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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - October 19, 2009

Alpher responds to questions on the UN Human Rights Council taking up the Goldstone Report, tension in the Turkish-Israeli relationship, and accusations that Prime Minister Abbas is a Holocaust denier.

Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst, co-founder and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian internet dialogue bitterlemons.org and Middle East roundtable bitterlemons-international.org. 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. The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva recommended last week that the Security Council act on the Goldstone report regarding Israel's alleged war crimes in Gaza last January. What are the ramifications for the US and Israel and, in light of the report, what are Israel's options for dealing in future with Hamas?

A. The success of the Arab and non-aligned automatic majority in the UN, in this case with Russian, Chinese and Indian support, in confirming the Goldstone report is seen in Israel as yet another step in a growing global campaign to delegitimize and isolate it. Accordingly, regardless of the fate of this specific report--whether in the Security Council, General Assembly or International Court of Justice at The Hague--it has far-reaching ramifications.

At the procedural level, the United States now has to decide how to deal with the report in the Security Council. The Obama administration, conscious of its improved image in Arab eyes, would undoubtedly like to avoid having to veto an extreme anti-Israel resolution, perhaps by negotiating a watered-down decision that Israel could live with. The worst step for Israel-US relations would be an American abstention on an extreme resolution that would enable it to pass.

Still at the procedural level, the Netanyahu government has to decide whether to take its chances in the Security Council and possibly beyond. Israeli non-compliance with a Security Council resolution could lead to referral of the issue to The Hague. On the other hand, Israel could still opt to establish an independent investigating commission regarding alleged Gaza war crimes, as the Goldstone Commission recommends. This might get it off the hook with the UN, at least for the time being; Hamas has indicated (for whatever it's worth) that it will pursue such a course regarding Goldstone's allegations against it.

But such an Israeli move would also constitute a provocative vote of no-confidence in the IDF's own investigation and in Israel's military justice system in general. Note that, according to the latest Tel Aviv University "Peace Index", 93.5 percent of the Israeli Jewish public believes the Goldstone accusations against the IDF are "biased". Moreover, the very decision to set up such a tribunal would trigger victory celebrations in many Arab corners, as if Israel had admitted guilt. Then too, an Israeli investigation is likely to insist on invoking the same rules of warfare against terrorists embedded in civilian populations as those adopted already by the IDF, and exonerate the latter. This would merely reinforce Goldstone-style international criticism that is based on post-WW II laws of war that seem hopelessly outmoded to Israelis in Gaza, Americans in Faluja, NATO in Afghanistan and Sri Lankans in Jafna.

Beyond the Goldstone-related issues, Israel now faces serious dilemmas in what might come to be called the "post-Goldstone era". To the extent that the Arab global delegitimization campaign takes root and Israel's political and military maneuverability is hampered, how will it deal with Hamas and other militant Islamist non-state actors like Hezbollah on its borders when they attack Israeli civilians?

The spectrum of operational and diplomatic options increasingly mentioned in the internal Israeli discussion is broad. At one end is the prospect of avoiding any military response at all to Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians, and appealing to the international community, which seemingly rejects Israeli military action, to pressure Hamas. While this might somewhat improve Israel's image abroad and would avoid exposing Israeli security personnel to arbitrary arrest in countries like Spain that have adopted universal jurisdiction, it is extremely unlikely the Israeli public would agree to move in this direction. It would be understood by Hamas as a sign of internal Israeli weakness that merits pressing the attack against Israeli civilians.

Next comes an offer to negotiate with Hamas unconditionally in order to change Israel's image internationally; this could be particularly effective if Hamas sticks to its refusal to engage Israel lest this imply recognition. But Israel would be violating the very Quartet conditions for engaging Hamas that it has hitherto insisted on. The Netanyahu government could also, at least in theory, launch a dramatic new peace initiative with the PLO in order to counter Israel's military image with a positive diplomatic departure. This does not appear likely. In any event, none of these ideas for diplomatic initiatives need necessarily rule out a military response to terrorism.

Moving to military options, Israel could revert to the modus operandi under PM Ariel Sharon in the early years of this decade: pinpoint commando raids and targeted assassinations designed to radically reduce civilian casualties. A variation on this approach would be a readiness to endanger IDF soldiers to a greater extent in an effort to reduce Palestinian civilian casualties. Would tactics like these be sufficient to deter Hamas? Would the Israeli public acquiesce in them? Would the world soften its criticism?

Finally, there is a school of thought in Israel that advocates considering--if and when Hamas provocations again reach excessive levels--one final all-out push to reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip and reinstall PLO rule there. Here the price--in Israeli and Palestinian casualties and international opprobrium--would likely be far higher than that incurred last January and by the Goldstone report. But the outcome would ostensibly justify the sacrifice. Yet there is little appetite in Israel for this approach, which could easily fail: Hamas could be replaced by more extreme Islamists; the PLO might refuse to be restored to power by Israeli bayonets, or might fail to restore order; and Israel could end up stuck once again in the Strip, at a huge cost in human lives and international standing.


Q. PM Netanyahu told the visiting Spanish prime minister last week that Turkey could no longer serve as a mediator between Israel and Syria. Is Israel over-reacting to the Erdogan government's condemnations regarding Gaza and its rapprochement with Syria?

A. We have written on several recent occasions in these virtual pages about Turkey's dramatic new diplomatic opening to the Arab Middle East and Iran, which signals a sharp departure from some 70 years of Kemalist emphasis on a European orientation. The question no one seems able to answer definitively is: Is this is a brilliant gambit for turning Ankara into a major international player and regional power, hence a desirable friend for Israel? Or does it reflect more an attempt by Turkey's ruling party, the moderate Islamist AKP, to Islamize the country and gradually overwhelm the influence of the secular Turkish security establish that is largely responsible for Turkish-Israeli strategic cooperation.

Events of the past few weeks have understandably angered Israelis and worried the West. Turkey disinvited Israel to a joint military exercise (which was then cancelled when all of NATO pulled out in protest) and instead launched an exercise with neighboring Syria. Turkey's government-owned TV began broadcasting a series depicting Israeli soldiers executing little girls in Gaza. And PM Erdogan continued his overblown criticism of the Israeli performance in Gaza last January.

The Arab world is seemingly triumphant. "Turkey's new position toward Israel and its crystallization in a series of escalating steps is tantamount to a strategic transformation," writes Saleh al-Qallab in the Jordanian daily al-Ra'i on October 19. One of the most important features of this transformation, he goes on, was represented by Erdogan's recent interview with al-Arabiyya satellite TV station. Erdogan said that this transformation was in response to the desires of the Turkish people, who are fed up with Israel's behavior and its repression and persecution of the Palestinian people and the recent genocide perpetrated against the Gaza Strip.

At this juncture, Israel is trying to maintain a business-as-usual approach at the business, tourism and defense cooperation levels, while rejecting Turkey's offer to renew its mediation between Israel and Syria and protesting the worst manifestations of anti-Israel criticism. It is also closely monitoring Turkey's warming relations with Iran and Syria. These, in particular, could soon affect Israel's readiness to transfer some military equipment and technologies to the Turkish armed forces.

Q. Certain circles in PM Netanyahu's office have renewed the accusation that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is a Holocaust denier. What's behind this and what substance is there to the accusation?

A. Nearly three decades ago, Abbas wrote in his doctoral dissertation (which did not deal with the Holocaust) for a Russian university that the figure of six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust was exaggerated. To the best of my knowledge, that is the extent of his dealings with the Holocaust, before or since. He remains a sincere opponent of the use of violence by Palestinians against Jews.

There appear to be two issues at work here. Netanyahu is playing the Holocaust card right now as a counter to pressures regarding Iran and Palestine--note his recent UN General Assembly appearance, with its didactic lecture about the Holocaust and the fate of his wife's family. In his desperation to score points against Abbas over the Goldstone issue, he has evidently now allowed his advisers to throw a little Holocaust mud, however thin and worn their case. We recall that Netanyahu's initial rise to political power in Israel was predicated on presenting himself as an expert on terrorism after his brother was killed at Entebbe in 1976 while leading Israeli commandos who liberated the passengers of a hijacked Air France aircraft.

In reality, every Israeli with real-world experience knows full well that even when our neighbors and other interlocutors do have pro-Nazi or Holocaust-denial skeletons in their closet, this often renders them all the more willing to find ways to coexist with Israel of today. The best example is late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was a known Nazi sympathizer in WWII. This well-known fact did not in the least impede Israeli PM Menachem Begin in making peace with Egypt. Sadat remains to this day the finest example to be found of Arab peacemaking with Israel. From my own Mossad career, I know that several former Nazis or senior WWII German officers made ideal collaborators; they would do anything to cleanse their past.

Obviously, we are not talking here about people who were engaged in exterminating the Jewish people or who supported the extermination and who should be put on trial. One doesn't have to be a complete cynic to appreciate that a little bit of Nazi sympathy in one's background can often be turned to Israel's advantage. And when it comes to making peace or enhancing Israel's security, such tradeoffs make sense. Seen in this light, the allegations against Abbas are ridiculous and plainly counterproductive.