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.”

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