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.
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.
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.
With Israel and Hamas locked in military stalemate after their 50-day confrontation in Gaza, attention had returned to reviving a peace process between Israel and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. That is the context for assessing Israel’s decision to antagonise all its main partners against Hamas by announcing plans this week for the biggest land grab in the West Bank in three decades.
Two investigations by the Israeli media illustrate the profoundly unhelpful role played by the US. They suggest that, whatever its public statements, the US is assisting Israel not only in what Barack Obama called its right to “self-defence” but in actively damaging Palestinian interests. And it seems not to matter whether the Palestinians in question are Hamas or the preferred negotiating partner, Mahmoud Abbas.
The biggest paradox of the two-decade peace process is that, to realise his goal of statehood, Mahmoud Abbas is using a vehicle, the Palestinian Authority, that is incapable of bringing him to his destination. The nearer he gets to real statehood, or a prosecution against Israel for war crimes, the more certain it is that Israel and the US will pull the plug on the PA. But if the PA never becomes more than a security contractor for the occupation, then it will be brought down by the wrath of the Palestinians themselves.
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
The talks, which are set to begin in earnest in mid-August, are taking place not because either Israel or the Palestinians believe a deal is in reach. The two sides are talking to avoid being blamed for embarrassing the US. The White House’s motivation, meanwhile, was suggested by an official this week: they desperately want to avoid the “train wreck” of the Palestinians returning to the UN in September.