Some 200 veterans of the Israeli security services have accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of doing irreparable harm to the country’s ties with Washington, just two days before he is due to address the US Congress. It is the first time he has faced a large-scale backlash from Israel’s security establishment – and could damage Netanyahu’s popular image as a strong leader on security matters.
General / Middle East
Why is Netanyahu acting like a bull in a diplomatic china shop over Iran, and doing so at the cost of imperilling relations with the US, when his own advisers say there is no obvious threat and a deal next month is unlikely? The answer is to be found on two levels: one related specifically to Netanyahu’s personal political survival; and the other to Israel’s longer-term regional interests.
The contents of a secret report by Israel’s Mossad spy agency on Iran’s nuclear programme leaked to the media are shocking and predictable in equal measure. Shocking because the report shows Netanyahu spent years lying to the international community against Mossad’s advice; predictable because for four years Israel’s security establishment has been screaming as loudly as it realistically could that Netanyahu was not to be trusted on the Iran issue.
A leaked government report paints a dark future for Israel. Western support for the Palestinians will increase, the threat of European sanctions will grow, and the US might even refuse to “protect Israel with its veto” at the UN. One might assume that, faced with this, Israel would reconsider its obstructive approach to peace negotiations and Palestinian statehood. Instead, Netanyahu has begun looking elsewhere for patrons.
For 20 years, the White House stood guard over the peace process, reserving for itself the role of stewarding Israel and the Palestinians to a resolution of their conflict. But Washington’s primacy in the relationship with both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships is unravelling at astonishing speed, opening up for the first time diplomatic wriggle room.
Hizballah’s attack that killed two soldiers on Wednesday was the very minimum retaliation Israel could realistically expect following an air strike earlier this month on a Hizballah convoy in southern Syria. The Lebanese militia appears to want this episode to draw to a close, a message it delivered to Israel via UN peacekeepers. The more pressing question is whether Israel will let the matter drop.
It is not surprising that Quneitra province in southern Syria, where Israel’s air strike occurred, has become a flashpoint. Israel, on the one hand, and Hizballah and Iran, on the other, have been sucked into the relative power vacuum created there since the Syrian army lost its grip on the territory last summer. Israel appears to prefer that the Syrian army, Hizballah and Iran remain trapped in an endless struggle against the opposition saps their resources and military strength.
An Israeli air strike in southern Syria on Sunday that killed 12 commanders from the Lebanese militia Hizballah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard follows a long and ignoble tradition in Israeli politics. Prime ministers facing poor ratings have often been tempted to launch a major military offensive in the middle of an election campaign. The strike was not only the biggest against Hizballah since the conflict with Israel in summer 2006, but – more significantly – Israel’s first undisguised military clash with Iran.
The Paris killings have reinforced Israeli suspicions that Europe, with its rapidly growing Muslim population, is being dragged into a clash of civilisations it is ill-equipped to combat. And the targeting of a kosher supermarket that killed four Jews has heightened a belief that Jews outside Israel are in mortal danger. In Netanyahu’s conception, a Jew’s primary bond should be to their “true home”, the Jewish state of Israel. Paradoxically, that view is shared by Europe’s far-right.
Netanyahu was probably the least welcome of the 40 world leaders who participated in the rally in Paris on Sunday to demonstrate their outrage at last week’s attack that left 17 people dead, including four French Jews. According to Israeli media, President Francois Hollande’s advisers had urged Netanyahu not to come, concerned that he would exploit the visit – and the deaths – to increase divisions in French society. They had good grounds for concern.
Abbas knows a decision to pursue war crimes trials against Israel at the Hague threatens the PA’s very existence. If he ends coordination and goes on the offensive, why would Israel allow the PA to continue functioning? But if his security forces continue to collaborate with Israel, how can he retain credibility with his people? This leaves the Palestinian leader with only two credible strategic options – aside from dissolving the PA himself.
There are many obstacles to be cleared before anyone in Israel reaches the dock in the Hague accused of war crimes. The first test will be whether Mahmoud Abbas’ nerve holds. It will be 60 days before the application to join the International Criminal Court takes effect. In the meantime, Israel and the US – neither of which has ratified the Rome Statute – will exert as much pressure on him as possible to change course.
While Europe is tentatively finding a voice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, silence reigns across the Atlantic. The White House appears paralysed, afraid to appear out of sync with world opinion but more afraid still of upsetting Israel and its powerful allies in the US Congress. Now there is an additional complicating factor: the Israeli public, due to elect a new government in three months’ time, increasingly regards the US role as toxic.
Haaretz warned this week that, if Netanyahu’s Jewish nation-state bill passed, it would remove Israel “from the community of democratic nations, and give it a place of honour instead beside those dark regimes in which minorities are persecuted”. But as human rights groups in Israel explain, Israel has long dwelt among such dark regimes. Netanyahu’s bill simply helps to shine a light on that fact.
It is astonishing that the reconstruction of Gaza, bombed into the Stone Age according to the explicit goals of Israeli military doctrine, has tentatively only just begun. Where else apart from the Palestinian territories would the international community stand by idly as so many people suffer? The reason for the hold-up is, as ever, Israel’s “security needs”. Gaza can be rebuilt but only to the specifications laid down by Israel.
The British parliamentary vote adds to the momentum initiated this month by the Swedish government’s decision to break with its established EU partners by pledging to recognise Palestine. The tide of history is turning. Israel is losing the moral argument in Europe, where the Zionist movement began. That tide will spread across Europe and ultimately lap up against the shores of Capitol Hill and the White House.
Staff at Bir Zeit, the most prestigious of the Palestinian universities, ordered Amira Hass, a reporter for the Israeli Haaretz daily, to leave a public meeting. She was told it was for her own “safety” in case students protested against her presence. The decision has provoked a heated debate among Palestinian intellectuals, students and activists about how far refusal to cooperate with Israelis should extend.
It is impossible to overlook or forgive George Monbiot’s campaign of vilification begun three years ago against several leading figures on the progressive left, including Noam Chomsky, accusing them of genocide denial. In truth, this is not a clash over the facts of a genocide, but over who has a right to speak. Monbiot, embedded in the camp of the corporate media, has adopted its ethos as his own.
This month Israeli media reported claims that Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, had offered the Palestinian leadership the chance to annex to Gaza an area of 1,600 sq km in Sinai. The donated territory would expand Gaza fivefold, and provide the basis for a Palestinian state outside historic Palestine. What should we make of such reports?
In casting a popular resistance movement like Hamas as ISIS, Netanyahu has tarred all Palestinians as bloodthirsty Islamic extremists. Israeli fear-mongering is designed both to further undermine the Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah, and to sanction Israel’s behaviour by painting a picture, as after 9/11, of an Israel on the front line of a war against global terror.