Ehud Ya’ari on what lies ahead in the Middle East
By Allon Lee
Israeli analyst and journalist Ehud Ya’ari is known not only for his encyclopaedic knowledge of everything going on across the whole Middle East, but for his extraordinary personal contacts throughout the region extending even into the ranks of many of Israel’s most bitter enemies. He says that, with elections scheduled in the first half of 2009 for many of the Middle East’s key players – including Israel, probably the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon and Iran – the strategic outlook for the upcoming year is looking particularly tumultuous and unpredictable.
Israel – Two major decisions
As Israel counts down the days until it holds national elections on Feb. 10, Ya’ari predicts that, barring an upset, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu will be Israel’s next prime minister leading a coalition of Likud, Labor and Shas, but excluding Kadima.
“Bibi [will be] prime minister, probably better than last time and [Labor party leader Ehud] Barak remaining as defence minister but heading a very small party,” he said.
The real conundrum of the election will be the extent of Labor’s drubbing at the polls, which could see its representation in the Knesset fall to single digit figures.
“In these elections we are going to see the demise – many people think it’s unfortunate – of the Israeli Labor party, which was traditionally, historically, the backbone of the Zionist movement in the land and the backbone of Israeli politics and society,” he said.
Kadima under current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s leadership will be the second largest party in the Knesset, but it faces the mathematically almost impossible task of forming government without the support of either Likud or Labor, Ya’ari said.
Ya’ari explained the real difficulty Kadima faces in speaking to the Israeli voters is its lack of a “political platform”.
“The party was created to carry out unilateral disengagement, first, in the Gaza Strip, and then, in the West Bank. It backfired badly in the Gaza Strip. They don’t talk anymore about unilateral disengagement in the West Bank, so what is this party about?”
As for the agenda for the next Israeli government, Ya’ari argues that two issues will dominate: Peace negotiations with Syria and dealing with Hamas’ ongoing control over the Gaza Strip.
Ya’ari says a peace deal between Israel and Syria is possible, with “the contours, the parameters of a deal, including roughly the borderline” clear, including Syria’s backing down from previous demands to share the Sea of Galilee.
“The big question is, is Syria willing to divorce the Iranians? If not, then [if] Israel is going to gradually remove itself from the Golan Heights… the next morning it will wake up to see first Iranian intelligence gathering there and then probably the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards… That would not be a good idea,” Ya’ari said.
The second issue the next Israeli government must face is whether to extend the existing ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and how long Hamas’ military build-up can be tolerated?
“I believe that whoever is in government, the issue of how far to allow Hamas to continue is of the utmost urgency. Today they are capable of hitting the Intel plant in Kiryat Gat, and Israel’s second biggest port, Ashdod. That’s no joke anymore. It’s not only poor Sderot and the kibbutzim nearby,” he said.
Ya’ari said it was important that Hamas does not extend its rule into the West Bank. Israel’s and Fatah’s mutual interest in preventing this has seen unprecedented security cooperation between their respective security forces.
“Never before, since the conclusion of the Oslo Accords back in September ’93, did we have such a relationship with Palestinian security,” Ya’ari stated.
The crux of the success is due to two factors, Ya’ari explained.
“We have won the battle in the West Bank against terrorism. It took us six years since Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, when three divisions of the Israeli army were sent into the West Bank, the refugee camps and the casbahs.
“And then it took night in, night out of sending our children – troops in uniform – into the different villages… to take out people suspected of being involved in terrorism,” he said.
But after six years, the terrorism networks in the West Bank are now totally dismantled to the point where Jenin, which was the capital of the suicide bombers, is a safe and open city, he explained.
The second plank of securing peace in the West Bank has been the deployment of professionally trained Palestinian security forces disconnected from the Arafat era.
“These are young guys recruited in the West Bank, trained in Jordan, which has an army resembling the British army. And they are going after Hamas and whatever cells remain of Islamic Jihad,” Ya’ari said.
Two illegitimate Palestinian governments
Come midnight on Jan. 8, 2009 two “illegitimate Palestinian governments” will exist, Ya’ari said, stressing that this is a Palestinian constitutional fact and not an Israeli assessment.
“One illegitimate government is Hamas. Already declared by the Palestinian Authority [PA] a rebellious entity, a product of a military putsch in Gaza in June 2007. But the other will be the PA itself,” he said.
“There is no other way to read the Palestinian constitution but that Mr. Abbas’ term as president expires midnight on Jan. 8,” Ya’ari said.
In order to confront this problem, Abbas will attempt to disband the Palestinian parliament and hold elections that will be limited to the West Bank.
“He cannot hold elections in Gaza – who will allow him to put out the ballot boxes? So he may have a demonstration of elections in the West Bank under Palestinian security forces newly trained in Jordan… Abbas will win 70%, 75% [of the vote],” he said.
Hamas’ likely response will be to appoint an acting president in order to demonstrate that it no longer regards Abbas as the legitimate president of the PA, Ya’ari said.
Ya’ari admits that he expected Hamas and Fatah to reach a compromise deal – or at least the “pretence” of one – prior to Jan. 8 under the brokerage of Egypt, but Hamas was recalcitrant.
“To my amazement, Hamas turned down an Egyptian ultimatum. That was a shock to the Egyptians and to me. But their shock was bigger. Hamas said no,” Ya’ari said.
Following Hamas’ snub of the Egyptians, one of the larger tribes of the Bedouins in the Sinai captured a strip of 12 kilometres along the Israeli-Egyptian border by chasing away all Egyptian security, police and army personnel from their border positions for 48 to 72 hours.
“[This is] just an indication that the challenge posed by Hamas to Egypt, not just to Israel, is beginning to have ripples and is causing the Egyptians to lose, to quite an extent, control over the Sinai peninsula – which is three times bigger than the State of Israel,” Ya’ari said.
Ya’ari suspects that the Bedouin rebellion will force Egypt to weaken its efforts to control the smuggling routes run by the Bedouin in the Sinai through the tunnels into the Gaza Strip.
Egypt has placed its faith in keeping Hamas contained in the Gaza Strip by building its own very large security fence, dubbed “the pyramids” by Ya’ari.
“You should see what the Egyptians have built along the Sinai border with the Gaza Strip – except you cannot see it. If you try to send a photographer to take a picture then the Egyptians arrest you and you lose the pictures and spend a few nights in an Egyptian jail.
“They have basically insulated themselves from Gaza, which is saying to us that Egypt is not going to allow itself to become the gate to Gaza, not the trade corridor – it remains [Israel’s] problem. This is why the sentiment among the Israeli public is that the whole Gaza disengagement gamble backfired,” Ya’ari said.
Lebanon’s unholy alliance
It is very important that the current majority in the Lebanese parliament is maintained when elections are held in May ’09, Ya’ari emphasised.
In an historic departure, General Aoun’s Christian Maronites are becoming the closest allies of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ya’ari warned.
“These Christian Maronites, Catholic, have made themselves the number one allies of the Iranians. It’s very important that this combination does not enjoy a majority in Lebanon,” he said.
In a profound strategic change, he revealed that, “In Lebanon we are witnessing an accelerating process over the last few months in which the Iranian officers of the Quds Brigade are taking direct military command and control over Hezbollah units all over Lebanon.”
Unlike in the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, Hezbollah’s Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah gives speeches and plays Lebanese politics but actual “command and control over the missile arsenals, over the units, over the fortifications is with the Iranians directly,” he explained.
The Iranian file
Ya’ari said there was good and bad news on Iran’s June 2009 elections.
The good news was that conservatives in Iran would vote against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but “not because of the nuclear issue or Israel but because of the dire straits of the Iranian economy,” he said.
“In fact because of the economic situation in Iran, the only chance he has to win the elections is if Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, endorses him publicly and instructs everybody to support him,” he said.
The bad news is that even if Ahmadinejad is not president, “it will not necessarily constitute a dramatic change in the way Iran views its nuclear file,” Ya’ari predicted.
“The Iranians are not going to drop the nuclear program and they are not going for a freeze. The most they will agree to is that enrichment in Iran will be supervised and monitored more closely by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency],” he said.
With US President-elect Barack Obama indicating a willingness to negotiate with Iran, Ya’ari predicts the Iranians will be interested in securing a deal with the United States.
“My conviction is that the Iranians will engage the Americans and there is a very strong faction within the top echelon of the Iranian leadership which favours a deal – some sort of ‘grand bargain’. They have a lot to gain, what’s the hurry from their point of view [to get an immediate nuclear weapon],” Ya’ari said.
Desperately craving foreign investment in its dilapidated petroleum infrastructure that necessitates it importing much of its refined oil products, Iran will not, however, bargain in good faith.
That means, Ya’ari said, that regardless of a deal being reached, the Iranians will continue preparations “to get as close to the nuclear threshold as possible in order to take whenever they feel like it the decision to make the dash forward”.
Iran will only make the dash forward when it is able to accumulate a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, Ya’ari argues, so there is still time to attempt to stop them acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
“The Iranians will never go for a bomb or two. That’s stupid. To pay the price for acquiring nuclear military power for a bomb or two? Never.”
Ya’ari argues the US must set a deadline of no more than six months to see if a deal with the Iranians is possible, and if not, then more aggressive sanctions should be pursued.
From Israel’s perspective, the Iranian nuclear calculus is tactical, he said.
“The Iranians are making a major effort in order to fortify and protect their nuclear installations and disperse and decentralise them.
“But this effort raises the big question [for Israel]. At what point would the Iranians be able to create a protective shield around the program which will make the chances of success of a military strike less likely and much more costly,” he explained.
Ehud Ya’ari is chief Middle East reporter for Israel’s Channel 2 TV News and the author of numerous books on Arab-Israel issues. He recently visited Australia and this article is based on a talk he gave to AIJAC in Melbourne on Dec. 1, 2008.