Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 April - 5 May 2010
Issue No. 996
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Playing peace to target Iran

Every time the US president tries painstakingly to build a coalition against Iran up pops Israel, writes Graham Usher in New York

Click to view caption
Palestinian youths confront Israeli police in the Arab east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan after ultra-nationalist Jews carrying Israeli flags marched through Silwan to assert Jewish sovereignty over all of Jerusalem

In the last month Barack Obama has engaged in a blitz of nuclear diplomacy. He has reiterated his commitment to "a world without nuclear weapons"; issued a new military doctrine that reduces the amount and role of nuclear weapons in the United States security strategy; hosted an international conference to secure vulnerable nuclear materials; and pledged to reinvigorate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

At all points he has tried to keep attention focussed on the dangers posed by the small or potential nuclear arsenals of North Korea and Iran while keeping it away from the mammoth arsenals of the five declared nuclear weapon states and growing arsenals of the non-NPT nuclear weapon states India, Pakistan and Israel.

It's a balance he may not be able to hold much longer.

The NPT is up for its five-yearly review next month at the United Nations in New York. Among US-backed proposals are greater UN oversight of nuclear programmes of non-nuclear weapon states; penalties for any country that quits the treaty (as North Korea did in 2003); and UN- controlled fuel-banks to supply uranium to non-nuclear weapons states seeking civilian nuclear energy. Presented as "universal" protocols, all three are in fact means to contain and slow Iran's nuclear programme.

On 19 April Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Libya and Kuwait all said they would oppose these proposals. They have ample reason. Since the 2005 review conference, not only have France, Britain and China -- three of the five declared nuclear weapon states -- made no significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals: like the US and Russia, they have granted exemption to India, Pakistan and Israel to pursue their nuclear weapons programmes unmonitored, unhindered and, in Israel's case, unacknowledged.

"States outside the treaty are reaping the benefits of the treaty", said Egypt UN Ambassador Maged Abdel-Aziz.

For Arab countries another complaint is that no movement has been made on a 1995 NPT resolution pledging "a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction", despite its unanimous endorsement by the treaty's 189 signatories, including the US. Egypt is pushing for this year's conference to resurrect it.

In a working paper submitted to the review Cairo calls for an "international treaty conference" on the resolution by 2011. The aim would be to "launch negotiations, with the participation of all the states of the Middle East, on an internationally and effectively verifiable treaty for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East".

Israel has been invited to attend but would first have to sign up to the NPT "as a non- nuclear weapon state" and submit "all its nuclear facilities" to UN inspection.

There is nothing new in Egypt's call: it has been repeatedly made since 1995. The difference is in the traction it has received. The US, Britain, France, Russia and China have all said they might support such a conference, even though they balk at its treaty- making powers. The US, France and Britain said they would encourage Israel to attend, despite what (for Tel Aviv) would be onerous conditions.

Why this apparent shift in the West's attitude to Israel's "ambiguous" nuclear status, since even a symbolic conference would rip it apart? The short answer is Iran.

On the sidelines of the NPT conference the US is trying to fashion a fourth UN Security Council sanctions resolution against Tehran. It knows Iran will try to drag those discussions into the conference as an example of Western nuclear weapon states denying a southern non-nuclear weapon state its NPT sanctioned "right" to nuclear energy. Such cries will resonate, especially among the 118 countries of the Non- Aligned Movement.

But the critical vane is China, the sole permanent "developing" nation on the UNSC. While Beijing has agreed to join discussions on a new sanctions resolution, it has opposed a complete arms embargo on Iran as well as any hard penalties on its energy sector. It is wary of broad sanctions against Iran's finance, commerce, shipping sectors and Revolutionary Guard, all adumbrated in the US drafted resolution.

China is reticent because it is energy- hungry and Iran is a critical source of oil and gas. But China also sees itself as a defender of national sovereignty and tribune of the developing world, where sanctions are mostly viewed as a blunt instrument to secure US military hegemony in the Gulf.

The Chinese calculus could change if Arab states -- including Gulf Arab states -- were to back sanctions against Iran at both the UNSC and NPT conference. But that won't happen without at least a token action against Israel's nuclear arms, says a Western diplomat. "If the Arabs get something they want on Israel, they'll be more supportive on Iran's nuclear programme and further sanctions. Israel would benefit from that."

It's not clear whether the US would press Israel to make that link. But even the suggestion will set alarms ringing in an Israeli government that already views the current US administration as the most hostile in recent memory. In an interview on ABC News on 19 April Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel would no more join the NPT than it would cease settlement in occupied East Jerusalem.

"If the Middle East one day advances to a messianic age where the lion lies down with the lamb, you can ask me this question again," he said.

Despite the impression that some in the government are eager to convey, Israel is deeply divided over the prospect of any strike against Iran, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Although many Israeli commentators have tried to explain Minister of Defence Ehud Barak's decision not to reappoint General Gabi Ashkenazi as chief of staff of the country's armed forces for a fifth year as a result of a personality conflict, others well connected to decision-making circles in Tel Aviv say that the decision has been caused by Ashkenazi's rejection of possible military action against Iranian nuclear installations.

One such commentator is Ben Kasbet, a senior political and security analyst at Maariv, the second-largest newspaper in Israel. Kasbet wrote that Barak was fed up with the armed forces' reluctance to strike at the Iranian nuclear programme, which is in direct contrast to Barak's own position.

However, Barak's decision not to reappoint Ashkenazi does not mean that there is now any general in the Israeli army who would be prepared to support a strike against Iran's nuclear programme.

Ashkenazi's predecessor, General Dan Halutz, has stated in recent interviews that Israel is incapable of attacking Iran, based on his knowledge of the Israeli army's capabilities and the nature of the Iranian targets.

According to Halutz, Iranian nuclear installations are spread over a large area, and they are built deep under ground, limiting the ability of the Israeli air force to reach them. At the same time, Israel would need immense logistical capabilities before it could cause any real damage to Iran's nuclear programme.

Retired Israeli Reserve General Yigal Shauli believes that Israel would only be successful in destroying Iran's nuclear installations if neighbouring Arab countries cooperated in any attack by allowing Israeli to use their airspace.

However, Shauli has said that even if Israel were able to overcome such obstacles, there would still be no guarantee that Iran would not be able to destroy many Israeli fighters. This would make the operation a failure from Israel's point of view, even if it destroyed a number of Iranian targets.

There is a consensus in Israel that the implications of attacking Iran would be very serious, since Tehran would respond in a manner that could threaten both the security of the region and that of the world as a whole.

Many Israelis believe that attacking Iran would be a gamble because an Iranian response could cause the US to interfere, and one of the reasons why the US is currently preventing Israel from striking Iran is because US president Barack Obama is concerned that Tehran would deliver a painful blow to the US presence in Iraq in return, presenting a grave danger to US interests.

The possibility of the US having to interfere in an Israeli conflict with Iran is one that the Obama administration wants to avoid, since it knows it was not elected to start any new wars, but rather to correct the mistakes of the previous administration, which launched wars that have harmed Washington's international standing.

Meanwhile, a number of Israeli studies have warned against any conflict between Israel and Iran because this could be destructive and prolonged and could expand to include several fronts. According to a study by Israeli analyst Moshe Ferd published by the Begin-Sadat Research Centre, if war broke out between the two countries it would not be because of the Iranian nuclear programme alone, but would also be due to religious and political animosities.

Ferd's study predicts that if it attacks Iran, Israel will likely become involved in a prolonged war similar to the first war in Lebanon in 1982, especially if it decides to invade Lebanon as well in order to prevent missile attacks by the Lebanese resistance movement, which would be launched in response to an Israeli attack on Iran.

The study further indicates that Iran would also attempt to shore up its strength by sending large military reinforcements to Syria and Lebanon to participate in the fighting and that it would seek to make use of the US withdrawal from Iraq at the end of this year.

Iran might also seek to manipulate regional shifts in order to send supplies, weapons and volunteers to Syria via Iraq and Turkey. Ferd's study warns that this would make it difficult for Israel to conclude a war on land and would likely lead to a prolonged conflict in which Iran might seek to target Israeli vessels in the Red Sea and Israeli international interests.

Some in Israel also believe that it would be unwise for Israel to strike Iran because of the advances the latter has already made in its nuclear programme. Israel's former air force chief of staff Raoufian Bedihstor believes that an Israeli strike, no matter how successful, would only delay the Iranian nuclear programme by a few years and that Iran would use the strike as an excuse to intensify its activities.

Writers in the Israeli media have reported that there is a realisation in Tel Aviv of the grave dangers involved in attacking the Iranian nuclear programme, but at the same time Israel has refused to promise Washington that it will not carry out such an attack. This is because, such commentators believe, Israel is trying to manipulate the US into agreeing to lead international efforts to recruit more countries to support further sanctions against Iran.

Israel is also aware that the Obama administration fears the negative repercussions of any Israeli strike against Iran on American interests. The US is currently undertaking unprecedented international efforts to convince China not to veto UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, and in order to render such efforts more effective the US has not hesitated to threaten China and other countries with the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran that could put oil supplies at risk.

However, Israel and the US have not made much progress in convincing the rest of the world of the importance of imposing further sanctions against Iran, even if all the signs suggest that decision-makers in Tel Aviv believe that the risks of an Israeli strike against Iran outweigh the benefits.

Some in Israel are calling on Tel Aviv to accept the idea that Iran has the ability to become a nuclear power and to find alternatives to guarantee its own security.

Eitan Haber, a journalist and former bureau chief of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabbin, believes that Israel must be ready to accept the idea that Iran is capable of producing a nuclear weapon in the near future, since Israel can do nothing to prevent it.

Haber is more concerned about a possible alliance between Iran, Syria and Turkey, and in a recent article that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, he wrote that the recent arrest of a number of senior Turkish army officers confirmed that it was no longer possible to rely on contacts between Israel and senior Turkish army officers to prevent any such scenario.

Haber advised Israeli decision-makers to sign a defense pact with the US, saying that this step should be taken as soon as possible despite fears that Washington would impose restrictions on Israel by limiting its ability unilaterally to carry out military operations against its enemies.

Many commentators in Israel have urged that the dangers posed to the country by Iran should convince the present Israeli government not to antagonise the Obama administration on the issue of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) as only Washington can stand up to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Former Israeli minister of justice Yossi Beilin has criticised Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's challenge to Obama by continuing the Israeli settlement building in Jerusalem and the West Bank and embarrassing the US in front of its Arab allies, while at the same time expecting the US to take charge of the threat facing Israel's very existence represented by the Iranian nuclear programme.

There are many inside Israel who are calling on Netanyahu to abandon his right-wing allies and to include the Kadima Party in government, as well as to adopt a different policy with regard to negotiations with the PA in order to convince Washington to continue its efforts to frustrate the Iranian nuclear programme.

However, despite the impression of strength which it is trying to convey, Israel's options in dealing with Iran's nuclear programme are very limited. Tel Aviv does not seem confident about the military option, but at the same time the Israeli government is unlikely to be prepared to pay the political price of Washington's taking the lead in imposing further sanctions against Iran.

Obama needs Palestine merely to pursue his scheme to isolate Iran, says Khaled Amayreh cynically in occupied Jerusalem

Desperate to achieve progress of any kind on the Israeli- Palestinian track, the Obama administration is pressuring, even bullying the weak and vulnerable Palestinian Authority (PA) to agree, at least in principle, to an Israeli proposal that would see the creation of a Palestinian "state" on some 60 per cent of the West Bank.

However, such an entity as proposed by the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in recent talks with US officials, would be devoid of any semblance of sovereignty and conspicuously lacking control of its borders, which would be temporary in any case and tightly controlled by Israel.

Israel reportedly ensured the American administration that negotiations over the fate of the remaining 40 per cent of the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem and land located west of the Apartheid Wall, would ensure the creation of a viable mini- Palestinian state.

The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, utterly desperate and confused as to the best approach to adopt, fears that Israel is only trying to trick the Palestinians (and the Americans) into accepting a vague arrangement that would eventually enable Israel to arrogate up to half of the West Bank under the rubric of a cumulative peace process and Palestinian statehood.

For its part, the Obama administration's representative George Mitchell has been holding several rounds of inconclusive talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. It seems desperate and determined to achieve something that would help isolate Iran and also enhance the Democratic Party's chances in the next Congressional elections in November.

The administration officials have been arguing that the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is of the utmost importance to American interests and affects US global strategic standing.

However, these statements are being interpreted by many experts as part of the administration's posturing to resist mounting pressure by pro-Israeli groups, including Congress. Congress is widely considered another "Israeli occupied territory" and is strongly trying to undercut President Obama's efforts to get Israel to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which is widely seen as a sin-qua-non for a successful peace process, let alone for the conclusion of a final peace agreement.

An expression of Abbas's confusion and desperation loomed large this week when he admitted that he had asked the US to "impose a solution on the sides". The admission is very telling since it presumed that Abbas believed that an American-imposed solution would be somewhat evenhanded.

Speaking in Ramallah before a meeting of Fatah's Revolutionary Council, Abbas said: "We've asked the American administration more than once to impose a solution."

Abbas said he would reject the creation of a Palestinian state with temporary borders. "The Palestinians were being asked to take a state with temporary borders on 40 or 50 per cent of the West Bank and then they [the Israelis] tell us 'we will see what comes up next.'"

Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad continued to promise the Palestinians, even in a euphoric way, that a state would be born around this time next year with or without agreement with Israel.

Speaking at a conference "The Present and Future of Jerusalem" at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis on 26 April, Fayyad said Palestinian statehood was already a de facto reality and that the international community would soon come to the conclusion that a formal recognition of that reality was inescapable.

"Without a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders, there can be no stability or security in this region. The creation of a Palestinian state is not only a Palestinian interest, but is also an Israeli and world interest," Fayyad told Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officials and a group of Palestinian intellectuals and academics present at the conference.

However, a few hours later, Abbas was quoted as saying that the PA wouldn't declare Palestinian statehood without Israeli consent. "We stand by agreements. We will not declare Palestinian state unilaterally."

The Palestinian leader, who was being interviewed by the Israeli TV Channel-10, said he was extending his hand in peace to the Israeli people, saying that he was willing to work with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

He also added that he would be willing to return to the negotiating table next month, saying he hoped to get Arab League approval for the proposed proximity talks.

Nonetheless, Abbas is unlikely to obtain Arab League approval for speedy but nearly unconditional talks with the Netanyahu government if only because such talks had been tried before ad nauseam but to no avail.

Abbas had been vowing not to resume talks with Israel unless the Jewish state froze settlement expansion in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

According to Arab sources in Damascus and Cairo, the 22-state body, which is struggling to overcome an erstwhile notorious image of incompetence and reconstruct a more positive image, will reject any unconditional resumption of talks with Israel in the absence of guarantees regarding halting Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, including Jerusalem.

The League's Monitoring Committee, which is entrusted with following up on the Arab Peace Initiative, is expected to meet next week in order to vote on the proposal.

Despite repeated assertions rejecting a state with temporary borders, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is still reluctant to say a clear-cut no to the Americans, calculating that the Obama administration represents a rare opportunity that must not be allowed to be wasted or missed, and that it would be politically inexpedient for the overall Palestinian cause to reject outright the latest American proposals.

Indeed, it is likely that it was in this context that Abbas had asked the Obama administration to impose a solution on the sides.

There are those who are profoundly convinced that the extremist government of Binyamin Netanyahu is only prevaricating and playing tactics with both the Obama administration and the PA leadership.

One PA official present at the Al-Quds University conference described Mitchell's talks with PA officials in Ramallah as "a tedious repetition of the same old platitudes about the beauty of peace and need to restart talks."

"The Americans, unable or reluctant to pressure Israel, are trying to pressure us, given the fact that we are the weaker party. They think that the key to isolate Iran in the current standoff with the West lies in far-reaching Palestinian concessions to Israel on cardinal issues such as Jerusalem and the refugees. And I want to tell you something. Even if all Arab states say yes for such concessions, we, the mother of the child, will say a clarion no because this is our land, our future."

The official, who demanded that his name not be mentioned, said the bulk of the PA leadership was fully aware of "Netanyahu's tricks, deception, mendacity and stalling tactics".

"Netanyahu wants to gain more time to create more irreversible facts in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, and the Americans have come to think that we are merely obsessed with the symbol of statehood, even at the expense of losing Jerusalem and one third of the West Bank, in addition to the right of return for the refugees. Well, all I can tell you is that they are dreaming if they think that we will succumb to their designs and wishful thinking."

Needless to say, the Palestinian official's scepticism is more than justified. Netanyahu, while telling Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that he is willing to conduct "frank and honest discussion" over all core issues, has been telling settlers, leaders and his own coalition partners that there is no way Israel would leave any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians and that settlements west and east of the Annexation Wall would continue to grow irrespective of the peace process with the Palestinians.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 996 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Interview | Opinion | Press review | Reader's corner | Culture | Entertainment | Features | Heritage | Special | Living | Sports | Cartoons | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map