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The Magnificent Kerry

4 February 2014

The Magnificent Kerry

By Gwynne Dyer

John Kerry has been US Secretary of State for precisely one year, and he has already 1) rescued President Obama from his ill-considered promse to bomb Syria if it crossed the “red line” and used poison gas; 2) opened serious negotiations with Iran on its alleged attempt to build nuclear weapons; and 3) taken on the job of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Getting Obama off the hook was useful, and may yet lead to the US ending its support for the insurgency in Syria, which at this point would probably be the least bad outcome. Opening negotiations with Iran was long overdue, and makes the nightmare prospect of an American or a joint US-Israeli air attack on Iran daily less likely. But even King Solomon and Avicenna (Ibn Sina), sitting jointly in judgement on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, could not broker a peace accord there.

Kerry is indefatigable. He has been to Israel/Palestine eleven times in the past year, and spent as much as a hundred hours face to face with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas or their close advisers. Unlike all the previous “brokers”, he has been astoundingly discreet: not a hint of what has been said in private has leaked into the public domain. And yet there is almost no hope of a real peace deal.

If persistence in the face of all the odds were enough, Kerry would be the man who finally made it happen. (Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon recently complained that his approach is “obsessive and messianic.”) But Kerry has no leverage: he has to rely on the desire of the two leaders to make the “peace process” work, and it just isn’t there; not, at least, on any terms that both would find acceptable.

The list of deal-breakers includes almost every topic under discussion: the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, whether Jerusalem can be the joint capital of Israel and Palestine, whether Israel can maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes, and Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognise it as an explicitly Jewish state.

This last demand, which was only raised in the past couple of years, seems deliberately designed to be unacceptable to the Palestinians. Not only are they required to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Israeli state (which they have already done), but also to give their blessing to the ethnic and religious character of that state.

It is not normal in diplomacy for one state to comment upon the internal arrangements of another, let alone to give them its public support. Even the United States, Israel’s closest ally and supporter, does not officially recognise it as a “Jewish state.” The Israeli demand is an attempt to rub the Palestinians’ noses in their defeat, and why would you set out to do that if you really wanted a deal?

The Palestinian insistence on a “right of return,” however rooted in natural justice, is equally self-defeating in practice. Everybody knows that a peace deal must mean compensation for the refugees of 1948 and their descendants, not a general right of return to what is now Israel, for that really would mean the end of the “Jewish state.” But no Palestinian leader has ever dared to say so out loud.

So why, then, has John Kerry embarked on his quixotic mission to make the “peace process” work? It has been effectively dead for at least a dozen years, although it remains unburied because the pretense that it is still alive allows everybody to avoid hard decisions. But Kerry, with his nine-month deadline to achieve a comprehensive “final-status agreement” (which expires in April), is taking it seriously.

His own explanation is lyrical but opaque: “I believe that history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream.” But the business about “making history” – that, perhaps, is sincere. Kerry has had a long and interesting career as a senator, and even took a shot at the presidency, but this is probably his last big job, and he wants to make his mark.

As the reality of what he is up against strikes home, he has scaled back his ambitions a good deal. For some months now he has been talking about a more modest “framework” deal by April that would establish a set of basic principles for further talks. Such deals commit nobody to anything, and are therefore a popular way of pretending to make progress, but he’ll be lucky to get even that.

The French general Pierre Bosquet, watching the suicidal charge of the British Light Brigade in the Crimean War in 1854, said: “It is magnificent, but it is not war. It’s madness.”

Kerry’s foredoomed quest for a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is magnificent too, in its own peculiar way, but it’s not diplomacy. It’s hubris.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“It is…deal”; and “As the…that”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

 

Iran and the US: Neither Blind Nor Stupid

25 November 2013

Iran and the US: Neither Blind Nor Stupid

By Gwynne Dyer

“We are not blind, and I don’t think we are stupid,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry in response to fierce Israeli criticism after the first round of talks about Iran’s nuclear programme earlier this month failed to reach a deal. Now the deal is done, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is even harsher in his condemnation of Kerry’s handiwork.

“Israel has many friends and allies,” said Netanyahu, “but when they’re mistaken, it’s my duty to speak out….What was achieved last night in Geneva (24 November) is not a historic agreement, it was a historic mistake. Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world took a significant step towards obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapon.”

What he meant was that the interim agreement implicitly recognises Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful uses. But that right is already enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, and nobody ever thought that Iran was really going to renounce it. What was at issue was whether it would enrich its uranium to “weapons grade” – 90 percent pure – and make nuclear bombs.

The “Plan of Action” signed by Iran, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union ensures that it will not, at least for the next six months. All uranium enrichment above 5 percent is to be halted, and Iran’s entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched material – the potential feedstock for a “dash” to weapons-grade material – is to be diluted or converted to a form not suitable for further enrichment.

Iran is not to install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich material), and large numbers of the existing banks of centrifuges are to be left inoperable. Even Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium ( for use in nuclear power reactors) is to remain the same between now and the end of the six-month period. And there will be no further work done on the Arak reactor, which might give Iran plutonium, and thus a second route to a nuclear bomb.

Iran will also allow more intrusive inspections by International Atomic Energy Agency officials, including daily access to the key enrichment sites at Natanz and Fordow. All it gets in return is $7 billion worth of relief (about $100 per Iranian) on the sanctions that are crippling its economy. All the main sanctions will stay in place until a final agreement has been signed – if it is – six months from now.

Iran can therefore make no further progress towards nuclear weapons while the detailed negotiations continue, if that is actually what Tehran ever had in mind. Yet Israeli officials are talking as if the United States has been both blind and stupid.

On Sunday, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said that “Israel cannot participate in the international celebration, which is based on Iranian deception and the world’s self-delusion.” And Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of trade and industry, warned: “If in five years a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the agreement that was signed this morning.”

This is so far over the top that you wonder whether the speakers even believe it themselves. Israel has talked itself into this obsession with Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons project – Israeli sources have been warning that Iran is two years away from a bomb at regular intervals for the past twenty years – but the constant talk about it has also served to draw attention away from Israel’s settlement policy in the Palestinian territories.

Israel’s basic position is that the Iranian regime is entirely composed of evil terrorist fanatics who should never be allowed to have refined uranium of any sort. The only recourse is therefore to tighten the sanctions more and more until Iran’s entire economy and government crumble and a completely different sort of people emerge from somewhere to take over the country. No deal can be a good deal.

Israel’s leaders are dismayed that they can no longer keep their allies and friends pinned in this extreme position, but endlessly quoting the ravings of former Iranian prime minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is not enough. They would have to demonstrate that Iran actually intends to attack Israel, and they cannot. So eventually their allies just moved without them.

As Israel’s Finance Minister Yair Lapid told “Time” magazine, “We’ve lost the world’s ear. We have six months, at the end of which we need to be in a situation in which the Americans listen to us the way they used to listen to us in the past.” But the game is not over yet. Israel’s influence in the US Congress is still immense, and its Congressional allies are already talking about heaping more sanctions on Iran (in order to kill the deal, though they don’t admit that).

President Obama could veto those new sanctions, of course, but he will find it a lot harder to get Congress to revoke the existing sanctions if the final deal is done six months from now. That’s why Iran gets so little relief from sanctions now in return for its concessions: Obama needs more time to work on Congress. But Israel may still win this tug-of-war.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Iran is…now”)

 

 

Iran Nuclear Deal: The Aftermath

11 November 2013

Iran Nuclear Deal: The Aftermath

By Gwynne Dyer

What will the Middle East look like after Iran and the great powers that are negotiating over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) – sign a deal that ends the confrontation? It’s time to ask the question, because there is going to be a deal.

It didn’t get signed in Geneva last weekend, but it came close. The only foreign minister at the Geneva talks on Friday was Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, but progress was so rapid that by Saturday almost all the foreign ministers of the “P5+1” – American, British, French, German and Russian – dropped whatever they were doing and flew in for the grand finale. Only the Chinese foreign minister was absent.

The grand finale has been postponed. There were just too many details to clear up in a single weekend, and a couple of sticking points that have yet to be resolved. But the date for the next meeting has already been set (20 November), and nobody went away angry. “We are all on the same wavelength,” said Zarif. “There is a deal on the table and it can be done,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

There are “still some gaps” between Iran and some of the other countries present, Hague said, but “they are narrow gaps. You asked what went wrong. I would say that a great deal went right.” Even French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the one who apparently dropped a last-minute spanner in the works, said that “we are not far from a agreement with the Iranians, although we are not there yet.”

Fabius’s demands were that the reactor in Arak, now nearing completion, should never be activated, as it would produce plutonium as a byproduct, and that Iran’s store of uranium enriched to medium level (20 percent pure) should be brought back down to 5 percent to move it farther away from weapons-grade (90 percent). Introduced into the talks at a late stage, his demands brought the proceedings to a temporary halt.

All the other Western powers closed ranks and insisted that these were joint demands, but they were not part of the original draft agreement. Speculation was rife that France was acting on behalf of its customers (for French weapons) on the Arab side of the Gulf, notably in the United Arab Emirates, who view the deal under discussion with just as much horror as Israel does. But France can only delay things: the deal is going to happen.

One immediate consequence of the deal will be that Israel has to stop threatening to attack Iran. The threat was always 90 percent bluff – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own military chiefs would probably refuse to obey him if he ordered such an attack without American support – but now it will be simply ridiculous. Which will swing the spotlight back to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Iran’s economic isolation will also end, although it may take several years to unwind all the economic sanctions. The gradual return of prosperity in Iran will make the current Islamic regime more secure (which may be the main reason that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah AliKhamenei, authorised newly elected President Hassan Rouhani to negotiate the nuclear deal and end the confrontation.)

But the big question is whether a nuclear deal with Iran will cool the rapidly intensifying Sunni-Shia conflict that threatens to suck in the whole of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula. The answer, alas, is probably not.

The split is as incomprehensible to non-Muslims as the religious wars of Europe four centuries ago were to non-Christians, and mercifully Sunni-Shia hostility has never reached quite that intensity of violence and hatred. But right across the Islamic world it has been getting worse for several decades now, and the eye of the storm is in the Middle East.

Iran is the sole Shia great power, so it is inevitably the focus of the fears of Sunni Arabs and the hopes of Shia Arabs. Moreover, given Turkey’s semi-detached relationship with the region, Iran is in practical terms the greatest power in the entire Middle East.

For the past decade, Iran has been greatly weakened by the arms and trade embargoes that the West imposed because of the nuclear issue. Once those embargoes are removed Iran will regain much of its former strength. This is already causing great anxiety in the Sunni Arab countries, especially those that face it across the Gulf.

Even quite experienced people in Washington and other Western capitals don’t realise the extent to which the Sunni Arab countries of the Middle East thought that their close ties with the Western great powers gave them a kind of guarantee against Shia power –and how betrayed they feel now that they think that guarantee is being withdrawn.

Sunnis outnumber Shias almost ten-to-one in the Islamic world as a whole, but in the smaller world that stretches from Iran and Turkey to Palestine and Yemen, the “Middle East”, Shias make up more than a third of the population. The war is already hot and quite openly sectarian in Syria and in Iraq. In many other places (Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen) it is bubbling just underneath the surface. It will get worse before it gets better.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 10. (“Fabius’s…happen”; and “The split…East”)

 

Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Everybody Wins (Except the Syrians)

23 October 2013

Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Everybody Wins (Except the Syrians)

By Gwynne Dyer

“That prize should have been given to me,” joked Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad shortly after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on 11 October. The guests gathered in his palace in Damascus presumably laughed, out of courtesy to their host, but they all knew that giving up Syria’s chemical weapons hadn’t been Assad’s idea at all.

Al-Akhbar, the Beirut newspaper that reported Assad’s remarks, has close links with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia that is supported by Syria and Iran, and it accepted Assad’s regret about the new turn of events at face value. “There is no doubt that the loss of chemical weapons has resulted in a loss of morale and a political loss for Syria,” Assad said.

“Since 2003, Syria has demanded that the countries in the region dismantle their weapons of mass destruction, and the chemical weapons were meant to be a bargaining chip in Syria’s hands in exchange for Israel dismantling its nuclear arsenal,” the Syrian president continued. “Today the price (of the bargaining chip) has changed, and we have agreed to give up our chemical weapons to remove the threat of the US attacking us.”

He’s really doing it, too. Sixty out of a planned hundred OPCW inspectors are already in Syria, and they have made no complaints about a lack of cooperation by Damascus. By the end of this month they will have completed their initial verification visits and confirmed that Syria’s account of its chemical weapons and facilities is accurate and conceals nothing.

They will also have disabled the country’s ability to produce and mix poison gases and load them into actual weapons by then. The work is “cheap, quick and low-tech,” in the words of OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan. The inspectors are just smashing the control panels on the machines that produce and mix the gases, and destroying the munitions that would actually deliver the end product with sledgehammers, grinders and bulldozers.

Significantly, the inspectors have so far found no bombs, shells or missiles that are actually filled with poison gas, which suggests that Syria’s chemical weapons were in a very low state of readiness. It also greatly eases the next phase of the OPCW’s task, the destruction of the actual chemicals, since it is a tricky and dangerous business to extract the liquefied poison gas from a projectile that also contains the explosives to disperse it when it lands.

Syria has an estimated 1,000 metric tonnes of toxic chemicals: around 300 tonnes of sulfur mustard, a blistering agent, and about 700 tonnes of the nerve agents sarin and VX. But if none of it is “weaponised” (loaded into projectiles), and much of the nerve agent is in “precursor” form, as separate, less toxic components, then OPCW’s goal of finishing the job by mid-2014 seems feasible. Even if it has to be done in the midst of a civil war.

It’s quite clear that Assad did not plan all this. His forces (or somebody else’s) used poison gas in Damascus, though the attack was pointless in military terms. President Barack Obama was trapped by his previous loose talk about an American “red line” into threatening to bomb Syria. And the Russians got Obama off the hook (and saved Assad from a severe pounding) by “persuading” the Syrian leader to renounce his chemical weapons.

But what has Assad really lost? “The chemical weapons, which have lost their deterrent value over the past few years, were meant to be used only after Israel used its nuclear weapons,” he says, but it was never a very credible deterrent. Israel’s unstoppable nuclear weapons could annihilate Syria, whereas the very effective Israeli civil defence organisation would have made mass casualties unlikely even in a worst-case Syrian gas attack.

In any case, Syria’s chemical weapons have indeed now lost whatever deterrent value they ever had, for Israel has acquired good anti-missile defences that would shoot down most incoming Syrian missiles. Syria actually stopped producing new chemical weapons in 1997, Assad said, because they had lost their military usefulness.

After that, they were only a low-value “bargaining chip” to be put on the table in the improbable event of region-wide negotiations on eliminating all weapons of mass destruction. (Poison gas is not remotely comparable to nuclear weapons in its destructiveness, but it is technically “WMD”.) But Assad is a very lucky man. He discovered belatedly that his bargaining chip could be traded for something else: immunity from American attack.

So everybody wins. Obama escapes from the new Middle Eastern war that he dreaded. Moscow gets huge diplomatic credit for coming up with the formula that averted that war, and saves its Syrian client as well. Assad regains a measure of respectability by nobly relinquishing his useless chemical weapons. And the OPCW gets the Nobel Peace Prize.

The only losers are the Syrian people on both sides of a dreadful civil war, which looks set to drag on indefinitely.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“Al-Akhbar…said”; and “They…bulldozers”)