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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- December 14, 2009

Alpher answers questions on last week's arson at a West Bank mosque and the Knesset's decision to mandate a popular referendum on territorial concessions to  Syria.

Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst, co-founder and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian internet dialogue and Middle East roundtable He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior official with the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency. His views do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for Peace Now or Peace Now.

Q. Last Friday, a mosque was torched in the village of Yasuf near Nablus, almost certainly by extremist settlers. What are the possible ramifications?

A. This is the first time in my recollection that settler violence against Palestinians has extended to burning a Muslim religious site. The arsons scrawled "price tag" on the mosque floor to make their point: this is part of the price they intend to extract from the government (and the rest of us) for the settlement freeze.

Violence by extremist settlers in protest against measures taken by the government or the Defense Ministry to constrain settlement expansion is not new. It is generally directed against the security forces, government officials (for example, those serving construction freeze notices), and the settlers' Palestinian neighbors and their fields and homes. The mosque burning, being an extreme measure, could have far-reaching consequences by contributing to a spiraling rise in Arab-Jewish violence. Time will tell. Meanwhile, we have to ask why Israeli law and order is so glaringly absent among the West Bank settlers.

For one, the record of the Israel Police in apprehending settler offenders is appallingly bad, thereby eliminating any deterrent effect. This is due to lack of manpower and instances of sympathy with the settlers, but also to the refusal of both settlers and Palestinians to cooperate--the former out of solidarity with the violence, the latter because they don't recognize the Israeli authorities.

But of greater significance in encouraging settler violence is the forgiving attitude of successive Israeli governments. Rabbis who incite to violence against Jews and Arabs--going all the way back to the 1996 Rabin assassination--and, more recently, to mutiny by IDF soldiers, have never been prosecuted, while the soldiers they indoctrinate in the "hesder" yeshivot make up a growing proportion of IDF troops sent to keep order in the West Bank. God forbid that we should acknowledge that rabbis, like everyone else, are capable of being criminals and terrorists or that certain traditional Jewish teachings can be twisted into incitement! The youth who fight the Israel Police when they come to dismantle outposts and who fought them in the Qatif bloc in Gaza in summer 2005 are routinely let off with a reprimand. On Sunday, the Netanyahu government voted to award special development funds to some of the most extreme settlements, including Yitzhar, Tapuach and Itamar.

The "establishment" settler leadership has either lost control over the extremists or treats them with a wink and a nod while ostensibly condemning the violence. Nor is it really possible to draw a clear line between "law abiding" settlers and "hotheads". The latter all too often are second and third generation settlers and in some cases the children of establishment-type settler leaders.

In order for the mosque-burning not to be seen in retrospect as a negative turning point in the level of violence between settlers and Palestinians, the government and the security forces have to begin taking more serious steps toward prevention and punishment. On Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak finally cut IDF ties with the hesder yeshiva whose rabbinic leader was involved in the worst incitement. Is this a modest beginning? Or, more likely, was Barak just balancing the government money awarded to extremist settlers?

Q. The Knesset passed a law mandating a popular referendum if the government makes a peace deal with Syria involving Israeli territorial concessions on the Golan. Is this a signal that peace talks with Syria are not likely?

A. Perhaps the opposite. It may have been no coincidence that last week, while the Knesset was voting on this law, Syrian President Bashar Assad was hosting the Iranian defense minister and initialing security agreements with Tehran. This may have been each side's way of "upping the ante" and signaling the other that it should hasten to enter negotiations before the terms of reference become tougher.

Note that the Knesset legislation by no means created a fait accompli. The vote was on a motion to apply a continuity rule to a referendum law passed by the previous Knesset on a first reading. It still has to be discussed in committee and presented for a second and third vote. PM Netanyahu has signaled that he is no hurry for this to happen.

The legislation in question was mandated by a Knesset law passed in 1999 calling for an absolute majority of 61 votes to approve any agreement in which Israel cedes control over land conquered in 1967 to which it has applied its sovereignty. That law also called for a referendum on this issue, but only after the Knesset passes the necessary legislation. At the time, the law seemingly referred to East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, though in recent years it has been understood that part of the Shebaa Farms territory on the Syria-Lebanon-Israel border that was annexed back in 1981 on the assumption that it belonged to the Syrian Golan may in fact belong to Lebanon. Thus the 61 MK majority rule and the referendum requirement may be construed to apply to Israel's relations with three potential peace partners: Syria, Lebanon and the PLO. 

The new law that passed an interim vote last week mandates a referendum only if an absolute two-thirds majority of 80 MKs does not approve withdrawal from annexed territories. In the Israeli political reality, 80 MKs are unlikely ever to approve withdrawal from the Golan or East Jerusalem. On the other hand, more than 80 voted for the peace with Jordan back in 1994, which included territorial swaps involving sovereign Israeli territory. And it's easy to envisage more than 80 approving withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms if the payoff is peace with Lebanon.

The new law primarily deals with the modalities of a referendum--an institution hitherto foreign to Israelis. PM Binyamin Netanyahu's decision to apply continuity, and at the present time, is of greater interest. Was this a signal to Syria and to potential US or French mediators to hurry up or, on the contrary, a signal to Netanyahu's electorate that the Golan is safe? 

Looking further ahead, if and when Israel does reach peace agreements involving the Golan and/or East Jerusalem, where is the government of the day likely to find more support: within the Knesset or among the public? While the referendum idea is often treated as right-wing populism, I'm not sure at all of the answer to this question. A great deal would depend on the public mood at the time.

One very telling complaint against the referendum idea is that when Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan in 1981, all that was required was a simple Knesset majority--not even 61 MKs. Why should it be harder to undo the annexation? In this regard, Major General (ret.) Shlomo Gazit, a former head of military intelligence, came up this week with an interesting and original proposal: in order for the referendum idea to be fair and balanced, the same requirement of a popular vote should be made if and when Israel annexes additional territory and not only when it wants to withdraw. 

This is not necessarily a theoretical exercise. A peace agreement with the Palestinians would almost certainly involve not only Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank but annexation of the settlement blocs. Even a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence--a threat again bandied about recently by prominent Palestinians--could bring about an Israeli decision to unilaterally annex the blocs. A right-wing government might seek to annex even more.