The Iran connection is now the critical issue

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As Israel developed its strategic relationship with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization over the past nine years, two key security concepts were paramount. Both were cultivated by the mainstream “security dove” camp led by prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and others.

The first concept held that the Oslo process would turn Israel and the PLO into strategic allies in the fight against Islamic extremist terrorism. Israel would turn over territories to Arafat, and the PLO would suppress Hamas and Islamic Jihad. At times this worked, and at times not. Since September 2000, when the current armed uprising broke out, this concept is a shambles. Arafat bears much of the blame, insofar as he clearly maintains an ongoing inclination to use or threaten force as an instrument of negotiation, and refuses to suppress his Islamic rejectionist camp. Where Israel has failed to carry out its Oslo obligations, e.g., regarding the ceasing of settlement building, it also bears a degree of blame for not providing Arafat with minimal incentives. The current Sharon government, which has no real strategy of peace, is the product of Arafat’s strategy of violence–not the cause.

The second concept, first enunciated by Rabin and later embraced prominently by Barak, concerns the “window of opportunity.” It holds that Israel is faced with long term existential, non-conventional threats from the periphery–Iran and Iraq–and from allied Islamic and other radical forces. Making peace with the Palestinians will not necessarily silence those threats, but by shoring up the inner circle of peace, Israel will be far better situated to deal with the outer circle. Indeed, an atmosphere of peace, however cold and problematic, will encourage neighboring moderate countries that are also threatened by Iran, Iraq and extremist Islam to rebuff those threats, and perhaps even to make common cause with Israel and the United States against them. This was the dominant strategy behind Rabin’s decision to engage the PLO– undeniably a problematic partner from the start–and to offer painful concessions in an effort to neutralize Israel’s Palestinian front. Barak’s decision to withdraw from Lebanon in May 2000 largely neutralized the threat from Hizballah, Iran’s local proxy.

Nothing that Arafat did throughout the interim process contradicted this strategic approach from Israel’s standpoint. But in July 2000, under pressure of final status talks, Arafat began evincing extreme positions regarding core Israeli issues: the right of return and the Jewish link to the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif. This signaled to many Israelis that a peace deal with him might never be possible. Still, it made sense to continue to view Arafat as Israel’s default partner for negotiations, even if these might produce only interim arrangements for the near future.

Then came Israel’s encounter with the Karine A weapons ship. There can be no doubt that Arafat, who only two years ago claimed that Iran was trying to have him assassinated, was involved with this smuggling operation. From Israel’s standpoint, the moment Arafat and the PLO leadership link up with the dominant and extremist wing of the Iranian leadership led by Hamenei, who calls for the total destruction of Israel, and with Hizballah, the window of opportunity concept becomes meaningless, for the Iranian threat is literally at our doorstep. Not only Israel but Egypt and Jordan, too, who have good reason to fear Iran’s intentions toward them, and the US, may now have to reassess their relationship with Arafat and the PLO.

Israel has a limited strategic relationship with Egypt. It is based on the “no more war” principle, and on close ties to the West. While Egypt continues to view Israel as a potential rival for regional influence and conceives of peace very differently than Israel, the relationship has proven remarkably stable militarily, even in these trying times. Israel and Jordan have a strategic relationship based on a shared regional threat assessment and shared concern over possible future Palestinian nationalist expansionism. The ramifications of the Karine A affair potentially complement both relationships.

In past decades Arafat wore out his welcome in Jordan and Lebanon not only because he continually reneged on agreements, but primarily because of the strategic threat he posed. He is in real danger of repeating the mistake. Most Israelis have now given up any hope that he can be a partner in a genuine strategic scheme of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. At the current juncture, what allows him to remain in Ramallah is his ongoing legitimacy as the accepted leader of the Palestinians and the fear of chaos should he depart. But in the post-September 11 world, a new standard of legitimacy is liable to decide his fate.

Meanwhile, Israel has an ongoing strategic interest, independent of Palestinian designs, in ensuring its own demographic security and democratic underpinnings by ending the occupation and dismantling settlements. In the current reality this increasingly points to a strategy of unilateral withdrawal. Yet unilateral measures are not on the agenda of Prime Minister Sharon, who covets the occupied territories and cultivates the settlements.

Hence all we can hope for at the moment is that, through the good offices of General Zinni and others, we can maintain a tactical Israeli-Palestinian relationship, devoid of trust and of strategic understandings, and dedicated to ensuring minimum regional destabilization and minimal violence, until the Arafat era has passed.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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