Why Israeli-Palestinian Talks Will Fail, Again

This article originally appeared at LobeLog

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the outset of a meeting focused on the Middle East peace process in Bethlehem, West Bank, on November 6, 2013. US Dept. of State/Public Domain

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the outset of a meeting focused on the Middle East peace process in Bethlehem, West Bank, on November 6, 2013. US Dept. of State/Public Domain

 

There is an odd sort of atmosphere today around the soon-to-fail Israel-Palestine talks. A dramatic gesture by the United States, presenting its own security plans to both Israel and the Palestinians, has engendered mostly yawns. Yet the events of recent days have clarified the likely results of these talks, despite the ongoing secrecy around them.

Secretary of State John Kerry has apparently proposed that Israel agree to abandon the Jordan Valley (constituting some 20% of the West Bank and situated in Area C, which falls under complete Israeli control under the current arrangement) in stages over an extended period of time and subject to the “good behavior” of the Palestinians. The current plan seems to be that Israeli forces would remain in the Jordan Valley for ten years while Palestinian forces are “trained.”

Not surprisingly, the Palestinians, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas disapprove of this idea. But they do so in lukewarm terms, not wanting to offend Kerry, with the hope that when the April deadline for the current round of talks rolls around that the Palestinian side will not, as it was in 2000, be portrayed as the party who refused peace. Still, as former US President Jimmy Carter once told me, a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley is unacceptable to the Palestinians. Indeed, it is impossible to say that an occupation has ended when the occupying army is still there. That should be obvious. Continue reading

In Congress, The Fight For The Future of US Foreign Policy

This article originally appeared at LobeLog. For further illustration of this issue, see my article from November 15 at Souciant.  Kerry and Bibi

There’s a showdown coming, and the outcome may determine how the US runs its foreign policy in the Middle East, at least for the next three years and perhaps much longer.

The issues at hand are both immediate and long-term, and both involve an awful lot of “daylight” between the positions of the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government in Israel. The very top of the Israeli government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and far-right “kingmaker,” Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Naftali Bennett, has launched a full-scale attack on the policies of Barack Obama. They have dispensed with the fiction that Israel is not a domestic US issue and have brought into the light of day the enormous influence they have in Congress. Continue reading

Israelis, Saudis Just Getting Started in Opposing U.S.-Iran Detente

This article originally appeared at LobeLog.

Bibi and Kerry

Bibi and Kerry

The trick to finding an agreement between the P5+1 world powers and Iran has become clear: keep Israel and Saudi Arabia out of the room. (But don’t expect them to be happy about it.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is touring the globe now with his message of doom about an impending Iranian nuclear weapon. “It will be tragic if (Iran) succeeds in avoiding the sanctions,” Netanyahu said in Rome on Tuesday.

That statement comes on the heels of his Meet the Press appearance where he said: “I think the pressure has to be maintained on Iran, even increased on Iran, until it actually stops the nuclear program, that is, dismantles it.” Continue reading

Netanyahu’s Threats Ring Hollow Amid Iranian Proposals

In most corners of the world, the news that a presentation by Iran at its meetings with the 6 world power P5+1 team in Geneva today was greeted warmly by their interlocutors aroused optimism and a hopeful feeling. Not so in Israel, where any hint of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic is viewed as an apocalyptic security threat.

“We heard a presentation this morning from Foreign Minister (Mohammed Javad) Zarif. It was very useful,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said. “For the first time, we had very detailed technical discussions, which carried on this afternoon. We will continue these discussions tomorrow.”

That is about as promising a beginning as one could hope for. Shortly after the presentation, though, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu evoked the threat of a pre-emptive strike on Iran. At an event marking forty years since the Yom Kippur War, Netanyahu the hawk was perhaps more radical than he has ever been.

The 1973 conflict between Israel, on one side, and Egypt and Syria on the other, taught Israel “not to underestimate the enemy, not to ignore the dangers and not to give up on preemptive strikes,” according to Netanyahu.

“Back than we paid the price of self-illusion,” he said. “We will not make this mistake again…There are cases when the thought about the international reaction to a preemptive strike is not equal to taking a strategic hit.”

According to Barak Ravid of Ha’aretz, “Netanyahu also pointed out that ‘peace is achieved through force,’ as exemplified by the fact that in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, Israel signed peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan.”

Netanyahu is willfully distorting history. In fact, the 1973 war demonstrates the foolishness of his current course of action. Israel had an opportunity, in 1971, to get the same deal with Egypt it would eventually strike at Camp David, but then-Prime Minister Golda Meir would not even consider it. Egypt decided to attack Israel as a result, intending not to destroy the Jewish state (in fact, their early and sustained military success in that war came as something of a surprise to the Egyptians) but to press the recalcitrant Israel into the very peace deal that came along a few years later. Jordan is completely irrelevant; that peace deal came over two decades later, and was the result of far different circumstances.

The saber-rattling plays well to Netanyahu’s right flank, which is wringing its hands right now less over the Iranian nuclear issue than over what they fear Netanyahu might be willing to bargain away to the Palestinians at the behest of the Americans. These fears are likely unfounded, but they are prominent in Netanyahu’s mind as he tries to cooperate with the United States without alienating the right wing that dominates his government.

But there is more to it than that. Netanyahu has made his name on anti-Iran ranting, and on raising the global alert level when it comes to Tehran. But he is aware that the status quo is not to the liking of Europe or the Obama administration. Obama wants to step back from the war posture his country has been in for the past years, and Iran has opened the door to a serious possibility of doing so.

But there is no reason to believe that the U.S. and E.U. are going to settle for anything less than clear verification of peaceful uses of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu surely knows this as well. No, this is about maintaining sanctions on Iran to prevent it from regaining its economic stability and enabling it to pursue its ambitions of a stronger position in the region. More to the point, Netanyahu is very concerned that any deal with Iran could lead to a number of possibilities he will find unpalatable: far greater concessions to the Palestinians than he wants to make, compromise of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal, or an increased Iranian role in ongoing crises in the region.

None of those prospects warms Bibi’s heart. But the matter is, for the moment, largely outside of his control. The recent experience of the U.S. citizenry overwhelmingly following their British cousins’ lead and rejecting intervention in Syria is not entirely indicative of what might happen if talks with Iran fail and fears of an Iranian nuclear device escalate again. But it certainly illustarted the far higher bar for military action that has been set in the United States.

Still, if a deal is struck with Iran, it is very likely that Netanyahu will appeal to his many friends in Congress to obstruct it. He may find that to be a very difficult road. Unless the deal can be presented convincingly to the U.S. public as a foolhardy one that will allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon covertly, it will be a very tough sell indeed. Obama and the E.U. are not likely to produce such a deal. Netanyahu knows this, and so he is raising the specter of an Israeli pre-emptive strike once again.

The problem with that threat is that, at least for the moment, it doesn’t seem very credible. Netanyahu can talk all he likes about Israel’s independence and freedom to act on its own. But, as Johnny Depp memorably said in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” Yes, Israel has the ability to get planes to Iran and strike some of their nuclear sites. They do not have the ability, however, to do so as effectively as the United States, and such an Israeli strike could only damage Iran’s nuclear program, not destroy it. The cost of such a venture is likely to be very high, and it could well damage Israel’s standing in Europe as well as cost it in a big way with Russia and, most especially, Muslim states. [At a forum sponsored by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) here Tuesday, former Saudi Amb. to the U.S. Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud repeated his previous warnings that an Israeli strike  would be “catastrophic” for the region and “completely within the purview of the personality of Netanyahu.” – jl.]

The fact is, without the United States, an Israeli strike is much less effective and far more dangerous for Israel. It would more likely cause a massive backlash from the powerful Israeli military than deter Iran in any way.

What this really sounds like is less of a threat and more like the wailing of a desperate man who sees his ambition to crush Iran’s regional influence crumbling under the weight of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s dreaded “charm offensive.” With the United States Congress wrapped up in its self-inflicted shutdown and the Obama administration striking the right pose of welcoming Iranian initiatives while maintaining its stance that sanctions won’t be lifted until material and verifiable steps to comply with UN resolutions have been taken, Netanyahu has few options. Despite Netanyahu’s best efforts, a verifiable non-nuclear-armed Iran could well be the result of the current talks. His angry threats only prove that he fears that far more than he fears an Iranian nuke.

Iran Hawks Gear Up

Not everyone shares the optimism surrounding the recent communication between Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani. From Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Monarchies and, of course, Washington, DC, voices of war are in a panic that tensions between the U.S. and Iran might be reduced by some means other than further devastation of the Islamic Republic.

The concern that Iran might emerge with a better relationship with the United States is quite vexing for the Gulf rulers and for Israel. For some years now, the drive to isolate Iran has focused almost entirely on the nuclear issue. In fact, regionally, much of the concern has been the ascendancy of Iran as a regional player more broadly, with revolutionary rhetoric that challenges the dominance of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Since the destruction, by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, of the dual containment policy, the issue for these parties has been how to contain Iran and its regional influence.

Iran has been cast as an “aggressor nation,” and this has been sold by illustrating Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other militant groups, its often bombastic rhetoric, and for the past decade, Iran’s ducking from some of its responsibilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). What gets left out is that Iran has never initiated an attack on another nation, its threats to “wipe Israel off the map” are factually known as (just not in mainstream discourse) to be a de-contextualized mistranslation of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s words, and even Iran’s failures with the IAEA have been part of a back and forth exchange, where they refuse or neglect to comply with some things in response to what they see as US-led unfair sanctions or restrictions. That doesn’t mean Iran has not caused some of these problems itself, it has. Lack of transparency on nuclear issues tends to raise the hackles of one’s enemies. But all this has hardly been the one-way street that’s been portrayed.

Too much scrutiny toward all of this sits poorly with Riyadh, Jerusalem, and in many circles in Washington. But because so much of the anti-Iran feeling has focused for so long on the nuclear issue, such scrutiny could come to bear at least a little more if Obama and Rouhani work things out. Labelling Iran an “aggressor nation” without the nuclear issue simply wouldn’t have the same impact anymore.

To combat this, Israel has been publicly playing down Rouhani’s overtures, sometimes calling him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and more generally, taking the “prove it” line. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s standard for proof is unrealistically high, and this is no accident. He has said that the conditions Iran must agree to are: halting all uranium enrichment, removing all enriched material, closing the reactor at Fordo and stopping plutonium production. This position is an obvious non-starter, but it reflects what has been the United States’ own position until now. Obama’s statements, while far from explicit, have given Iran reason to believe that this may have changed.

The reactions of Israel and the Gulf states would be puzzling if preventing a nuclear Iran was their main focus. But this has always been a means to an end: to isolate Iran and slow its rise as a regional power. The over-emphasis on the nuclear issue risks blunting other tools.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is already setting its sights on this issue. An AIPAC memo published on Sept. 20 urges the negotiations to be “backed by strength,” a vague enough statement, but one that shines light on its specific proposals.

One option AIPAC wishes to impede is the possibility of sanctions relief. “If Iran suspends its nuclear activity, the United States should be prepared to suspend any new sanctions” (emphasis added). This seems to make it clear that AIPAC wants to see the continued isolation of Iran no matter how the nuclear issue is resolved. UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions have repeatedly demanded that Iran suspend its enrichment programs and heavy water reactor programs, but the most recent resolutions, particularly UNSC 1835, also emphasize the UNSC’s commitment “to an early negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue” (emphasis mine). That is not something AIPAC wishes to see. An Iran that gets an agreement can be strengthened regionally. An Iran that either continues to labor under the status quo of sanctions and the looming threat of war or surrenders on the nuclear issue is seriously weakened. That is the game that’s being played here.

But this time, the playing field is much less certain. In the wake of the outcry against an attack on Syria, will AIPAC be able to push its measures through Congress without watering them down sufficiently to give Obama room to pursue substantive negotiations with Iran? Other than paranoia, there is scant evidence to support the position that Iran is merely putting on a show to stall for time while pursuing a nuclear weapon. But America’s own war footing keeps the risk of another Western misadventure in the Gulf region a real possibility. Obama seems bent on steering us away from that, and at least at first blush, seems to be acting on the will of his constituency in doing so.

Saudi Arabia will certainly add its voice to Israel’s on Capitol Hill. And Iran is not Syria. As appalled as many in the U.S. were over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, they were not convinced, for a variety of reasons, that this was cause for their country to take military action again in the Middle East. Syria may not be well-liked in the United States, but it is not a direct enemy. Iran is perceived as such, and has been ever since the fall of the Shah and the ensuing hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979-80. It may be that concern over Iran and the nuclear issue will provide fertile ground for AIPAC’s efforts to sabotage peace talks. It will also be a good deal easier to push their agenda in Congress because they won’t be advocating the immediate use of U.S. armed forces against Iran, as was the case with Syria.

While the congressional playing field is not entirely clear yet, one thing is obvious. Obama is going to need support in his peacemaking efforts. That support will need to come from the U.S. public and he will need to know that he has it in order to counter what is sure to be a furious onslaught from the most powerful forces that oppose any normalization with the Islamic Republic. That onslaught is coming and it is going to be furious. Obama will also need support from Iran, of all places. Rouhani will need to maintain the positive face he is portraying. And Rouhani should not be alone in this endeavour. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, apparently recognizing that Rouhani had not gone far enough in distancing himself from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial, has made sure to unequivocally acknowledge the Holocaust and its horrors. However prominent one thinks that issue should be, the clear statements were obviously intended to forestall the use of that issue against progress in upcoming nuclear talks.

More of that will be needed. Obama has restarted his Iran diplomacy on the right foot, being bold with his phone call to Rouhani and cautious in his public statements. He is proceeding deliberately but not giving his opponents big openings to attack his efforts at diplomacy. But the storm that is heading for Capitol Hill on this issue is going to be fierce. Obama will need all his skills and all the help he can get in weathering it.