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.
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.
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 unity government simply breathes new life into the illusion – created by the Oslo accords of two decades ago – that good governance by the Palestinian Authority can change the Palestinians’ situation for the better. In practice, such governance has entailed submitting to Israel’s security demands. An occupied people needs not better rubbish collection but an effective strategy for resistance.
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.
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.
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.
Israel’s secretive arms trade is booming as never before, according to the latest export figures. A new documentary, which has led the way in turning the spotlight on Israel’s arms industry, claims that four million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have become little more than guinea pigs in military experiments designed to enrich a new elite of Israeli arms dealers and former generals.
In 2007 Tony Blair assumed the position of Quartet Representative. Against the background of mounting criticism at home over his role in the 2003 Iraq War, this profile examines the record of Blair’s activities in the Middle East over the past five years. The picture that emerges is one of rapid self-enrichment through murky consultancies and opaque business deals with Middle East dictators, and an official role whose main results appear to be an unhappy Palestinian Authority and the perpetuation of the status quo.
Last February Britain’s then defense minister Liam Fox attended a dinner in Tel Aviv with a group described as senior Israelis. According to reports in the British media, the Israelis in attendance were representatives of the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, while Fox was accompanied by Matthew Gould, Britain’s ambassador to Israel. A former British diplomat has claimed that the topic of discussion that evening was a secret plot to attack Iran.
The furore last week over Sheikh Raed Salah, described by the Daily Mail newspaper as a “vile militant extremist”, goaded the British government into ordering his late-night arrest, pending a fast-track deportation. But the outcry in Britain against Sheikh Salah has shocked Israel’s 1.3-million Palestinian citizens. For them, he is a spiritual leader and head of a respected party, the Islamic Movement. He is also admired by the wider Palestinian public.