General / Middle East

The US and Israel have relied on the endless theatrics of the two-decade peace process as a distraction from the main developments on the ground. UN special rapporteur Richard Falk noted that Israel has cynically exploited the peace process to expand its settlement programme. The innocuous term “settlements” conceals their true role: as Israel’s primary vehicle for ethnic cleansing.

Reports that Washington was offering to free Israel’s most notorious spy, Jonathan Pollard, as part of an unorthodox prisoner exchange has provoked feverish excitement in Israel. The move appeared to be the sweetener in a last-ditch effort by US President Barack Obama’s administration to prevent the demise of current peace talks

For the first time Israel’s Supreme Court is set to consider evidence that senior Israeli political and military officials committed war crimes in relation to major military operations in Gaza and Lebanon. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Minister Tzipi Livni, the current justice minister, are among the high-level figures accused of breaking the laws.

President Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, want their much-delayed “framework agreement” to provide the pretext for spinning out the talks for another year. The last thing the US president needs is for the negotiations to collapse, after Kerry has repeatedly stressed that finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is imperative.

Israelis rarely hear facts about the abuses faced by Palestinians under occupation, either from their politicians or the media. Israelis have grown content to live in a large bubble of denial. Netanyahu and his ministers are making every effort to reinforce that bubble, just as they have tried to shield Israelis from the fact that they live in the Middle East, not Europe, by building walls on every side – both physical and bureaucratic – to exclude Palestinians, Arab neighbours, foreign workers and asylum seekers.

Emile Habiby ends up writing the quintessential character in Israeli-Palestinian literature: Saeed the Pessoptimist. This character represents the tension the Palestinian minority in Israel lives: pessimism imbued with optimism. The Jewish state is the situation you’re trapped in, that’s pessimistic; the optimism looks to the equality you think you can aspire to, despite the reality. Saeed is always trying to square the circle. This very much becomes a theme of Palestinian literature in Israel.

Under pressure on various fronts, Netanyahu hastily convened his senior ministers to devise a strategy to counter the boycott trend. Proposals include a $28 million media campaign, legal action against boycotting institutions, and intensified surveillance of overseas activists by the Mossad. The delegitimisation of Israel is truly under way, but the party doing most of the damage is the Israeli leadership itself.

Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defence minister, launched an unprecedented and personal attack on US Secretary of State John Kerry last week, calling him “obsessive and messianic”. Furious US officials denounced the comments as “offensive”. And yet what might have been expected – a fulsome, even grovelling apology – failed to materialise, only a limp statement of regret.

Israel and the United States now appear to regard the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state as the key obstacle to a peace agreement. Suddenly it has become the cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy. But this demand made its debut only in 2007 – 14 years after the Oslo accords originally laid down the path that was supposed to lead to Palestinian statehood. So what is at stake for both sides on the recognition issue?

The recent interim agreement in Geneva between the world’s major powers and Iran over its nuclear programme is a bitter pill that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has spent much of the past week choking on. After initial outrage, the indications are that Netanyahu is softening his tone towards Washington. An official close to Netanyahu told the Jerusalem Post newspaper bluntly: “Israel intends to be a player.” A leading Israeli columnist has termed the period before negotiations begin again for a permanent agreement Israel’s “six-month war”.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made what was presumably intended to sound like a historic peace gesture towards the Palestinians last week. He invited Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to Jerusalem to address the Israeli parliament, echoing Menachem Begin’s invitation to Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, in 1977. In reality, Netanyahu’s offer was as hollow as his previous utterances about Palestinian statehood.

Israel is again at the centre of moves to challenge key agencies at the United Nations, as it lobbies to prevent the Palestinian leadership from gaining more of a foothold in global forums. Israel ended a 20-month boycott of the UN Human Rights Council last month, but did so only after securing promises of reforms that human rights groups say will further weaken international efforts to hold Israel accountable for its illegal occupation.

Israel alone had the means, track record, stated intention and motive to kill Yasser Arafat. Without Israel’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, it may be impossible to secure a conviction in a court of law, but there is evidence enough to convict Israel in the court of world opinion.

At Israel’s insistence, the peace talks have been entirely shielded from public view. Privacy, Israel argued, would ease the pressure on the two parties and give them greater room to be forthcoming and creative. The reality, however, is that the lack of scrutiny has allowed Israel to drag its feet. Secrecy, Israel hopes, will give it the cover it expects to need when – as seems certain – the talks end inconclusively, or the Palestinians storm out.

The focus of last week’s World Bank report is on the nearly two-thirds of the West Bank, known as Area C, exclusively under Israeli control and in which Israel has implanted more than 200 settlements to grab Palestinian land and resources. The report reflects mounting frustration in European capitals and elsewhere at Israeli intransigence and seeming US impotence. Europeans, in particular, are exasperated at their continuing role effectively subsidising through aid an Israeli occupation with no end in sight.

The furore over the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria has overshadowed disturbing events to the south, as Egypt’s generals wage a quiet war of attrition against the Hamas leadership in Gaza. A recent cartoon in a Hamas newspaper showed Gaza squeezed between pincers – one arm Israel, the other Egypt. A Hamas spokesperson was recently quoted saying Egypt was “trying to outmatch the Israelis in tormenting and starving our people”.

For a period in Hany Abu Assad’s new film, Omar, the eponymous protagonist shares an Israeli dungeon with unidentifiable insects he can barely make out in the darkness. Determinedly, they carry out tasks whose purpose he, and possibly they, cannot fathom. Are they prisoners too? And is their continual laboring a distraction from their confinement or a transcendence of their plight? There could hardly be a starker metaphor for the lives of Omar and his friends under occupation.

Far from ambivalent

27 September 2013

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, warned during an interview on the US channel NBC that Israel had “brought instability to the region with its war-mongering policies”. Destabilizing its enemies has long been Israel’s main strategy. Now its challenge is to persuade Obama that war, not diplomacy, is in Washington’s best interests in both Syria and Iran.

Israeli officials are reported to be increasingly nervous that international efforts to destroy of Syria’s chemical weapons might serve as a prelude to demands on Israel to eliminate its own, undeclared weapons of mass destruction. Concerns about Israel’s possible chemical weapons arsenal intensified following the disclosure this month of a confidential CIA report suggesting Israel had created a significant stockpile of such weapons by the early 1980s.

The new US-Russian deal to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons can probably be turned to Israel’s advantage. Syria will be hosting international inspectors searching for WMD, not unlike the situation in Iraq shortly before the US-led invasion of 2003. Israel, it can safely be assumed, will quietly meddle, trying to persuade the West that Assad is not cooperating and that Hizbullah and Iran are implicated.

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