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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - October 12, 2009

Yossi Alpher 186x140.jpgAlpher responds to questions on the ramifications of a continuing US military presence in Afghanistan, the recent unrest in Jerusalem, and Abbas' decision not to demand UN action on the Goldstone report.

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. What is the relevancy for Israel of the current debate within the administration and Congress concerning the future of the American military presence in Afghanistan?

A. Assuming the Obama administration opts to extend or even enlarge the US presence, this decision is likely to generate two contradictory trends in the American attitude toward Israel-Arab issues. On the one hand, by guaranteeing an ongoing American military presence in the greater Middle East region for the foreseeable future (despite withdrawal from Iraq), the administration also ensures that the US will continue to take an active interest in an Israel-Arab peace process as a means of advancing stability and ensuring a better reception in the region for Washington and its policies. This is good news for advocates of Arab-Israel peace, insofar as real progress appears impossible without an active American role.

On the other hand, an ongoing US role in Afghanistan also means a danger that the administration could become so preoccupied with the fate of US troops there that it is either unable or unwilling to commit its energies to an active role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. This characterization to some extent describes the predicament of the George W. Bush administration in Iraq--although there is no evidence that President Bush was in any case inclined to invest heavily in an Arab-Israel peace process.

Q. And if the US withdraws from Afghanistan?

A. This would definitely send a message, however inadvertent, of American weakness to militant Islam of the Qaeda and Taliban variety, in much the way Israel's withdrawals from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 were interpreted by Hezbollah and Hamas as signs of weakness. The result could be heightened militant Islamist aggression against both the US and Israel.

A withdrawal from Afghanistan is also in effect liable to constitute a weakening of US involvement in and support for anti-terrorist efforts in Pakistan. By weakening nuclear-armed Pakistan, this could ultimately mean more terrorism in the region, conceivably including a far worse nuclear threat than that posed by a nuclear Iran.
On the other hand, an administration that is withdrawing from both Afghanistan and Iraq might feel obliged to redouble its effort to achieve Arab-Israel peace, if only to maintain its image of commitment to regional stability.

Q. Suppose the US remains in Afghanistan and even reinforces its military presence, yet loses the war there to the Taliban?

A. It would follow in the footsteps of every major power that has ever tried to conquer and hold Afghanistan, from Greece under Alexander the Great via the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century to the Soviet Union just a few years ago. No one could hold Afghanistan even before Islam without sustaining unacceptable military and political losses; now, with militant Islam added to a fierce tribal tradition, the chances appear little better for the US.

In many ways, the broader regional effect of "losing" in Afghanistan is little different from the ramifications of withdrawal under present circumstances: it poses the perception of a militant Islamic victory over a superpower. Hence the consequences for Israel would be similar in terms of heightened Islamist pressure, terrorism and the like. And the spillover effect into Pakistan would be even worse, thereby enhancing the likelihood of an Islamist takeover there, with everything this means for global nuclear stability.

Q. What's your bottom-line view, then, on the American debate regarding Afghanistan?

A. The US has no choice, in terms of its own homeland security interest (and that of Israel and most of the rest of the world as well, including the Arab countries), but to fight al-Qaeda to a point where it no longer constitutes a serious threat. Today, this fight centers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One question to be debated is whether the task of defeating al-Qaeda requires defeating the Taliban and democratizing Afghanistan--near impossible tasks--or can be accomplished with more limited means and objectives.
A second question concerns the ramifications of this strategic debate for the equally crucial but seemingly more doable task of shoring up Pakistan's defenses against militant Islam.

Q. While we're on bottom-line issues, what are the ramifications for Israeli-Palestinian peace of the recent unrest in Jerusalem and the internal-Palestinian controversy over Mahmoud Abbas' decision not to demand UN action on the Goldstone report?

A. These developments are bad for peace in three ways.
First, the Jerusalem events in particular render near-term Israeli-Palestinian peace talks less likely. They muddy the waters between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and weaken Abbas and the forces of moderation in Palestine.

Second, the Goldstone affair, whereby Abbas appears in Arab eyes to have caved in to US and Israeli pressure precisely in order to advance the peace process, has backfired by weakening him even further, thereby reducing his freedom of maneuver vis-a-vis both Israel and the US. His latest move, to reverse himself and pursue Israel in the UN over Goldstone, does little to repair the damage, while antagonizing Israel over an issue in which the Netanyahu government has broad public backing for a tough stance.

Third, PM Binyamin Netanyahu emerges from both developments with a stronger image in the eyes of his right-wing coalition partners and their allies. First he ostensibly manipulated Abbas into backing off on Goldstone in return for no apparent concession on Israel's part. Now, with Abbas reversing himself, Netanyahu can argue that Israel is liable to find its hands tied in responding to Hamas terrorism, hence cannot easily make territorial concessions on the West Bank. And Arab rioting on the Temple Mount, whatever the cause, enables the right to call upon the Israeli public to "circle the wagons" and resist outside pressures to compromise over Jerusalem by portraying the consequences of Arab control in East Jerusalem as disastrous.
Under these circumstances, Netanyahu may be less willing than ever to compromise.