To return to the new Peace Now website click here.

Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: February 4, 2013

Alpher 320x265.jpg

Alpher discusses last week's IAF attack on strategic weaponry inside Syria, whether it is a one-off warning shot or a harbinger of things to come and what can we expect in the months ahead, what we can make of last week's - later denied- reports that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal asked Jordan's King Abdullah II to inform the United States that Hamas accepts the two-state solution, how important the economic dimension is to stability in the Israel-Arab context

Q. How do you assess reports of last week's IAF attack on strategic weaponry inside Syria: one-off warning shot or harbinger of things to come? And if the latter, what can we expect in the months ahead?

A. Israel Air Force planes reportedly attacked one or more strategic targets in Syria or on the Syria-Lebanon border on the night of January 29-30. Initially Israel, having loudly warned Syria not to transfer chemical and other strategic weapons to Hezbollah, appeared wise to avoid taking credit for the attack. This was the policy regarding earlier strikes against strategic targets in Syria (a nuclear site in 2007), Lebanon (Hezbollah arms depots) and places as far afield as Sudan (Iranian arms on their way to Sinai and Hamas). By not boasting, Israel minimizes the danger of retaliation--something quite specifically threatened by Iran regarding Syria just a few days ago. And it avoids encouraging Arab finger-pointing for its violation of what's left of Syrian sovereignty. But for better or for worse, by last weekend Defense Minister Ehud Barak had virtually confirmed the Israeli role by bragging that Israel carries through on its threats: "when we say something we mean it."

Yet Israel is not interested in escalation. This attack was very much the exception to a rule that has dictated avoidance of intervention or interference in the Syrian fighting for two years now. Like everyone else in the neighborhood and the international community, Israel has no really good options here: if the Assad regime prevails, then Iran and Hezbollah remain dangerously on Israel's northern borders; if the regime falls, the kindest outcome might end up being Muslim Brotherhood rule from Damascus. Kindest, because the more likely alternative is the growing collapse of Syria as a sovereign state, to be replaced by anarchy.

Last week's Israeli strike was motivated by the danger that the regime was losing control over chemical weapons and anti-aircraft missiles. It's debatable whether Israel is better off with those weapons remaining in regime hands and possibly falling to unknown opposition elements that could be radical Salafists, or whether it would actually be safer if Assad turns them over to Hezbollah with its pro-Iran agenda. The fail-safe option is to destroy them. But we're talking about a huge quantity of strategic weaponry, much of it dispersed throughout the country.

And we're addressing a near century-old post-Ottoman state system in the Levant that is beginning to disintegrate. Accordingly, things will get worse. We are likely soon to face cross-border terrorism by al-Qaeda affiliates on the Golan in a situation not unlike that along the Negev-Sinai border since the Egyptian revolution. Within months there could also be appeals for aid by beleaguered minorities like the Druze, whose historic redoubt is located only 80 km from the Israel-Syria border on the Golan. Already, Hezbollah appears to be losing ground in Lebanon in favor of the Sunni Muslims who dominate the Syrian revolution--a welcome dynamic from Israel's standpoint.

How can Israel limit involvement to the greatest degree possible while maintaining its vital security interests? Better coordination with Turkey, facilitated by a long-awaited Israeli apology for the Mavi Marmara incident, would be helpful. And keeping Barak--with all his shortcomings--in the Defense Ministry under the next coalition might also be wise. Certainly it was striking in recent days to see both Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz travel abroad, seemingly assured that neither Assad nor Hezbollah would retaliate because Israel was operating from a position of strength.

Q. On another front, what do you make of last week's reports, later denied, that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal asked Jordan's King Abdullah II to inform the United States that Hamas accepts the two-state solution?

A. The reports, carried in Saudi-owned newspapers, appear credible, even though Hamas hastened to deny them. Meshaal in particular among Hamas leaders has in recent years released statements to the effect that Hamas could live with a Palestinian state defined by the 1967 borders. Now he has apparently gone one step further by acknowledging that Israel would be on the other side of that border. He did not, however, refer to a genuine peace treaty with Israel: only a 25 year "hudna" or ceasefire. Nor did he indicate what becomes of Hamas' additional demands for a hudna, such as the return of five million Palestinian refugees to Israel.

So ambiguity prevails here. Meshaal, who reportedly has set his sights on winning the Palestinian Authority presidency if and when Fateh-Hamas reconciliation is effected, is presumably testing the winds: with his fellow Hamas leaders, with Israel, and with the international community, which continues to make much more far-reaching demands of Hamas if it wishes to attain recognition. Yet Hamas also remains dedicated to "armed struggle" against Israel, meaning terrorism.

Bearing in mind that Hamas has maintained a genuine ceasefire--for the first time--since last November's fighting in and around Gaza, it might be helpful to encourage more such statements, each going a little further, from Meshaal and other Hamas leaders. Instead, Israeli security authorities arrested around 25 Hamas activists on the West Bank in recent days. Is Israel worried about renewed Hamas terrorism, the possibility of Hamas-Fateh reconciliation--or both?

Q. Last week, at about the same time that Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer was announcing his resignation, Israel renewed transfer to the Palestinian Authority of tax monies collected for it. How important is the economic dimension to stability in the Israel-Arab context?

A. It is extremely important. Lack of economic opportunity was very much at the center of the outbreak of Arab revolutions in 2011. The revolutions in Egypt and Syria have radically damaged those countries' economic well-being. Unrest in Jordan stems essentially from complaints by pro-Hashemite tribes that they are economically deprived. And the Palestinian Authority is tottering under the impact of a growing deficit.

That is the backdrop to Israel's decision last week to release just over $100 million in taxes collected by it for the Palestinian Authority. The money had been withheld as "punishment" (PM Netanyahu's term) for the late November Palestinian triumph at the United Nations, where the PLO won provisional statehood recognition. The PA's financial situation has also been hurt by a mean-spirited lack of readiness on the part of a number of wealthy Arab emirates to honor pledges of aid.

Economic unrest in the Arab world is liable to lead to more violence and even to the collapse of the PA. That is the real message of Israel's decision to release the funds, though clearly the gesture was also directed at the incoming second Obama administration.

As for Fischer's resignation two years before the expiration of his second five-year term, the reasons were grist for the mill of speculation across the political and media spectrum. Fischer himself is too discreet to say anything of substance about his reasons. What is certain is that his was an extremely steady and wise hand at the helm of the Bank of Israel. With Israel looking at a worsening economy and growing international isolation over the Palestinian issue--lately, in particular, in the context of the United Nations and its human rights institutions--the legitimization he lent the country's finances will be sorely lacking.