The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘EU

US-Israeli relations hit 20 year low. Crisis?

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A Palestinian protester runs with a burning tyre during clashes with Israeli police. Image Credit: AP/Gulf News

It seems the fiasco of the 1600 slaps received by Joe Biden has escalated somewhat, newspapers are now calling it a ‘crisis’. The big piece of news came when details of a telephone conversation between Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu came to light.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described the nearly 45-minute phone conversation in unusually undiplomatic terms, signaling that the close allies are facing their deepest crisis in two decades.

Clinton called Netanyahu “to make clear the United States considered the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president’s trip,” Crowley said. Clinton, he said, emphasized that “this action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America’s interests.” [WaPo]

Strong words perhaps, but it remains to be seen how the relationship and the supposed damage that has occurred to it will unfold. Israel’s response so far has been to order an enquiry into the matter, which will probably turn into the usual political obfuscation of the truth. I’m not entirely sure what this enquiry is even supposed to ascertain. According to Khaleej Times:

“The prime minister has decided to create a committee bringing together ministry directors to examine what happened during vice-president Biden’s visit and lay down rules to ensure such incidents are not repeated in future,” a government spokesman said.

But it’s clear what happened. An ill-advised announcement about settlement expansion plans in East Jerusalem was made at an inopportune time, showing more signs of arrogance in the Israeli government’s approach to peace. This is nothing new. As for, ‘rules’, what possible rules can be laid down? Something like, let’s make controversial announcements at more opportune times when we’re less on the international diplomatic radar? What’s the point of the exercise?

The latest is the following from Haaretz:

Instead of accepting Netanyahu’s partial apology and letting bygones be bygones, Obama issued a stern warning to the Israeli prime minister and is now demanding that he take “specific actions” to show he is “committed” to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to the peace process itself.

Netanyahu is still governing a fragile and cumbersome coalition which includes a good number of prominent right-wingers who are against any negotiation and any compromise over East Jerusalem (some over the West Bank altogether). Where, up until this point, Bibi has ridden the trend of defiance against Washington and reaped its domestic political benefits, with this added pressure to actually maintain the diplomatic relationship and the ball now firmly in his court, what happens next remains to be seen.

An editorial in Haaretz:

There is one reason for the crisis: Netanyahu’s persistence in continuing construction in East Jerusalem, in placing Jews in Arab neighborhoods and evicting Palestinians from their homes in the city. This is not a matter of timing but substance. Despite repeated warnings and bitter experiences, he stokes the flames over the conflict’s most sensitive issue and is bound to get himself in trouble. Netanyahu has made it clear by his actions that American support for Israel, especially essential now in light of the Iranian threat, is less important to him than the chance to put another few Jews in the Sheikh Jarrah or Ramat Shlomo neighborhoods. Even if Netanyahu’s adversaries in the U.S. administration have exploited his misstep to push him into a corner, as his “associates” will certainly argue, a statesman as experienced as he should have been especially careful.

There was news today that the statesman placed a few calls to Europe, namely Merkel and Berlusconi, telling them that Israel has no plans to “accelerate” the pace of settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Bibi is probably trying to cut his losses and limit the fallout from the 1600 slaps after the Quartert (The US, Russia, the EU and the UN) also condemned the settlement announcement. It should be noted that, in all public statements to this date (including the announcement of the enquiry), Bibi has expressed vehement condemnation… but only at the timing of the announcement, rather than the announcement itself. This is of course understandable, Bibi still holds the ideological position of support for housing expansion in East Jerusalem, but I wonder if he thinks vehement condemnation of timing will be enough to pull the wool over people’s eyes.

Speaking of his ideological position, Aluf Benn in Haaretz seems to think that the shit has hit the fan, so to speak, for Netanyahu who “has reached the moment of truth, where he must choose between his ideological beliefs and political cooperation with the right on one hand, and his need for American support on the other.” Benn rightly points out that Obama has been fearful of exerting too much pressure and causing the fragile coalition to collapse, creating an volatile and unpredictable power vacuum. Better the devil you know? We soon shall see.

I’m predicting some sort of diplomatic overture, a few public statements about peace and some efforts to restart peace negotiations. Netanyahu probably knows that some well-mannered stalling is now his safest route but I’m sure he has on intention of actually taking any real action. He still can’t afford to rock the boat in the Knesset, even if he wanted to. The Obama administration, while mindful of being treated like a doormat and losing face in the eyes of the international community, is also mindful of its own domestic problems over health care and wars and its need to get reelected. It can’t afford a total public break with Israel right now. The name of the game right now is not ‘actions’, at least not the sort we expect, it’s face saving and politics.

In other ‘action’-related Israeli news, Israel has put the West Bank on lockdown and restricted access to the Al Aqsa mosque after increased clashes with troops in response to the East Jerusalem announcement and the usual frustrations with living under occupation. UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan has said that Arabs won’t continue to support Middle East peace talks until Israel halts colony expansion, putting further skids on the peace process which now appears completely dead in the water.

The EU Resolution on East Jerusalem

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The Wailing Wall and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem | Image Credit: PoliticalTheatrics.net

The EU has taken a stand, of sorts, on Jerusalem, stating that it needs to be shared between Israel and Palestine and that it must be the joint-capital of both states:

“If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states,” EU foreign ministers agreed in a statement released on Tuesday, diplomats said.

Antony Loewenstein sorta kinda assumed they were referring to East Jerusalem, but The Majlis points out that it was not mentioned and that this means something:

That was Israel’s main concern: There was a lot of fear that the EU would demand the 1967 borders be locked in place. If those borders were fixed, then major Jewish settlements like Gilo would become part of a future Palestinian state — an unacceptable outcome for the Israeli government. The original policy document, drafted by Sweden, made just that demand, but it was watered down in last-minute discussions this morning.

To be fair, the wording of the original statement was pretty rigid:

“The EU will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem,” said the [original]  EU ministerial draft. [Haaretz]

I don’t think it necessarily warrants some of the Israeli rhetoric though, like comparing Sweden’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace to IKEA furniture, as one official said:

“The peace process in the Middle East is not like IKEA furniture,” one official said, making a reference to the do-it-yourself Swedish furniture chain. “It takes more than a screw and a hammer, it takes a true understanding of the constraints and sensitivities of both sides, and in that Sweden failed miserably.” [FP]

FP makes a good point on this:

Please. The original draft praises both Israel’s settlement freeze and U.S. mediation efforts. You can debate whether or not it’s productive for Sweden to be issuing proclamations on where the Palestinian border should be drawn, but in the end, these declarations have only about as much weight as the parties involved choose to give them. Which, judging from the righteous outrage out of Avigdor Lieberman’s shop, seems to be quite a lot. This sort of thing might play well to Lieberman’s political base, but internationally it just gives the EU’s East Jerusalem critique way more publicity than it would have had before.

The Swedes hold the EU rotating presidency at the moment, and the EU is an entity that people listen to, it’s not one of the unfortunately irrelevant minor countries of the UN General Assembly. If Israel chooses to respond to Swedish declarations in this manner, it just gives them more prominence and ensures that more people listen. While the EU obviously doesn’t have the same sort of international clout as the US, it’s definitely not irrelevant and the Israelis are only making it more relevant, particularly in the international press.

Interestingly, Haaretz also calls the claims over Jerusalem “the most intractable issue” in the conflict which to me seems a bit of an exaggeration. I’m pretty sure right of return, overall borders and demilitarisation of the Palestinian state are also pretty important issues. Oh and, Gaza/Hamas. I don’t think Israel’s going to let up on that one without a fight.

The Israelis have reacted in typical fashion to the resolution, ignoring the content of it itself and accusing it of not being productive for the ‘peace process’ (I’m starting to forget what that is meant to refer to) and calling “the Palestinian refusal to return to the negotiating table” the main factor halting peace negotiations at the moment. The settlement freeze notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure there are bigger factors than this one. Like maybe, Abu Mazen’s growing irrelevance? The US State Department has toed the line and, in not so many words, told the EU to stay out of it.

Meanwhile, Israel is attempting to further isolate Gaza by imposing an unofficial block on officials entering the territory. It’s run by terrorists y’all! Why would you want to go there? Go to Egypt instead, it’s nicer!

In other news:

- Check out the interview/eyewitness account of Cast Lead over at PoliticalTheatrics

- Iraq elections have been shifted to March 7th

- Lady Gaga met the Queen of England. ZOMG!

Irani & Israeli representatives discuss Nuclear Weapons

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“]”]Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pictured in the Natanz plant [Photo credit: AP]According to several eyewitness accounts and confirmed on the Israeli side, Iran & Israel had a rare face-to-face meeting at diplomatic level, at an Australia-brokered (K-Rudd Win!) conference in Cairo last month. News broke as an Egyptian official who witnessed it said said that Israel had been represented by former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami and Iran by its envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh.

“During the first session Ben Ami and Soltanieh spoke,” he said, asking not to be named.
“We had round-table discussions … then there were cross-table discussions. It was rather polemical, with accusations.

“Soltanieh said the Iranians do not have a (nuclear) bomb and do not want the bomb but the Israelis said that was not true,” the official said, adding that he did not know if the Israelis and Iranians had also met bilaterally on the sidelines.

“This is not the first time (Israelis and Iranians have had contact) but I believe this is the first time they are present at this level of representation,” he said.

In one exchange, Mr Soltanieh asked Mr Zafary-Odiz: “Do you or do you not have nuclear weapons,” Haaretz said, citing unidentified participants in the meeting. The Israeli smiled but did not respond, the newspaper said.

Mr Soltanieh insisted Tehran did not hate Jews, although it opposed Zionism, the newspaper said. [The Australian]

So, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the first time since the Revolution that Iran & Israel have had talks at this level, how very interesting. Seems Iran is under pressure indeed. There has also been a lot of reporting about the recent talks between Iran, the international community and the IAEA. There are rumours flying around that an agreement with the Obama Administration over a resumption of diplomatic ties and an easing of sanctions will be reached, along with a presumable curtailing of the nuclear programme. While details are still fuzzy as they are being ironed out, I will ask you to consider the following things:

1. Pressure on the Iranian Government:

Since the disputed election in June, there has been mounting domestic pressure, along with mounting international pressure, on the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad government. An agreement that saves face for Iran and eases sanctions would presumably be a major coup and help to add legitimacy for the pair. I believe commentators are underestimating just how complicated the ‘saving face’ element is going to be, considering how steadfast the rhetoric from Ahmadinejad has been about not giving an inch to the international community over Iran’s right to nuclear power and uranium enrichment. Moreover, if the Iranian public considers the development of nuclear weapons forthcoming, as much of the international community does, then an agreement not to do so would mean allowing Israel to remain the Middle East’s only nuclear power. Nevertheless, if this is ironed out, it could mean a shoring up of the Government and a severe blow to hopes of internal regime change still presumably carried by Washington. Though, just how realistic these hopes were to start with is, of course, also questionable.

2. How much trust can be put into this government

One would expect that, in the absence of rigorous and regular inspections, Iran could still continue to make progress on uranium enrichment, albeit at a slower pace. Considering that the current climate of relations between Iran and the international community is not exactly one of goodwill, and considering the regime’s burgeoning influence internationally (in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan for example), it wouldn’t take much to surmise a level of deceit in any agreement Iran makes to actually halt uranium enrichment.

3. What about an Israeli first strike?

While Iranian deceit can be expected, Israel would have its hands tied. Again, I suggest that chances of an Israeli strike on Iran have been exaggerated. A strike would require agreement from the Obama Administration, and considering how much pressure Obama is under over Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, such an agreement would be very unlikely. Equally, I have a feeling Obama is looking for an excuse for real leverage over Israel on the Palestinian question and the question of settlements. Frustrated already by stonewalling from Netanyahu, Israel would not want to anger its superpower backer any further by striking unilaterally. Also, considering the current unresolved controversy over the Goldstone Report, Israel is not exactly in unquestionable good graces with the international community. A unilateral strike on Iran, even without an agreement over nuclear capabilities, would always be a very risky venture for Israel given the shakiness of its current reputation.

Having said this, Israel is, at least publicly, not happy about this detail. Ehud Barak slammed the deal, and a high-level representative of the EU has stated in pretty strong words (snarky, even) that Israel has no part in these negotiations:

A senior European Union official told Israeli officials this week that Israel is not privy to the details of the exchanges between Iran and the Western countries regarding its nuclear program. “You do not understand the extent to which you are not in the picture. You do not know how much you do not know and what is happening in Iran,” he said.

Accordingly, a number of senior Israeli officials backed the European official’s statements by saying that the release of the draft of an agreement with Iran caught Israel by surprise. [Haaretz]

Ouch!

So all those things considered, I think an agreement is forthcoming and it will probably involve the shipping of nuclear fuel to France via Russia for enrichment, and then its return to Iran in the form of fuel rods. Let’s wait for the details and see what happens, a final deal is expected some time Friday.

Written by alexlobov

October 23, 2009 at 5:30 pm

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