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Israel moves from rejection to obstruction of peace

May 5, 2014 at 4:21 pm

This week’s decision by the Israeli daily Maariv to publish a report which claimed that John Kerry supported the organisers of the Freedom Flotilla was significant in many respects. Above all, it confirmed the growing rift in US-Israel relations and exposed the shift in Israeli policy from one of rejection to open obstruction of peace. This policy is pursued not only with regard to Palestine but towards Iran as well.

In recent weeks Israel and the US have been locked in a war of words over the negotiations between the P5 plus 1 countries and Iran. Tel Aviv is vigorously opposed to any agreement that would see sanctions relaxed in exchange for Tehran curbing or freezing parts of its nuclear programme.

As it stands now, both parties, America and Iran, are in need of a settlement. Public opinion polls in the US show that there is considerable public opposition to a military strike. In this light, the Obama administration, it seems, has decided to pursue a diplomatic settlement with Iran, even if it is a half-baked one. It adopted this course despite strong Israeli opposition and attempts to scupper any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.

Ostensibly, the American stand is dictated more by necessity than choice. The country has been exhausted by its wars over the last decade. The international crisis provoked by the Syrian chemical attack demonstrated that there is simply no appetite for another war, even if it is limited.

On the other hand, Iran is also a tired nation, brought to its knees and broken by decades of sanctions. While the nuclear programme is undoubtedly a matter of national pride for the Iranian people, it has, at least thus far, brought more harm than good.

Unable to influence the White House on Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has of late turned to Congress and the pro-Israel Lobby. It is an old tactic that he has used with some success in the past. In February 1998 during Netanyahu’s first term in office and two days before the Clinton-Lewinsky affair broke into the public domain, he met privately with Jerry Falwell and other evangelical leaders in Washington. The purpose was, according to Falwell, to mobilise the evangelical churches against American attempts to force Israel to give up more Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Falwell declared that there were about 200,000 evangelical pastors in the US and he was going to mobilise them to use their pulpits in support of the State of Israel.

Ultimately, all the Israeli fuss is essentially about a short-term, reversible agreement in which Iran is supposed to freeze its nuclear programme for six months. In exchange, some of the sanctions will be eased.

Other signs of unease in the relationship also surfaced this week when Secretary of State John Kerry told the Israelis of a possible third intifada in Palestine if the negotiations fail. America will not be able to help if the Palestinians decide to take their case to the International Criminal Court, he warned.

In September President Obama told the UN General Assembly, “Real breakthroughs on these two issues – Iran’s nuclear programme, and Israeli-Palestinian peace – would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa.” Within the State Department itself, the predominant view is that any progress on Palestine would help to resolve the Iranian problem.

Shortly before this year’s General Assembly, the PA had decided to resume negotiations with Israel, for a maximum period of nine months. The about turn was taken despite Israel’s rejection of two of the three conditions stipulated by the authority: to consider the 1967 borders as the basis of negotiations; an end of Israel’s settlement construction programme in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem; and the release of the pre-Oslo prisoners.

Since agreeing formally to release 104 pre-Oslo prisoners in four stages, Israel has released two batches. On each occasion, it announced massive increases of settlement expansion, under the deceptive guise of what is called natural growth; in other words, housing units. Indeed, it pledged to do the same for the other two stages of the prisoner release deal. This has given the impression that there was an agreement of some kind between the Israeli government and the PA to link prisoner release to settlement expansion; the Palestinian Authority has, of course, denied such a connection.

Israel’s stand on peace has not only been a constant source of embarrassment for the Americans but has also been detrimental to US interests. The verbal confrontation has gone so far that even the newly-reinstated ultra-extreme foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has urged his government to avoid spats with the US over its policy on Iran’s nuclear programme. Moreover, if Washington capitulates to Israeli pressure on this occasion it would forfeit a golden opportunity to be part of a regional solution and not a cause of regional problems.