Rebellion Against the Arab Spring Inflames the Middle East

by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (August 2013)

Egypt’s military led by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi eclipsed the short autocratic reign of (Former) President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, 2013. The coup came in response to the rebellion of millions in major cities across Egypt representing the Tamarod, organized by four opposition group leaders. Hundreds have been killed in the ensuing violence by Muslim Brotherhood, opposition, military and security police. One of those casualties was an American college student, Andrew Pochter, killed as a bystander at an Alexandria demonstration outside a local Muslim Brotherhood office. Secretaries Kerry and Hagel expressed concern over the Egyptian Military’s inability to rein in the violence stressing the necessity of including all groups, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, in a new government. The US Department of Defense has put a temporary hold on delivery of four F-16s to Egypt under the provisions of the 1979 Camp David Accords. What Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies called a "coup-volution” may have been in the planning stages for some time. The timing of Morsi’s ouster may have been triggered by the massive street demonstrations of opposition forces versus Muslim Brotherhood supporters of now ousted President Morsi. He and other former officials of the Muslim Brotherhood are now charged by the interim government with sedition.

Former Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi was Egypt’s first freely elected President after decades of leadership by military strongmen like Gens. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. Those strongmen had suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, which had spent decades underground creating a network of health and social welfare agencies and forming a political party in Egypt. The overthrow of Gen. Mubarak in February 2011 arose from mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. A jailbreak organized by the Muslim Brotherhood with the aid of Hamas and the Hezbollah in Egypt freed hundreds, including Morsi, in January 2011. That became the springboard for the electoral campaign that brought Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power in June 2012. 

The millions in Egypt’s street in late June and July 2013 were also protesting the swooning economy which is heavily dependent on income from tourism and remittances from ex-patriates abroad. Egypt’s highly valued cotton and its fabled bread basket of the Middle East have failed to provide wheat and other grains for the basic staff of life, bread. In the aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have offered $8 billion in funding that may temporarily stabilize the Egypt economy and stop the free fall of its currency. The interim government appointed by Gen. al-Sisi is led by President Adli Mansour, head of the  Supreme Constitutional High Court, Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, a liberal economist and former  Finance Minister, and Nobel Laureate and Vice President  for Foreign Relations, former UN International Atomic inspection agency head, Mohamed ElBaradei. They are charged with holding early elections and writing a replacement constitution. It is to replace one jammed through by Morsi in November 2012 with the aid of a Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist dominated constitutional assembly that deprived women and Coptic Christians of civil rights in accordance with Islamic Sharia law. Whether holding early elections would result in a stable government given large Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist voting blocs is a nagging question. The Muslim Brotherhood may go underground as it has in the past but will remain a significant threat.

Egypt’s military has unleashed a significant military operation in the northern and central Sinai to combat 50 terrorist compounds supplied with weapons from Hamas. Hamas is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has become estranged from Iran given its withdrawal from Damascus and declaration of support for Muslim Brotherhood opposition forces in the Syrian civil war. In late June 2013, Grad rockets were found in Rafah on the border with Hamas-controlled Gaza along with more than 1000 tunnels. It will be a daunting effort for the Egyptian military to finally choke off this pipeline for the Gaza cash economy and weapons supplies to the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. Israel has given a waiver under the 1982 Disengagement for Egypt to conduct operations in the ungovernable Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt is not the only example of rebellious turmoil in the region. In Tunisia, the assassination of leftist opposition leader Mohammed Brahmi brought massive demonstrations against the supposedly "moderate" Islamist Ennahda government. It has failed to address economic issues and combat Muslim extremists.  Libya is the latest example of another Arab country spinning out of control in the wake of the overthrow with NATO assistance of long term dictator Muammar Gaddafi.  A jail break of 1,200 detainees from a prison near Benghazi occurred in the aftermath of a drive-by shooting of Abdul-Salam Al-Musmar. He was a critic of the Muslim Brotherhood. His assassination triggered massive street protests with calls of “We don't want the Brotherhood, we want the army and the police!”

Another massive jail break at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has fanned the sectarian war between the Al Maliki Shia government and the Sunni minority, while the oil rich Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is watching the rising calls for independence of adjacent Syrian Kurds. Syrian Kurds have been able to free their heartland in the northeast region from the Al Nusra Front and ISIS al Qaeda fighters. They have freed towns bordering Turkey and Syrian oil fields in the vacuum created by the Assad regime's sectarian war against the Free Syrian Army (FSA). An apparent stalemate in the Syrian civil war, that has resulted in over 100,000 killed, has occurred with the infusion of armaments from Russia and Iran. Hezbollah has sent several thousand fighters from Lebanon into neighboring Syria to assist the Assad regime and a force of Iranian Revolutionary Guards to free a coastal bastion for the embattled Alawite minority and a zone around Damascus. That has spurred bombings in the Beirut command center of Hezbollah by Sunni opposition groups.  

The Obama Administration has dithered on commitments to supply small arms to the FSA, while Congressional advocates, Sens. McCain, Levin and Menendez have argued in favor of armed support for moderate opposition, without putting boots on the ground. Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Policy Center suggests that the trio of Senators is arguing for “an American War in Syria.” US Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff Gen. Dempsey has argued against that on the grounds of costs and inability to separate the alleged moderate opposition from the al Qaida affiliates streaming across the border from Iraq and Turkey.

Israel on the other hand is maintaining a watching brief on all of its borders. It is completing its security barrier along the Egyptian border and sent an Iron Dome battery to Eilat after finding fragments of Grad rockets. The IDF has reinforced forces on the Golan Heights to contend with both Syrian and Al Nusrah opposition forces contesting the demilitarized zone. Israel’s Air Force has also undertaken periodic raids into Syria to destroy anti-aircraft missile defense systems and other non-conventional weapons that may have been in the process of transfer to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has conducted five such raids to date, including one that interdicted a warehouse of game changing Russian supplied Yakhont anti-ship missiles in the port of Latakia.

Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani begins his term on August 3, 2013. Israeli PM Netanyahu persists in requests to the Obama Administration about clarifying military options on nuclear Iran given evidence that Iran may have crossed nuclear enrichment red lines that he had discussed at the UN General Assembly in September 2012.  This despite Rouhani revealing his cards about his long term support for accelerating nuclear weapons development nearing realization in 2014.  Rouhani was a long term secretary of the Supreme National Security Council as well as was chief nuclear negotiator under President Khatami in 2005 to 2006.

In the midst of the Middle East sectarian war and rebellion against failed regimes following the Arab Spring turnover of autocratic regimes, came a late breaking development. Secretary of State Kerry announced a new round of peace discussions between the Netanyahu Government in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority (PA) of President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. This was the result of six trips to the region by Kerry. Washington has announced the appointment of former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk as facilitator for the talks between Israel and the PA. A condition of the PA sending it delegation to Washington was another round of prisoner releases by Israel of 104 Palestinian terrorists and Israeli Arabs. Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the prisoner release thus facilitating a meeting in Washington on July 30, 2013. A vote by the Netanyahu cabinet on July 28, 2013 requires a national referendum before any final status peace agreement can be ratified. Further, polls in Israel indicated that three fifths of respondents rejected a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Skepticism abounds that any peace agreement can be achieved. The question arises as to what would bring these contentious parties together in another peace process given a region virtually in flames.

Against this background, we held one of our periodic Middle East Round Table discussions.

Mike Bates:  Good afternoon and welcome to this special edition of Your Turn. We periodically do these international roundtable discussions about what is happening in the Middle East and we are doing that today and with me in the studio is Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog, The Iconoclast. Welcome Jerry.

 

 


Jerry Gordon:  Good to be here.

 

Bates:  You can find Jerry online at www.newenglishreview.org. Joining us from Washington D.C. is Jonathan Schanzer, V.P. of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Jonathan, welcome.

 

 

 

Jonathan Schanzer:  Thank you very much.

 

 

Bates:  He is online at www.defenddemocracy.org. Also joining us from Washington D.C. is Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center. Welcome Shoshana.

 

 

 

 

Shoshana Bryen:  Nice to be here.

Bates:  She is online at www.jewishpolicycenter.org. Shoshana let me ask you the first question. A very open-ended question about the on again, off again, on again revolution in Egypt. According to the Wall Street Journal the coup by Egyptian military leader General al-Sisi on the third of July ousted the former President Morsi and detained leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was allegedly accomplished with support of Mubarak allies and other assorted opposition. What are your views on this Egyptian re-revolution?

Bryen:  Mubarak and his allies and assorted opposition people, the so-called, ‘deep state of Egypt,” must have been thrilled by General al-Sisi’s action, but I think there was something else going on. You cannot discount the power of what appears to have been the largest human gathering at anytime for any purpose happening in front of your nose. Some people say as many as 19 to 30 million Egyptians, I will say cut it in half, let's say 10 million people, still the largest human gathering of all time. My bad math says that is about the equivalent of 32 million Americans standing in front of Congress demanding that something be done. If they were demanding the end of Obama Care, I think they'd get it by sundown. Al-Sisi had to respond to what he was seeing in front of him and what he was seeing was, as I said, the largest human gathering for any purpose in all of history.

Bates:  What motivated that gathering? Was Morsi that bad or was this a gathering of people who didn't like him in the first place?

Bryen:  I think it was both. There were economic problems. Egypt was in economic free fall. It wasn’t the so-called “secular revolution.” The percentage of people in that gathering who were clearly religious people, women who were covered, men with beards, was very high, and they were unhappy with what had happened to Egypt. It doesn't mean that they are not supporters of an Islamist sort of society but they were very definitely unhappy with what had happened to Egypt in the preceding twelve months, both in terms of economics and in terms of governance.

Bates:  Jonathan, what is your take on that?

Schanzer:  First of all, I think there were -- the ball park here -- probably upwards of 20 million people, which, as Shoshana just mentioned, is remarkable. I think that the reason why these people came out into the streets, which was building to this point over the course of the year, was basically that Mohamed Morsi had violated the trust of the Egyptian people across the board. That includes both religious and secular Muslims, Copts, and pretty much every segment of the population other than the Muslim Brotherhood. They felt violated by Morsi's rule, whether it was manipulating the judiciary, trying to fire hundreds of judges and install in their place Muslim Brotherhood activists. Or whether it was the installation of governors throughout the country who were controversial choices. Or even manipulating the writing of the constitution. Everything that Mohamed Morsi did was done in a very unilateral way that excluded much of the Egyptian population and this was all happening while the economy was cratering. So, there was a sense of anger building. This “Tamarod” movement, the rebellion movement as it is known, is a grass roots movement that was built by four people and it turned into 22 million. They clearly had tapped into something that was visceral amongst the Egyptian people. Clearly, there was a head of steam that had been building where people were angry about Morsi. The question, though, is: for how long had the Egyptian military planned this maneuver? In other words, knowing that there would be people out on the streets and that there would be this revolutionary environment is one thing. But to have a plan that you could put into place where you would be able to topple the elected president as quickly as the Egyptian military did, that is ultimately another question. This raises questions as to whether this was a coup or a revolution or, as some people are calling it, a coup-volution.

Gordon:  Jon, what is the prospect that the Muslim Brotherhood will go underground and come back in a different guise given what has happened in Egypt?

Schanzer:  In many ways, I actually believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is more comfortable in its current role. In other words, for the last 84 years the Muslim Brotherhood has been an underground, secretive organization that has been banned by various autocratic regimes and military dictatorships. They are now back exactly where they have been, which is how they know to operate. This is how they are able to build support. So, it is quite possible that they will go underground again and that they serve out their days doing what they've always done, which is basically trying to undermine the secular regime without necessarily challenging it to its face. At the same time, I think it has made some strides. It has become a party, and I think the likelihood is that they continue to try to compete in the political space. The only problem is that right now, how can you even think about including them in the process? They have been toppled and they are bitter. Now, are we expecting the military government in Egypt to say: O.K., I know we just toppled you, but now you are welcomed to come back and participate in elections again? That is a very strange thing for the regime to do, and it's a very strange thing for the Brotherhood to agree upon.

Bates:  Did the Muslim Brotherhood come to the realization that it is easier to criticize the rulers than to actually rule?

Schanzer:  I think what the Muslim Brotherhood realizes is that governing is not easy. You can be an opposition organization and an Islamist activist organization thinking that you have terrific ideas. However, when push comes to shove, and you are actually holding the reins of power, it is not easy. Actually, what happened was the implosion of the Muslim Brotherhood in one year. I never would have imagined that it would take ten or twelve months for the Muslim Brotherhood to prove to the rest of the region as it did that it's unfit for governance. That is what I really believe has happened. For all of the things that we've done over the past ten or twenty years to try to persuade the Muslim world that Islamism is not right for the region, the Muslim Brotherhood did it single-handedly. The question is whether they are going to roll over once they've been kicked out. I am just not sure that they are going to do that.

Bates:  Shoshana, the military in Egypt remains a well-respected institution. I know that you don't have a crystal ball and that it is impossible to accurately predict but do you have a feel for how long the military will rule in Egypt before they have civilian elections again?

Bryen:  I don't think they will rule all that long. In fact in the same way that Jon explained that the Muslim Brotherhood may be more comfortable in an underground role or in a behind the scenes role, I think the military is also more comfortable in Egypt in a behind the scenes role. They have been very careful to create a coalition of non-military parties to work with, to present this interim government, to talk about a new Constitution including women, Copts, Salafists but not the Brotherhood. I think the military would very much like to return to its traditional position as the power behind the throne and not be seen as running Egypt.

Gordon:  Jon, why was the Obama Administration and in particular the U.S. Ambassador Patterson so blindsided by what occurred in Egypt?

Schanzer:  I think there was a sense in DC, particularly following Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, that we are supposed to work with those who come into power. And we did. That is exactly what this administration did. It worked closely with the Morsi Administration. It ignored so many of the violations that I mentioned before: the attempt to manipulate the judiciary, the attempt to manipulate the Governors, the attempt to exclude many Egyptians from the Constitution writing process. And we didn't say anything. We sat by and continued to allow it, and we did not assert our leadership. We did not call out those who were abusing their power. I don't think that the administration was in touch with how angry the Egyptian people were at the fact that we did step aside and allowed this to happen. What was amazing to me was that when you look at these mass protests, twenty million people out in the streets, they were burning more American flags and brandishing more anti-American posters than they were burning Israeli flags or engaging in anti-Israel rhetoric. This was a real backlash against the United States.

Bates:  That is interesting because Barack Obama had celebrated this Arab Spring in Egypt as a huge foreign policy victory for his administration. Is it perceived now as a huge foreign policy failure? He doesn't seem to think so from what I can tell.

Schanzer:  I would say that now the assessment among many analysts in Washington, including on the left and the right is that we just don't have an Arab Spring policy any longer. The more revolutions break out and the more that governments continue to deteriorate, it is clear that we just don't have a clue of where things are going. The leadership that has defined American foreign policy over the years is absent, and so there is a lot of frustration in DC. There is a lot of grumbling about missed opportunities. We look at Egypt now as a huge missed opportunity. Even over the question of whether we call it a coup or whether we support the Egyptian military, these are things that would not have taken that long in previous administrations to come to some sort of an agreement. Here we are, weeks later, kicking the can down the road and we are still not sure if we are going to call it a coup. We are not saying that it is a coup, yet, we are temporarily withholding deliveries of new aircraft. However, we are still backing the military even though we supported the elected Muslim Brotherhood President. This is a very muddled policy. There is a lot of confusion and anger, I think, on the part of the Foreign Policy establishment.

Bates:  The administration went out of its way to specifically avoid calling it a coup because then the law would require that the military aid we give to Egypt cease. We are continuing the military aid and yet the Obama Administration just announced that they are suspending the delivery of some F16s to Egypt so do we have a coherent policy towards Egypt?

Bryen:  No.

Schanzer:  I don't think anybody truly understands what we're doing, who we are supporting, and whether we have a vision for the outcome of this second revolution in Egypt. The fear here in DC is that by not either upholding our laws or making ourselves clear, what you could have is one revolution after another after another. The Egyptian people now see that there is really no reason why they can't go out into the streets by the millions every time they think that there is a problem that can't be solved. This is one of the real dangers of what has been developing over the last couple of weeks.

Bates:  Shoshana, what is your take on our policy towards Egypt?

Bryen:  We have tied our own hands as far as the military is concerned. We tend to think of U.S. military aid to Egypt as being what holds the Israel/Egypt Peace Treaty together. After a certain amount of time that becomes a bribe you pay to keep the treaty. What it ignores is that the Egyptian military does not wish to go to war with Israel. It doesn't need a bribe to keep the Treaty for several reasons. First of all they don't want to lose the very good relations they have with the United States. It's not just about airplanes, tanks and missiles. The Egyptian military cares very much about being invited to American military schools, about doing joint exercises, about the status that they derive from having a relationship with the United States military. They are a major non-NATO ally and it appeals to their pride and sense of self. The second reason they are not interested in going to war with Israel is they believe they would lose. First, that means they would lose the equipment and capabilities we have given them. And beyond that, they would no longer be seen as an ally of the United States. That would be a problem for them in terms of their status inside the country. Finally, most important they don't want to go to war with Israel because Israel is not the enemy. The enemy is the Jihadists. All of these reasons things should lead you to understand that we do not have to pay a bribe to the Egyptian military to keep the Peace Treaty. They want to keep it. If you get that issue out of the way you could talk about what aid would be most useful not only to the military but to the Government of Egypt. The fact that they are not delivering the F16s is a great idea. They may not need F16s, Apache helicopters, though, which are under discussion, might be very useful in Sinai.

Gordon:  Shoshana, there have been significant operations in the Sinai permitted by Israel underneath the 1982 Disengagement Agreement by the Egyptian Army. What is going on there?

Bryen:  Over the past decade, various Jihadist organizations have discovered that the Sinai is one of those ungoverned, under governed places that you can use for smuggling, training and all kinds of nefarious activities. The Egyptian Government was not spending a lot of time and effort there partly because the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty said they couldn't have very much in the way of forces and partly because it is a very difficult place to control militarily. Now that the Egyptian military is openly in control, they have decided that their biggest problem is Jihad and the Sinai and they have decided to do something about it.

So far mostly what they have done is make people angry. They haven't really gotten to the uprooting of organizations and their capabilities. But they are on the right track. I would point out that when Israel had responsibility for the Sinai and was watching the Gaza tunnels, the IDF was not perfect either. The Egyptians should get credit for trying, the Israelis should get credit for letting the Egyptians bring in military equipment and forces beyond what they had agreed to and everybody is on the same page here. The Egyptians and the Israelis both want to nail this down. The Egyptians have done a huge job on the Gaza tunnels. They are not just flooding them which is a temporary, stop gap measure; they are blowing them up and destroying them.

Gordon:  Jon, you had a fascinating article in Foreign Policy that was tied the peace negotiations announcement but it actually delved into the question of the destruction of the Hamas economic control in Gaza. That is a pretty stunning development. What can you tell us about it?

Schanzer:  Hamas has been one of the surprising losers of the Arab Spring. They had their divorce with Iran last year over the Syrian Civil War. The violence in Syria was even too much for this brutal terrorist organization and they ultimately left their headquarters in Syria which led to a cut off in upwards of $500 million in funding from Iran. What Hamas did was turn to Qatar, Turkey and Egypt. They turned to what we would call the Muslim Brotherhood bloc to make up the funding that they lost from the Iranians. What we see now is that it was a wrong choice for them because they lost Egypt. Some of the financiers who had allegedly been lining the pockets of Hamas were thrown in jail after the coup and money was cut off. In addition, there is the operation that Shoshana has just described, where the tunnels are being destroyed methodically by the Egyptian Army. As we understand it right now, upwards of 80% of the tunnels that were operating are now shut down. That is huge because the tunnels serve as the primary artery for Gaza's economy. Not just the goods that are transferred back and forth between Sinai and Gaza, but it is also the way that Hamas gets its cash. We call it bulk cash smuggling, where individuals carry suitcases full of cash that come from Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world. That is the only way that cash comes in. The banks don't work in Gaza, and so what we see right now as a result of these operations is that these arteries are shutting down. They are being clogged and it means that there is less cash that can be brought into the Gaza Strip. This means that their economy is not going to function. That, along with the fact that the Hamas organization used to tax all of the goods that would come through, and now there is much less of those goods coming through. We are looking at potential setback for Hamas of upwards of $200 to $300 million dollars as a result of what's just happened through the toppling of Mohamed Morsi. What I identify right now is that, if we can continue to insure that Egypt destroys the rest of these tunnels, and if we can cut down on some of the funding that would come from Turkey and Qatar, then you actually have a window that you don't see very often. When I worked as terrorism finance analysts at the US Treasury, I never saw a window this good for any organization to shut them down financially. Now the question is whether Mr. Kerry tries to take advantage of this because, at the end of the day, the PLO and Israel pretty much agree only on one thing, and that's how much they hate Hamas. This is an opportunity for the peace process, if you think that has any chance of going anywhere. It is also an opportunity to destroy a very nasty terrorist organization that has been terrorizing Israelis since 1987.

Bates:  Let’s discuss that peace process. What is happening with the peace process?

Schanzer:  Against all of the skeptics, John Kerry pulled a rabbit out of a hat after six different trips to the region. A sort of shuttle diplomacy, or as I was actually calling it, muddled diplomacy. Nobody really believed that he was going to pull this off. But he has actually pulled off. Though we need to be very realistic about it. He has gotten both sides to agree about talking. In other words, we have not gotten to the point where this is all happening and that both sides consider themselves to be in sort of binding process. Both the PLO and the Israelis are approaching this very carefully. Neither one really believes this is the moment to get it done, and I have to admit I am skeptical as well. I think many people are, but I'll actually just counsel this: that we all need, I think, to be very humble about this. Nobody really knows what's going on behind the scenes. I don't want to rule out success here. I will tell you that my gut tells me that the likelihood is extremely low, but stranger things have happened. I mean there were many people that said that Oslo would never take off, so it's still possible that Kerry continues to push this by just sheer will and there could be additional progress. Again, though, I think the likelihood, if we are going to be realistic, is quite low.

Bates:  Jonathan, I sensed some optimism from you with the announcement of the possible resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. When it was announced that they are likely to talk, the Palestinian Authority very quickly said yes, but the pre-1967 borders have to be on the table and the Israelis have never agreed to that prerequisite so where do things stand?

Schanzer:  I would describe Kerry's approach as creative ambiguity. And he has left things ambiguous because he wants to get everybody just to sit down and talk. You are going to see both sides continue to draw lines in the sand and tell the other that they won't go to the table. On the Palestinian side they are saying the pre-1967 borders must be on the table. The late Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban famously called these the “Auschwitz Lines” that Israelis would never go back to it. The Israelis are saying that they need Abu Mazen to accept Israel as a Jewish state, which he has been very reluctant to do, or to relinquish the threat of going to the ICC and suing the Israelis for war crimes. I think these are huge differences and I have to say I am not optimistic. I just don't see how this could possibly move forward, but I think it's worth noting that I didn't think that they would even get to this point. Kerry clearly has found some leverage with both sides. I don't know how he's done it but he has, and it makes me think that perhaps there is some other deal that's being cut behind the scenes with both parties that is enticing them to come back to the table. Quite frankly, Netanyahu is not interested in this. He wants to take care of the Iran threat. And Abu Mazen is not interested, in that he has been gearing up for several years to go after the Israelis through Lawfare. How this happened I don't know. I did not expect this to happen at all and yet here we are.

Gordon:  Shoshana, the State Department has appointed former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. What is his reputation and what are the odds that even with the support of Kerry and others he can really pull off a final status agreement given as inchoate as it is?

Bryen:  I don't think they are aiming at a final status deal. I think Jon said something very important when he talked about things behind the scene. I don't think for a minute that the Palestinians are planning to negotiate with Israel. They are not ready to give the, “secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force” that are embedded in UN Resolution 242. I don't think the Israelis are negotiating a Palestinian state for a variety of reasons having to do with being split with Hamas. I think this is a smoke screen to allow the United States and Israel to talk about other things; maybe Iran, Syria or Egypt. 

When you raise the question of Martin Indyk, what you are seeing is more smoke screen. There is some irritation in Israel with Martin Indyk because he has been Chairman of the International Board of the New Israel Fund, which is a little too close to the BDS people in Israel. The Israelis don't think anybody that is associated with BDS is neutral. The bigger problem is that Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, and Daniel Kurtzer are people who have been doing the same thing since the early Clinton Administration. There is no new thinking and the region requires new thinking. On the other hand they are a great smoke screen for trying to push a process to have conversations about other things.

Gordon: Jon, next door to Israel in this peace process is Jordan. Jordan has been devastated with nearly a million to a million and a half refugees from Syria and it also has its own version of the Muslim Brotherhood who must be quaking in their boots about what transpired in Egypt or are they?

Schanzer:  Well, actually, I've got to tell you they're not quaking in their boots at all, or at least the monarchy is not. They are giving high fives to the Egyptian Military. It was Jordan's King that was the first foreign leader to go over and meet with the new interim government in Egypt. So in other words he's a very happy guy. He saw the Muslim Brotherhood threatening the region, including Jordan, and so he is now breathing a sigh of relief, seeing a weakening of the Muslim Brotherhood around the region. I was sort of chuckling about this with colleagues that there was probably nobody happier in the region than King Abdullah. The Brotherhood in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front, are a bit more uncomfortable with this. It doesn't bode well when the mother ship of the Muslim Brotherhood is as weakened as it is right now. It does portend poorly for the future of the movement, but in the meantime I will say this that Jordan is not out of the woods, even if the Muslim Brotherhood has been dealt a blow. Jordan still has hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring over the border from Syria. I have heard something in the order of about 5,000 a day that have been flowing into Jordan, and Jordan does not have the infrastructure. Jordan does not have the ability to keep up with that kind of humanity, especially people who don't have the means to support themselves. They have left behind their homes and their livelihoods, and so they're not just crossing over the border into Northern Jordan, but some of them are actually migrating South going into Amman and into other cities. It is going to be very difficult, I think, for Jordan too maintain an economic balance as it deals with this. You have to remember that many Iraqi refugees have remained in Jordan.   Jordan is 83% Palestinian. This includes many of the descendants of refugees from the Israeli Wars of 1948 and 1967.  Despite the good news from Abdullah's prospective that the Brotherhood was dealt a blow, he is not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination.

Gordon:  Shoshana, this past week the EU published a new set of rules for member countries suggesting that by the end of this year an estimated one billion in trade or grants may not flow across the so-called ‘green line’ border to Israeli Enterprises in Judea and Samaria. Why did the EU issue such guidelines in the midst of a peace process and how could Israel undermine them?

Bryen:  The Europeans were caught by surprise by Kerry's successes such as they are at the moment. I also think it is related to the EU's determination that the so-called military wing of Hezbollah is going to be listed as a terrorist organization. They had to throw a bone to the people who were pro-Hezbollah so they did something anti-Israel. Israel is not ultimately going to be the one that undermines the guidelines although the Israelis will make the case for why the guidelines should be taken back. What will undermine the EU guidelines first and foremost is the Palestinian reaction to them. The Palestinians have already complained to the EU that this could cost 20,000 Palestinian jobs in the territories. They may not like Israel, and they certainly don’t want to legitimize the political State of Israel, but there is an economic interest in the day to day work that they do and if it costs 20,000 Palestinian jobs it doesn't help with peace. The Germans have already begun to back away, deciding that this doesn't really meet the need that the Germans have to support peace. They have discovered in Germany for example, that some of the German money that goes into sewage and water projects are run by Israeli universities that have branches in the West Bank. Those will have to be cut off. Those are projects that the Germans provide for the Palestinians, not for the Israelis. The Israelis have sewage management all their own but a lot of the things that benefit the Palestinians have anchors in Israeli universities and Israeli companies that have outlets or satellites in the territories. They are suddenly beginning to realize that there is an absolute problem for the Palestinians saying that nobody can work for Israeli entities over the Green Line.

Bates:  Shoshana, what is your current assessment of the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program and what if anything will Israel and the American Administration do about it?

Bryen:  There are people who think the red line has been crossed as Prime Minister Netanyahu described it in the United Nations. What would Israel do? I would assume that Israel is already doing things. If you are asking the question can Israel take an airplane, fly to Iran, drop bombs on a facility and do away with the Iranian Nuclear Program, no it can't. It never could. So when you talk about responding, retaliating, or doing something about the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program, keep in mind that getting rid of it by dropping a bomb on it was never an option. Iran’s nuclear facilities are separated, buried, hardened and redundant. Military strikes can do a certain amount of damage to critical facilities. It can set the program back for a length of time and at some point somebody may wish to do that. However, none of that will “take out” the program. I would point out that the Stuxnet and Flame computer virus and computer worm were joint U.S./Israel programs aimed at Iran's nuclear capabilities and they probably set the program back between two and three years. So when you talk about “doing something” about the program you're not just talking about military strikes. Things are happening all of the time. There is sabotage. There is cyber warfare. There has been the elimination of certain key people. I don't want to say assassinations but I guess that's what it is. The Iranians understand that their program is under siege in a variety of different ways. The Israelis and the Americans are making it clear that if they have crossed the red line there will be a price to pay and I believe they are already paying it. I don't think you are going to see an Israeli airplane as you did with those Syrian attacks, where there was a single bombing mission to take out a specific facility. That is not ever going to be the case for Iran.

Bates:  If the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program can be delayed or stopped through a covert action that's not violent such as a computer virus, that's preferable. You said a moment ago that Israel does not have the capability to militarily eliminate the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program. Would the U.S. Military have a non-nuclear capability to do that?

Bryen:  The American military can destroy anything in the world that it sets out to destroy. The question is, at what cost? A lot of what the Iranians have built is near cities including the holy city of Qom. So you have to ask the question, can the U.S. bomb a facility in or near or under the city of Qom? Yes it can. Will it? It's highly unlikely, so none of is dependent on your own military capabilities. Israel can fly to Iran. It can reach Iran with bombs. It can do damage with those bombs but it is unlikely that either the United States or Israel will use bombs to get rid of the program. The collateral damage would be enormous and I'm not sure that there is any stomach in either country to do it.

Bates:  What happens if we simply decide that it's inevitable that the Iranians will get the bomb and we will let them do it and then we'll just try to contain them? That also seems to be a pretty dangerous gamble.

Bryen:  There are people who have already decided that will be the case and they are already looking toward what will happen the day we wake up and the Iranians have nuclear weapons. The biggest problem will not be for Israel. The biggest problem will not be containing Iran. It will be containing Saudi Arabia which has plans to buy a bomb and a variety of other countries that see Iran as a first line threat to them. Egypt shares that view, for example. If you agree intellectually that Iran will get a bomb and we will just have to live with the fall-out, the fall-out is going to be seen in a nuclear arms race all across the Arab and the Muslim world.

Bates:  I certainly don't agree with that. I think they should be stopped at any cost but as you pointed out there are plenty of people in power that seem to think otherwise.

Bryen:  Yes, I know there are people who have decided the Iranians are beyond the point that they can be controlled through sanctions, computer viruses, assassinations or whatever. There are people who have decided that the train has left the station.

Bates:  Wow.

Gordon:  Jon, on August the third, the Islamic Republic of Iran will have a new President Rouhani. He has been ballyhooed in some circles as being a reformer. What is his track record and what is the reality?

Schanzer:  Rouhani was on the council that negotiated the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Argentina. Now there are some questions as to whether he directly ordered that attack or whether he was just on the council and was only a bystander. At the end of the day, that alone demonstrates that he has been part of the Iranian terror apparatus dating back for more than a decade. The real concern about this is the notion that he is part of the Supreme Leader’s inner circle. There is no way that he could have been elected President had he not been. In other words, we look at the selection process for the President in the Islamic Republic; most of those who wanted to run were disqualified. They were I believe upwards of 300, perhaps even more people, who got in line to run for President and all but eight were disqualified in the end. He was one of those left standing. That should give you a sense of his revolutionary qualifications. There is a lot of concern that he has put on a moderate face for the regime. He talks about opening up Facebook to the average Iranian and he talks about fixing the economy and bringing Iran out of isolation. And he's Western educated. All of these things are supposed to make us, here in the West, feel that perhaps Iran has turned a new leaf. I believe this is a tactic that the regime has deployed in order to sow confusion among Western decision makers. We hear, right now, that there are discrepancies among decision makers about whether we should give Iran enough time to prove that he is, in fact, moderate and that the regime is changing, or whether we should double down on sanctions and have a credible use of military force. I don't believe this is a moderate regime in the least. I don’t believe that Rouhani has the ability to change the nuclear trajectory of Iran. I think the Iranians have succeeded already in creating that confusion. The down side here is that the administration is going to be asking for some sanctions relief and for a reprieve from all of these sanctions, perhaps through August or perhaps even through October. That will cost the Israelis valuable time in terms of attacking the regime and making sure that it is financially weakened and perhaps priming it for a military intervention.

Bates:  Why would we want to lift sanctions? What is the benefit of that? If we were harming the economy and we're putting the nation under stress that seems like a good thing. Why would we decide to put the sanctions on hiatus?

Schanzer:  We are offering to show good will to the regime. If we provide sanctions relief, the thinking is that perhaps they will step back from their nuclear program and make concessions. Again, I don't believe that this is a very wise course of action. I don't understand the logic because, at the end of the day, what it will do is allow Iran to bulk up on those foreign currency reserves which will allow it to replenish those supplies. They can go back out and purchase more of the things that they need for their nuclear programs. We will just be giving them a little more cash and a little more time to be able to get back at what they want to do most, which is to become a nuclear power and threat to the region.

Gordon:  Jon, in the context of Syria we've seen several attacks by Israel although undocumented over the course of this past year. The most recent of which is the alleged attack on a warehouse in Latakia containing some Russian supplied anti-ship missiles. Why has Israel conducted those attacks and why is it doing it so covertly?

Schanzer:  It has been actually fascinating to watch how Israel conducts itself when a brutal civil war is taking place right on its Northern border. The Israelis have basically warned the Syrians not to transfer advanced weaponry, what they call “game changing weaponry,” into the hands of Hezbollah. The Israelis are trying to be very careful to make sure that sensitive weaponry, including chemical weapons, don't fall into the hands, of not only Hezbollah, but also the Nusra Front or other dangerous Salafi or al-Qaeda factions. The Israelis have excellent intelligence, eyes on the ground, and anytime they see any of this weaponry begin to move in a direction that they believe could be going into the hands of Hezbollah, you see a strike. There have been four strikes to date and many of them have been spectacular. The Israelis dominate the airspace. Watching a YouTube video of what appeared to be an Israeli attack on a Syrian airport where a weapons cache was destroyed, the remarkable thing is you are watching this happen and then Syrian FSA Fighters are starting to scream “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great” which is a rally cry for the Islamists. And here they are doing this in response to the Israelis taking out Alawite military equipment. This is one of those things where you throw your hands in the air and wonder, you know, how do I even parse this out? How do I analyze this?

Bates:  Wow.

Bryen:  I would add that one of the things that happen when Israel blows up something in Syria is that it blows up the American position that it would take billions of dollars and 70,000 troops to do anything to have an impact on what's happening in Syria. General Dempsey, aware of the President’s reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria, has told the Senate that it would cost a billion dollars a month to operate a “no fly zone.” And that would be after hundreds of sorties to destroy what he called the “formidable” Russian-provided air defenses around Syria. He has used the number 75,000 American troops to secure Syria’s arsenal of non-conventional weapons. These are things that very much deter Americans from thinking about intervention in Syria. (I’m not suggesting that the U.S. should intervene, but Gen. Dempsey has touched a lot of hot buttons for Congress by talking about money and troops on the ground, helping to ensure that they don’t press for intervention.) But the Israelis have proved several times now that Syrian air defenses can be breached, and that red lines can actually be maintained without inordinate amounts of money, troops or casualties.

Listen to the 1330AMWEBY radio broadcast: here, here, here and here.

 

Also see Jerry Gordon's collection of interviews, The West Speaks.

 

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