Thursday, September 22, 2011

Misguided Quest for Stability -- The Arab - Israel 'peace process' is mostly irrelevant to Middle East Stability

Diplomatic dogma has it that the lack of a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians contributes "dangerously" to regional instability. Still, no matter how much the international community caters to the Arabs on "Palestine" the truth is that the benefits of trading Israeli security for regional stability will prove ephemeral.

For the Mideast boils for reasons altogether unconnected to the Jewish state.
The number of Arab League member-states not riven by violence and upheaval can be counted on one hand – with fingers to spare. Misguided U.N. action on the Palestinian issue will not provide breathing space for Arab and Muslim rulers threatened at home or abroad or both. It will have no constructive impact on regional turmoil.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, remains a desperate place where unemployed teachers have threatened to commit suicide. Ascendant Islamists have agreed that a yet-to-be elected assembly will write the country's new constitution. Given their imprimatur the odds are low that Western-style democracy will emerge from the process.

In post-Mubarak Egypt, visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reminded that the benefits of Israel-bashing go only so far. Having won the adoration of Cairo's masses, old guard Muslim Brotherhood leaders pointedly warned non-Arab Turkey against making a play for Middle East hegemony. "We welcome Turkey and we welcome Erdogan as a prominent leader, but we do not think that he or his country alone should be leading the region or drawing up its future," said Essam El-Erian, deputy leader of the Brotherhood. The Turkish leader was discouraged from visiting Gaza or Tahrir Square and his Obama-style Opera House speech was not broadcast live in Egypt. No matter who rules Egypt, Cairo will view Persia and Turkey as rivals.

In near forgotten Iraq, Sunnis and Shi'ites are still at each other's throats. Over in Syria, violence has claimed more than 2,200 lives with no end in sight. Shi'ite Teheran will stand by its client Bashar Assad come what may (though it has moderated its public backing). In contrast, Saudi Arabia has sided with the Sunni Syrian street. And Sunni Turkey has brashly hosted disparate anti-regime opposition groups. The possibility that Syria will fragment can't be ruled out. Israel is nowhere in the picture.

Lebanon's fate remains ever more precarious; its Syrian hegemon lies politically stricken while Beirut's more distant Persian overlord is riven by acrimony between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. No wonder that Hezbollah's puppet Prime Minister Najib Mikati has railed against the “unhealthy mood” within Lebanon's waning polity. Lebanon's Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai’s, Hezbollah's boot on his neck, found himself praising the Assad regime. Yet other Christian leaders have felt emboldened to challenge Hezbollah's corruption.

Israel or no Israel, instability driven largely by the absence of political legitimacy is endemic throughout the region. Take oil-rich Libya. It's anyone's guess how well the country can hold together in a hoped for post-Gaddafi era. Centrifugal tribal forces, fractious Islamists beholden to the Gulf States and comparative modernizers all vie for control. Neighboring Sudan has been partitioned yet north-south fighting along the new border continues. The situation in Yemen is no less bloody. Saudi Arabia has been trying to finesse a deal that would protect Riyadh's Sunni interests there against those of the Iranian backed Shi'ite Houthis. Can the war-ravaged country hold together? Iranian-Saudi rivalry plays itself out, too, in Bahrain. Israel is not in this equation.

Nor are Palestinian advances at the U.N. likely to secure the long-term stability of Jordan's Hashemite Kingdom. Ostensibly angered over remarks by a former Israeli aide implying that Jerusalem might promote a "Jordan is Palestine" strategy, King Abdullah last week lashed out at Israel and protested his fidelity to Palestinian statehood.

Yet the king surely knows that Israel is his bulwark, that the threats to his throne come from Jordan's Islamist opposition, from deep-seated economic woes, and the kingdom's episodically restive Palestinian Arab majority, not to mention the nightmare scenario of a Hamas takeover in the West Bank.

Speaking of Hamas, it is ironic that prospective U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood, on the PLO's terms, won't guarantee stability even within the Palestinian polity. Can anyone imagine Hamas granting Mahmoud Abbas safe passage to visit Gaza?

Irrespective of what happens on the Palestinian-Israeli track, the turmoil in the Arab world also continues to produce foreboding among the Christian, Druze, Alawite, and even Berber minorities in the region. Not to forget the Kurds whose homeland stretches across parts of Iran, Iraq and Turkey, and whose rightful case for self-determination has been oddly shunted aside by champions of the Palestinian cause.
To be gripped by the delusion that solving the "Question of Palestine" will deliver stability to the Middle East requires overlooking intrinsic regional, tribal, ethnic and religious fault-lines.

The Middle East will continue to boil no matter how much "Palestine" is empowered; no matter the extent to which Israel's security interests are denigrated; and no matter how much diplomatic capital is invested to assuage the bottomless pit of Palestinian victimization.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Israel's Isolation Problem -- Turkey, Egypt, the UN... Just What is Going On?

Israeli Radio's morning news anchor Aryeh Golan summed up the feelings of Israelis on Sunday when he said, "In Turkey, the government is against us, in Egypt the mob is against us and at the UN the majority is against us."

Israel's international isolation is ever more palpable. Turkey, led by its Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has frozen diplomatic relations. On the Palestinian front, it is hard to conceive of a scenario in which the UN General Assembly's automatic majority would not rubber stamp Mahmoud Abbas's unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. In increasingly anarchic Egypt, a bad situation turned dramatically worse over the weekend requiring the rescue of six besieged Israeli Embassy security guards from a Cairo lynch mob.

Against the background of roiling Arab uprisings from Damascus to Cairo and from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf – none of which has anything to do with Israel – censorious voices continued to fault the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Israel's increasing isolation. The critics range from a habitually unsympathetic global media, to wobbly friends in the U.S. and EU, to domestic Israeli pundits and opposition politicians.

Why, critics ask, doesn't Israel take "bold conciliatory" steps toward the Palestinians? Why does it adhere to its demand that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state? Why won't Jerusalem prostrate itself before Ankara, lift the blockade of Gaza and thereby allow Hamas to solidify its control of the Strip unhindered? Why must Jerusalem carp so persistently about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons when so many European countries not to mention China, Russia and India enjoy a robust commerce with the mullahs?

The critics' disparate voices agree that Israel needs to stop being such a nuisance, such an ingrate in the assessment of former US secretary of defense Robert Gates. In that regard, Jerusalem's diplomatic dependency on Washington during the cascading crises with Turkey, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority has undoubtedly been awkward for all concerned in light of the prime minister's "tense relationship" with President Barack Obama.

For some Euro-left critics, however, Israel is simply irredeemable. David Hearst, an editorial writer at Britain's anti-Zionist Guardian implies that Israel is "a supremacist state" and that, maybe, the Jews deserve to lose their country.

But the voices heard most incessantly by Israelis themselves are those of Netanyahu's domestic critics. Shimon Shiffer, a leading columnist at Yediot Aharanot sounded oddly forbearing of the Egyptian lynch mob noting that, after all, Menachem Begin's pledge to grant Palestinian Arabs autonomous rule never fully transitioned into statehood. Never mind that the PLO torpedoed Begin's autonomy efforts every step of the way and that statehood wasn't the goal.

For Netanyahu critics, it is axiomatic that the Arab street needs to express its frustration. Ben Caspit at Ma'ariv allows that Israel’s erstwhile EU and American friends have a point in claiming that Netanyahu is leading the country toward an "abyss." Gideon Levy at Haaretz nobly acknowledges that "Not everything was Israel's fault" though, ultimately it really is because Israeli "arrogance" is to blame for the deterioration of relations with Turkey and Egypt. Yoel Marcus, also at Haaretz, moans that Netanyahu "is getting on the nerves of the entire world."

On Israel's Channel 2, diplomatic reporter Udi Segal not-so-obliquely blamed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (just minutes after interviewing him live Saturday night) for the siege at the Cairo embassy citing "lack of momentum" on the Palestinian track.

Indeed, government critics uniformly agree that the absence of "momentum" on the Palestinian track – not necessarily genuine progress toward a sustainable peace, but the absence of the heretofore ubiquitous illusion of momentum embodied in the "peace process" – is responsible for Israel's diplomatic isolation. Following this line of thinking, Netanyahu's failure to maintain the "momentum" at any cost has caused Israel's isolation problem.

On the political front, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the new elder statesman of the Labor Party declared, “If I were Bibi Netanyahu, I would recognize a Palestinian state. We would then negotiate borders and security." And Kadima Leader Tzipi Livni was on the radio to say that were she in-charge Israel would be enjoying fruitful negotiations with the Palestinians because she would not adhere to the requirement that Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state; moreover, she would also know better how to finesse the Turks.

This indulgence by Netanyahu's domestic opponents in blaming Israel first may offer them emotional catharsis, but it hardly reflects the view of the general public. A survey conducted for Israel Radio's Reshet Bet (and broadcast on September 1) indicated that in any new elections, Netanyahu's Likud Party would be trump Livni's Kadima (27 Knesset seats to 18). Parenthetically, recent polling of Palestinian Arab opinion suggests an element of ambivalence about Abbas's unilateralist U.N. approach with 59.3% of West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem Arabs wanting to see a resumption of negotiations with Israel.

Anyhow, the critics' policy prescriptions appear strikingly half-baked. Netanyahu's insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is rooted not in semantics but in the idea that only such acknowledgment of Israel's legitimacy would connote a true end to the conflict and negate further claims on Israeli territory. For that very reason, Abbas continues to withhold recognition while insisting on the right to "return" Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and millions of their descendents to Israel proper. Half the Knesset members of Livni's own party, catalyzed by former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, have backed Netanyahu's stance.

As for Ben-Eliezer's risible suggestion that Israel back Palestinian statehood along the vulnerable 1949 Armistice Lines and afterwards negotiate permanent borders and demilitarization, what possible incentive would the already intransigent West Bank Palestinians – who sat cooling their heels during a ten-month long settlement freeze – have for accommodating Israeli security interests? And what sway would Abbas have over Hamas which continues to block "the president of Palestine" from even visiting Gaza?

If Labor's new leader turns out to be Shelly Yachimovich she will likely maneuver the party away from Ben-Eliezer's politically poisonous security positions. So the critics' counsel to "don't just stand there, do something" strikes many Israelis as reckless.

What is more, far from "isolating itself," as Netanyahu's critics claim, Israel's current predicament is largely the product of an unremitting and decades-long onslaught by the Arab camp and its amen corner to divide, isolate and ultimately wipe out the Zionist enterprise. That makes overcoming Israel's isolation problem a moral imperative for all those who champion the values of Western civilization.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Treaty Trouble - Egypt Wants to Amend the 1979 Peace Treaty

Tension along the 150-mile (230-kilometer) Israeli-Egyptian border remains high in light of intelligence information that Gaza-based Palestinian Arab Islamists plan further cross-border attacks from Sinai into the Negev.

An August 18 incursion near Eilat claimed eight Israeli lives and has generated recriminations within Israel's defense establishment over why the dispatchers were eliminated only after the attack.

Israel relied on Cairo to prevent the incursion. While Egyptian border guards spotted the terrorists they did not intercept them. Later in hot pursuit of the attackers three Egyptian guards were killed either by accidental IDF gunfire or when an explosive belt worn by one of the fleeing gunmen detonated. Three of the infiltrators turned out to have been Egyptian citizens. In response, the Cairo Street erupted in renewed anti-Israel frenzy. Young men competed for adulation with rival claims over who scaled the Israeli Embassy building to tear down its flag for burning.

Rather than take Cairo to task for allowing the cross-border incursion in the first place, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and President Shimon Peres apologized for the loss of Egyptian life. Planning by Gaza's Popular Resistance Committees for so sizable an attack is unlikely to have escaped Hamas's notice. But concern over deteriorating relations with post-Mubarak Egypt apparently inhibited an Israeli retaliation against Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

The 1979 Peace Treaty obligates Egypt to secure Sinai with a limited troop presence while keeping it demilitarized. After Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, Israel agreed to permit Egypt to move more troops into the Peninsula to contain jihadi elements, Palestinian Islamists and Bedouin gangs responsible for repeated attacks on a pipeline supplying natural gas to Israel (and Jordan). Since the Mubarak regime was toppled, Israel has twice agreed to allow Cairo to deploy more troops. Egypt now has 10,000 troops in the Peninsula with about 4,000 stationed along the Israeli border. It is unclear whether these ad hoc increases are reversible or whether the security vacuum -- a record 2,000 infiltrators mostly illegal refugees managed to cross the Egypt-Israel border last month -- is the result of weak policing in a difficult terrain or a persistent lack of will carried over from the Mubarak era. Not surprisingly, the flow of ever more lethal weaponry making its way through Sinai to Hamas-controlled Gaza has been increasing notwithstanding episodic Egyptian containment efforts.

Egyptians say they view the need to obtain Israeli approval for shifting troops into Sinai an affront to their national pride and their country's sovereignty. Egypt's Supreme Military Council has been pushing hard to amend the treaty arguing that new security threats demand permanently lifting the ceiling on the number of troops allowed into the Peninsula. The treaty does contain a clause that allows security arrangements to be amended by mutual agreement. Both Cairo and Jerusalem agree that ad hoc solutions have been exhausted. Israel's Haaretz newspaper supports official Egyptian demands to amend the treaty; Egypt's Al Ahram said what Egyptians really want is to have it abrogated altogether. Indeed, leading Egyptian figures have repeatedly emphasized that the peace treaty is not "sacrosanct."

With Turkish-Israel relations at a nadir, ties with Jordan practically on life-support, the EU wavering over whether to back Mahmoud Abbas's unilateral push for UN recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1949 Armistice Lines, and the Jewish state facing a range of security threats stemming from Iran and its proxies, it's no wonder that Jerusalem has been considering taking exceptional steps to preserve the cold peace with Cairo.

Barak has been floating the idea, in advance of anticipated presidential elections in Egypt this winter, of holding a strategic dialogue with Cairo in search of ways to make the treaty more palatable to Egyptian voters long inculcated by venomous anti-Israel cant in their media. Barak hopes amending the demilitarization clauses can salvage the treaty. The probable consequence would be abandoning Israel's veto over how many Egyptian troops could be stationed in Sinai. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is opposed to changing the treaty but has implied that if formerly offered he'd bring Barak's proposal to the Cabinet.

Hosni Mubarak did nothing to foster support for the peace treaty and occasionally diverted domestic attention by playing the anti-Israel card. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's de-facto ruler, has followed a similar line as illustrated by the continued incarceration of Ilan Grapel on trumped-up espionage charges. Still, if Tantawi (perhaps from behind the scenes) or one of his henchmen continue to rule, the bare bones of the treaty is likely to be preserved in return for continued U.S. military aid ($40 billion since the 1970s). On the other hand, virtually all the declared presidential candidates from across the political spectrum have staked out positions that put into question the long-term viability of the treaty.

Modifying the treaty to appease popular anti-Israel sentiment could open a Pandora's box. If today's limit on the number of soldiers is an "affront" to Egyptian sensibilities who's to say forbidding the Egyptian Air Force from holding maneuvers over Sinai won't be the next "affront" to be overcome? The Jordan-Israel peace treaty is no less unpopular. Would not amending the treaty with Egypt put pressure on King Abdullah II? Moreover, any viable Israeli deal with the Palestinian faction led by Mahmoud Abbas would require demilitarization of the West Bank. What signal would backtracking on the demilitarization of Sinai send to the Palestinians?

If the treaty with Egypt needs to be gutted in order to save it, something may be terribly wrong with the underlying land-for-peace approach.

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