Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Netanyahu’
This piece was originally published at NOW!Lebanon, titled “Lebanon in the event of an Iran strike“
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of discussion in US foreign policy circles about the potential for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Much of this discussion has been focused around Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy and alarmist cover story for The Atlantic Magazine about the likelihood of such a strike happening within the next 12 months. However, no discussion of an Israeli, or indeed American, strike on Iran can ignore the unavoidable involvement of Lebanon, and the subsequent impact on the country.
Goldberg interviewed around “forty current and past Israeli decision-makers” as background for his piece, but many of them remain anonymous, and those who are named appear to contribute little different to what we already knew: Israel considers Iran an “existential threat” and is very worried, and all options are always on the table, some of them more likely than others. Thus, the motivation of Goldberg’s sources must be better understood. Why would Israeli decision makers be telling Jeffrey Goldberg that there’s a good chance of an Israeli strike on Iran? Because they understand Goldberg’s influence in Washington, and they want to mainstream the idea of not only an Israeli strike, but a potentially pre-emptive one from the US. This story has already had a broad ripple effect in the political media ecosystem, having been expanded into a fully-fledged debate on The Atlantic website and picked up by other outlets and blogs alike. This process helps an idea gain a legitimacy it didn’t have before the original big story dropped.
While, of course, such a story alone cannot be blamed for a military strike, in many ways, this process is reminiscent of similar discussions in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war, during which Jeffrey Goldberg played a remarkably similar role. In 2010, the potentially disastrous consequences of such a strike by the US, many of which would also eventuate in the case of an Israeli one, cannot be easily dismissed, and some are even mentioned by Goldberg himself: a closing of the Straits of Hormuz; a massive spike in the price of oil, exacerbating the global recession; destabilisation of the Gulf region; deadly reprisals from Iranian-sponsored terrorist outfits abroad; a nail in the coffin for the Iranian “Green Movement;” and a shoring up of sympathy for Iran’s regime internationally. Most alarmingly, Iran’s actual pursuit of nuclear-weapons capacity, both the details and progress of it, are still in doubt. A strike would, much as it did with Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, impel Iran’s regime to redouble its efforts to reach such a capacity.
The consequences of a strike on Iran for the fragile détente between Israel and Hezbollah are unpredictable at best and a powder keg at worst. “Israel or the United States cannot just bomb Iran and (expect) things to continue normally,” Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy leader, told Reuters in March. “Any attack on Iran could ignite the whole region and the assailant will pay a heavy price whether it’s Israel or the United States.”
Cross-border rocket reprisals from Hamas and Hezbollah are widely expected in the case of a strike on Iran, but the extent of the potential conflict cannot be precisely anticipated. Many analysts already believe that the next war between Israel and Hezbollah is a matter of when, not if, and there are plenty of potential excuses for war already. One major cause for concern is the exploration of Tamarand Leviathan,two recently-discovered gas fields that could, as estimated by the US partner in exploration Noble Energy, contain up to 30 trillion cubic feet of gas. The maritime boundary between Israel and Lebanon is not well defined, and Beirut has also taken steps to begin off-shore exploration. Natural resources aside, Hezbollah’s steady rearmament since 2006 and Israel’s continued manned overflights over Lebanese territory, both in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, are reason enough for a major conflict to be sparked by either side.
Concerning Hezbollah’s rearmament, as noted by Daniel Kurtzer in his July report for the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, the party has improved both the quantity and quality of its weaponry since 2006, although it is unclear exactly by how much. Since Gabi Ashkenazi’s ascendancy to IDF chief of staff, Israel has also maintained that it is far more prepared today to fight a war with Hezbollah than in previous years. As repeatedly noted in Kurtzer’s report, Israel has not only levelled at Hezbollah the as-yet-unproven charge of acquiring Scud missiles from Syria, but also prepared for it, as well as the strategic threat from Syrian M-600 rockets or even advanced surface-to-air missiles, such as the S-300, which Israel considers a “red line.”
What this indicates is that Israel takes the threat from Hezbollah very seriously, and would be keeping this threat in mind in accompaniment to any potential strike on Iran.
If Goldberg’s story, particularly its many statements from Israeli officials, is to be viewed largely as an Israeli PR exercise, then Israel probably wishes to allow time for the off chance that the Obama administration will conduct a US strike on Iran, something Israel almost certainly prefers. The administration is in no hurry. As reported in the New York Times last week, administration officials believe that there is roughly a year before Iran achieves “breakout” nuclear capacity, or the time it would take to convert low-enriched uranium into weapons-grade. Iran’s distance from real nuclear-weapons capacity, and Israel’s current wariness of an immediate military conflict with Hezbollah indicate that a strike would likely occur toward the end of Goldberg’s proposed 12-month window, if at all.
No mistake should be made about the consequences for Lebanon. Benjamin Netanyahu has already made it clear that, as a result of Hezbollah’s inclusion in Lebanon’s cabinet, the whole country would be held responsible for attacks on Israel. This is an apparent extension of Israel’s supposed “Dahiyeh Doctrine” to cover not only southern Lebanon but the country’s institutions and infrastructure on a national level, bringing with it alarming possibilities stemming from Israel’s destruction of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
Obama does not have the stomach for the initiation of another major conflict, but only time will tell whether Israel is prepared to put aside concerns of a complicated entanglement with Hezbollah, along with the other host of issues mentioned above, and actually execute a strike on Iran unilaterally. The possibility for unmitigated disaster is great, and hopefully cooler heads will prevail.
We’ve heard that the appeal has been made in private before but, over the weekend, Mahmoud Abbas publicly requested that President Obama impose a solution to the Middle East conflict. This implies, of course, that he’ll ‘impose’ a Palestinian state on the Israeli people, and ‘impose’ concessions on behalf of the Palestinians also. While I can appreciate Abu Mazen’s frustrations, even he must understand this is impossible and stating it is also not doing Obama any favours.
The obvious implication of Abu Mazen having the boldness to make such a request is that he believes Obama is firmly on ‘his side’. In an increasingly polar, divided and confrontational political arena, this is more bad press for the President as it could further erode his base of support within Israel and the Jewish community as well as giving tea party activists and the like another bone to chew on. I don’t see any political benefit for Abu Mazen here either. What political ends could it possibly serve for him to once again confirm his total political impotence? Begging the President of the US to do the job for him against the Israelis does not build confidence in a leader.
No, I see this as a statement made purely out of desperation. Perhaps Abbas really thought that he would be the one to bring a Palestinian state? Perhaps he really thought he could finally step out of Arafat’s shadow and be the father of a new Palestine, a Palestinian Ben Gurion or something. But even Abbas must think twice, a state will not be achieved by begging. Politics respects the strong, not the weak.
Let’s take a quick look at the frustrating political stalemate that has brought this desperate situation about.
Of the main players:
- Abbas is looking inreasingly weak, impotent and useless. He has completely lost Gaza, there have been plenty of allegations about corruption and very few people among his own constitutents have any respect for him or hope under his leadership. He has been treated like a pawn by the Israelis time and time again, eclipsed even by Salam Fayyad’s proclamations of Palestinian statehood being just around the corner.
- Obama is presiding over an increasingly bitter and divided country. The watered-down health care reform bill that he passed may have been lauded in the papers as monumental but drew a huge toll in blood & sweat from the Democratic party and himself. His first term has been far from easy. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are still looking like losing battles, Israel-Palestine is spiralling out of control, his power base on the left thinks that he hasn’t gone far enough whereas the right is getting more and more hostile as the days wear on.
- Netanyahu, what can we say about poor old Bibi. It’s a testament to the man’s political canniness that he has been able to hold his shaky coalition together for this long. The inordinate amount of power held by the far right in the Israeli Knesset has made it almost impossible for Netanyahu to make any real progress in any direction when it comes to Palestine. What the man actually wants to do is no longer even relevant, he is basically a middleman. Bibi is trying to strike a balance between increasing pressure from the international community in the wake of Cast Lead and from a far less friendly President in the White House on one side, and a powerful far right not willing to make any concessions on the other.
But more on Netanyahu. This piece from Hagai Segal for YNet further highlights the delicacy of the tight-rope that Bibi is walking. Segal highlights what we already knew, there is no actual construction going on in East Jerusalem, probably a part of the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ Bibi is said to have struck with Obama. Bombastic announcements of settlement expansion were made and we assumed they were to curry favour with the right, but is the right so stupid as to accept these announcements without bricks and mortar? Is the Israeli public going to keep buying the line that Bibi is running rings around Obama? Or is something going to give somewhere?
Meanwhile, Abu Mazen is still refusing to enter negotiations with Israel until they agree to a total settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. So while the settlement announcements served to hold the right-wing at bay for a time and the lack of construction is holding Obama at bay, Abu Mazen is refusing to accept it. The only political points Bibi can score at the moment is that the Palestinians are being belligerent about refusing to enter peace talks. He can’t even point out the lack of construction in East Jerusalem as a concession because it’s meant to be one that flies under the radar.
Where to from here?
The AFP reports that Abbas has been invited to Washington for direct talks with Obama. Ha’aretz is reporting that the stalled indirect ‘proximity’ talks are to start no later than mid-May, citing the perennial deus ex machina, unnamed officials. I’m inclined to believe this claim. I think Abbas is heading over to Washington for drilling. Obama is going to tell Abbas to back down on the request for a settlement freeze, to take heed of the lack of construction, to stop pushing Bibi because a collapsed coalition and a political vacuum in the Knesset would help no one (least of all Obama) and to enter ‘proximity’ talks.
The irony of the settlement situation is that, although settlement construction in East Jerusalem has stalled, none of the principal actors mentioned above can draw any political capital from it unless proximity talks begin. If proximity talks happen then that can be considered a limited victory for Obama & Mitchell, which is why they are presumably keen to see them start again in earnest.
Whether these talks will amount to anything is the million dollar question asked before every single round of talks, every single new ‘peace process’ or ‘road map’. I’m tempted to say no, but presumably Obama wants us to have ‘the audacity of hope’.
It’s been a Middle East fest for the Obama Administration today with several key pieces of news being discussed. An issue that’s dominated discussion over the past few days is the alleged transfer of scud missiles from Syria to Hizbullah in Lebanon, with Hillary Clinton fielding questions on it on Thursday. Israeli President Shimon Peres has accused Syria of sending Scuds to Hizbullah. Syria denies the charge and says Israel may be using the accusation as a pretext for a military strike. (Daily Star)
The National gives a succinct roundup of the latest phase in Syrian-Israeli games:
Syria wants the Golan Heights back, but Israel does not feel the necessity to make concessions to a weaker adversary. Israel wants Syria to break its ties to Iran, but Damascus will not abandon an alliance that gives it more influence. When the two countries have engaged in indirect talks, most recently under Turkish mediation, they have been interested in theatrics, not progress.
FP’s Blake Hounshell, in a controversially titled post, cannot understand why Syria would do something like this, given its position:
For all the figures you read in the press about the size of Syria’s military and its vast arsenal of tanks, the country is essentially a tin-pot dictatorship with little ability to project power beyond Lebanon, where for decades it has dominated its smaller neighbor’s domestic affairs.
That post drew the ire of a Syrian embassy spokesman in Washington that fired back:
How can the “dumbest country” outmaneuver the strongest country in the world, and its superpower, along with the numerous Western and other countries that followed in its footsteps and that tried to isolate it? How can the superpower, during its previous administration, work so diligently on isolating “the dumbest country”, yet end up being isolated itself (former Bush-official and current Obama-appointee, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman: “consequently, the United States, not Syria, seems to be isolated”; Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel in a 2008 op-ed: “our policy of non-engagement has isolated us more than the Syrians.”)? how can the “dumbest country” face all these economic sanctions imposed by the superpower, while simultaneously achieving some of the highest economic growth figures in the region and being considered one of the top ‘frontier markets’?
It seems this Scud fiasco is provoking a broader discussion about Syria’s position in the region and the future of Syrian-Israeli talks as well as Obama’s policy of engagement.
UPDATE: There is growing doubt about whether this transfer actually took place and, it seems, certain US officials at least, agree that Syria is usually not a dumb country:
“We don’t think Scuds of any shape or size have been moved to Lebanon,” one of the officials said.
“The Syrians aren’t always known for making the right political calculations. But in this case, surely they realize that transferring this kind of weapons system to Hezbollah — and especially to Hezbollah in Lebanon — could lead to serious consequences,” the official added. [Khaleej Times]
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has rejected President Obama’s request to halt settlement construction in East Jerusalem:
The aides said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his government’s position to Obama over the weekend, ahead of the arrival Thursday of the US president’s special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the contact between the two leaders was private.
The State Department responded via spokesman Philip Crowley who told reporters that the long-standing Israeli position on settlement in East Jerusalem is understood but that the status quo cannot last. There has also been talk of a “gentleman’s agreement” between Obama and Netanyahu whereby Israel won’t publicly announce a freeze in East Jerusalem so as not to lose face but will not announce any new settlement building either. This, to me, at least seems the most likely case. While it’s obvious that Netanyahu cannot afford to to be seen as if he is giving in on this issue so as to preserve his coalition in Israel, neither would he want to rock the boat further by announcing more settlements, considering the shit-storm the last announcement caused.
The other piece of US-MidEast news today has been further talk of renewed Iran sanctions in May. Read the full story here.
It’s been a hefty week of diplomatic news for Israel. Apart from the news of the expulsion of a UK diplomat and the possibility of Australia following suit, there has also been settlement news, Obama love-hate news, potential intifada news and even Osama comes back from the dead to weigh in with his two cents, what fun.
On the settlement/Obama front there’s been so much random news that I don’t even know where exactly to start digging in all this muck. Let’s start with the fact that Israel announced another 20 settlement units in East Jerusalem, once again impeccably timed with Netanyahu’s visit to the US. Paltry, you might say, nothing compared to announcing 1,600 to welcome Joe Biden with, but still, fairly similar. Sure 1,600 is a bigger number than 20 and Netanyahu is visiting the US not welcoming Biden, but in principle, it’s essentially the same damn thing. Mondoweiss rightfully asks the question, why isn’t Obama outraged?
Moreover, constructing the new 20 units is going to involve demolishing a historic building, the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah:
The Shepherd Hotel, close to the British consulate, was once a headquarters for Haj Amin al-Husseini, the former Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem. After 1967, Israel deemed it absentee property. It was then bought, reportedly for $1m, in 1985 by Irving Moskowitz, a Jewish American millionaire who funds settlements.
Elisha Peleg, a Jerusalem city councillor, said the Shepherd Hotel building permit was a “technical step” and that more construction would follow there and in other Palestinian areas of the city. “We will continue to build all over Jerusalem, in Sheikh Jarrah and Ras al-Amud as well,” he said. [Guardian]
So what of the talks between Bibi and Obama? Reportedly, Bibi got freaked by the supposed crisis happening in US-Israeli relations, cancelled a bunch of appointments and flew to Washington quick-smart. A media blackout was imposed during the meeting, an unusual step and a possible indicator of the frosty atmosphere. This was no ‘beer summit’.
The White House spokesman suggested that talks were “honest and straight forward” and early reports from Israel suggested that Netanyahu was claiming ‘progress’ made during the meeting but a recent report from the Sydney Morning Herald suggests otherwise. Apparently, according to leaked documents, Bibi was ‘humiliated’.
According to leaked accounts reported in the Israeli media, Mr Obama humiliated Mr Netanyahu by leaving the meeting early.
”I’m going to the residential wing to have dinner with Michelle and the girls,” Mr Obama reportedly said, adding that Mr Netanyahu should consult his aides about goodwill gestures Israel was prepared to make towards the Palestinians before renewed peace talks. ”’I’m still around,” he said. ”Let me know if there is anything new.”
When the President returned, Mr Netanyahu is said to have made a counter-offer which Mr Obama did not accept. [SMH]
I’d snub Bibi for dinner with Michelle and the girls too. After all, they are considerably more attractive than that stern-faced gargoyle pictured above.
For an alternative and very well-reasoned take on how the talks should have gone, Avi Issacharoff for Ha’aretz:
How could Netanyahu have safeguarded the construction in East Jerusalem? By offering something in return. Past Israeli governments have indicated their intent to build in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, but they simultaneously gave the U.S. a political strategy to present to the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s government is backtracking on all fronts and offering nothing to the Americans or the Palestinians.
More on the Shepherd Hotel demolition, also from the Guardian, an important thing to consider:
“What it means politically is that it is one very important project that can torpedo the peace talks,” said Hagit Ofran, a settlement expert at the Israeli group Peace Now. “It is in the hands of the settlers to decide when to bring the bulldozers … It is a very dangerous step.”
This is a salient point. If the settlers control the bulldozers then the settlers have a very provocative tool at their disposal, it’s like allowing a bunch of potentially crazy wingnuts to have control over the red button that starts a war. How’s that Palestinian powder keg coming along?
Well not great, Israel is still planning to enlarge the Jewish prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. I’ll let Electronic Intifada explain this one:
The site eyed by Israeli officials is located at the Mughrabi Gate, an entrance to the mosque compound known as the Haram al-Sharif, the most sensitive site in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Inside are al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-topped Dome of the Rock.
Earlier encroachments by Israel on Islamic authority at the site have triggered clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians. A heavily armed visit to the compound by Ariel Sharon in 2000, shortly before he became prime minister, to declare Israeli rights there sparked the second intifada.
There’s also the contentious killing of four Palestinian teenagers at the hands of the IDF that has sparked protests in the Occupied Territories and, supposedly, an Israeli investigation into the matter. All of this sounds very very intifada-like.
Also, Ban Ki Moon is going to ask the Arabs to go back to peace talks, yeah… that’ll work. Sometimes the man’s, or rather the position’s, impotence astounds me. Jordan’s King Abdullah thinks Israel is playing with fire. Bashar al Assad has no faith in Israel. Oh and there’s also that other guy, he’s not happy either. And if anyone is still wondering why people are angry about Gaza, here’s yet another story. Two soldiers are being tried in an Israeli military tribunal (any guesses as to how it will turn out) for using a 9 year old boy as a minesweeper… classy.
On a high profile visit to Israel to begin ‘proximity talks’ or rather, indirect talks that involve shuttling between Tel Aviv and Ramallah, Joe Biden has been met with closed fists instead of open arms. We heard about the resumption of construction on 112 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem on Monday. Now comes the announcement from Eli Yishai, leader of the right-wing Shas Party, who has made Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem one of his central clauses, that Israel will be constructing 1600 new homes in East Jerusalem’s “ultra-Orthodox” Ramot Shlomo district. To add insult to belligerence, Danny Danon, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, said the following to WaPo: “While we welcome Vice President Biden, a longtime friend and supporter of Israel, we see it as nothing short of an insult that President Obama himself is not coming.”
So uh, great start to the vaunted four months of indirect peace talks announced by George Mitchell on Monday. Incidentally, speaking of this latest round of peace talks, Paul Woodward hits the nail on the head:
That was 2006. Now in 2010 the Israelis don’t even need to inconvenience themselves by sitting in the same room as the Palestinians, even though Netanyahu would be happy to be granted the photo-op of face-to-face talks — talks that he can be confident will be fruitless. [Mondoweiss]
And that was before the 1,600 slaps. So, the question begs… why? Why insult Joe Biden when the Obama Administration just seemed to be (and I have no idea why, really) trying to cosy up to the Israeli electorate by pushing a softer line (The Majlis called it a ‘velvet glove’) on Israel? Haaretz goes some way to explaining:
The profit, for the hard right, is political. It mines an emotional vein along a relatively small but potent segment of the Israeli electorate, which holds that to insult Israel’s indispensible ally is to assert the Jewish state’s independence.
In their drive to expunge any trace of hitrapsut – groveling to the colonial master – there are those among the ostensible super-patriots of the right who revel in shots across the bow of the American ship of state.
Well it seems Netanyahu has been surprised yet again by one of these shots, again coming form a right-wing coalition partner. Though, undoubtedly, as with the humiliation of the Turkish ambassador, he’ll be able to put it behind him and even turn it to his advantage. Yet again, the David of Israel is standing up to the Goliath of its erstwhile US supporter, that dares to mildly chide the Israelis about their intransigence on settlement building and real peace negotiations.
Biden, incidentally, responded by condemning the announcement:
I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel. We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them. [The Majlis]
A solid statement but, yet again, it’s only a statement. Israel knows what it can get away with and, at the moment, it seems that it can get away with just about anything.
In Israel-related news, the media today had to make a decision over what was more relevant. Do we report on Hillary Clinton’s furious back-pedalling over her statements regarding the fairly irrelevant, and existent in name only, peace process? Or do we instead report on US Congress predictably landslide-voting to bury the Goldstone Report, the irrelevance of which seems to be growing by the day? Predictably, the media felt that a foreign policy gaffe by the Secretary of State was an opportunity too good to pass up, and happily plumped for the former. And why not? Didn’t anyone else think that Clinton falling all over herself to appease AIPAC was amusing? As in, depressingly amusing, but hey this is Israel-Palestine we’re talking about, it’s always going to be somewhat morbid amusement.
So Clinton says to Al-Jazeera in Morocco:
“I think, as you know, President [Barack] Obama clearly said he wanted to see an end to settlement activity,”
“That had never been requested prior to any negotiation entered into by any representative of either the Palestinians or the Israelis.”
After her trip to Morocco, Clinton flew to Cairo to deal with the aftermath of her gaffe committed in previous days, to talk to “Egyptian leaders” as the Star Tribune reports. VOA reports that she’s meeting Uncle Hosni.
The NZ Herald has the following to say:
Clinton’s comments in Jerusalem appeared to reflect a realisation within the Obama Administration that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Government will not accept a full-scale settlement freeze and that a partial halt may be the best lesser option. Her appeal seemed designed to make the Israeli position more palatable to the Palestinians and Arab states.
But the ever-present question begs. If the settlements are illegal, and if the Obama administration ‘unequivocally’ opposes them, then why can’t the Obama Administration put more pressure on the Netanyahu Government to halt them entirely. There has been precious little evidence of any real pressure on Netanyahu, in fact Bibi, and other pro-settlement folk, have been glowing with pride over his constant ‘victories’ over Obama. So why bother saying that you’re against something ‘unequivocally’ but do nothing tangible to actually stop it? Ah yes, well, that’s called empty rhetoric, ladies and gentlemen, and Obama’s Administration seems to be very good at it… until now when the rhetoric spills over into weird fawning, as Clinton’s statements the other day indicate. What Clinton terms ‘positive reinforcement’ to the rest of us looks like diplomatic genuflection.
As per the words of the Hillary, “We need to work together in a constructive spirit toward this shared goal of a comprehensive peace.” Indeed, the Netanyahu Government’s spirit has been very constructive – constructive of settlements in the Occupied West Bank, not sure how ‘comprehensive’ the peace is going to be though, unless the Palestinian residents of the West Bank are simply built over with cement.
Oh and about that Goldstone report? Yeah Congress voted 344-36 to bury that baby, something that Mondoweiss called “Pyongyang-style”. That linked post also contains a list of the “Nays” in case you’re American and want to write a letter to your local congressman congratulating him or her for possessing some modicum of cojones. I believe Gregg from The Majlis, who live-blogged the debate from Congress, pretty much sums up how the rest of us feel about this vote.
But it’s not all bad news, folks. Mondoweiss:
My sources tell me that the total of 36 No’s and 22 voting Present is actually a giant improvement over, say, the Lebanon votes that typically were in the 400 range, Yes-wise.