Thursday, 30 December 2010

December Reviewed

Neither breakthrough nor breakdown

Early in December it became undeniable that the impetus towards achieving a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority had slowed almost to a stop. Brokered painstakingly from the beginning of 2010 by the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, the process had moved slowly into an initial “proximity” talks phase which, against all the odds, managed to weather the storms of the Ramat Shlomo building project in East Jerusalem; the consequential spat between President Obama and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; recourse by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the Arab League for political cover; and the tragic Mavi Marmara affair.

And then, against all the odds, but certainly as the result of the most intensive diplomatic and political activity on the part of Washington – and despite a succession of spoiling actions by various extremist groups, aimed at destabilising the situation – Arab League foreign ministers proceeded to give the OK to Mahmoud Abbas to enter direct peace talks with Israel if and when he wanted to.

As a result, perhaps the most surprising event of the year occurred on 20 August when, at a press conference, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, were to begin direct peace talks in Washington on 2 September. This meeting, said Clinton, was intended to "re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which," she said, "we believe we can complete in one year." Clinton said she herself would host the first direct Israel-Palestinian negotiating session on 2 September, and that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan had also been invited to join that first discussion.

As we now know, that first session indeed took place amid many honeyed words and assurances from both sides that the framework of a final settlement would be a possibility within 12 months. But the worm lurking at the heart of the situation was that Israel’s 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank was scheduled to end on 26 September. Clearly Mahmoud Abbas cherished the hope that, in view of the opening of direct talks and the lightening of the political atmosphere, Israel’s building freeze would be renewed – and indeed extended to cover East Jerusalem. If that was indeed his hope it was a vain one, for he reckoned without the right-wing elements within Netanyahu’s fragile coalition – the coalition he relied on to remain in power. So Abbas’s position hardened, and he finally made the return of the Palestinians to the negotiating table entirely dependent on a renewed construction moratorium covering not only the West Bank but East Jerusalem as well.

Israel too adopted a harder line, and maintained that there would be no renewed building freeze without some compensation – such as recognition by the PA of Israel as a Jewish state. This proposition the Palestinians rejected out of hand. And so it was left to the US to attempt to patch together some sort of formula that would enable the peace process to continue.

That formula, which rumour has it is still a possibility, has so far failed to materialise, but US special envoy George Mitchell has meanwhile returned to the region, and has virtually reopened the earlier proximity talks method of keeping dialogue going between two sides who, for the moment, are not prepared to meet face to face.

A sad way to end a year that opened with such high hopes of a possible breakthrough in the apparently endless conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Meanwhile the Palestinians have opened a new front in their search for a sovereign state – moves suggesting the possibility of a unilateral declaration of statehood. They have begun to woo such bodies as the United Nations General Assembly, the UN Security Council, the European Union and as many countries as possible to grant them recognition as a state within the borders of the West Bank and Gaza as they were on 4 June 1967 – the day before the Six Day War.

And indeed on Christmas Eve 2010 Ecuador became the fifth Latin American state formally to recognise Palestine on this basis. Following his neighbours Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, which took this step earlier in December, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa signed "the Ecuadoran government's official recognition of Palestine as a free and independent state with 1967 borders."

The term "the 1967 borders" has been part of the Arab-Israeli peace process lexicon for over five years, but the plain fact of the matter is that in 1967 there was no recognized international border between the West Bank and Israel. What existed was the 1949 Armistice Line – basically where Israeli and Arab forces found themselves at the formal end of Israel's first battle against the combined Arab armies that surrounded it. And all sides agree that a final agreement will have to incorporate land swaps aimed at ensuring secure borders for both Israel and the future Palestine.

In virtual acknowledgement that the"1967 borders" would be totally inadequate as a basis for establishing a sovereign Palestine, the EU, although recently reaffirming its readiness to recognise a Palestinian state at an "appropriate" time, stopped short of doing so and instead reaffirmed support for "a negotiated solution" between the two sides "within the 12 months set by the Quartet" of international mediators.
The fact that this approach is unlikely in itself to prove fruitful may not inhibit Abbas from pursuing it, on the grounds that to do so may exert such a degree of psychological pressure on Israel's hard-line rightists that – to quote the Johnny Mercer song – "something's gotta give."

Meanwhile PA prime minister Salam Fayyad has not abandoned his August 2011 deadline for preparing for Palestinian statehood (and by implication Israeli withdrawal) – a deadline which, by coincidence or not, exactly matches that endorsed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas at their first direct face-to-face discussion on 2 September for reaching agreement on a framework settlement.

And so December comes to an end. The year 2010, though it achieved a memorable climax in the opening of direct talks in September, certainly witnessed no breakthrough in the long voyage towards an accord between Israelis and Palestinians. But equally the peace process has not broken down; it has stalled, as any vessel may do in stormy weather, battered by wind and waves. The ship can, and surely will, be repaired, and the journey towards a just and durable peace between Israel and a sovereign state of Palestine finally brought to a successful conclusion.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Israel-Palestine – can Obama’s errors be rectified?

Bradley Burston, an American-born Israeli journalist, is a regular columnist for the influential daily, Ha’aretz. In today’s edition (21 December), he produces a brilliant analysis of the mistakes President Obama has perpetrated in his Middle East strategy. He weighs the effectiveness of Obama’s strategy against Sun Tzu's ancient The Art of War.

He starts by quoting two of Sun Tzu’s basic principles:
We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours.
He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.

Burston points out how very effectively Obama followed these principles in much of his domestic policy, and how abysmally he failed to do so in respect of his approach to the Middle East. Burston reckons the President should have taken more fully into account the inherently hardline background and beliefs of Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; the instability of Netanyahu’s coalition foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the former nightclub bouncer determined to bar entry to any peace progress; and should have made a realistic assessment of the chance of a working rapprochement between Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Ismail Haniyeh's Hamas in Gaza.

The last point is worth emphasising, for of what value would a peace accord be between Israel and a Palestinian Authority whose writ ran only in the West Bank? The past year has shown that every attempt to broker an understanding between Hamas and Fatah – the party of President Mahmoud Abbas – has failed. Hamas are irretrievably rejectionist – not only of any sort of peace accord with Israel, but of any rapprochement with the PA. They seized power in Gaza in a bloody coup d’état, and their aim clearly is to extend their power over the rest of the Palestinian body politic, converting it to their extreme Islamist ideology.

“A lack of movement in any one of these three elements alone,” writes Burston, “would have been sufficient to impede Washington's peace overtures. Together, they guaranteed defeat. But,” he adds, “that was just the beginning.”

To illustrate Obama’s failure in respect of his settlement policy, he quotes another of Sun Tzus’s principles: The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him. Burston asserts, not without reason, that Obama's demand for a freeze on building in the West Bank settlements including East Jerusalem played into the hands of the pro-settlement right (for to the fury of many in Israeli politics, and not only those on the right, Washington persisted in including East Jerusalem in the demand for a construction freeze).

“Had more groundwork been laid,” asserts Burston, “the administration might have concluded, correctly, that the demand for a settlement freeze would have done more harm than good. As it was, the freeze made Washington look bad for no gain and considerable pain.”

Burston asserts that if the administration had taken more time and care, it might have realized in advance that the original 10-month building freeze would not in itself be enough to bring the PA back to negotiations. In fact, once the freeze had run its course, the subsequent high-profile dispute over continued Israeli construction both in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem brought the first phase of the peace process to a juddering halt.

Even more to the point – something Burston does not touch on – the moment that Washington made public its view that all construction on the West Bank and East Jerusalem was unacceptable and should be halted (and this it did quite early on and reiterated more than once), the US administration had effectively backed Mahmoud Abbas into a corner from which there was no escape. Without so clear-cut an opinion from America, Abbas could have brokered a deal with Netanyhau, an understanding of the sort that has existed for many years. Construction in the West Bank has never inhibited previous attempts by Israel and the Palestinians to talk about the issues. It has proved an insurmountable stumbling block this time simply because the US has made it so – and in the process has strengthened the hands of Obama's pro-settlement, anti-peace process opponents in Israel and the United States.

Then there was the matter of Obama's Cairo address to the Muslim and Arab world in June 2009. "The intention was good," wrote commentator Nahum Barnea, visiting Chicago this month to interview Rahm Emanuel for Israel’s leading Hebrew language newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. “The result was destructive.” Obama sought to turn a new leaf with Arabs and Islamic peoples, wrote Barnea, but in the wake of the speech, "the Muslims he failed to gain, and the Israelis he lost."

According to Barnea, "Obama's path in the twists and turns of the Mideast has been paved with errors." Barnea's list:

Mistake A: Obama was convinced that the Palestinian issue was first on the order of priorities of pro-American Arab leaders, and that a working peace process would win their gratitude. But given Wikileaks, what the Arab leaders really wanted was for the U.S. "to annihilate Iran for them.”
Mistake B: Turning the peace process into "a hostage of the settlement freeze."
Mistake C: Thinking that the Israeli Labour leader, Ehud Barak, a conviction dove on the peace process, could effectively influence Netanyahu.
Mistake D: Making the same error with Israel that he had with the Arabs, that is, thinking that there was a connection between what Netanyahu said in public, and what he did in practice.

The end result? A foundering of the first phase of the peace process that had been so painstakingly brokered by Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, and finally brought to the point of direct face-to-face talks at the start of September.

Can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again? Well, in the nursery rhyme all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t achieve it – but in international politics anything is possible. Nil desperandum, as the Roman poet Horace has it – “Don’t despair.”

For two senior US officials arrived in Israel on Sunday (19 December) to continue discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and officials, as part of the Obama administration's attempt to revive the diplomatic process between the two sides. Dan Shapiro, Director of the US National Security Council, and David Hale, deputy to US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell, are set to meet with senior prime ministerial aides Isaac Molho, Ron Dermer and Uzi Arad. They will also meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and the PA's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

Also on Sunday, a group of over 100 Israeli politicians and activists from across the political spectrum visited PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, under the auspices of the Geneva Initiative. The delegation was led by former Labour Chairman Amram Mitzna. It included members of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, from the centrist Kadima and left-leaning Labour and Meretz parties, as well as activists from the centre-right Likud party and ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Abbas told the gathering that he had reached understandings with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on security issues during talks in 2008, and rejected accusations that he had failed to respond to Olmert's peace proposal.

With many in Israel sceptical about the chances of a breakthrough in final status talks, there are various voices calling for an alternative approach, including the opposition Kadima party’s deputy leader and former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz. Ideas include some form of interim agreement, as opposed to a final status accord, which would give the Palestinians greater control over the West Bank, whilst deferring for now the final status issues.

All of which are straws in the wind, indicating ways in which the peace process might indeed be revived, and Phase Two launched, in 2011. "A consummation," as Shakespeare so felicitously puts it, "devoutly to be wished."

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Israeli-Palestinian peace – Phase Two

The Obama administration clearly has no intention of turning its back on the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Phase One, which climaxed at the end of August in an unparalleled display of bonhomie between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has run itself into the ground. At the launch the two sides agreed on the goal of a framework agreement within a year. But since the conclusion of Israel's 10-month settlement freeze at the end of September, the process has stalled. Netanyahu found it politically impossible to extend the freeze and keep his coalition together, while Abbas was unwilling to continue direct talks without an extension of the freeze.

The US attempted to address this problem by getting Israel to extend the freeze for a temporary period, in return for a package of US incentives. Washington hoped that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over a 90-day period might make enough progress on core issues, particularly on borders, to build trust between the parties and keep them both at the table. At the end of last week the US acknowledged that this approach had not worked. Netanyahu was struggling to get the deal past his coalition, and the Palestinians looked set to reject the settlement freeze anyway because it would not explicitly include East Jerusalem.

Frankly admitting that Phase One of the peace process had foundered, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week provided a detailed explanation of the Obama administration's plans to move it forward. Whilst the US had given up for now the hope of direct talks, Clinton also made clear that they did not support any attempt to impose a solution. Instead, they now proposed to try to make progress by getting the parties to set out their positions in dialogue with the US. Washington will then try to narrow gaps by asking ‘tough questions and expecting substantive answers', and will ‘offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate.'

Clinton stated that the defined goal remains ‘a framework agreement that would establish the fundamental compromises on all permanent status issues and pave the way for a final peace treaty', as agreed by the parties at the September summit. The one-year timetable has been conspicuously dropped, but the determination of the US to move forward with this issue appears as strong as ever.

US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, maintains a pivotal role in this process, and so a first step was for him to return to the region, and virtually resume the “proximity talks” which preceded the reopening of face-to-face negotiations.

George Mitchell met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday (Wednesday, 15 December), and briefed him on the latest developments. Now, according to a news agency report today, 16 December, Mitchell has proposed that the United States holds separate, parallel talks with Israelis and Palestinians for six weeks, to discuss security and borders, in order to enable Washington to develop a strategy for the eventual re-launch of direct negotiations. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to convene his 'septet' of senior ministers to discuss the new proposal.

Mitchell’s meeting with President Mubarak came as Arab League foreign ministers rejected any talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives unless the US commits itself on the issue of the borders of a future Palestinian state. The ministers also agreed to go to the UN Security Council to seek a resolution against the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

What is, perhaps, significant, is that the Arab League has as yet not endorsed either of the two threats made by Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, and which appear to represent his current position. One is to break off – or at least not to re-enter – the peace process unless Israel agrees to a complete freeze on building in all West Bank settlements including East Jerusalem. The other is to seek UN Security Council recognition for what might be termed a “unilateral declaration of statehood” by the Palestinian Authority. A significant factor inhibiting any such action by the League might be that Hillary Clinton’s recent speech included an explicit rejection of the idea. And since the US is in a position to veto any such move in the Security Council, a statement by the Arab League supporting the idea would be a somewhat empty gesture.

It may also be of significance that earlier in the week the EU, although reaffirming its readiness to recognise a Palestinian state at an "appropriate" time, stopped short of outright recognition despite mounting pressure from a minority of states to seek to break the Middle East impasse in this way, and despite Argentina and Uruguay joining Brazil in actually declaring that they recognised an independent Palestinian state.

The fact is that, following long and prickly negotiations, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels adopted a statement that falls short of an ultimatum and breaks little new ground. So while the EU statement expresses "regret" at Israel's rejection of a new freeze, describing settlements as "illegal" and "an obstacle to peace", it underlines EU support for "a negotiated solution" between the two sides "within the 12 months set by the Quartet" of international mediators.

It does, however, also welcome a recent World Bank assessment that the Palestinian Authority "is well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future" and goes on to say that the EU "reiterates its readiness, when appropriate, to recognise a Palestinian state." “When appropriate” are the operative words and, in the light of what the EU foreign ministers say, appear to mean “following a negotiated settlement.”

Let us hope so, as the hazard-strewn peace process sets out on Phase Two of its uncertain journey.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Israeli-Palestinian peace – the end of Phase One

That the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has stalled is undeniable. That it has foundered is almost certainly not the case – “almost” because nothing is certain, but the portents for a revival of negotiations are far from unfavourable.

For one thing, President Obama has invested too much political capital in achieving a Middle East breakthrough to walk away at the first major setback. For another, it is pretty obvious to the Arab League in general, and the Palestinian Authority in particular, that the first and best hope of achieving a sovereign Palestine lies in coming to an agreement with Israel. Yes, they have a couple of other options up their sleeves (eg seeking endorsement from the UN Security Council for a unilateral declaration of independence), but the chances of such a move achieving their objective are remote. For the reality of the situation is that the areas in the West Bank that they seek to acquire in order to create their state are in Israel’s hands as the occupying power, and would scarcely be handed over in the absence of a comprehensive peace agreement.

As for the Gaza Strip, Israel has vacated the area, but its administration was seized by the terrorist Islamist organisation, Hamas, in a bloody coup in June 2007. In the elections held in January 2006 for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas won 74 seats to the ruling Fatah's 45. President Mahmoud Abbas accordingly formed a national unity government led by prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. But sharing power with the Fatah nationalists did not suit Hamas. In four days in mid-June 2007 their ‘Executive Force’ seized control of the entire Gaza Strip, sweeping away key security services and the national militia. President Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government and forming an emergency government led by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Since then Hamas and Fatah have been at daggers drawn, and all efforts to achieve a reconciliation have ended in failure. It is unlikely that Hamas would meekly hand Gaza over to Abbas in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence, when their aim is control of the whole Palestinian entity.

Nor is it as if the Palestinian Authority actually has an undisputed right to the areas in question. Strictly, the position at the moment is that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip belong to no nation. Following the 1948 war between Israel and the surrounding Arab states, the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt, but in March 1979 Egypt renounced any claim to the territory as part of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty – the agreement which, following the Camp David Accords, made Egypt the first Arab country officially to recognize Israel. As for the West Bank, at the time of the Six Day War in 1967 Jordan had assumed sovereignty of the area (by simply annexing the region, let it be said), but in July 1988 it renounced all claims to the area. Since neither the West Bank nor the Gaza Strip currently fall within the sovereignty of any nation, the establishment of a sovereign state of Palestine is essential in order to acquire them in the first place, and then to bestow legitimacy on their possession.

Which perhaps explains why Washington still declares itself utterly determined to press ahead with their declared aim of bringing the two-state solution to fruition.

Last Friday (10 December), in her speech before Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton provided a detailed explanation of the Obama administration's plans to move the Middle East peace process forward in the wake of the collapse of direct peace talks.

“We will push the parties to grapple with the core issues. We will work with them on the ground to continue laying the foundations for a future Palestinian state. And we will redouble our regional diplomacy. When one way is blocked, we will seek another. We will not lose hope and neither should the people of the region. We will deepen our support of the Palestinians’ state-building efforts, because we recognize that a Palestinian state, achieved through negotiations, is inevitable.”

Commenting that she shares “the deep frustrations” of so many parties invested in the peace process who have been concerned at its stalling in recent days, she said the US would be consulting assiduously with the parties to try to reignite direct talks.

Clinton's speech marked her first Middle East policy address after the United States abandoned efforts this week to persuade Israel to stop new construction of Jewish settlements, a step the Palestinians said was essential if they were to resume direct peace talks which collapsed just weeks after their September launch.

US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell will head back to the region next week, and Clinton said diplomacy would now concentrate on a range of "core issues", all of which have so far proved difficult to resolve. These include borders and security, settlements, water, refugees, and Jerusalem itself, which Israel says is its capital but which the Palestinians also hope will serve as the capital of their future independent state.

On this key issue Israel's Defense Minster Ehud Barak, who spoke after Clinton at the Saban dinner, described the well-rehearsed solution of splitting the city. He said this issue would be discussed last and resolved along the lines set out back in 2000, namely “western Jerusalem and the Jewish suburbs for us, the heavily populated Arab neighborhoods for them, and an agreed upon solution in the ‘Holy Basin.’”

President Mahmoud Abbas has been manoeuvred by events into demanding the politically impossible from Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as his price for returning to the negotiating table – namely a freeze on all building not only in the West Bank but in East Jerusalem. This is the log-jam that Washington is determined to break.

"Israeli and Palestinian leaders should stop trying to assign blame for the next failure," said Hillary Clinton, "and focus instead on what they need to do to make these efforts succeed." She emphasized the US commitment to the peace process and that its goal was "eventually restarting direct negotiations." She continued: "In the days ahead, our discussions with both sides will be substantive, two-way conversations, with an eye toward making real progress in the next few months on the key questions of an eventual framework agreement."

Nothing could be clearer than that. And as if to underline the US commitment, State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters that the Middle East peace process had not unravelled, despite the failure of the Obama administration to keep direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians alive.

“I would say we're definitely not back at square one," said Crowley. "We think, through the many, many conversations and work that we've done over the course of almost two years, we've built a foundation for what lies ahead."

So there does indeed seem to be a future for a Phase Two in the long, wearisome peace process. The hope of a sovereign state of Palestine, living alongside the state of Israel, by agreement and in peace, is not dead.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

WikiLeaks exposes new realities in the Middle East

Following publication of the latest WikiLeaks documents, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that, after sixty years of propaganda painting Israel as the greatest threat to the Middle East, for the first time in history there is agreement that Iran is the threat. "Israel has not been damaged at all by the WikiLeaks publications," Netanyahu told a group of editors. "The documents show many sources backing Israel's assessments, particularly of Iran."

And indeed WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has shattered the widely-held “politically correct” view about the Middle East in the 21st century.

What is the accepted dogma? That the main cause of conflict in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and that the essence of the conflict is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Current emphasis is on the settlements and their expansion. Freeze the settlements, the argument runs, the peace talks will resume, the occupation will be brought to an end, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be solved and the Middle East will be stable.

This, writes Ari Shavit in Israel’s prestigious newspaper Ha’aretz, is “a kind of core belief that cannot be questioned.” He describes it as a “truth” that “formed the world view of enlightened élites in the West and directed the policies of the Western powers.”

“Then,” continues Shavit, “along came Assange and shattered the dogma. The secret documents that WikiLeaks published proved that the settlements, the occupation and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not the main problem in the Middle East. Assange proved that there was no connection between the real Middle East and the Middle East they talk about in The Washington Post, Le Monde and The Guardian. He revealed that the entire Arab world is currently busy with one problem only - Iran, Iran, Iran.”

What in fact do the leaked cables reveal? If the accounts of the conversations and the opinions reported in them are accurate – and there is no reason to suppose otherwise – they show that, contrary to their public positions, Arab leaders strongly support, and are indeed campaigning for, a US attack on Iran’s growing nuclear programme. According to the leaked documents Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah “frequently exhorted” the US to bomb Iran and “cut the head off the snake.” He warned Washington that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.”

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince is reported to have said that Iran was seeking regional domination, and urged the Americans to “take out” its nuclear capacity, or even send ground troops. Iran “is going to take us to war … it’s a matter of time.”

The king of Bahrain said the US “must terminate” Iran’s nuclear programme, “by whatever means necessary”. Zeid Rifai, then president of Jordan’s senate, said: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb.” President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt expressed a “visceral hatred” for the Islamic Republic. Even Syria, according to conversations with Turkish officials, was sounding “alarm bells.”

Britain’s future secretary of state for defence, Dr Liam Fox, told the Americans that he thought the negotiations would fail and said that “the US and UK should work together to prevent a nuclear arms race” in the Middle East.

In short no government, Arab or Western, accepts Iran’s claim that its nuclear programme is merely peaceful. More to the point, perhaps, if ever a military strike by the US, or even Israel, on Iran’s nuclear capability were deemed essential, it could scarcely be followed by a universal outcry of condemnation given what the WikiLeaks documents have revealed.

And what effect has this new truth for the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian accord? There is no doubt that the situation resulting from the Six Day War in 1967 must be resolved. The conflict is dangerous. A Palestinian sovereign state living in peace alongside Israel is the consensus objective of most parties that wish the region well. But the leaked diplomatic cables are telling us that, whether or not Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu resume the direct face-to-face talks and come to an accord, there will be no peace in the Middle East as long as the Arab world is living under Tehran's incessant threat. Iran is the heart of the problem. As long as Iran is growing stronger, is seeking nuclear weapons and is terrorizing the Middle East, there is no chance for peace.

The lesson seems to be that Iran must be dealt with, one way or another.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

WikiLeaks – the Israel-Palestine dimension

WikiLeaks, the website dedicated to publishing covertly acquired information, shook the diplomatic world on 28 November by starting to publish excerpts from more than 250,000 confidential United States documents it claims to have in its possession. In partnership with five Western newspapers, including the New York Times and the Guardian of London, it began putting out “redacted” versions of these documents – that is to say, the newspapers have cooperated with WikiLeaks in an attempt to reduce the potential danger to individuals from some of the more sensitive material, but not in any way to mitigate the embarrassment to the United States or its allies. It was quickly apparent that the disclosures have indeed angered Washington by exposing the inner workings of US diplomacy, including candid assessments of world leaders.

The diplomatic cables and other documents are being released in a drip-feed fashion, little by little, day by day – a tactic clearly designed to optimise their value to the newspapers who are cooperating with WikiLeaks in the operation. So far only a comparatively few have been concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but on 1 December the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, rather surprisingly defended his disclosure of the classified US documents by singling out Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an example of a world leader who believes the publications will aid global diplomacy.

"We can see the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu coming out with a very interesting statement," Assange told Time Magazine, “that leaders should speak in public like they do in private whenever they can. He believes that the result of this publication, which makes the sentiments of many privately held beliefs public, will lead to some kind of increase in the peace process in the Middle East and particularly in relation to Iran."

Conspiracy theorists abound the world over, and one shouldn’t be surprised at anything that emanates from people who still believe that the notorious forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, reveals a world-wide Jewish plot to seize control of the world. Nevertheless, it is pretty astounding to learn that a senior Islamist official can announce with a straight face that the blame for the release of the WikiLeaks documents must be laid at the door of Israel, the universal scapegoat. Addressing reporters on 1 December, Huseyin Celik, deputy leader of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP party, hinted that Israel engineered the leak of the quarter of a million US diplomatic cables as a plot to pressure the Turkish government.

“One has to look at which countries are pleased with these," Celik was quoted as saying. "Israel is very pleased. Israel has been making statements for days, even before the release of these documents. Documents were released and they immediately said, ‘Israel will not suffer from this.’ How did they know that?”

The earliest revelation in the batch of cables so far released concerns the attitude of the Irish government to Israel following the second Lebanon conflict. A diplomatic cable sent from the US embassy in Ireland reveals that "the Irish Government has informally begun to place constraints on US military transits" at Shannon Airport. It seems that the Irish government, attempting to prevent weapons from reaching Israel through Shannon Airport, started requiring that any military equipment passing through the country required "prior notification" and "exemption waivers."

The Irish Transport Department notice followed an oral, but definitive, decision by Eire’s Department of Foreign Affairs during the Lebanon conflict forbidding US military transits carrying munitions to Israel. "A policy," the document reads, “that the DFA did not convey to the US embassy before informing the media."

The cable explains that this policy is due to the fact that "segments of the Irish public see the airport as a symbol of Irish complicity in perceived US wrongdoing in the Middle East."

If we move forward to February 2009, another leaked US cable shows that Israeli prime minister Netanyahu supported the notion of land swaps with the Palestinians. An explanatory statement issued on 1 December 2010 by his Bureau said that Netanyahu meant only that he was willing to accept territorial compromises within the framework of a future peace deal. "That was Netanyahu's open policy,” said the statement, “that is his policy today and in the aforementioned meeting in February 2009, he did not voice any other position. Any other interpretation is incorrect and definitely does not represent the prime minister's position."

In the 26 February 2009 cable, written two weeks after the Israeli leader was elected, Netanyahu expressed support for the concept of land swaps and said that he did not want to govern the West Bank and Gaza, but rather to stop attacks being launched from there.

Israel and Pakistan do not share official diplomatic ties, although it is not unusual for the two countries to share intelligence on sensitive issues such as global terrorism. If we move forward to October 2009, we learn the perhaps surprising fact from one of the leaked cables that Pakistan shared intelligence information with Israel regarding possible terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli sites in India. According to the document dated 7 October 2009, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, told former US Ambassador Anne Patterson that he had conveyed to Israel intelligence on potential terror attacks in India. He told her that he had travelled to Oman and Iran to investigate information he received from the US about possible pending attacks in India.

"Pasha asked Ambassador to convey to Washington,” read the cable, “that he had followed up on threat information that an attack would be launched against India between September-November. He had been in direct touch with the Israelis on possible threats against Israeli targets in India."

Despite this cooperation on the intelligence front, Israeli officials, such as Mossad chief Meir Dagan, were quoted in other documents published by WikiLeaks expressing grave concern about the stability of the Pakistani government and the security surrounding Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.

The WikiLeaks exposé of the inner workings of American diplomacy continued with revelations that in November 2009, two weeks before Israel decided on a settlement construction freeze, Berlin was urging the US to impose such a freeze on Israel. The telegram shows that German National Security Adviser Christoph Heusgen met with US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and with US Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy on 10 November 2009 to suggest that the United States threaten prime minister Netanyahu with withdrawing its support for blocking a vote on the Goldstone Report [on Israel's attack on Hamas in Gaza] at the United Nations Security Council, if he did not agree to a building moratorium.

Heusgen is quoted in the telegram as saying that Germany believes that Netanyahu needed "to do more" to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. "He suggested pressuring Netanyahu by linking favorable United Nations Security Council (UNSC) treatment of the Goldstone Report to Israel committing to a complete stop in settlement activity."

The American officials were surprised by the proposal and said that such linkage would be counterproductive "but agreed that it was worth pointing out to the Israelis that their policy on settlements was making it difficult for their friends to hold the line in the UNSC." At the time, Arab and Muslim countries, led by Turkey and Libya, were stepping up pressure to hold discussions on the Goldstone Report at the Security Council. The US administration managed to block the initiative and avoided an anti-Israeli vote.

A final surprise revelation – for the moment – is that in the latest round of WikiLeaks documents the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has said that Israel cannot be blamed for mistrusting Arabs, and that the Jewish state deserves credit for seeking peace in light of the threat posed by Hamas and Hezbollah. The Qatari leader was reported to have made the remarks during a meeting with US Senator John Kerry on 23 February 2010.

"When you consider that many in the region perceive that Hezbollah drove Israel out of Lebanon and Hamas kicked them out of the small piece of land called Gaza, it is actually surprising that the Israelis still want peace. The region, however, is still far away from peace," said the Emir.
Al-Thani told Kerry that the time was right for an Israeli-Arab peace deal, and in his opinion the best way to achieve this was to reopen negotiations with Syria using Turkey as a mediator. "The Syrian Government can help Arab extremists make tough choices, but only if the US, whose involvement is essential, demonstrates to Syria early on a willingness to address the return of the Golan Heights and supports Turkey's mediation efforts between Israel and Syria." the classified cable said.

Qatar's ties with Israel were broken off in early 2009 after Operation Cast Lead, but the document revealed that efforts were being made to mend relations, and Qatar had invited Israel’s Foreign Ministry Middle East Head, Yaakov Hadas, to Doha to discuss renewing ties.

To the general public the leaked diplomatic papers so far published cast an unusual and revealing light on how the diplomatic world really operates, and the sometimes yawning gap between what governments and diplomats say in public, and what they really believe. Embarrassing to the US and to individuals they undoubtedly are, but since all governments and all diplomats play the same game, they are unlikely to affect the course of events to any significant degree.

Of course, there may yet be a quite unexpected revelation lurking among the tens of thousands of papers not so far made public. We must wait and see.