Israel shortly after PM Netanyahu is expected to present his new coalition. Can you explain the interaction between these two dynamics?

A. The US presidential visit is apparently set for March 20. Netanyahu has until March 15, a total of 42 days, to form a new coalition. This proximity of dates tells us three things about the interaction.

First, the very fact of a presidential visit so early in both Obama's and Netanyahu's new terms of office is intended to signal that the second Obama administration intends to deal with Israel and the Middle East in a much more energetic and intimate way than during the past four years . This is undoubtedly the most significant "message" communicated by the US initiative.

Second, Obama's choice of dates for the visit sends a clear message to Netanyahu that the administration expects him to form a coalition whose composition is relatively congenial or positive in terms of the issues the president intends to discuss. If on March 20 Netanyahu is heading a narrow, right-religious coalition, one dedicated to settlement expansion, the renewed relationship will get off to a bad start and Israel can expect heavy pressure from the administration down the road.

On the other hand--and this is the third point--Netanyahu can exploit the proximity of the two dates in order to avoid having to present Obama with hard-and-fast Israeli positions on any of the key issues he is expecting to be asked to discuss. As a skilled manipulator and political survivor who prefers to delay hard decisions, this is precisely what Netanyahu is liable to do: delay presenting his new coalition for Knesset approval until the last minute, then apologize to his American visitor that his new government has not had time to formulate policy on any sensitive issue.

This will allow Netanyahu to present himself as an avid listener rather than a doer, and place the onus on Obama to lay out his policy priorities without Netanyahu having to respond. If this assessment proves true, the Obama administration might have been better advised to postpone the visit to April, shortly after Passover.

Here two caveats are in order. First, the reverse of the third point above is also true: moderate candidates for the coalition can conclude that they are free to toughen their conditions for joining the government on the assumption that ultimately, on the fortieth day, Netanyahu will have no choice but to capitulate. And second, it's possible that the new government will feature Netanyahu himself as interim foreign minister until Avigdor Lieberman's legal issues are resolved, and Ehud Barak remaining at defense. In this case, neither Netanyahu nor Barak will be able to beg Obama for more time to formulate policy.

Q. Still, returning to your first point, the visit pressures Netanyahu to take advantage of the outcome of Israel's elections and form a relatively moderate, centrist coalition. Where does the coalition-forming project currently stand?

A. It stands at the "spin" stage, almost totally without substance. The reports leaked to the media daily about political alliances and concerning tentative coalition guideline items on the key issues are mostly so transparently self-serving as to be useless in terms of understanding what is going on.

In fact, thus far not much is going on. Only on Monday of this week was Prime Minister Netanyahu scheduled to complete his initial round of meetings with the leaders of all the parties that are potential coalition partners. Serious negotiations do not appear to have begun.

As predicted in these virtual pages immediately after the election, Netanyahu's primary effort is being devoted to finding a compromise formula regarding compulsory national service for ultra-orthodox yeshiva students that would allow him to bring both Sephardic ultra-orthodox Shas (11 mandates) and Yair Lapid's centrist Yesh Atid party (19) into the coalition. This would provide the Likud with maneuvering latitude to its left and its right within the government and satisfy Netanyahu's need for political flexibility in manipulating his coalition. A number of such compulsory service formulae have been floated lately, thus far without success.

A second effort concerns rendering the coalition moderate enough to make the necessary compromises to at least enter a new US-sponsored peace process with the Palestinians--perhaps the most problematic of the issues that are expected to be on Obama's late March agenda. Here Tzipi Livni's HaTnua (7) and Shaul Mofaz's Kadima (2) seem like virtual certainties for the coalition, alongside Yesh Atid and/or Shas, because both are too small to be able to threaten future coalition stability. Naftali Bennet's HaBait HaYehudi (12) is more problematic insofar as it is solidly a religious pro-settler party and its presence in the coalition would strengthen the already sizeable pro-settler element in Likud Beitenu, thereby narrowing Netanyahu's peace-negotiating latitude and inviting US pressure.

Besides, Netanyahu has personal issues with Bennet, going back to the time when the latter left his position as a senior aide in the PM's office due to bad chemistry with Netanyahu and his wife Sarah, whose opinions regarding those close to Netanyahu are influential. Bennet, who joked during the campaign that he and Sarah had "taken a terrorism course together", was obliged to apologize publicly on Sunday in order just to qualify for Monday's meeting with Netanyahu--significantly, their first in five years.

Q. Can you take a stab at assessing the positions Netanyahu and Obama will present to one another on the key issues at stake?

A. Assuming the accuracy of Netanyahu's statement on Sunday that the key issues on the table at the summit will be Iran, Syria and the Palestinians, it would appear that the first two will provoke little serious dissent. Discussions on them will take the form more of ensuring close coordination for contingencies rather than thrashing out differences of opinion. Obama wants more time to seek a diplomatic compromise with Iran and Netanyahu has no choice but to give it to him; note the absence of blusterous threats by Netanyahu (and outgoing Minister of Defense Ehud Barak) for many months now. Obama will respond by reaffirming his solid commitment to Israel's security, whether in the Iranian or any other context. If there is going to be a US-Israel clash over the question of attacking Iran's nuclear infrastructure, I doubt it will happen in March, but rather in the fall or winter of 2013.

That brings us to Syria, where once again the key issue will be coordination for contingencies--which in the Syrian case are even harder to define than regarding Iran. Israel is worried about Syrian chemical weapons and missiles falling into the wrong hands or being used against it, as well as the threat of Salafist-terrorist opposition elements moving to Syria's border with Israel. It wants to make sure that with the fall of Bashar Assad's regime, Iranian influence in the Levant is radically weakened. All these goals are shared by the US, which can influence the shape of the emerging Syrian revolutionary leadership and coordinate with Turkey in ways that Israel cannot.

It is on the Palestinian issue that there will be controversy, even if Netanyahu hides behind the "newness" of his freshly-formed coalition to avoid taking hard-and-fast positions. The key point here is not so much the positive approach of Netanyahu's centrist potential coalition partners as the prime minister's own well-known ideological red lines.

To be sure, Netanyahu has internalized the message that emerged from Israel's recent elections regarding the need to resume a peace process and restrain settlement expansion; and he is aware of the possibility that American involvement will be much more serious this time around. Ever since the elections, he makes sure to throw in a "positive" sound-bite about the upcoming process whenever he discusses his next government. Nor was it a coincidence last week that remarks attributed to Netanyahu's hawkish national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, were leaked to the effect that the ongoing construction of settlements is causing Israel to lose the support of even its best friends on the international scene.

(Amidror, incidentally, is scheduled to visit Washington along with Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu's personal representative for contacts with the Palestinians, in order to prepare the Obama visit agenda. There he can be asked how he squares his admonition about settlement-construction with the announcement on Monday that another 90 units had been approved for building in an outlying settlement.)

But Netanyahu's own refusal to budge on Palestinian demands like a capital in East Jerusalem and control over the Jordan Valley renders a comprehensive peace agreement virtually impossible--even assuming that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is capable of reversing his previously held views in order to "deliver" reasonable positions on the right of return and Temple Mount issues. Moreover, most of Netanyahu's own Likud party is more hawkish than him on the Palestinian issue, openly rejecting a two-state solution. Indeed, Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman appear to be reassuring themselves that there is no "danger" in embarking on a new peace process because success is so unlikely. This is precisely the attitude that would enable Netanyahu to invite Bennet into the coalition, assuming the two can overcome their personal animosity.

This reality is encouraging talk even in the Israeli peace camp of what is termed a more realistic US approach that focuses on the short-term need for a new partial settlement, such as an Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank and the emergence of a Palestinian state with temporary borders.

Q. What, then, should the administration consider proposing when Obama comes to Jerusalem, in order to ensure a degree of harmony and the prospect of progress on the Palestinian issue?

A. First, precisely because there is such a strong sense in so many circles that a new peace paradigm is required, I would suggest that the administration itself has to review the efforts of the past 20 years, since the Oslo process began, in order to identify what works and what doesn't.

Second, the administration might wish to consider sponsoring a process with goals less modest than the elusive objective of an end-of-conflict, end-of-claims comprehensive settlement. The last thing we need is yet another failed American effort.