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.
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.
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.
There are no wrecked houses, no crushed or blasted bodies in Umm al-Fahm. But Israel is waging a campaign against this town of 45,000 inhabitants and its leading son, Sheikh Raed Salah, closely related to its current assault on Gaza. Salah, leader of the northern Islamic Movement, expects Israel’s war on Hamas to come knocking at his door next.
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”.
The comparison between Syria and Gaza is deeply unhelpful on many levels. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank need help in freeing themselves from the rule of a belligerent foreign state in which they have no stake or voice. The people of Syria – if Syria is to survive and not end up as a series of feuding ethnic cantons – need to find a common cause, a sense of nationhood they can agree on.
The furore over the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria has overshadowed disturbing events to the south, as Egypt’s generals wage a quiet war of attrition against the Hamas leadership in Gaza. A recent cartoon in a Hamas newspaper showed Gaza squeezed between pincers – one arm Israel, the other Egypt. A Hamas spokesperson was recently quoted saying Egypt was “trying to outmatch the Israelis in tormenting and starving our people”.
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.
Israeli officials are reported to be increasingly nervous that international efforts to destroy of Syria’s chemical weapons might serve as a prelude to demands on Israel to eliminate its own, undeclared weapons of mass destruction. Concerns about Israel’s possible chemical weapons arsenal intensified following the disclosure this month of a confidential CIA report suggesting Israel had created a significant stockpile of such weapons by the early 1980s.
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 Holy Land may be the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the three Abrahamic faiths that share much in common – but Israel has preferred to draw on a tradition that imagines the region in terms of a clash of civilisations. This is the context for understanding the announcement this month of a “forum” between the government and Israel’s Christian Palestinians designed to push them into serving in the Israeli military.
Cafes have always been integral components of Arab culture, making room for cultural and political syntheses. With the gradual increase in the complexities of contemporary issues facing the Arab societies, cafes have developed into safe havens for different local communities to think openly, be different and exist in a free environment in the face of repressive and inhospitable surroundings. They have become active ingredients in the change the Arab world is witnessing.
The tiny village of Al-Aqaba in the West Bank is a model of access for the disabled. Its mayor, Hajj Sami Sadeq, has been using a wheelchair since the age of 14, when a bullet from an Israeli soldier lodged in his spine. His case typifies the especially ambiguous aura around disability among Palestinians. The view of disability shifted dramatically during the two intifadas, when tens of thousands of men, women and children were left with permanent injuries from Israeli military operations.
In recent weeks, Israel has moved from relative inaction to a deepening involvement in Syrian affairs: it launched two air strikes last month, and at the same time fomented claims that Damascus had used chemical weapons. Meanwhile, statements from Israeli officials have tacked wildly between threats to oust Assad one moment and denials that Israel has any interest in his departure the next. Is Israel sending out contradictory signals to sow confusion, or is it simply confused itself?
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.