Americans For Peace Now (Interview)
January 30, 2012 - 1:00am

Alpher discusses the Israeli-Palestinian pre-negotiation talks in Amman, interim conclusions from the "Arab spring" one year after the outbreak of the revolution in Egypt and the meaning of the 2009 survey just published on Israeli attitudes towards religiosity.

Q. The Israeli-Palestinian pre-negotiation talks in Amman adjourned after a meeting last Thursday without agreement to continue. What have we learned?

A. First of all, it is conceivable that the talks will reconvene if the Arab League, when it meets in mid-February, pressures PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to rejoin. The organizers of the Amman meetings, Jordan and the Quartet, did succeed in persuading Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's representative, Yitzchak Molcho, to present the territorial parameters of Netanyahu's position for the first time, and Molcho reportedly offered to present security positions in another meeting. There were also apparently some favorable indications that Netanyahu would consider Israeli confidence-building gestures if the talks continue, though he has backed down on commitments in this regard repeatedly over the past three years.

Yet the territorial parameters apparently presented by Molcho seemingly confirmed the PLO's assessment that the two sides are too far apart on this issue--not to mention heavier "narrative" issues like holy places and the right of return--to give negotiations any chance of success. Molcho reportedly offered the Palestinians a state bordered approximately by the security fence on the west and a long-term Israeli security presence in the Jordan Valley to the east. There was no Israeli offer of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem or, for that matter, any concession regarding "united Jerusalem". These positions do indeed correspond with what we know of Netanyahu's thoughts regarding a Palestinian state. They cannot conceivably constitute the basis for a two-state agreement.

So the talks were not a success, but they were also not a total disaster. All the parties save perhaps the PLO have an apparent interest in pursuing the talks further, though largely to satisfy political needs at home. Netanyahu, anticipating elections later this year, wants somehow to demonstrate to the Israeli political center that he is serious about negotiating. King Abdullah II of Jordan needs to show Jordanians that he is making an effort on the Palestinian issue--on Sunday, he balanced his performance of hosting the Israel-PLO talks by hosting a brief visit by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. The Obama administration needs a risk-free "process" of some sort as the election year gathers energy. Even the French and Russians have election considerations. Understandably, the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and the UN) breathes a sigh of relief when Israelis and Palestinians are talking, if only because this ostensibly means they are not fighting.

As for the PLO, it did not score many points with the Quartet onlookers by refusing to even listen to a presentation of Israel's security concerns by an IDF general and insisting on the January 26 deadline. Abbas now has to decide which of the many balls he's juggling to keep in the air. Without the Amman talks, he returns to his United Nations initiative and pursues reconciliation negotiations with Hamas in anticipation of spring elections. With the Amman talks, both of these other initiatives are either suspended or slowed down.

Q. January 25 was the one-year anniversary of the outbreak of the revolution in Egypt. What interim conclusions from the "Arab spring" are strategic thinkers drawing in Israel?

A. Here is a selection of observations that focus on Israel's three neighbors, Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

Beginning with Egypt, senior military analysts note that, thus far, cooperation at the military level has only been enhanced, with new opportunities presenting themselves for dealing with the anarchy in the Sinai Peninsula. Further, the Egyptian interim military regime gets credit for pressuring Hamas to accept a prisoner-exchange deal for Gilad Shalit. On the other hand, it also gets credit for chaperoning more intimate and accelerated reconciliation talks between Gaza-based Hamas and West Bank-based Fateh--an issue that worries many Israelis who seek serious negotiations for a two-state solution.

A year after the revolution began in Egypt, the economic dimension is increasingly salient. The combination of rising oil prices and a demographic youth bulge is today credited to a far larger extent than Facebook and Twitter with catalyzing the revolution in Egypt as well as Tunisia. By the same token, economic pressures are seen as likely to ensure, at least in the near term, that even an Islamist regime in Egypt will keep the peace with Israel in order to ensure American and other western support.

These considerations are extremely important to Israel as well. Since the 1970s, thanks in large part to the peace with Egypt, Israel's security outlay has dropped from roughly 30 percent annually to six percent. This coincides to a large extent with Israel's economic boom. Accordingly, any backsliding by Egypt on its peace treaty with Israel could be catastrophic for Israel from both a security and an economic standpoint.

Moving to Syria, the direction of events there is seen as, on balance, beneficial for Israel, particularly insofar as the departure of the Alawite regime would distance Iran from the Levant and from Hezbollah. This could even mean a reduction in the saliency of the Iranian nuclear threat, since removal of the Assad-Hezbollah axis would weaken Tehran's capacity to engage in nuclear blackmail in Israel's neighborhood. On the other hand, the emergence of a more "wholesome" regime in Damascus would also mean renewed pressures on Israel to give up the Golan Heights in return for peace.

In many ways, the progressive weakening of the Hashemite regime in Jordan is currently seen in Israel as the biggest threat of all. The border with Jordan is Israel's longest. It is also the gateway to a revitalized "eastern front" if Iran and the Shi'ite regime in Iraq put their minds to it. Israel can and should do more for King Abdullah II than just attending sterile pre-negotiations in Amman.

Throughout all these revolutionary developments on Israel's borders and those elsewhere in the region, including in the Gulf area (Bahrain; Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Shi'ite provinces), four major trends stand out. One is the new power of the Arab public to determine events, first through fearless demonstrations, then through elections. A second is the rise of political Islam by means of those elections. The third trend, which links up with Iran's machinations and the aftermath of the US occupation of Iraq, is growing Sunni-Shi'ite tension (with Syria's Alawites understood as part of the Shi'ite camp). Finally, instability is fast characterizing a growing number of Middle East countries; from Israel's standpoint, this poses a daunting intelligence challenge.

A final word of caution: not a single one of the revolutions is truly over; many things could still change on all fronts, and no one can accurately predict them.

Q. A survey just published in Israel regarding religiosity appears to point to an upswing in attachment to Jewish tradition and religion. What does this mean in the long term for Israeli attitudes toward a two-state solution and human rights?

A. If this survey is problematic to understand in Israeli terms, it should be far more difficult for American Jews to fully comprehend. Most Israeli Jews, lest we forget, do not define their Jewishness in terms of "affiliation". Indeed, many secular Israelis define their Jewishness in national rather than religious terms--a distinction completely ignored by this survey, which was conducted in 2009 for the Israel Democracy Institute (and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, published only now).

In 2009, roughly half of Israeli Jews defined themselves as secular, and another third (mostly eastern Jews) traditional. These figures were slightly down from 1999, when an earlier survey reflected the influx of a-religious immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, and generally similar to 1991, before Soviet Jewish immigration peaked. The reversal of the 1999 trend of a more secular outlook presumably also reflects the gradual increase of the proportion of religious and ultra-orthodox Jews in the population--up from 16 to 22 percent in ten years.

Not unexpectedly, the more religious you are in Israel, the more likely you are to give priority to halakhah or religious law over democracy. On the other hand, we don't need this survey to tell us that one of the more reactionary elements in Israeli society regarding democratic values is Jews from the former Soviet Union, who are almost entirely secular. Still, a large majority of Israeli Jews believes Israel can be both democratic and Jewish and roughly half of the respondents still favor the introduction of civil marriage and recognition of non-orthodox conversion.

Figures for sensing solidarity with world Jewry have not dropped appreciably, and remain high. Indeed, it is instructive to note that 98 percent of Israeli Jews believe that the most important principle for the country is "remembering the Holocaust"--more important even than living in Israel.

Some secular and liberal circles in Israel see the recent survey as an alarm signal. They are frightened by findings such as 67 percent (meaning many secular Israelis) believing wholly or in part that "the Jewish people is a people chosen over all others" and 51 percent believing in the coming of a messiah. Yet many of these replies haven't changed in the past 20 years. The survey doesn't ask whether belief in a chosen people or a messiah affects Israelis' judgment on issues of peace with our neighbors and human rights among ourselves. Rather, it points to the complexity and tremendous variety of Jewish self-awareness in the country of the Jews.


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