Faced with years of diplomatic impasse between Israel and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, seized his chance to resurrect the peace process earlier this month. He extracted from the Arab League an agreement to dust off a decade-old regional plan, the Arab Peace Initiative, declaring the move “a very big step forward”.
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.
For Palestinian leaders, waiting anxiously in the hope that US Secretary of State John Kerry unveils a peace plan when he visits this week, the need to secure East Jerusalem’s future has come sharply into relief. The reason is simple: there can be no viable Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital. This was the background to a March 26 pledge by the Arab League to establish a $1 billion fund to protect East Jerusalem’s Arab and Islamic characters.
In the shadow of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s theatrics at the United Nations last week, armed with his cartoon Iranian bomb, Israeli officials launched a quieter, but equally combative, initiative to extinguish whatever hopes have survived of reviving the peace process. For the first time in its history, Israel is seeking to equate millions of Palestinians in refugee camps across the Middle East with millions of Israeli citizens descended from Jews who, before Israel’s establishment in 1948, lived in Arab countries.
Politicians may prefer to express admiration of Israel, and hand over billions of dollars in aid, but the US security establishment has – at least in private – always regarded Israel as an untrustworthy partner. The distrust has been particularly hard to hide in relation to Iran. Mounting pressure from Israel appears to be designed to manoeuvre Washington into supporting an attack on Tehran to stop it supposedly developing a nuclear weapon.
Those Israelis baying for a military strike on Iran – led, it is said, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak – appeared last week to have received a timely fillip. The Israeli media claimed that last-minute changes to the US intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate report showed Tehran was reviving its efforts to develop a military nuclear programme. US officials quickly denied Israeli claims. But the leak suggested the lengths to which Israeli officials are prepared to go to ratchet up the pressure on President Barack Obama.
In poll after poll Israel ranks as one of the countries with the most negative influence on international affairs. And yet, the lower Israel sinks in public estimation, the more generous western leaders are in handing out aid and special favours to their wayward ally. The past few days have been particularly shameless. It was revealed last week that the European Union had approved a massive upgrade in Israel’s special trading status, strengthening economic ties in dozens of different fields. The decision was a reversal of a freeze imposed in the wake of the Gaza attack of winter 2008.
Few can doubt that Syria is next on the West’s hit list. And this time, the script-writers in Washington seem to believe that the task of turning a functioning, if highly repressive, state into a basket case can be achieved without the West’s hand being visible at all. This time the white hat has been assigned to our allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who, according to the latest reports, are stoking an incipient civil war not only by arming some among the rebels but also by preparing to pay them salaries too, in petro-dollars.
Israelis barely had time to absorb the news that they were heading into a summer election when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday pulled the rug from underneath the charade. Rancourous early electioneering had provided cover for a secret agreement between Netanyahu and the main opposition party, Kadima, to form a new, expanded coalition government.
If there was a moment defining the shift in Israel’s strategic position over the past year, it occurred in September when the Israeli embassy in Cairo was overrun by hundreds of Egyptian protesters, some armed with sledgehammers. It was not quite the fall of Saigon. But it indicated how in a few months Israel had gone from a state adept at shaping its regional environment to one increasingly buffeted by forces beyond its control.
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.
There is little evidence that Netanyahu’s threats are likely to dissuade Tehran from developing a weapon, if that is what Ahmedinejad’s regime is really trying to do. In fact, menacing Iran may simply firm up its resolve to protect itself by building a warhead. The real audience of Netanyahu’s threat of military action, it seems, is the White House. He appears to hope that Washington can be goaded into carrying out a strike of its own to avoid the threat of an unsuccessful Israeli operation.
Film shot on mobile phones captured the moment when at least 1,000 Palestinian refugees marched across no-man’s land to one of the most heavily protected borders in the world, the one separating Syria from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Waving Palestinian flags, the marchers braved a minefield, then tore down a series of fences, allowing more than 100 to run into Israeli-controlled territory. As they embraced Druze villagers on the other side, voices could be heard saying: “This is what liberation looks like.”
Paradoxically, during the street protests and political upheavals that rocked the Arab world in recent months, the Palestinians were mostly invisible. Far from leading the regional convulsions, the Palestinians saw their own struggle eclipsed. Belatedly, however, the first shoots of the “Arab Spring” have appeared in the divided Palestinian lands of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials have expressed alarm at a succession of moves by the interim Egyptian government that they fear signal an impending crisis in relations with Cairo. The widening rift was underscored yesterday when leaders of the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation pact in the Egyptian capital. Egypt’s secret role in brokering the agreement last week caught both Israel and the United States by surprise.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s advisers conceded last week that the Israeli prime minister is more downcast than they have ever seen him. The reason for his gloominess is to be found in Israel’s diplomatic and strategic standing, which some analysts suggest is at its lowest ebb in living memory. A global survey for Britain’s BBC published on Monday will have only reinforced that assessment: Israel was rated among the least popular countries, with just 21 percent seeing it in a positive light.
Last week the Guardian, Britain’s main liberal newspaper, ran an exclusive report on the belated confessions of an Iraqi exile, Rafeed al-Janabi, codenamed “Curveball” by the CIA. Eight years ago, Janabi played a key behind-the-scenes role — if an inadvertent one — in making possible the US invasion of Iraq. His testimony bolstered claims by the Bush administration that Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, had developed an advanced programme producing weapons of mass destruction.
Israel has been indulging in a sustained bout of fear-mongering since the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled earlier this month. The ostensible aim has been to warn the international community that the lengthy “cold peace” between the two countries is on the verge of collapse. In reality, the peace treaty signed three decades ago is in no danger for the forseeable future. The Egyptian and Israeli armies have too much of a vested interest in its continuation, whatever political reforms occur in Egypt.