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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - October 5, 2009

Alpher responds to questions about the continuing captivity of Gilad Shalit and speculation on the development of a Middle East northern axis of power.
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. Gilad Shalit has been in Hamas captivity for more than three years. Now, finally, we have seen an up-to-date video of him in captivity. Beyond the haggling over the number and identity of terrorist prisoners Israel releases, are there more basic issues that have prevented a prisoner exchange all this time?

A. There are indeed, some of them traceable to the period preceding the Shalit abduction in late June 2006. One key issue, beyond the question of who is released in exchange for Shalit, is linkages.

Israel has never linked its readiness to negotiate over Shalit to Hamas agreement to allow visits to Shalit by the Red Cross or some other credible international actor. Thus, until the recent video was received in exchange for the release of 20 Palestinian women prisoners, Israel did not really know whether he was alive or dead. This is a factor that radically affects its readiness to negotiate and the price it might pay. The two soldiers abducted by Hezbollah on July 12, 2006 (an act that precipitated the Second Lebanon War) were dead from the moment they were abducted; Israel never ascertained this and ended up paying a heavy price in released detainees in return for what turned out to be the two soldiers' remains.

On the other hand, Israel has linked its readiness to open the Gaza passages and end or relax the economic siege of the Strip to Shalit's release. Hamas in turn links its agreement to a stable ceasefire to opening of the passages. Accordingly, the fate of the entire Gaza-Israel front has in some ways come to depend on that of a single captured soldier.

Israel is negotiating a prisoner exchange with Hamas through Egyptian good offices. Yet Egypt very clearly has an agenda of its own regarding Hamas and Gaza: to ensure they remain Israel's problem, not Egypt's. Not that the Egyptians are discussing prisoner issues with Hamas in bad faith--but rather, Israel has every reason to at least consider finding an alternative mediator that is not itself involved in Gaza-related issues (Germany has apparently begun to assist) or alternatively to attempt to negotiate directly with Hamas.

One reason there is no direct contact with Hamas, whether over Shalit or a ceasefire, is Israel's reluctance to take a step that it is feared could end up weakening the moderate leadership of Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank. No matter that everyone else in the Middle East talks on occasion to Hamas, including Abbas himself. And no matter that the ultimate prisoner exchange deal, which will inevitably involve the release of over 1,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, many of them hardened terrorists and many from the ranks of Abbas' Fateh movement, will be celebrated by Hamas as a major victory not only over Israel but over Palestinian moderates as well.

Then there is the public media fest in Israel over Shalit: candlelight vigils, mass demonstrations, endless public appeals by celebrities, petitions and on and on. Hamas takes note and has to conclude that, if it just sticks to its demands, the Israeli public will force its government to capitulate and release everyone on the Hamas list, down to terrorists responsible for the horrific deaths of dozens of Israelis. It's a free country, and the government of Israel--which doesn't want to be accused of indifference to Shalit's fate--can only ask quietly that the demonstrations be toned down and cite the statistics of previously released terrorists who subsequently murdered additional Israelis to support its bargaining position.

So pervasive is the demand of the "pro-Shalit" public that he be ransomed at any price that, a few weeks ago, Defense Minister Ehud Barak confronted a question from an anxious twelfth grader about to be inducted into compulsory military service: "Who will protect me from being abducted?" Barak had to explain to the youngster that as a soldier it would be his duty to protect the rest of us, and not vice versa.

Finally, two broader issues hover in the background of the Shalit affair. One is the obvious failure of Israel's intelligence and operational capabilities to find and free Shalit despite the fact that he is being held a stone's throw across the Gaza border fence. If the location of Shalit's prison were known, the IDF would probably try to free him even though this would undoubtedly endanger his life.

The other is Israel's incarceration policy regarding some 12,000 Palestinian terrorist prisoners in its jails. On the one hand, they are treated humanely: they can pursue university education behind bars and receive visits from relatives in the West Bank and Gaza. They have lawyers and receive regular Red Cross visits. All demands that their jail conditions be radically worsened to approximate those of Shalit as a means of pressuring Hamas have been rejected by Israeli authorities.

On the other hand, Palestinian terrorist prisoners serve incredibly long and draconian sentences that far exceed the norm for Israelis (Jews or Arabs) sent to prison for comparable "civilian" acts, from murder to possession of weapons. The worst Palestinian offenders, and there are many, are serving multiple life sentences with no hope of every being paroled, while the worst Israeli murderers and rapists can qualify for weekend vacations and conjugal visits after barely a few years in prison, and will be out after 20.

No wonder Hamas resorted to kidnapping a soldier as a bargaining chip for freeing its jailed operatives; nothing else could conceivably work.

Q. Turkey and Syria recently dropped visa requirements, while Turkey is mediating between Syria and Iraq and both Turkey and Syria have special relationships with Iran. Is a new Middle East northern axis emerging?

A. The Arab press is certainly busy speculating that a Turkey-Iran-Syria axis might be emerging; a few weeks ago, I wrote about Syrian President Bashar Assad's seemingly bizarre proposal for a Syria-Turkey-Iraq-Iran axis. What is most striking about the mere discussion of these ideas is that they reflect Arab disunity and involve increasingly close relationships between Arab and non-Arab actors in the Middle East, with Syria (Iran's only Arab ally) at the forefront. Beyond that, the recent Turkey-Syria deal reflects the special regional interests of both actors--interests that could affect Israel as well.

Syrians, it should be noted, have for years not enjoyed particularly easy access to the rest of the Middle East; only the Syria-Lebanon border was open for free movement, and that due primarily to Syria's traditional hegemonic role in the Land of the Cedars. Moreover, Turkish-Syrian relations were tense for decades, until in 1998 Damascus, under threat of military attack by Turkey, closed down the Turkish Kurdish PKK underground and expelled its leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The last remaining border dispute between the two, over Alexandretta (Hatai) on the Mediterranean coast, was only resolved in late 2004 when Assad traveled to Ankara and dramatically renounced Syria's claim to a province transferred by France to Turkey in the post-WWI era.

So the opening of the Syrian-Turkish border to free movement is a huge event in Syria. As Ziad Haidar commented in the Syrian journal al-Watan, "Now, Lebanon is no longer Syria's only window to the world". That it was a non-Arab border that was opened and not Syria's problematic border with, say, Iraq (or, God forbid, Israel) reflects the dismal state of Syria's relations with nearly the entire Arab world, and particularly its traditional leaders Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This is to a large extent the outcome of Damascus' provocative strategic alliance with Iran, its sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah and its brutal meddling in Lebanon.
Turkey's approach to the visa-cancelling event is very different. While the agreement with Syria in part reflects Ankara's gratitude for Syria's role in improving Turkish-Armenian relations (Syria's large Armenian community produced the current Armenian president, Serge Sarkisian), Turkey's vistas are far more extensive. It wants to reopen the old "hajj" railway line from Istanbul to Mecca (via Damascus). It is ready to again mediate between Syria and Israel and to help with US-Iran relations. Its "neo-Ottomanism" projects a dominant Turkish diplomatic and economic role throughout the region.

Thus, while Ankara's moderate Islamist government still hopes to join the European Union, it is clearly trying to create a dynamic and even dominant Middle East role as both an alternative and an incentive to Europe.