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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: February 25, 2013

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Alpher discusses whether with West Bank unrest growing, we are on the cusp of a third intifada, why Israeli coalition negotiations are stalled, what Netanyahu can do at this point, and why Israel has granted a license to drill for oil on the Golan Heights, which under international law is occupied Syrian territory.

Q. With the approach of the Obama visit, West Bank unrest is growing. Are we on the cusp of a third intifada?

A. Most Israeli and even some Palestinian experts believe not. They argue that despite all the provocations and background factors informing the current unrest, the "fuel" for the outbreak of another full-fledged Palestinian uprising is missing. Then again, most of the experts never predicted the first two intifadas, in December 1987 and September 2000.

The primary background factor explaining some two weeks of demonstrations, stone-throwing and violent attacks in the West Bank is sustained Palestinian frustration. There have been no serious peace negotiations for more than four years. United Nations General Assembly recognition of a provisional state last November did not change the picture. Obama's approach to reviving the peace process is not entirely clear, and some Palestinians may believe that violence in the West Bank might oblige him to be more forthcoming.

Then too, the Palestinian Authority's financial situation is abysmal, and not just because Netanyahu has withheld tax funds. Indeed, while Israel hastened to cancel that "punishment" on Sunday in the hope that the renewed flow of funds would help calm the situation, a number of wealthy Arab states have not made good on their pledges to bail out the PA.

Thus, one inter-Arab explanation for the growing West Bank unrest is precisely the need to get the attention of the Arab world, which is preoccupied with its own revolutions and where growing Islamist sentiment seems to favor Hamas-ruled Gaza rather than the West Bank. Another is the very fact that Hamas and Fateh still seem incapable of reconciling and presenting a united political front vis-a-vis Israel. Hamas, by the way, is encouraging the violent demonstrations in the West Bank from the safety of Gaza, just as in recent months it has sponsored no fewer than 18 attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers. Finally, President Mahmoud Abbas may not be fully in control, particularly when his security forces have not been paid.

Then there are the Israeli provocations that go beyond the withholding of funds, Netanyahu's settlement-building and indifference to a two-state solution, and even the constant settler "price tag" attacks on Palestinians that Israel's security establishment seems powerless to stop. These focus on the issue of prisoners--an issue that unites all Palestinians (and that explains Hamas' efforts to kidnap more IDF soldiers and ransom them for prisoners). The Gilead Shalit deal more than a year ago, in which Hamas dictated the list of released prisoners, failed to produce a serious parallel Israeli release of Fateh-oriented prisoners aimed at boosting the prestige of President Mahmoud Abbas. Meanwhile, Israel has rearrested Palestinians released in the Shalit deal on minor charges; four of them are on prolonged hunger strikes. A few days ago, another Palestinian arrested on minor charges, Arafat Jaradat, died (of causes as yet undetermined) after interrogation, triggering a mass hunger strike of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Netanyahu was able to run in the recent Israeli elections on the claim that 2012 had been the least violent year in Israel-West Bank relations in a long time. Yet, beyond the inevitability that the total absence of hope for a two-state solution will eventually generate an explosion, Netanyahu's policies regarding Palestinian prisoners appear increasingly inhumane and cut off from reality.

The Netanyahu government has hastened in recent days to offer the Palestinians minor gestures. It has also demanded that Abbas get a grip on the violence, pointing out that he has the most to lose from a new intifada. That's true. But Israel has a great deal to lose as well.

Q. Why are Israeli coalition negotiations stalled?

A. Essentially, because Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has not yet come to grips with the real outcome of January's election. Likud, the "traditional" right, suffered a serious setback even though it remained the largest party. A significant portion of its usual votes went to new or rejuvenated parties--Yesh Atid and HaBait HaYehudi--that present charismatic leaders and a middle class agenda focusing on a demand that the growing Haredi/ultra-orthodox sector bear its share of national obligations like military service and productive labor.

Last week, Netanyahu made his first move toward forming a coalition by recruiting HaTnua, Tzipi Livni's moderate, peace-oriented party of six mandates. The maneuver initially looked clever, then backfired. Netanyahu gave Livni the justice portfolio that she had once held under Ariel Sharon, along with responsibility for negotiations with the Palestinians. Ostensibly, he was signaling the public as well as the Obama administration that his new government would focus on a peace process. Livni, after a lackluster electoral performance, appeared to have salvaged her political fortunes by reclaiming the Palestinian negotiations portfolio.

But the response Netanyahu expected from the remaining centrist parties--lining up to join Livni in the coalition--failed to materialize. Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, with a mere two mandates, was considered next in line. Instead, after talking with Netanyahu he walked away, convinced that the prime minister was still unprepared to confront the ultra-orthodox over national burden-sharing, which was the issue that brought Kadima briefly into, then out of, the coalition last year.

Mofaz realized he could not afford to be fooled by Netanyahu again. He linked up with Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid and HaBait HaYehudi's Naftali Bennet, and together the

three in effect presented an ultimatum to Netanyahu: either abandon the Haredim, bring us into the coalition as a bloc of 33 mandates (larger than Likud Beitenu's 31) and adopt our burden-sharing platform, or we will stalemate the negotiations. At least for the moment, they could depend on Labor with its 15 mandates to stand fast on its refusal to join the coalition. Without Bennet and even with Livni as a centrist fig leaf, Netanyahu cannot reconstitute his outgoing right-religious coalition in which Ehud Barak fulfilled the fig leaf function. Even with the Haredim, Netanyahu has only 55 mandates.

It is striking that the dynamic generated by the social justice movement that erupted in the center of Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011 has come to this: a bizarre partnership between the slick, secular Lapid with his media background and his indifference to the peace process, and the extreme right-religious Bennet with his IDF commando pedigree and his apartheid platform for the West Bank. Their sole common denominator is a focus on breaking the Haredi refusal to abandon what to most Israelis appears to be a parasitic life-style.

By the end of last week, polls showed that in new elections Yesh Atid would become the country's biggest party, pushing the Likud into second place. Bennet's hawkish insistence that he will only join a government in which Livni has been removed from the peace negotiation task did not stop his party from growing in the polls, too. The message to Netanyahu is that the Israeli public is so fed up with Haredi behavior that it is prepared to gamble all on changing it.

Q. What can Netanyahu do at this point?

A. Netanyahu's first 28 days of coalition negotiations will end shortly and he will ask President Shimon Peres for a 14-day extension. At that point he would appear to confront three options.

First, he can bow to Lapid and Bennet, break his deal with Livni and leave his traditional Haredim partners out of the coalition. That would produce a coalition dedicated to changing the status of the ultra-orthodox, with little commitment to a peace process. At least in the short term, Netanyahu would look as if he were playing second fiddle.

Second, he can fall back on traditional ugly politics. He can try to poach the necessary six-plus mandates he needs to cross the 60-mandate threshold by splitting an existing party like Labor. To do so, he would have to offer a few members of Knesset a wealth of ministries--the way he kept Barak's Atzmaut party in his coalition after Labor split two years ago. The resultant coalition, based on the Likud and the Haredim, would be essentially a status quo government that pays lip service to the peace process.

Or, third, Netanyahu can throw in the towel and concede his inability to form a new government. If that happens--an event without precedent in Israeli electoral history--either the politically inexperienced Lapid as leader of the second largest party would, despite all the odds, ask for an opportunity to form a government, or new elections would be held within 90 days. All this, on the eve of US President Barack Obama's historic visit.

Q. Why has Israel granted a license to drill for oil on the Golan Heights, which under international law is occupied Syrian territory?

A. One earlier attempt to grant such a license was made in the 1990s. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin cancelled it for fear of prejudicing peace negotiations with Syria. Now there are no such negotiations. Indeed, Syria as a functioning state is disappearing for an indefinite period of time, and this appears to have emboldened Israel's outgoing energy and infrastructure minister, Uzi Landau, to grant the license now. Landau and at least one of the partners in the drilling firm, Effi Eitam, are well known right-wingers; Eitam lives on the Golan.

The Israeli move will presumably not make it easier for Netanyahu to talk a month from now with President Obama about the need to coordinate Syria-related policies with the United States. But it will also not be at the top of the two leaders' Syria agenda, which from the standpoint of both is dominated by the danger--some would say inevitability--that Syrian-based strategic weaponry will fall into the hands of irresponsible opposition forces or Hezbollah.

As for long-term damage to chances for peace with a moderate Syrian successor regime--if and when it takes power and assuming it continues to demand return of the Golan in exchange for peace--the drilling license does not constitute an irreversible obstacle. Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for peace more than 30 years ago, despite the fact that it had found and was pumping oil there. Its "reward" was a long-term contract under which Egypt sold that oil to Israel.

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