If Lieberman Thinks He Can Handpick the Next Palestinian Leader, He Is Terribly Mistaken

Politicians speaking with Lieberman get the feeling the defense minister wants to make big changes in the region. This is reminiscent of Israel’s attempts to determine Lebanon’s rulers back in the '80s.

Former Palestinian Fatah higher-up Mohammed Dahlan speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 3, 2011.
AP

The Middle East is very richly endowed with unofficial meetings of experts, diplomats and generals from Arab states, Israel and the West. At one of those meetings, a well-known Egyptian statesman sat down to talk with an Israeli acquaintance. The conversation touched on the Palestinian refugees, and this person, who held top positions in the past and still has great influence on the generals in Cairo, lost his cool.

“What refugees are you talking about?” the Egyptian scolded his Israeli interlocutor. The region is flooded with millions of new refugees living under impossible conditions and desperately needing help. These people fled the terrors of war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, rotting in the desert in the summer and freezing in the winter.

He went on. The tents they get from neighboring states and international relief agencies are insufficient. Giant tent cities have sprouted up everywhere in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. These refugees are the expression of the upheaval in the region.

There was more. Against this backdrop, the Palestinians’ insistence on portraying third-generation refugees, the grandchildren of those who fled or were expelled during the 1948 war, is groundless. Many of these refugees live in stone dwellings with proper infrastructure, continuing to benefit from handouts from the UN Relief and Works Agency. Their leaders use them to perpetuate the Palestinian problem.

Such candid words are very rarely uttered by Arab statesmen. Despite the gloomy tone heard frequently from Israeli analysts – most recently at the Herzliya Conference last week – Israel is one of the only beneficiaries of the great upheaval in the Middle East.

It did not initiate it, of course, but in many respects Israel’s strategic situation is better than it was when the so-called Arab Spring broke out in December 2010.

The Vienna accords signed last July have apparently lifted the Iranian nuclear threat for five if not 10 years. The Syrian army, the biggest conventional military threat to Israel, is out of the picture. Bashar Assad’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons has been dismantled 98 percent of it, according to Military Intelligence chief Herzl Halevi last week.

The major threat facing Israel comes from terrorist and guerilla groups in the West Bank and along the borders. This is a constant threat to stability, hard to decipher and deter, but it’s not an existential threat.

At the same time, Israel’s neighbors face constant security challenges and need Israel more than ever to help maintain some stability, security and economic cooperation. The more the neighbors feel threatened by the Islamic State and its ilk, the more they need Israeli backing.

Their leaders’ identification with the Palestinian problem often sounds like lip service. Despite frequent calls for adopting the Saudi peace initiative, there’s no real Arab pressure on Israel to try to solve the conflict with the Palestinians.

But all this is threatened, from Israel’s standpoint, by the two and half months between the U.S. presidential election and the inauguration of Barack Obama’s successor on January 20. The murkier Obama’s departing maneuver in the region remains, the more panic is triggered in Jerusalem. After a five-year delay, the diplomatic tsunami predicted by former Defense Minister Ehud Barak may be heading our way. His speech in Herzliya last week generated another bout of paranoia at the prime minister’s residence.

In the background are some real security threats. A large terror attack or an overly ambitious move on the Palestinian stage could quickly deteriorate. Tony Blair was asked recently what took up most of his time while British prime minister. “Events, gentlemen, events,” was his reply. Events such as putting out unexpected fires took up 90 percent of his time, he said.

This is the backdrop for Israel’s most right-wing government ever. This is a cabinet with limited experience in defense matters, and the two people at the top have buried the hatchet, even though their rivalry is expected to resume ahead of the next election.

Dahlan the successor?

A briefing by a senior Defense Ministry source last week highlighted two points: President Mahmoud Abbas is “Israel’s main problem” since he’s waging a campaign of political terror against it, aiming at its soft underbelly.

The second point was that another confrontation with Hamas was inevitable, and that next time Israel must ensure that Hamas no longer rules Gaza. After the next round, there will be someone to take charge, but not the Palestinian Authority, the source said.

At first glance, these statements allow for different scenarios, but experienced observers in Jerusalem, Cairo and Ramallah believe they point to Mohammed Dahlan, who headed the PA’s internal security apparatus in Gaza under Yasser Arafat but became, especially since Gaza fell to Hamas in 2007, Abbas’ bete noire.

These statements are similar to ones made by Avigdor Lieberman before he made up with Netanyahu and became defense minister. But words once spoken from the opposition benches now dictate possible strategies.

AP

This is how the situation is being analyzed in Ramallah, Gaza, Arab states and the international community. In Arab countries there’s the feeling that a major upheaval looms in the Palestinian arena. The weakening support for Abbas and Egyptian hostility to Hamas could generate a big bang. The name increasingly being touted is Dahlan. A conspiracy could put him at the top in Ramallah and later in Gaza.

If this is true, it’s a terrible idea. Dahlan is considered one of the most corrupt Palestinian leaders, even by lenient PA standards. During the Oslo years his apparatus controlled border crossings, bringing him a tidy sum. His family set up a fancy vacation center on the beach, which Hamas later destroyed. Top people in his organization were actively involved in terror acts during the second intifada.

When the intifada subsided and there were concerns about a Hamas coup, some Israeli intelligence officers said Dahlan wouldn’t let that happen. But in June 2007 he was absent from Gaza, saying he needed urgent medical care in Europe. A Hamas force overwhelmed a much larger PA force, whose commander was absent. He was marked as an enemy by Abbas and moved to the Gulf states, where he became extremely wealthy. He’s very close to the generals in Cairo, who expect him to return as a key figure, especially after Abbas’ departure.

There have been reports that Lieberman and Dahlan have held meetings recently. This is important in light of the erosion in Abbas’ standing. He’s 81 and a heavy smoker, and though he’s functioning mentally it’s unclear how long this will last. Dahlan is mentioned as a possible successor, as is Marwan Bargouti, a Fatah leader imprisoned in Israel. The former is supported by the United Arab Emirates as well as by Cairo.

Politicians speaking with Lieberman get the feeling the defense minister wants to make big changes in the region. This is reminiscent of Israel’s attempts to determine Lebanon’s rulers back in the ‘80s. That ended in a fiasco and should indicate the utter folly of believing that Israel can choose its neighbors’ leaders.