Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said something cryptic last Friday, shortly after the Israelis began their latest round of attacks on the Gaza Strip. Condemning Hamas’s conditions for accepting a ceasefire as “exaggerated and unnecessary,” he offered his condolences “to the families of the martyrs in Gaza who are fuel to those who trade in war. I oppose these traders, on both sides.”
What could he mean by that? Surely he was not suggesting that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel and the leaders of Hamas, the Islamist organisation that has effective control of the Gaza Strip, have a common interest in perpetuating the current bloodbath for at least a little while longer.
Yes, he was suggesting exactly that, and he was quite right. This is the third “Gaza War” since late 2008 – they come around more often than World Cups in football – and each one has followed the same pattern. Some Israelis are kidnapped and/or killed, Israel makes mass arrests of Hamas cadres in the West Bank and launches air and missile strikes on the Gaza Strip, Hamas lets the missiles fly, and away we go again.
A few wrinkles are different this time. The kidnapping and murder of three young Israeli hitch-hikers in the West Bank, probably by Palestinians who had links with Hamas (although it denies responsibility), was followed by the torture and murder of a young Palestinian, probably by Israeli vigilantes.
The ceasefire signed after the last round in 2012 was already being violated by both sides for some months before the real shooting started a week ago. And, most importantly, Hamas had achieved a political reconciliation of sorts with Mahmoud Abbas’s rival organisation that rules the West Bank as the Palestinian Authority. But although every turn of the wheel is a little bit different, the pattern remains the same.
So why would Prime Minister Netanyahu be willing to launch Israel’s third war against the Gaza Strip in eight years? Because the nature of his political alliances with other parties on the Israeli right, and especially with the settler lobby, means that he could not make a peace deal that the Palestinians would accept even if he wanted to (which he probably doesn’t).
That’s why he was instrumental in sabotaging the Oslo Accords, the theoretical basis for a peaceful “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during his first term as prime minister in 1996-99. Back in power in the past five years, his primary excuse for not moving on negotiations has been that Mahmoud Abbas could not deliver peace because he controlled only the West Bank, while the intransigent Hamas ruled the Gaza Strip.
Then Abbas stitched together a compromise that brought Hamas back into a unity government three months ago, and Netanyahu claimed that he could not be expected to negotiate with a government that included the “terrorists” of Hamas. So is he now trying to destroy Hamas so that Abbas can rule unhindered over all the Palestinian territories and become a suitable partner for peace? Of course not.
Netanyahu knows, on the evidence of the previous two wars, that Hamas can be battered into temporary quiescence but not destroyed. He also probably realises that if he did manage to destroy Hamas, its place would be taken by a less corrupt and much more extreme Islamist outfit that might really hurt Israel. He is just doing this, with no expectation of victory, because Israeli public opinion demands it.
Hamas’s motive for wanting a little war are more obvious and urgent: it has lost almost all its sources of funding. Iran stopped funding its budget to the tune of $20 million per month when Hamas sided with the Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war.
Egypt stopped helping it after last year’s military coup against Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, and closed the tunnels under the border through which the Gaza Strip received most of its imported goods. Those imports were Hamas’s main source of tax revenue. Hamas is broke, and if it stays broke its control over the Strip will weaken.
Whereas a war with Israel will rally the local Palestinians to its support, and if enough of them are killed Egypt and the Gulf states may feel compelled to give Hamas financial aid. So the only real question is how many dead Palestinians will satisfy both Netanyahu’s need to look tough and Hamas’s need to rebuild popular support at home and get financial help from abroad.
On past performance, the magic number is between a hundred and a thousand dead: around 1,200 Palestinians were killed in the 2008-9 war, and 174 in 2012. After that – assuming that only a handful of Israelis have been killed, which is guaranteed by the fact that Israeli air and missiles strikes are a hundred times more efficient at killing than Hamas’s pathetic rockets – a ceasefire becomes possible.
We have already crossed the lower threshold of that range of Palestinian deaths in the current mini-war, so a ceasefire is theoretically possible now, but both sides will probably press on for at least another few days. Then the ceasefire will be agreed, and both sides will start thinking about the next round, only a few years from now. But the dead will stay dead.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“A few…same”; and “Then…not”)
By Gwynne Dyer
Hillary Clinton would never have used the word when she was US Secretary of State, because she still has presidential ambitions. John Kerry, the current Secretary of State, has no further ambitions in that direction, which may be why he dared to use the words “apartheid” and “Israel” in the same sentence. Or maybe he just didn’t realise that the world would hear about it.
Kerry spoke last week to a group of high-ranking officials from the US, Europe and Japan known as the Trilateral Commission about the failure of his year-long attempt to revive the “peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinians. Somebody at the meeting secretly recorded his comments, which were published by the Daily Beast on Monday, and suddenly he was in very hot water.
What he said was that the long-sought “two-state solution” was the only real alternative to a “unitary” Israeli-ruled state that included all the territory between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea – and ruled over millions of Palestinians in the territories that have been under Israeli military occupation since 1967.
Those Palestinians, most of whom cannot remember a time when they did not live under Israeli control, have no political rights within Israel. The two-state solution, under negotiation off and on for the past twenty years, would give them a state of their own, but most people had despaired some time ago of getting Israel to agree to an independent Palestine.
Kerry had not, so he was surprised and disappointed when his efforts came to naught. That was why he blurted out the truth that American politicians are never supposed to acknowledge. He said that without the two-state solution, “a unitary [Israeli] state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class [Palestinian] citizens – or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.”
It was clumsily phrased, but the basic idea is common in both Israeli and Palestinian political discourse. Even if Israel never formally annexes the occupied territories, it has been building Jewish settlements all over them for decades, and the Palestinian inhabitants are effectively controlled by the Israeli government.
If this situation continues indefinitely, and the Palestinians must live out their lives as mere residents without no political rights, then they are in the same position as the black South Africans who lived all their lives under white rule without citizenship or the vote. That was the very essence of apartheid.
Alternatively, of course, Israel might grant them citizenship and the vote: that’s what happened when apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994. But there are already a great many Palestinians living under Israeli rule, and their higher birth rate would make them a majority in in that “unitary” Israel in less than a generation. That might or might not be a state where Jews were happy to live, but it would definitely no longer be a Jewish state.
That’s all Kerry was saying: if you don’t accept the two-state solution then willy-nilly you get the one-state solution, in one of two flavours – an apartheid state in which the great majority of the actual citizens are Jews and the Palestinians have no voice in how they are ruled, or a more broadly defined state in which everybody is a citizen but Jews are no longer the majority.
Many Israel senior politicians who favour the two-state solution, including former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, have made exactly this point, even using that same inflammatory word, “apartheid”, to underline the gravity of the choice. Senior Palestinian politicians talk about it all the time. But senior American politicians are not allowed to talk like that about Israel.
State Department officials tried to defend their boss’s comments for a few hours, but as the firestorm of protest by American Zionist organisations grew the Obama administration realised that Kerry had to be forced to apologise for speaking the truth. The story that they took him down into the White House basement and beat him with rubber hoses is probably untrue, but on Tuesday he recanted his heresy.
“I do not believe,” Kerry said, “nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one.” Well, of course not. It’s not an apartheid state now because the non-citizen status of the Palestinians for the past 47 years is technically only temporary, pending the creation of their own state.
And Israel has no intention of ever meeting the technical definition of an apartheid state, either, because that would be a public-relations disaster. However, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seems convinced that he can avoid that outcome simply by hanging on to the occupied territories indefinitely but never formally annexing them, and many Israelis agree with him.
They might even be right, but John Kerry doesn’t think so. Or at least, he didn’t until his own people worked him over a bit.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That’s…Israel”)
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.
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.
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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Iran is…now”)