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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher -December 27, 2011

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Alpher discusses whether there is a connection between the the hill youth/price-tag attacks and those of the ultra-orthodox against women, the strategic ramifications for Israel of the US military withdrawal from Iraq, and the strategic consequences for Israel of the leadership transition in North Korea.

Q. Is there a common denominator between the orthodox "price tag"/"hill youth" attacks in the West Bank and the recent ultra-orthodox efforts in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh to segregate women in the public sphere?

A. The most obvious common denominator is that both groups are Jewish religious extremists, are relatively small in number, and are daring to engage in increasingly provocative acts because the Netanyahu government and its reactionary Knesset majority provide a congenial environment--one in which more moderate religious leaders prefer silence to intervention.

The two groups are actually very different from a religious standpoint. The hill youth are politically messianic. They do not discriminate against women (any more than routine orthodoxy prescribes, for example in separate seating in synagogues) and even include women in their violent protests. They consecrate the land of the West Bank and use violence to defend their grip on it. In contrast, the extreme ultra-orthodox who demand that women sit at the back of the bus and not walk on a sidewalk in front of a synagogue and who spit at young girls not dressed in something approaching Taliban garb, are not Zionist and their messianism is purely religious, not political.

There are also diverse demographic factors at work. Nurtured by government subsidies and cheap housing, Israel's ultra-orthodox community is growing. As it expands, it moves into towns and cities that previously held little or no ultra-orthodox population. Bet Shemesh, where the current controversy over spitting at women is taking place, is an example. Some of the discriminatory ultra-orthodox practices, it emerges, have been going on for years in secluded neighborhoods without arousing the ire of Israeli secular, traditional and orthodox Jews. Now, population crowding is changing that.

Israel's orthodox Jewish population, incidentally, is not growing. Even as it has projected its influence from its settlement base into the IDF, its political base has shrunk as it regularly loses young adherents to ultra-orthodoxy and even to secularism. In this sense, the hill youth do not represent a looming demographic threat the way the ultra-orthodox do.

Regarding both groups, it's hard to take seriously the declared determination of Prime Minister Netanyahu to enforce anti-discrimination and anti-violence laws. His coalition is too dependent on the extremists' supporters. Less than ten years ago, in far more moderate circumstances in terms of religious extremism, the Shinui party garnered 15 members of Knesset and demonstrated that many Israelis are prepared to commit politically to restraining religious extremism. The best thing that could emerge from the current anger of Israel's large moderate majority would be a similar phenomenon. If that doesn't happen and the government doesn't act much more forcefully, we could soon conceivably see secular Israelis who feel increasingly threatened taking matters into their own hands, vigilante-style.

Q. Moving to the region: What are the strategic ramifications for Israel of the US military withdrawal from Iraq that was completed last week?

A. There is no longer a large US combat troop presence in the region. True, between 2003 and 2011 that presence did not affect the balance of power between Israel and Iran and its allies in any obvious way. But it could have, had there been a serious conflict, for example between Israel and Syria, which borders on Iraq, or between Israel and Iran. Now the US military is no longer in the regional equation, even theoretically. Nor is it likely to return soon to the region.

Secondly, the Kurds of northern Iraq are now on their own, no longer protected by American troops. Israel has an interest in the independence or at least autonomy of the Iraqi Kurds, who like the Jews are an indigenous non-Arab people with a history of conflict with neighboring Arabs. At this point, the Kurds rely on Turkish friendship, along with the overall instability and weakness of the Iraqi state.

This points to two additional interrelated factors that are likely to characterize Iraq in the near term and are relevant to Israeli strategic calculations. Iraqi democracy and state cohesion are so fragile that the country could easily disintegrate into Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni semi-independent areas. Should this happen, the outcome could be both greater involvement by neighbors like Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia--each with its own vested strategic ethno-religious interest--and a greater destabilizing effect on weaker neighbors like Jordan and Syria, both of which border on Israel, through violence and refugee flow.

From Israel's standpoint, the single greatest danger presented currently by Iraq is greater Iranian influence, capitalizing on Shiite majority rule in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein may have been a monster, but his saving grace in Arab (and, in retrospect, Israeli) eyes, was that he kept Iran out of the Arab Middle East. In the short term, Iran is using its influence in Baghdad to ensure that Iraq stays out of the broad Arab campaign against Syria's Assad regime with its Shiite-Alawite roots, thereby providing Bashar Assad at least passive support. If the Assad regime survives, and with the US gone from Shiite-dominated Iraq, Israel could face a "Shiite crescent" (a term coined by King Abdullah II of Jordan) stretching from Iran to southern Lebanon, that could be stronger and more aggressive than ever. Note, on the other hand, that at least for now Iraq's Shiite leaders evince virtually no interest in Israel.

In this regard, the Saudi reaction last week to the US withdrawal was instructive: King Abdullah called upon the seven Gulf Cooperation Council states to move toward political unity. Given the huge diversity and geostrategic imbalance among the Saudis and the emirates, the likelihood of this happening anytime soon is slim. Even an earlier GCC initiative to bring Jordan into the current cooperative structure has not gotten far. But there was no concealing the concern of the largely Sunni and oil-rich Gulf Arabs regarding the prospect of an Iranian-Shiite Arab threat being mounted from Iraq.

(At a more pragmatic level, the Saudis are building a fortified fence along their long border with Iraq, to match the fence they built on their border with Yemen. Israel is hardly the only border fence-builder in the region.)

There remains one open question of broad strategic interest. Did the US occupation of Iraq and the US-facilitated creation of a seemingly democratic ruling structure there have anything to do with catalyzing the Arab revolutions of 2011? After all, it was President George W. Bush's explicit intention that the forced democratization of Iraq radiate outward to the rest of the Arab world. And he was cheered on in this effort by Israeli neo-conservatives, among others.

Frankly, I'm skeptical. Iraqi democracy could collapse tomorrow. And broader Arab revolutionary democracy certainly does not recognize an Iraqi democratic antecedent or precedent. But it's too early to answer the question definitively.

Q. Moving to the other side of the world: Does the dramatic leadership transition in North Korea carry strategic consequences for Israel?

A. Israel's primary concern with North Korea is as a serial proliferator of nuclear weapons and missile knowhow to the greater Middle East area, from Pakistan via Iran, Iraq and Syria to Libya. Even the Pakistani proliferation network of scientist A. Q. Khan apparently had some of its roots in North Korean knowhow.

In this regard, the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was as notorious a transgressor as his father, Kim Il Sung. Notably, Kim Jong Il assisted the Iranian nuclear program as well as a Syrian program that was at least temporarily eliminated by a stealth attack in 2007 that is generally attributed to Israel.

Hence the obvious question is, will the new leader, Kim Jong Un, pose as great a danger to the Middle East. And the answer, at least for the time being, is that even if the grandson of the founder of the North Korean regime has more moderate or liberal ideas in mind, he appears to be quite clearly under the wing of Pyongyang's military leaders. Their entire power paradigm, in turn, is seemingly wrapped up in the North Korean nuclear and missile program, which depends for funding on the export of knowhow to oil-rich countries like Iran.