diplomacy

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.

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.

Israel has admitted that it was behind the abduction of a Gazan engineer who went missing more than a month ago while travelling on a train in the Ukraine. The whereabouts of Dirar Abu Sisi, the operations manager of Gaza’s only power plant, have been the subject of intense speculation since he disappeared on February 18 as he travelled on a train to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

There were growing indications last week that the international community has abandoned hopes of reviving Middle East peace talks, effectively leaving Israel and the Palestinians to battle out the next few months with their own unilateral strategies. The daily Haaretz newspaper reported on Thursday that the Quartet, the international group overseeing the peace process, had reached its pessimistic conclusion after meetings with local officials in Tel Aviv and Ramallah earlier this month.

The Israeli government has indicated that it will press ahead with a plan to enlarge the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, despite warnings that the move risks triggering a third intifada. Israeli officials rejected this week a Jerusalem court’s proposal to shelve the plan after the judge accepted that the plaza’s expansion would violate the “status quo” arrangement covering the Old City’s holy places.

A new government campaign to train Israelis in how to use propaganda in order to improve their country’s image when they are abroad has been condemned for advancing a right-wing agenda. The public relations drive, which includes giving travellers tips on how to champion the country’s illegal settlements, is the government’s latest attempt to shore up support abroad. According to a recent government survey, 91 per cent of Israeli Jews believe foreigners have a strongly negative view of Israel.

An exclusive club of the world’s most developed countries is poised to admit Israel as a member even though, a confidential internal document indicates, doing so will amount to endorsing Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territories. Israel has been told that its accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is all but assured when the 30 member states meet in May.

The hit squad who killed a Hamas leader in Dubai six weeks ago injected him with a strong sedative before suffocating him in his hotel room, post-mortem results have revealed. Dubai Police said yesterday that toxicology tests on Mahmoud al Mabhouh revealed traces of succinylcholine, a fast-acting muscle relaxant that causes temporary paralysis and would have made it impossible for him to struggle against his assassins.

Australia’s prime minister yesterday issued the stiffest diplomatic rebuke so far to Israel over the misuse of five countries’ passports in the assassination last month of a Hamas leader in Dubai, as new indications emerged implicating the Israeli spy agency, Mossad. Kevin Rudd said he was “not satisfied” with the Israeli ambassador’s responses during a meeting with the Australian foreign minister and that the government would be taking an “absolutely hard line” in defending its passports’ integrity.

The Israeli government and its right-wing supporters have been waging a “McCarthyite” campaign against human-rights groups by blaming them for the barrage of international criticism that followed Israel’s attack on Gaza a year ago, critics say. In a sign of the growing backlash against the human-rights community, the cabinet backed a bill last week that, if passed, will jail senior officials from the country’s peace-related organisations should they fail to meet tough new registration conditions.

Israeli ministers were reported to have emerged from their weekly Cabinet meeting last month smugly satisfied at the news that the Hamas official Mahmoud al Mabhouh had been killed in a Dubai hotel room. Those smiles have turned sour during the past two days. Yesterday, the finger of suspicion pointed with increasing confidence at Israel, as Dubai police said they were “99 per cent” certain that Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, had been involved.

The assassination of the Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh last month in a Dubai hotel room had all the hallmarks of an operation by Israel’s Mossad spy agency, Israeli experts agreed yesterday. But, as the names of seven of the 11 members of the hit squad were rapidly identified as belonging to Israeli citizens, all of whom claimed their identities had been stolen, commentators were divided on whether Mossad would have risked implicating Israeli nationals.

The Israeli courts ordered the release this week of two foreign women arrested by the army in the West Bank in what human-rights lawyers warn has become a wide-ranging clampdown by Israel on non-violent protest from international, Israeli and Palestinian activists. The arrest of the two women during a nighttime raid on the Palestinian city of Ramallah has highlighted a new tactic by Israeli officials: using immigration police to try to deport foreign supporters of the Palestinian cause.

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