Thursday, 30 September 2010

September reviewed

Peace process on a roller coaster

Hopes reasonably high at the start of the month; fears definitely to the fore at the end – that about sums up the emotional roller coaster provided by September 2010 to anyone genuinely concerned about the peace process in the Middle East.

Mind you, as T S Eliot remarks somewhere (Murder in the Cathedral, perhaps) “the end is in the beginning.” Everyone who attended the launch in Washington on 26 August of direct face-to-face talks between Israel and the Palestinians was well aware of two skeletons lurking in the cupboard.

The first was the undeniable fact that Hamas, the de facto governing authority in the Gaza Strip – a quintessential component of any future sovereign Palestine – was not present, and was actively engaged in a militant terrorist campaign directed against the peace effort. In that case, one might reasonably ask, what would be the value of any agreement reached between those involved in the negotiations? Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would be speaking only for West Bank Palestinians – unless, of course, the calculation was that success in the negotiations would change the political landscape so dramatically that Gazans would positively demand to be part of a new sovereign Palestine.

The second skeleton rattling its bones was the looming date of 26 September – the day on which the 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank, instituted by Prime Minister Netanyahu in November 2009 in response to President Obama’s urging – formally came to an end. Netanyahu’s fragile coalition government rested on the support of hard-line right-wing parties like Yisrael Beteinu, strongly supportive of the settler movement and strongly opposed to any extension of the moratorium. It was more than his premiership was worth to maintain the ban on construction in the West Bank, but he engaged in intensive diplomatic activity ahead of the 26th in an effort to ameliorate the effect of the end of the freeze.

Partially successful at least he must have been, for come the evening of the 26th, and with it symbolic earth-moving and balloon-releasing activities in various West Bank settlements, lo and behold PA President Mahmoud Abbas declares that he will not immediately turn his back on the peace process, but is content to wait a week or so in order to consult with the Arab League on 4 October. His decision on his next move will follow that.

Israel's decision not to extend the 10-month settlement building freeze was met with worldwide criticism. US State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley said the US was ‘disappointed' by the Israeli decision not to extend the construction moratorium, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also expressed concern over the decision.

Of course, should a peace agreement be concluded and then endorsed by the Israeli population in a referendum, as Netanyahu has indicated would occur, the smaller and remoter settlements would simply have to be evacuated and handed over to the new Palestinian state – just as 21 such settlements were, when Israel left the Gaza strip in 2005. So in a sense the more homes the settlers construct, the more the new Palestinian state will have to inherit. This argument, one fears, whatever its validity, is probably too sophisticated to appeal to the Arab man or woman in the street.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrived in the region on the 28th in order to discuss the position. Netanyahu had already had a meeting with Quartet envoy Tony Blair, and planned to meet Mitchell on the 29th to discuss a US compromise proposal aimed at keeping both sides at the negotiating table. The US proposal, it is reported, offers US guarantees over core issues in the negotiations such as refugees, security arrangement and the status of Israel as a Jewish state.

Meanwhile on the 28th, to stir the pot a little and make life more difficult for the prime minister, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman addressed the UN General Assembly. Lieberman, leader of the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, said that negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should aim at reaching an interim peace agreement and not a final status accord. Peace, he opined, would require population and territorial exchanges, and could only be possible after a number of decades.

The extent of Netanyahu’s difficulties in maintaining the integrity of his government is illustrated by the speed with which his office distanced him from Lieberman's remarks – in itself, in many advanced democratic countries, grounds for requiring an errant minister’s resignation, or his dismissal. However, Israel is well accustomed to errant, not to say maverick, ministers, and no-one was much surprised by the swiftly released statement revealing that Lieberman's speech was not coordinated with the prime minister. If a cabinet minister in the UK stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and made a speech which had not been cleared with the prime minister, and which was totally at odds with government policy, he would be out of office before you could say “Jack Robinson.” In Israel, because the voting system inevitably results in fragile coalition administrations, ministers feel free to act as loose cannons for long periods of time.

So the best that the prime minister could do, if he wanted to avoid a major political crisis, was to issue a stern and public rebuke. ‘Netanyahu is the one handling the negotiations on Israel's behalf,' said the statement from the prime minister's office. ‘The various issues surrounding a peace agreement will be discussed and decided only at the negotiating table, and nowhere else.’

Commenting on Lieberman's speech, the US State Department spokesperson, PJ Crowley, added that Netanyahu had remarked to US officials that – to say the least – he had to deal with difficult politics and diverse opinions. ‘This is perhaps a manifestation of that,' remarked Crowley.

Finally, Crowley seems the bearer of news indicating that the roller coaster may perhaps be about to start climbing upwards again. He announced on the 27th that Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem is 'very interested' in pursuing peace talks with Israel. ‘There was a pledge,’ Crowley told reporters, following talks between Muallem and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York. ‘that we would develop some ideas going forward on developing that.'

The meeting between Clinton and Muallem is the first since Clinton took office. Crowley said that during their discussions Clinton expressed her concern over ties between Damascus and Hezbollah, and warned her counterpart explicitly that Syria should resist actions that could undermine stability in either Lebanon or Iraq. Their meeting followed up the recent visit to Syria by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, when he had discussions with President Bashar al-Assad. Crowley noted that, in line with the US policy of working for a comprehensive peace in the region, Washington is looking to open a new channel of dialogue between Syria and Israel, without obstructing current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

A possible glimmer of hope in the uncertain gloom.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Building on the West Bank – who wins, who loses?

Well, September the 26th – the day on which the 10-month moratorium on construction in the West Bank settlements formally ended – has come and gone, and where do matters stand?

First and foremost, the fragile peace process has not collapsed like a house of cards. Though there is absolutely no guarantee that this may not eventually happen, the fact that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has not stormed out of the negotiations, as his earlier remarks seemed to suggest that he would if the freeze were not formally extended, is in itself a hopeful sign.

And then, on the Israeli side, Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to be frantically signalling a conciliatory message while clearly constrained by political necessities from actually speaking it. ‘I say to President Abbas,” he announced, as the last minutes of the moratorium ticked away, ‘for the sake of both our peoples, let us focus on what is truly important – accelerated, sincere and continuous talks to reach a historic framework agreement within a year.' The unspoken message being: ‘In order to keep my fragile coalition government intact, I have had to let the freeze run its natural course. But take my word for it, I am dedicated making a success of the peace process, and there will be ways and means of restricting building on the West Bank which I could not possibly talk about in present circumstances.’

But perhaps there is an unspoken message on the Palestinian side, as well. Perhaps the more sophisticated Palestinian advisors see the ending of the building freeze in quite a different light from the public posture adopted so far by Abbas. Look at it this way, they might say. Following a peace accord, certain of the larger West Bank settlement blocs, such as Gush Etzion, Pisgat Ze'ev and Modi'in Ilit, will almost certainly remain in Israeli hands. So whether building recommences in those areas or not is of little practical concern to the Palestinian cause, given the final shape of things.

And they might take the argument one stage further. It is generally accepted – they might argue – that, in the event of a final agreement, a range of smaller Israeli settlements will have to be evacuated and handed over to the new sovereign Palestine, just as no less than 21 settlements were evacuated when Israel withdrew from Gaza (to say nothing of four in the West Bank as the same time: Kadim, Ganim, Homesh, and Sa-Nur). Yes, there is going to be an almighty row inside Israel when, or if, that day arrives, just as there was in August 2005. But if it does, we now know that it will only have arrived following a referendum of the entire Israeli population, which will have voted in favour of whatever agreement has emerged from the final negotiations.

Given the indubitably democratic nature of the Israeli state, therefore, it can be taken for granted that a fair number of West Bank settlements would indeed be evacuated and handed over to the Palestinian Authority to be incorporated into the new Palestine. If that is indeed a realistic appraisal – assuming a peace accord acceptable to the Israeli people – then why should the Palestinians object all that vigorously to new building in these settlements? The more new homes the settlers construct, the better the hand-over deal when it comes.

For example, building is expected to begin tomorrow (Tuesday) at a number of sites including Shavei Shomron, Adam, Oranit, Sha'arei Tikva, Yakir, Revava, Kokhav Hashahar, Kedumim and Karmei Tzur. A cornerstone is to be laid for a new neighbourhood in the southern West Bank settlement of Beit Hagai, with construction set to start soon. In addition, after this week's Sukkot holiday, the Yesha Council of settlements and local West Bank councils are expected to begin pressuring Netanyahu to approving new construction. If these – or any of them – are indeed to be handed over as part of a final peace deal, who would be the losers, and who the winners?

Such thinking may be a shade too sophisticated for the Arab man-in-the-street, but it may not be for Mahmoud Abbas or the foreign ministers of the Arab League. Abbas, in an interview published yesterday (Sunday the 26th) in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, indicated that he would not immediately leave the talks with the expiration of the moratorium, and seemed content to let the Arab League decide the issue, requesting an urgent meeting of the Arab League on October 4. The Arab League, of course, is the body that gave Abbas the green light last month to enter direct talks with Israel, even though the Netanyahu government refused to declare an end to all settlement construction as Abbas had demanded.

Sending the issue to the Arab League, according to one school of thought in Jerusalem, is a graceful way for Abbas to remain in the negotiations despite an end to the moratorium, enabling him to say – perhaps – that this is the will of the Arab League.

A hand-over is not, of course, the only possible scenario following a peace agreement. Just as Israel has always included millions of Arabs among its population, so the final deal might encompass the idea of the new Palestine incorporating Jewish settlers who chose to remain in their homes. For many settlers, it is living in the Biblical land of Israel that is their life’s purpose and fulfilment. The sovereign authority controlling it is not their major concern. A compromise might involve such settlers retaining their Israeli citizenship, or possibly enjoying dual citizenship, while Israel’s Arab population might benefit from a parallel arrangement.

Given a genuine desire for peace, and a modicum of good will among the principals negotiating it, anything is possible.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Israelis and Palestinians face a common enemy

Peace rejectionists are to be found everywhere, many of them with wildly divergent agendas, though sharing the common aim of rubbishing and, if possible, derailing the current peace initiative. They abound in the Arab world, in Israel’s right-wing political parties, and under a variety of guises in many countries. The Iranian regime, for example, is a prime advocate of rejection, and a main sponsor of terrorist activity aimed at undermining the peace process.

Assuming that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, entered the peace process in a sincere attempt to reach an accommodation within the next twelve months – an assumption laughed to scorn by the rejectionists – the fact is that the obstacles in their separate paths bear more than a passing similarity. Their individual problems parallel each other – and sometimes overlap. For example, in the current political situation, with the West Bank and Gaza under separate rule, Hamas terrorism is as much a political attack on the Palestinian Authority as it is an armed attack on Israel. While Israeli and Palestinian officials continue their discussions as part of the peace process, both know that opposing the radical rejectionists is a common concern.

On each occasion that a substantive move towards peace emerges in the Middle East, the rejectionist pattern is all too wearisome and familiar. This time was no exception. Even before the present round of peace talks had started, terrorist activity increased substantially. On the evening of August 31, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders were gathering in Washington DC to launch the latest round of peace talks, four Israeli settlers were killed on a road southeast of Kiryat Arba, close to Hebron. This was the first fatal terrorist attack on Israeli civilians in nearly a year. In the following two days, two further shooting incidents were recorded, in the area of Rimonim and near Ofra, both in the northern West Bank. Two Israeli civilians were wounded. The military wing of Hamas, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for all three incidents, calling them the ‘path of Ramadan' attacks and promising more.

But speaking the day after the shooting attack outside Kiryat Arba, and on the day peace talks opened in Washington, Netanyahu pledged, ‘I will not let the terrorists block our path to peace.' As – much to the chagrin of the rejectionists – those engaged in the peace process simply refused to allow it to be derailed, nevertheless the first three weeks of September saw four Israelis killed in three shooting incidents, and some 20 rockets landing on southern Israel. Since the beginning of September, there has also been a marked increase in rocket attacks on southern Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip. In the first eight months of 2010, the average number of rockets landing in Israel from Gaza was close to eight a month. Nineteen missiles have landed in Israel already this month. The highest daily tally in nearly two years was recorded on September 15th, with nine missiles hitting Israel.

The difference this time is that the Palestinian Authority has displayed determination in tracking down the terrorists in the West Bank; Israel has also continued counter-terrorism activities, responding to the violence with targeted operations against Hamas militants and installations, but the response has been measured. Greater PA security capacity, and increasing cooperation between them and Israeli security forces, has led to the arrest of most Hamas operatives in the West Bank. Briefing the Israeli cabinet last week, Security Agency (Shin Bet) head Yuval Disking said that cooperation between the IDF and the PA security apparatus is better now than at any point in the last 16 years. He described the PA as demonstrating a great deal of ‘motivation' and ‘determination' in preventing attacks, including arresting hundreds of Hamas activists. Israel also enjoys the cooperation of Egypt, which sees Hamas as a threat to its own interests. A top Hamas official was arrested in Cairo in the past few days.

Hamas is unlikely to cease in its efforts to destabilise the situation, but their attempts to activate sleeper cells or to infiltrate new operatives into the West Bank will take time, while Israel's anti-terrorism and intelligence apparatus remains in place to foil such efforts. Incidentally, Israeli intelligence believes Hamas have developed the capability to fire rockets that could reach Tel Aviv. But even the more hard-line elements within Hamas will be wary of an escalation that would provoke major Israeli reprisals.

The Palestinian Authority’s opposition to the terrorists seems genuinely determined. On 7 September PA security forces announced they had detained the terrorists who carried out the attacks on Israel in early September. In response, Hamas called the detentions a ‘national betrayal' and threatened that ‘the weapons that reached the heart of the occupier can reach you as well.' Hamas leader Khaled Mashal denounced PA President Mahmoud Abbas as ‘a zero'.

The PA's focus on the diplomatic process was also behind an angry exchange with Iranian President Ahmadinejad. In a clear attack on the PA, Ahmedinejad said that, ‘the fate of the Palestinians will be determined by the resistance of the nation and [its] citizens.' In response Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh attacked Ahmadinejad, claiming that ‘the man who does not represent the Iranian people... who faked the elections, oppresses the Iranian people and stole the regime would do better not to talk about Palestine.'

Israel’s rejectionists are grouped around the West Bank settlement building issue. For some time the forthcoming expiry of the building freeze seemed to pose the first direct challenge to the negotiations, since settlers and their supporters seemed determined to start new constructions the very instant the moratorium came to an end. Then, last week, a review found that the building moratorium is due to expire not on September 26, as previously thought, but September 30. Then, an agreement began to take shape on the settlement construction freeze, based on an "unspoken understanding" that security authorities will not sign new building permits, but the government will not issue a formal resolution extending the freeze. A source close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas is reported as saying that from the PA's perspective, what mattered was not Israel's declarations but the moratorium's implementation on the ground.

Assuming that the two principals indeed succeed in overcoming these challenges and out-facing the rejectionists, what other obstacles might obstruct their quest for a peace agreement?

To achieve a genuine breakthrough, Prime Minister Netanyahu may have to risk the collapse of his present coalition and division within his own Likud party. He may have to re-constitute his government, possibly allying himself with the Kadima party. However, Netanyahu seems to be increasingly persuaded that, notwithstanding the costs, a conflict-ending agreement is perhaps the only way to achieve the security that Israel acutely needs, as well as the legitimate borders it also requires in the eyes of the world. His dilemma is not just political or ideological. It turns on whether the genuine risks and compromises associated for Israel with an agreement are outweighed by the risks associated with failing to reach one.

For President Abbas, the calculations are no less complex. The decisions necessary to reach an agreement, and the challenge to the Palestinian ethos that this would entail, are daunting for any Palestinian leader. The constant challenge from Hamas, the unrest within Fatah ranks as they jostle for position, and the lack of full-hearted support from regional states will weigh heavily on Abbas. And yet, Abbas also knows that without success at the negotiating table Fatah has little to offer as an alternative to Hamas. Abbas will face real difficulties with a largely hard-line diaspora and increasing challenges to his political legitimacy. Unless tackled, these challenges may weaken his capacity to close a deal, much less implement one. However, he has already demonstrated a willingness to confront violence, confound his critics and champion a two-state solution.

And so, with a variety of problems to face and overcome, and the chance to make common cause on at least one of them – the principals set out on their hazardous voyage to discover whether peace between Israelis and Palestinians is indeed possible.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

US launch of Friends of Israel Initiative

Speech by José María Aznar, Chairman, former President of Spain, 14 September 2010

I'm here tonight to present to you a work in progress, the Friends of Israel Initiative* - an idea I have been promoting with the help of some friends, some of them here tonight, like:
Former President of Peru, Alejandro Toledo;
British historian, Andrew Roberts;
French entrepreneur, Robert Agostinelli;
Former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton;
Spanish former industry minister, Carlos Bustelo.

And others who couldn't make it tonight, such as:
Professor George Weigel;
Peace Nobel prize-winner Lord Trimble;
Lord Weidenfeld;
Former president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera;
Fiamma Nerestein, representative in the Italian parliament; and
champion of human rights and democracy former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the latest member of our growing Board.

They all answered my initial call, last May, because all shared with me the sense of urgency to do something about the growing trend of deligitimisation of Israel.

Our first meeting took place in Paris the very same day Israeli troops stopped the Flotilla heading to Gaza. Very timely, as you can tell.

Our second event took place in calmer waters, in late July, in London.

And now, we are here in Washington D.C.

Why? Very simple: We believe in the West, in the values all we share, in the ties that bind free societies and distinguish our democracies from those governments who have yet to give way to the rights of their people and the arc of history. And, we know – better than many – that the West has been shaped, led and defended by America.

As a European, I don't have any problem saying that America has been a force for good in the World, protecting peace, promoting liberty and human dignity, and expanding prosperity. Furthermore, America has been the best ally of Israel, and it should remain so. And America's role as the leader of the free world, as the spark of hope for a better life for countless souls the world over should be a source of pride for all Americans. It certainly serves as an inspiration to us.

Many of us came from Europe. Most of us are not Jewish. And I am sure that many of you may be wondering what it is that we seek, and why we believe it so vital to stand up and be counted on this issue.

Hence, our interest to explain here what we want and why.

We defend Israel because we believe it is the best strategy in current times to defend the West.

When we started putting this Initiative in motion, the whole world was condemning Israel for reasons I don't need to elaborate, since you know them better than I do.

Now, the atmosphere has changed a little since direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians have resumed and the peace process is moving ahead. Despite all the difficulties the negotiations may experience, I think we all should recognize the value, the prospects, and the hopes they represent. I am sure that Israel wants peace, and I know that all true friends of Israel want to see her achieve that dream of peace and security.

But as we made clear in our first statement, there are problems in the region greater than just an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Problems that will not go away even if a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is eventually reached.

While Israel has made peace with Egypt and Jordan, and her economy has strengthened in recent years, now - not decades ago - Israel is facing increasing dangers. She has been forced to defend her people from Hezbollah in the North and thousands of Hamas rockets in the South. And. perhaps most worryingly, Israel is increasingly threatened by the scenario of a nuclear Iran – something the world must certainly act urgently to prevent.

On top of that, Israel is under a new kind of attack. Not conventional war as in 1948, ‘56, ‘67 or ‘73. Not terrorism as we saw in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But a new kind of attack – an attack on Israel’s legitimacy, on her right to exist. A "soft war", where many of its adversaries are employing legal tricks, multinational bodies, and an army of dubious NGO's to present internationally Israel as an illegitimate state, as a barbarian state, a state that should be isolated and converted into a pariah state.

We think this is intolerable. It is unjust, morally wrong, and a strategic risk – not only for Israel and its people, but for all of us. Israel is an integral part of the West, and the weaker it is, the weaker the entire West will be perceived to be.

Even if we want to turn away from the traumas of 9/11, we simply do not have the luxury to choose our enemies. As Senators Baker, Dole, Daschle and Mitchell made clear in their latest report, published 5 days ago. by the Bipartisan Policy Center, the threat to our way of life from radical Islamists is real, and it has not yet been eliminated.

Let me be clear. We don't want in any case to defend any particular Israeli government or any particular set of policies or any particular party. Israel's institutions are mature enough to defend their choices. We want to stand up for the right of Israel to exist. Judeo-Christian values form the roots of our civilization. Delegitimising Israel undermines our identity, warps our values and put at risk what we are and who we are.

So, dear friends, it is not only the threat that if Israel goes down – which, make no mistake, many of its enemies would like to see happen – we all go down. It is that letting Israel be demonized will lead to the deligitimisation of our own cherished values. If Israel were to disappear by the force of its enemies, I sincerely doubt the West could remain as we know it.

So, I conclude: Is it craziness for a group, as I said before, of mostly Europeans and non-Jews, to say: Enough. Stop this non-sense of making Israel responsible for all the problems in the region, if not beyond? Enough of the short sightedness which refuses to see Israel as a corner stone of our Western civilization?

We do believe that far from it, it is vital. For America, for the West, for Israel. And for our children and grandchildren and the world they will inherit. Because there is still right and wrong in this complicated world. And if we allow those fundamentals to be blurred and eroded and confused, we will all be dangerously adrift.

Defending Israel today means strengthening the West, standing up for our values, and their right to exist as a normal country, a fellow democracy and a celebrated ally in our great western alliance.

I hope that you will share our vision, and will help us in bringing reason and decency back to the discussion concerning Israel.

*See my blog "The Friends of Israel Initiative", posted on 27 July 2010

Saturday, 11 September 2010

For Palestine, sovereignty; for Israel, security; for Iran, concern

Ever since the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were launched on 2 September, speculation has been rife among media commentators about the “real” intentions of both main parties. According to the distinguished Middle East journalist, Aluf Benn, the limited aims of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu are sovereignty for a new state of Palestine, and security for Israel. He dismisses as window dressing the broader objectives Netanyahu offers for public consumption – namely, “an end to the conflict” – since this simply is not within the gift of either of the principals, Netanyahu or PA President Mahmoud Abbas, to deliver.

In order to achieve the security Netanyahu seeks, Benn urges him above all to aim for the essentially practical outcome of secure and recognised borders both for Israel and – by extension – for a new sovereign Palestine.

“Any agreement that is not hermetically sealed,” writes Benn, “and leaves openings for fights over control and land will merely lead to another confrontation. That's what happened with the demilitarized areas in the north before the Six-Day War, and it's what is happening today in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu has to achieve the best arrangement possible and then stop there.”

This starkly realistic analysis is only, perhaps, to be expected from Benn, who did his military service in a Military Police unit during the Lebanon conflict. His time in the Israel Defense Forces left him with the conviction that, “even those who dream of a permanent settlement and a Palestinian state and want to see the settlements gone, prefer to tie on the cuffs than be cuffed.” His experiences, unpleasant as they often were for both the police and their prisoners, did not, he asserts, “transform us into law-breaking criminals, it only taught us that it's best to be on the stronger side.”

Benn believes that in his latest meetings with President Obama, Netanyahu has sidetracked the Iranian threat. “Netanyahu is now concentrating on the Palestinian track,” writes Benn. “Over a year ago, he devoted almost all his first meeting with US President Barack Obama to the Iranian threat. The Palestinians were mentioned merely in passing. In their two most recent meetings, the agenda was turned upside down, according to American sources. Most of the time was devoted to the diplomatic process with the Palestinians and Iran was pushed to the side."

Anshel Pfeffer, widely published commentator on the Middle East, and deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post for the past six years, reaches a similar conclusion about Netanyahu’s main aim – namely security – but (perhaps shaped by Pfeffer’s north of England upbringing), sees matters from a quite different perspective.

He is convinced that Israeli officials who returned from the Washington summit have “shed their outer layer of cynicism.” Pfeffer quotes a “veteran observer” as saying: "Bibi has changed. It's hard to explain, but it's there. For the first time it seemed as if he wanted to sit with the Palestinians and reach a deal, not just because the Americans were forcing him."

Pfeffer concludes that something has changed also on the Palestinian side. “They didn't rush to criticise Mr Netanyahu as they have in the past,” he writes. “Senior members of Mr Abbas's entourage even denied disparaging comments that appeared in their name in Arab newspapers.”

On the main issue – namely Netanyahu’s real objective – Pfeffer is at one with Benn. Security for Israel is his aim. The difference is that Pfeffer perceives that Netanyahu’s focus for achieving it is Iran. He believes that the clue lies in Netanyahu’s speech in Washington. He quotes the passage in full:

"We left Lebanon, and we got terror. We left Gaza, and we got terror once again. We want to ensure that territory we will concede will not be turned into a third Iranian-sponsored terror enclave aimed at the heart of Israel - and may I add, also aimed at every one of us sitting on this stage."

And that is not only Netanyahu’s view. On 9 September the prestitigous Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) published a well-documented report detailing concerns in Kuwait and the Gulf over the threat currently posed by Iran to them.

Recently, it reports, “more and more voices in the Kuwaiti press and public describe Iran as a threat to the security and stability of the Gulf states.” This it ascribes to “events, reports, assessments, and rumors regarding hostile Iranian activity in the Gulf.” Among these it lists: the discovery of a money laundering operation in Bahrain connected to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); the arrest of 250 operatives in Bahrain suspected of membership in terror cells, and reports that similar cells exist in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; the uncovering of an Iranian espionage network in Kuwait; reports about Iranian plans to occupy the Gulf states and to assassinate senior military commanders and media figures in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf and in Lebanon; and assessments that Iran's influence in the region will grow in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. “The sense of threat generated by all these factors,” concludes the report, “is compounded by the advances in Iran's nuclear program.”

As a result, the Institute reports, columnists and public figures in Kuwait are united in their assessment that Iran intends to take over the Gulf states, and are speculating about the nature of this takeover, how it might be implemented, and ways to address the threat.

Iranian-Israeli political analyst, Meir Javedanfar, believes that Iran is seriously worried not only by the possibility of a military strike by Israel, but also by the Israeli government’s ability to justify it. As Javedanfar sees it, if Israel had a consensus of world opinion on its side, this would severely curtail Iran’s ability to justify its own retaliation. So far, Israel has succeeded in achieving quite the reverse in terms of world opinion given the Gaza flotilla episode and the settlement building problem, but should the peace talks actually make progress, “alarm bells are going to ring in Tehran,” he writes.

“The state of Israel has its defence forces to ensure its security,” says Javedanfar. “It should not forget that it also has the diplomatic option of significantly hurting the regime in Tehran.”

Saturday, 4 September 2010

If not now – when?

In the few days since the re-launch of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the media has been overflowing with the direst of dire predictions about the inevitability of their failure. None other than His Excellency the Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ron Prosor, has drawn a convincing comparison between these prophets of doom and the two Muppet Show characters, Statler and Waldorf. Up there they sit, these two thoroughly disagreeable old men, in the balcony box in the Muppet Theater, heckling every aspect of the show and flinging insults right, left and centre, at the players.

Of course the obstacles to achieving the ambitious objective of an accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians within twelve months are formidable – and I am certain that no-one realises the fact more than the two principals: Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Neither of them are fools, and yet both have signed up to this new peace initiative, and to its achievement in the space of a year.

"We understand the suspicion and scepticism that so many feel, born out of years of conflict and frustrated hopes," said US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, at the opening ceremony, "but by being here today you each have taken an important step toward freeing your peoples from the shackles of a history we cannot change."

George Mitchell, President Obama’s Middle East envoy, who joined the negotiations, said that at this first meeting the two leaders decided to begin putting together a framework agreement on all major issues – including borders, Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and security – that will "establish the fundamental compromises necessary" to flesh out a comprehensive peace deal.

In declaring that he believed a deal was possible within the twelve-month timeframe, Abbas said: "We're not starting from scratch, because we had many rounds of negotiations between the PLO and the Israeli government." Netanyahu said: "Together we can lead our people to a historic future that can put an end to claims and to conflict. This will not be easy. A true peace, a lasting peace, will be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides … from my side and,” he said, addressing Abbas direct, “from your side."

Mitchell announced that Netanyahu and Abbas had agreed to meet again in a fortnight in the Middle East, and every two weeks after that. Hillary Clinton and Mitchell will attend the first of those meetings on 14 September in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

To be realistic – indeed sceptical – about the initative and its likely success is entirely understandable, but whatever one’s reservations about the process, the motives of those participating, and the formidable problems that lie in the way of achieving a positive outcome, it cannot be denied that this was a hopeful beginning. The parties met under the auspices of the only feasible mediating power, they shook hands, they each pledged themselves to addressing the issues in a serious and positive spirit, they agreed the objective being sought and the period within which it might be achieved.

Equally serious, however, is the determination of Hamas and its fellow extreme Islamist partners to derail this new initative with a wave of terror. Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for the Hamas military wing has said: "We declare that the actions of resistance have gone into a new and advanced stage of co-operation in the field at the highest levels in preparation for more effective attacks against the enemy.” Ubaida was referring to a meeting last week between Hamas and 12 other militant Palestinian groups in Gaza to plan this new terror campaign.

This threatened upsurge in indiscrimate violence represents a sea change from past such efforts, horrific though they have often been. Hamas has claimed responsibility for two shooting attacks against Israeli cars in the West Bank last week. Last Tuesday, they slaughtered four people, one of them a pregnant woman. Later a Hamas spokesman designated the incident an “heroic attack.” A spokesman for the group's military wing said that no options had been ruled out, and that suicide bombings could be used to target Israel. The objective? To torpedo the new drive for peace.

In the past, however strained their explanation, Hamas and other Islamist groups, have almost invariably justified their terrorist attacks by referring to some previous counter-terrorist action by Israel, and claiming that their attack was a legitimate response. Not this time. Now the threat is quite simply to disrupt the peace process, and by whatever means. In short, they offer no justification for what was done last week, and what is threatened for the future, except their determination to undermine, disrupt and destroy any chance of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and to scupper the prospect of an independent sovereign state of Palestine. Their stance is simple nihilism.

Of course, their campaign is directed quite as much against the Palestinian Authority and its Fatah President, Mahmoud Abbas, as against Israel itself. The fact that the two latest attacks were carried out in the West Bank was an implied declaration that the Hamas writ runs outside Gaza just as surely as it does inside – and that, in the final analysis, Hamas seeks to dominate the entire Palestinian people, not merely those in the Gaza Strip whose governance it seized in a bloody coup in June 2007.

This, it goes without saying, is fully understood by the PA – which explains the immediate security crackdown by Abbas's security forces across the West Bank. Hundreds of Hamas activists were arrested, and two suspects linked to the second attack, in which two Israelis were wounded, have been arrested. Israeli security forces, too, have been placed on a high level of alert and have set up new checkpoints on roads in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Israel’s arch-enemy, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, has been unable to resist giving the extremist pot an extra stir. During a pro-Palestinian rally in Tehran he declared: "The nations of the region are able to eliminate the Zionist regime from the face of the earth," adding that “its life has come to an end". He joins Hamas in asserting that Mahmoud Abbas has no authority to participate in peace talks on behalf of Palestinians.

One might well riposte: “If not the elected President of the Palestinian Authority, then who?”

Long, slow and painful has been the journey to the present situation, where Netanyahu and Abbas can actually meet in Washington, under the auspices of the President of the United States, and in the presence of President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, and do so in a positive spirit, declaring their determination to try to reach a final accord. Taking all this into account, one might indeed also ask: “And if not now – when?”