Friday, January 27, 2012

Israel's Knesset at 63 - How it works - Why it needs Reform

Order in the House

On a bad day, Israeli parliamentarians have been known to hurl water at political adversaries, denigrate immigrants over their Hebrew accents and even bow their heads in the memory of Palestinian suicide bombers. On a good day, though, they mostly go about the nuts and bolts task of crafting legislation with bipartisan support for the benefit of all Israelis.

Israel's Knesset celebrates its 63rd anniversary on February 8 which coincides with Tu B'shvat on the Hebrew calendar -- errant members notwithstanding -- with a celebratory plenum session and its first ever open house. Nowhere is Israel's political system more starkly on display -- for better and worse -- than in its unicameral legislature. None of whose members are elected as individuals; none represent constituency districts, and not a few whom have been catapulted to positions of influence way beyond their intellectual abilities. All operate in a hyper-pluralist environment where old-fashioned interest group politics has run amok.

It all began even before the 1949 Armistice Agreement when Israelis went to the polls to elect a Constituent Assembly. Chaim Weizmann, as president of the Provisional State Council, opened the Assembly's session in Tel Aviv with the idea that it would frame a constitution. Instead, the Assembly transformed itself into a legislature and decided that constitution-building could take place only a little at a time through a series of Basic Laws.

When the security situation allowed, the Knesset was relocated to Jerusalem in a former bank building on King George Street (now the home of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court). By 1966, thanks to the generosity of James de-Rothschild, the Knesset moved to a purpose-built edifice designed by J.Klarwein and Dov Karmi near the Israel Museum and the Edmond J. Safra Campus of the Hebrew University in Givat Ram. Over the years a new wing has been completed and another is under construction.

Given Israel's proportional system of representation which increasingly fosters small, ideologically-driven or sectoral parties, no one party in history has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat house. In the first Knesset Ben-Gurion's Mapai Party won what today seems like a staggering 46 mandates. By contrast, opinion polls suggest that Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party would "win" a new election with around 28 seats.

The rules are no more arcane than elsewhere. Since a quorum is not required for plenum business, it is not uncommon for an MK to be seen addressing a practically empty chamber. While members work throughout the week, the plenum generally meets Monday-Wednesday. The Speaker, currently Likud's Reuven Rivlin, can influence the legislative process but mostly upholds the institutional prerogatives of the legislature. In the most streamlined of circumstances, government-sponsored legislation approved by the cabinet is sent to the Knesset for a first reading. Surviving bills then go to committee for discussion and are returned (invariably with amendments) to the plenum for a second reading. Bills require a third and final reading for passage into law. There are endless permutations of these procedures. Israel also leads the word exponentially in bills proposed without party sponsorship by individual members.

Like the U.S. Congress most of the real work gets done by committee. The Knesset has 12 Permanent Committees and three ad hoc committees; all told there are roughly 20 active panels including caucuses. This may be too many, according to Haifa University political scientist Eran Vigoda-Gadot who has supported streamlining the division of labor. The committees, which are professionally staffed, enable the Knesset to fulfill its governmental oversight responsibilities, according to attorney Rachel Gur, the legislative director for Likud coalition chairman MK Ze'ev Elkin.

Of course, elected officials not staff provide the public persona of the committees. One recent early morning, for instance, the Economics Committee gathered television crews in tow to tour commuter rail stations. The members were riding the crest of attention generated by a controversy involving Israel Railways' decision to do away with free transportation for soldiers returning to their bases during the Sunday rush hour. Meanwhile, back in the Knesset itself the Justice Committee was meeting quite unremarkably to discuss… patent legislation.

No one disputes that it is hard to get things done foremost because of the way political power is distributed within Israel's coalition system. Beyond that, dozens of MKs are also cabinet members or have cabinet-level responsibilities pulling them away from their parliamentary duties. In fact, Liat Collins, a veteran Jerusalem Post journalist who covered the Knesset for many years notes that after every election there is talk of passing the so-called Norwegian Law under which ministers would have to leave their Knesset seats when joining the cabinet to make room for legislators who can devote themselves exclusively to parliamentary work.

There are still more reasons why it's hard to get things done. Vigoda-Gadot argued that unlike legislatures in more established democracies the Knesset is still building the façade of Israel's law-making infrastructure even as its work is constrained by the need to operate within a rickety coalition system and, moreover, within a polity where diversity of opinion is, shall we say, sharp.

Still, any institutional sluggishness has its upside; it hinders irresponsible majorities from railroading through bad legislation, Vigoda-Gadot pointed out. Collins thinks many MKs simply find it frustrating not to be in power. She has proposed creating a shadow government along the British model so opposition members can have a greater sense of purpose. While there is no formal "question time for the prime minister" along the lines of the British House of Commons, members may submit inquiries to ministers who routinely appear at the rostrum to provide answers.

To improve efficiency and professionalize its operations, the Knesset established a bipartisan Office of Research and Information in 2000. But Gur argued that the office is understaffed and often lacks the expertise members need especially to help them comprehend complex fiscal legislation. Understaffing is no less a problem in members' own offices; an MK is limited to two overworked and underpaid parliamentary aides, said Gur. Collins agreed: the hardest working people in the Knesset are often the staffers.

Of course, MKs themselves are well-compensated. At least a dozen started out as hard-driving journalists used to meeting deadlines. In truth, there are some queitly hardworking legislators across the political spectrum and comparatively few slouches. Collins pointed to Yisrael Beitenu's Orly Levi-Abekasis as someone who works productively for children's rights without grabbing headlines. Both Collins and Gur agreed that it helps for MKs to find a niche. Elkin, for example, has authored laws aimed at helping the country's elderly population though his specialized area public policy work draws little press coverage, said Gur.

Despite its mostly hardworking lawmakers the bad behavior, outrageous pronouncements and mud-slinging by a minority of members has sullied the Knesset's image. This helps explain the electorate's insatiable craving for a political messiah and the, probably, fleeting popularity of television personality Yair Lapid, who recently announced his political ambitions. Add to the mix the unhelpful deportment of a number of Arab members affiliated with radical anti-Zionist parties who seem more committed to exacerbating tensions with the country's Jewish majority than building bipartisan support for legislation that might benefit Israel's Arab citizens.

To put the Knesset – and Israel's political system more generally – in better order politicians need to find the courage to carry forward with David Ben-Gurion's circa 1950 proposal to divide the country into 120 constituencies with a winner take all system. Others have proposed having 60 members elected in constituencies with the rest along the existing system. Whatever the specifics, reforms should be aimed at making MKs primarily beholden to their constituents.

Even in its present imperfect incarnation Israel's legislature remains a beacon of liberty. In a Mideast that has not yet proven its ability to go beyond "one man, one vote, one time" Israel can boast the only democratically elected legislature that is part of an integral political system that measures success by how well it delivers majority rule while protecting minority interests.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

"Red" Ken Livingstone v. Boris Johnson - The 2012 Race for London Mayor and the Larger Implications for the Jewish Community

London Mayoralty

London, Europe's biggest city with 5.8 million eligible voters, goes to the polls on May 3rd to elect a mayor. The contest is primarily a rematch pitting the former Old Labor mayor "Red" Ken Livingstone against the quirky Conservative incumbent Boris Johnson.

Like any Big City mayoral campaign, the issues revolve mostly around crime rates, affordable housing, commuter fare increases and how best to help Londoners weather the economic downturn. London's mayor has limited authority with power dispersed among the municipality's 32 borough councils. Still, the job comes with plenty of responsibility and, moreover, offers a bully pulpit. A Livingstone victory would return City Hall to a vitriolic anti-Zionist whose relationship with the city's 195,000-stong Jewish community has long been fraught.

Until recently, polls had been showing Johnson with a slight advantage over Livingstone – no small achievement in a city that has a reputation for voting left even if Tory parliamentary candidates have actually done remarkably well. Now, however, Livingstone appears on the ascendant. To solidify his lead Livingstone will need to hold on to his natural base among Black and Muslim voters while appealing to other voters who abandoned him four years ago. Johnson's unenviable job is to convince an electorate battered by Conservative government service cuts and dreadful economic times – one in 10 Londoners is out of work – that he is actually their best advocate with No. 10 Downing Street and the business sector. Johnson has been pushing corporations to offer apprenticeships, paid internships and graduate training schemes as cost effective ways for businesses to tap into London's talent pool.

Livingstone has been reminding voters that under his stewardship the city became cleaner and safer; that he helped bring the Olympics to London; made major improvements in the Tube and implemented a traffic congestion scheme in central London that has unclogged streets and made the air cleaner. He charges Johnson with raising commuter fares well beyond what is reasonable (though fares went up dramatically in his administration too). Livingstone further promises to advocate for rent control and to be wiser than Johnson in implementing billions of pounds in budget cuts.

For his part, Johnson has frozen municipal taxes and argued that his 5.6 percent Tube fare increase is essential for infrastructure upkeep. After the Olympics, he acknowledges that he might have to cut the police budget (unless Prime Minister David Cameron's government steps in). Some categories of crime are up, Johnson admits, but serious youth violence and crime overall is down. And he takes pride in delivering the Olympic Games on time and on budget.

Of course, the Johnson-Livingstone race has wider implications. For one, Livingstone has a history of being a thorn in the side of his own Labor Party. He did not get on with prime ministers Tony Blair or Gordon Brown though insists that for the first time in a very long time "there's a Labour leader who actually likes me." Still, if elected the charismatic Livingstone may ram the untested Labor leader Ed Miliband further to the left simply by outshining him. Miliband's own comfort level with Israel is debatable but to his credit he's asserted that "It is not left-wing or progressive to ally oneself with those that seek Israel's destruction…"
Livingstone would beg to differ.

His "Red" moniker comes well earned. One close adviser is John Ross his Trotskyite ex-chief of staff whom he described in his memoirs as a "workaholic professional revolutionary." Nowadays, of course, being "red" is synonymous with campaigning for Palestinian Arab cause and aligning with its Islamist champions.

The ex-mayor's commitment to "Palestine" and to anti-Israel agitation is second to none. He believes the creation of the Jewish state was an Original Sin and that "it would be easier to achieve peace if Israel comes to terms with the crimes committed at its birth." He is close to the Egyptian Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi whom he defends this way: "The one thing he has always said is that Palestinians have the right to fight and to kill in the struggle round Israel. But he's always been absolutely clear that that was the only area in which violence could be justified." And Livingstone's idea of hurling an insult is, for instance, to call Education Secretary Michael Gove – one of Israel's very view friends in the Cameron cabinet -- a "fervent Zionist."

Journalist Andrew Gilligan who blogs on the mayoral race for London's Daily Telegraph read through an advance copy of Livingstone's autobiography and came up with some interesting statistics: There are 64 mentions of “Israel” or “Israelis;” 32 mentions of “Zionists” or “Zionism.” In contrast, there are only 30 references to public transportation. Gilligan writes: "Ken’s famous obsession with the Third Reich is on full display – there are 23 references to “Nazis” or “Nazism” and a further 16 mentions of Hitler!"

It comes as no surprise that Livingstone has taken thousands of pounds to anchor a program for Iran’s English-language Press TV. Say this about the man he has an arch sense of humor. He jokes that the choice between him and Johnson is one of "good and evil" adding, "I don't think it's been so clear since the great struggle between Churchill and Hitler."

Livingstone's Israel-phobia goes further. In February 2005 , annoyed by persistent questioning from Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold he instinctively reacted by telling the journalist that he was "behaving like a concentration camp guard." In his book, Livingstone disingenuously explains that no offense was intended. In fact, "the phrase 'behaving like a concentration camp guard'…is a common jibe in Britain."
Jewish voters are not without clout. Most of Britain's 260,000 plus Jews are concentrated in London. Obviously, not all vote in solidarity with Jewish interests and Israel. Many, however, will. That might explain why Valerie Shawcross, Livingstone's running mate, campaigned for him at last month's Limmud conference. Jewish voters helped push Johnson over the top in 2008 and in 2010 "punished" Labour for its perceived bias against Israel, according to Prof. Geoffrey Alderman.

While there would be cheers in Teheran and Gaza, a Livingstone victory would be a setback for London's anyway fraying image as a cosmopolitan, pluralist and tolerant city.
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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

HAMAS & FATAH, PALESTINIAN RECONCILIATION

Two Palestines, Complete

Some saw history in the making. With jubilation and fanfare Fatah and Hamas agreed last spring in Cairo to form an interim technocratic administration, hold parliamentary and presidential elections by May 2012 and, ultimately, to establish a national unity government. What's more, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal announced that his movement intended to adopt the strategy of "popular resistance."

The announcement was received as "historic" by Haaretz: "Palestine" would soon have a unified government pushing for peace while, in the view of the newspaper, Israel's "belligerent" army and government would continue to bury itself in a "foxhole." Now, after squandering the better part of four years refusing to come to the negotiating table, Fatah officials have consented to hold exploratory talks and exchange position papers with Israeli officials at the Jordanian Foreign Ministry in Amman.

How are we to understand this seemingly promising triad: Palestinian unity, Hamas flexibility and a renewed Fatah commitment to genuine peacemaking?

A good place to begin is by examining what distinguishes the two Palestinian camps. Fatah, which means "conquest" or "victory," was founded in the 1950s well before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza. While vaguely nationalist in orientation Fatah never placed ideology at its forefront focusing instead on "armed struggle."

Since 1993, it professes to have abandoned annihilating Israel as its raison d'être though its "militants" did engage in terrorism during the second intifada (2000-2005).

Hamas came into existence in 1987 (during the first intifada) as a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. It considers "Palestine" an Islamic trust and is inalterably opposed to the existence of Israel. For tactical purposes Hamas too has flirted with its own form of moderation sometimes advocating a temporary truce or hudna with Israel and lately claiming to have embraced "popular struggle" – meaning violent protests without the use of firearms in conjunction with ongoing political efforts in the pursuit of Israel's destruction. In any case, Hamas steadfastly adheres to its "right" to utilize terror as circumstances dictate.

Under pressure from the Bush administration, the Palestinian Authority held elections in 2006 which were won by Hamas. The Islamists had quite credibly accused Fatah of corruption in its administration of the PA and tarred them as kowtowing to Israel. In victory the Islamists refused to meet international demands to recognize Israel, honor agreements signed between the PLO and Israel and to end terrorism. In March 2007, suspecting that Fatah was about to make a U.S.-supported putsch for Gaza, Hamas struck first, defeated Fatah and ousted its gunmen from the Strip. Fatah was left in control of the PA in the West Bank; Hamas solidified its hold on Gaza.

Since then, when Arab countries are not playing off the Palestinian camps against one other, they have sought to reconcile them. Most recently the post-Mubarak military rulers of Egypt brought Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas and Mashaal together in Cairo.

But for all the talk of unity, Hamas banned Fatah supporters in Gaza from celebrating its 47th anniversary in December and Fatah did not bother to tell Hamas it had plans to meet with Israel in Amman earlier this month. Hamas interpreted this affront as a blow to "national reconciliation." At the same time, the PLO expressed exasperation that Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh did not coordinate his recent tour of the Mideast with local PLO legations.

Senior PLO figure Nabil Shaath visited Gaza earlier this month returning to Ramallah to announce that the two "Palestines" were poised to set up a joint technocratic administration within weeks. Yet immediately afterwards Hamas barred other Fatah representatives from entering the Strip for reconciliation talks, presumably as an expression of Islamist displeasure over the Amman meetings. The banned officials complained of being humiliated at the Hamas checkpoint connecting Egypt and the Palestinian statelet. Hamas countered by accusing Fatah envoy Sakher Bseisso of blasphemy. Abbas himself remains persona non grata in Gaza; even public screening of his September 2011 announcement of the Palestinians' U.N. membership bid is forbidden.

Palestinian unity is not the only chimera. Plainly, from an Israeli viewpoint, a shift in Hamas's creed away from doctrinaire bellicosity would be desirable. For even if Fatah (which dominates the PLO) were sincere about wanting peace with Israel it could not legitimately act independent of Hamas. As a supposed concession to Abbas, Mashaal publicly embraced (with provisos) the PLO's cease-fire with Israel along with its political onslaught at the U.N. However, Hamas is itself divided between the "inside" leadership based in Gaza and "outsiders" such as Mashaal who until recently were headquartered in Damascus; it's also split inside Gaza between the "military" branch led by Ahmed al-Jabari and political leaders such as Haniyeh. All this explains why Mashaal's excruciatingly hedged comparative moderation was received by the party's senior theoretician in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar, with distain. Hamas, he hissed, would continue its "armed resistance."

Since Palestinian unity is as much a fantasy as Hamas moderation, it is too bad that, on top of it all, even Fatah isn't wholly committed to peace. It is pushing the UN to create a Palestinian state without recognizing Israel as a Jewish state using "continued settlement building" as its pretence. Of course, the settlement issue would become moot were Abbas willing to negotiate permanent boundaries.

Moreover, Abbas has taken no steps to psychologically prepare his people for the painful compromises entailed in any peace agreement. Instead, his mantra is that "peace" will provide the Palestinian refugees and their descendants -- by the millions – with the right to "return" to a truncated Israel one that will have withdrawn to the indefensible 1949 Armistice Lines. Rather than preach reconciliation, Abbas tells his people that Israel is a "colonial" power; that it has besieged Jerusalem – as if the city had ever been the capital of any people but the Jews – and that it capriciously murders Palestinian innocents. His recent U.N. address did not contain one good word for Israelis and had nothing to say about coexistence.

The truth is that Fatah's own fidelity to the Oslo Accords is wobbly, characterized further by its willingness to pave the way for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to join the PLO without their committing to keeping its international obligations. While Abbas is personally scrupulous in opposing "armed struggle" he has enabled the glorification of terrorism within the polity he directs.

The Fatah-Hamas schism has only intensified the intransigence, fanaticism and obduracy that have long characterized the Palestinian polity. Two "Palestines" do not equal one partner for Israel to build a viable two-state solution.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Syria, Alawite, Israel -- & Assad

Whither the Alawites


All indications are that time is not on the side of Syria's minority Alawite-led regime. There are reports that President Bashar Assad has been offered asylum in Moscow which has an interest in a smooth transition that will preserve Russian strategic interests. Other stories have Assad and his loyalists preparing mountain strongholds for a last-ditch stand fortified by Syria's arsenal of WMDs.

If Assad falls it is clear that the Arab world's Sunni majority and Muslim Brotherhood along with Turkey will all gain. Qatar has been financing the rebels and using Al-Jazeera to delegitimize the Damascus regime, according to Mordechai Kedar of the BESA Center at Bar-Ilan University. There has also been no love lost between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Assad family; King Abdullah was the first Arab ruler to urge Assad to step down. (Senior Arab League officials may have been co-opted by Damascus but rank-in-file observers sent to Syria to monitor the violence practically became part of the uprising.)

The biggest losers to an Assad departure would be the Alawites. In a worst case scenario, they face the prospect of massacre. Christian, Druze and Ismaili minorities could also suffer. The Alawites may perhaps be forced to retreat en masse to their historic mountain region above the coastal city of Latakia, according to W. Andrew Terrill of the U.S. Army War College.

Persian Shi'ite Iran would also lose. The mullahs have bolstered Assad's regime and used it to enable their Hezbollah proxies in neighboring Lebanon. Syria has also provided Iran an ecumenical bridge to the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood operating as Hamas bringing Sunni Arab Hamas into Shi'ite Persian Iran’s orbit. Now, Hamas has had to abandon its administrative headquarters in Damascus rather than side with Assad against the Sunni protesters, though its leaders will not likely regret the decision.

Who are the Alawites who have drawn such foreboding and attention? For one, they are, arguably, neither Moslem nor Arab yet their regime has embraced both Islam and Arab nationalism. Out of 22 million Syrians, 74 percent Sunni, there are perhaps 2 million Alawites (12%) the remainder of the population is Druze, Ismaili, Kurd, Turkoman, Armenian and Circassian and Christians. Several hundred thousand more Alawites live in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan (there is a tiny community in Israel).

The Alawites (also known as Nusairi) are an ancient indigenous Middle Eastern tribe. Their secret religion with it seemingly pagan elements was founded in the tenth or eleventh century. For most of their history they held themselves apart from the Arabs. Historically, their position under Sunni domination was one of social and economic inferiority.

They are distinct theologically from Islam by a set of tenets that include belief in reincarnation, in a Trinity and in the deification of Ali (Muhammad's paternal nephew and son-in-law) whom they revere as the greatest manifestation of God. One of God’s lesser incarnations was Joshua Ben-Nun, the biblical Hebrew hero who conquered the Land of Israel, according to John Myhill of Haifa University. Moreover, Alawites hold certain Christian holy days and symbols to be holy. No wonder, then, that Orthodox Sunnis view them as heretical.

Under the Assad dynasty the Alawites have shown themselves theologically pragmatic. Hafez Assad made the hajj to Mecca in 1974, though pilgrimage is not part of the Alawite creed. Nor is fasting during Ramadan or, for that matter praying at a mosque – though that did not stop him from dedicating one in his mother's memory.

He also sought an Islamic imprimatur of Alawite theological legitimacy from malleable Shi'ite clergymen; Alawites have been sent to Iran for religious studies. At the same time, Alawite pupils are exposed to Sunni religious teachings in Syria's public school system. It is as if the Assad dynasty stood ready to modify the Alawite system of belief in virtually any direction to survive, researcher Eli Eshed hypothesized in a recent Mekor Rishon article.

Syria's history may be a key. The territory known as Syria today was under Ottoman rule between 1516 and the end of World War I. The Turks intermittently encouraged ethnic strife to solidify their control. Then the League of Nations put the area under French mandate and Paris essentially followed a similar divide and rule course. Which brings us to the Alawite attitude toward Jews and Arabs: Suleiman al-Assad, Bashar's grandfather is said to have lobbied French Prime Minister Léon Blum against the establishment of a united Syria: "The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion."

In the event, Syria became nominally independent in 1936-37 though only gained real independence in 1946 in the wake of World War II. But one coup followed another as Sunni-led governments came and went. The Alawites observed these political convulsions from the sidelines. All the while, colonialism, independence and modernity were having their impact on the Alawites as increasing numbers of their sons were being educated and going into the army. The community's elite, meanwhile, was attracted to the Ba'ath Party with its secular policies and concern for the rural peasantry. The party had been founded in 1940 by two Sorbonne-educated Arabs, Michael Aflaq, a Christian and Salah al-Din al-Bitarm a Sunni Moslem.

In 1963, the Ba'ath led their own coup and in1966, following a party schism, another overthrow headed by Salah al Jadid (the 13th sudden change of government in 17 years) for the first time propelled an Alawite to the presidency. Finally, in 1970, General Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father consolidated control of the regime while also becoming a sort of super-chief of the four Alawite clans.

For the subsequent four decades the Alawites were able to control the Syrian polity thanks to their religio-tribal unity, discipline, patrimonial structure, not to mention their shared experience as an oppressed minority. In contrast, the Sunni majority, fundamentalists included, was politically fragmented over social, geographic and ideological lines. Even today as violence roils the country, the Sunnis remain fragmented despite the fact that Islam has provided a new rallying point.

As for Israel, the Syrian regime's animus toward Jerusalem notwithstanding, it is not entirely clear an Assad departure would be a net plus. True to form, Damascus had sought to blame the popular uprising on Israel, initially claiming the "Free Syrian Army" is a Mossad front for otherwise "not a single Alawite would be willing to kill a Sunni, and vice versa..." Still, the fate of the Alawites cannot but evoke disquiet among Israelis for what it says about the lack of toleration toward minority peoples in the region.

If he is destined to go, how Assad leaves the scene is as important as when. Tel Aviv University's Itamar Rabinovich has raised the possibility that Assad might lash out against Israel if he reckoned his end was near. Plainly, a smooth transition that secures Syria's weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) would be preferable to an anarchical end. It is probably not in Israel's interest to watch Syria fail as a state in the Lebanese fashion with competing terror chieftains lording over fiefdoms and no "central address" for regime decision making. Of course, Syria could disintegrate into a Kurdish North, Alawite West, Druze South, Bedouin East and Sunni core, a possibility not ruled out by Bar-Ilan University's Mordechai Kedar. Obviously, a power vacuum in which Palestinian Arab and Hezbollah gunmen might use the Golan to launch attacks on Israel would be destabilizing – as would Syria's WMDs falling into terrorist hands. Myhill goes so far as to argue that "the fall of the current regime would greatly increase the likelihood that Syria will precipitate a war against Israel" concluding categorically that "it is far better for the Alawites to maintain power in Syria than for a Sunni regime to take control there."

In any case, Israel cannot influence the outcome of events in Syria. By tying the fate of the Alawite community to the regime, and by using brutality today and mass murder in the past (Hama, February 1982) to quash any threat, Assad has set in motion the terrible prospect of a merciless Sunni retribution against the Alawites. So far 5,000 Syrians have reportedly been killed in the uprising though no one knows how many are regime opponents, innocent Alawites, or members of the security services.

Whatever Assad's personal fate, it is hard to see the Alawites surrendering themselves to the Sunni opposition under present circumstances. Veteran political observers divide popular Syrian opinion into those who support the regime; those who fiercely oppose it and a significant sector that wants political reform but does not believe it will come out of the current instability.

Israeli leaders including Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu had all been rebuffed by the Assads – father and son – in their attempts to exchange the Golan Heights for a genuine peace. The dynasty needed to maintain an enemy in Israel to distract their Sunni masses. Perhaps it was for the best. Would any successor Syrian regime have honored a treaty signed by an Alawite ruler? Possibly – in the same fashion as Egypt's Moslem Brotherhood plans to honor the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty: by putting it to a popular referendum.

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