1) The Push for Peace
Walter Russell Mead argues in As Israel goes deeper into Syria and Opportunity for Obama arises:
With Al-Qaeda linked jihadis in the opposition, and Iran and Hezbollah supporting the government, Israel has much to fear and little to hope as the Syria war grinds on. In some ways, Syria is turning into Israel’s ultimate nightmare: WMDs, terrorists and arch-enemy Iran are all mixed up in it together, and there is not much Israel can do to shape events.
President Obama now holds more cards than any American President in a long time: between the nightmare in Syria and the threat in Iran, Israel has never needed support from allies more than it does now. Some flexibility from Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians in exchange for effective American support in these scary times is the kind of bargain Israeli and U.S. diplomats should be looking at now. Much depends on whether the Americans are willing to put enough real support on the table and whether the Israelis on their side can find a way to make concessions on the West Bank that give the U.S. President an incentive to help.
The balance of power in U.S.-Israeli relations is a funny thing. Generally, U.S. presidents can’t twist Israel’s arm very hard because Congress will limit an administration’s effort to cut Israel’s aid or otherwise impose sanctions on it. (For the conspiracy theorists among us, and they are rife on this subject, pro-Israel sentiment in Congress overwhelmingly reflects non-Jewish public opinion rather than “Jewish lobby” power.) On the other hand, while Israel’s American supporters can often block presidential action against the Jewish state, the nature of the American constitutional system means that Congress can’t easily force presidents to take positive action on Israel’s behalf. Right now, that gives President Obama the upper hand. Prime Minister Netanyahu needs help with Syria and he needs help with Iran, and only President Obama can deliver that help. Given the gravity of the situations in Syria and Iran, Israel’s prime minister can probably sell West Bank concessions to security minded voters as a bitter pill that must be swallowed to get the Americans on board.
This brings us back to Kerry’s declaration: One of the difficulties for those looking to maneuver Hamas into accommodation with Israel has been Iran’s patronage of Hamas. Iran had no interest in the group being anything other than leverage it could use against the West.
Today is different because unlike Iran, Hamas’ new patrons — Turkey, Egypt and Qatar — are in fact U.S. allies, with many shared interests. Turkey is a fellow NATO member, Qatar hosts U.S. Central Command in the region and the U.S. has substantial economic, military and diplomatic ties with Egypt.
They also all have incentives to play the mature peacemaker. Egypt needs to calm Western fears about the Muslim Brotherhood; Turkey needs to show that resuming its regional leadership role isn’t a threat to historical rivals; and Qatar’s efforts to sell itself as a positive force in the region and attract the West’s top universities and companies will only be helped by pushing peace.
In the former case, Mead argues that the United States is uniquely positions to exert influence over Israel to pressure it into making peace; in the latter, Freedman argues that sympathetic Islamist governments will press Hamas to make peace with Israel. But is leverage in either really going to make a difference? Even if the leverage outlined in these articles can be used as described, there’s still one thing missing: Mahmoud Abbas.
In What is really blocking the peace process? Khaled Abu Toameh writes:
Even if Mahmoud Abbas agrees to return to the negotiating table with Israel, it is obvious that any agreement he reaches will be automatically rejected by the radicals.
The radicals in this instance are not only Hamas and Islamic Jihad. There are also radicals within Abbas’s Fatah faction — in addition to non-Islamist terror groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The best Obama and Israel can hope for is some kind of an interim agreement with Abbas, who knows that he does not even have a mandate from his people to make concessions to Israel: his term in office expired in 2009.
It seems that whenever there’s a change in the Middle East it elicits more calls for a renewed peace process. At this point, it isn’t clear that the Palestinians want a final agreement, so really there’s nothing Israel can do whether or not it is pressured that will bring peace. Nor will pressure on Hamas somehow make peace more likely.
(To his credit, Freedman responded to me on Twitter, though I didn’t find his responses convincing.)
2) More on Prisoner X
In her initial report on Prisoner X, Ben Zygier, New York Times correspondent, Jodi Rudoren gave significant attention to the charge that Zygier had been arrested and held secretly in Israel. It turns out that it wasn’t true that he “disappeared.”
Two subsequent articles on the case, though are reported straightforwardly. Netanyahu defends handling of Prisoner X reports:
“We are not like other countries,” Mr. Netanyahu told his cabinet, in his first public comments on the case of Prisoner X, which made headlines on at least three continents last week. “We are an exemplary democracy and maintain the rights of those under investigation,” he said. “However, we are more threatened and face more challenges; therefore, we must maintain proper activity of our security agencies.”
In the face of growing calls from politicians and the public for investigations into the prisoner’s death and a court order that barred the local news media from reporting about it for more than two years, the prime minister said, “Let the security forces do their work quietly so that we can continue to live in security and tranquillity in the state of Israel.”
Prisoner X, the subject of Israeli news reports in 2010 that were quashed by the broad court order, was identified by an Australian television report last week as Ben Zygier, a 34-year-old lawyer and father of two who grew up in the Melbourne area, immigrated to Israel as a young man, served in the military and may have worked for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Arrested in February 2010, and held pending trial on charges that have been described only as serious and relating to national security, Mr. Zygier was considering a plea bargain when he apparently hanged himself with a shirt in the bathroom of his cell.
A later article, Israel Releases Part of Report on Prisoner X’s Death reports:
The judge who conducted the investigation concluded that Mr. Zygier’s death was a suicide and was not “caused by a criminal act,” according to the report. Still, it said, gaps in prison procedures created “a suicidal window of opportunity” that demands further investigation into possible negligence by the authorities, including “the higher echelons.”
“There was no disagreement that a willing act of the deceased is what brought about his suicide,” wrote the judge, Daphna Blatman Kedrai. “But the fact is that the mission of supervising the deceased according to known orders was not carried out.” She added, “There is possible evidence to the guilt of elements in the prison authority in causing the death.”
Still reading these articles, it’s hard to get a sense of what happened. A former Mossad agent, Michael Ross wrote a couple of articles in the Weekly Standard about the case.
In What happened to Prisoner X? Ross speculates:
It is speculation, but I suspect that ASIO approached Zygier during this period and notified him that they had compelling evidence he was a Mossad operative. From here on in, it could be that by using whatever leverage at their disposal, ASIO “turned” Zygier and he essentially became caught between the two services. Perhaps in return for not making the story public, and as a means to protect his family, Zygier elected to spy for Australia reporting on his activities within the Mossad. It may also be conjectured that through some incident, his activities drew the suspicion of the Mossad and his role as a “double” was revealed. It would appear that whatever transpired was as much an embarrassment to Australia as it was for Israel.
In a more recent article, Israel’s media impugns motives of Prisoner X, Ross writes:
In a ham-handed display of armchair expertise consistent with reporting on the Mossad, Haaretz’s Amir Oren continues the paper’s tradition of getting it wrong in a disgraceful piece entitled, “A liar or a blabbermouth? Ben Zygier was not suited to work for the Mossad.” For starters, Oren doesn’t get the terminology correct. Ben Zygier was not an “agent” or a “fighter” but a “combatant,” and yes there is a difference to the initiated. Nobody in the Mossad uses the term “fighter” when discussing the combatant role. Agents, or sources, are the people that Mossad collection officers (case officers) spot, assess, develop, recruit, and handle to provide them with human source intelligence. Combatants are members of an elite cadre of highly trained deep cover operatives that conduct extremely sensitive and often highly dangerous covert operations in the most hostile of milieus. Some of the most successful collection officers and indeed, senior management in the Mossad, are former combatants who like myself, joined Mossad HQ as tenured officers. Other articles have described Zygier as a “support operative.” He was nothing of the sort. He was at the very sharp end of Mossad operations, and from what I am able to ascertain, had a far riskier career than I did. It takes a staggering amount of arrogance to state that Zygier—who operated in the hellholes of the Near East for almost a decade—was not suited to work for the Mossad.
Zygier would have undergone an extremely rigorous recruitment process comprised of many different phases to test his mental and physical suitability as well as his ability to keep his cool and function under extremely stressful circumstances. After his recruitment, Zygier would have completed a combatant’s course (usually on his own facing any number of nameless instructors constantly assessing his performance and mental state while living in isolation) that is lengthy, difficult, and has a high attrition rate. People are not graduated unless they make the grade. Sweeping statements in Oren’s article about the Mossad lowering the bar because of Zygier’s cultural background (read: Australian upbringing) are both insulting and erroneous.
The only thing Oren has correct in his article is that whatever transpired between the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Mossad, there was no need to lock him up in solitary confinement. If guilty, Zygier could have been quietly dismissed and sequestered to one of the Mossad’s many safe houses until the issue could be resolved between services. ASIO’s sister service, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, tasked with intelligence collection outside Australia’s borders (and close ally of the Mossad), must be very unhappy with ASIO’s decision to leak the Zygier affair to journalist Jason Koutsoukis in some ill-conceived attempt to punish Israel over a few passports. The resulting damage to the joint Iran issue can be nothing less than catastrophic for everyone.
Ross’s telling removes a lot of the sensationalism of the case. It would appear that Zygier was the victim of bureaucratic infighting in Australia and harsh treatment by Israel. But the malevolence imputed to Israel that was part of the early reporting is gone.