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NETANYAHU AT THE RUBICON, AGAIN

Benyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

 Above and beyond the egregious gaffe by Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, this crucial question remains unanswered - what will Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu do when he next meets U.S. Secretary of State? Yaalon certainly highlighted some of the Right wing's exasperation over Kerry's 'messianic and obsessive' mission to hammer out an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. However, Netanyahu has apparently been telling Kerry that he would be willing to cut a deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, under certain conditions. The Israeli leader is already on record as accepting the two-state solution.  Is he now prepared to go one step further and possibly risk the breakup of his cabinet and Likud party? Although Yaalon has adopted an 'in-your-face' rejection, he represents the far Right of the Likud and Jewish Home party. But in a dramatic shift, Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel Our Home party has pleaded for giving Kerry a chance. So what's going on and why?

Yaalon warned the Israeli pullout would lend 'a tail wind to greater terrorism from Gaza'.

 First take a closer look at Yaalon's remarks about Kerry that were made off the record but reported in a banner headline in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper by reporter Shimon Shiffer. Is Israel's Defense Minister a fool who decided to take over Lieberman's former role of a bull in a china shop? Not at all - Yaalon was rated as an excellent IDF Chief of Staff from 2002 to 2005 after a brilliant military career that included commander of the Intelligence Branch and Commander of the West Bank region. So it goes without saying that Yaalon is a leading expert on Israel's security needs on the West Bank, which are a core issue in Kerry's current brokering between Netanyahu and Abbas. On the other hand, Yaalon has a reputation for speaking his mind and letting the chips fall where they may. For example, while serving as Chief of Staff he criticized in public the late Ariel Sharon's proposed evacuation of all IDF troops and Israelis from settlements in the Gaza Strip. Yaalon warned the Israeli pullout would lend 'a tail wind to greater terrorism from Gaza'. He annoyed the PM, who reacted by not granting Yaalon a customary fourth year as Chief of Staff, but Yaalon proved right about the subsequent escalation of Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza that followed Sharon's disengagement.

Most Israeli security experts agree with Yaalon that pilotless drones, hi-tech, and foreign forces cannot protect Israeli civilians in the future. Only Israeli 'boots on the ground' could do that.

 During the current Kerry mission, Yaalon has made no bones about his position. At a recent meeting, top Israeli businessmen voiced grave concern over the mounting wave of economic boycotting of Israel because of the settlements and the Palestinian issue. The Defense Minister told them to forget it: "There is no possibility of a peace agreement with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future because there is no Palestinian peace partner!" Therefore, a peace accord with Mahmoud Abbas, who does not even command a majority of Palestinians, would turn out to be a repeat performance of the Gaza experience. (The IDF estimates that since the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, over 8,000 rockets have been launched at Israel from Gaza to this very day. Although Yaalon had refrained from personally criticizing the Secretary of State, there was no doubt that he was fuming over the hi-tech security proposals presented by U.S. General John Allen, based on his recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most Israeli security experts agree with Yaalon that pilotless drones, hi-tech, and foreign forces cannot protect Israeli civilians in the future. Only Israeli 'boots on the ground' could do that. The problem is how to give Israel the security arrangements to protect Israeli civilians while granting the Palestinian a viable state.

 Now after his diatribe against Kerry, Yaalon has become the darling of the Far Right but he has also ended up with egg on his face after having to apologize publicly to the Secretary of State. Although most Israelis are also dubious about the Kerry mission, Yaalon has damaged his image by appearing to be another naive general, who is still a novice when it comes to politics and the press. Lesson number one: never say anything off record that could cause you grave damage if it appears later in the media. Israel's Defense Minister should also compare notes with another U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, who was fired on the spot by Obama for criticizing the President's policy on Afghanistan. Again, McChrystal thought he was speaking off the record to a reporter.

 Obama articulates containment for Middle East?

Obama viewed the interests of Israel and the Sunni Arab states as 'very closely aligned', but the Palestinian issue was preventing their forming an informal alliance.

 Is Barack Obama wising up to the fact that 'Yes we can' is a very iffy proposition in the Middle East? In an interview with the New Yorker's David Remnick, Obama rated the chances of completing final treaties on Iran, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute at 'less than fifty-fifty. After creating the impression that America is slowly disengaging from the region, the U.S. President articulated what sounds very much like a new containment policy for the three current crises in the region: "On the other hand, we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn't roll back on us. And all three are connected. I do believe that the region is going through rapid change and inexorable change. And the old order, the old equilibrium is no longer tenable. The question is, what happens next?" Obama viewed the interests of Israel and the Sunni Arab states as 'very closely aligned', but the Palestinian issue was preventing their forming an informal alliance. Then, the American leader defined his approach: "And so I think each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competitions still exist in the region, but that it is contained; it is expressed in ways that don't exact such an enormous toll on the countries involved, and that allow us to work with functioning states to prevent extremists emerging there. Where possible, we take targeted strikes, understanding that any time you take a military strike there are risks involved.”  This sounds like a far cry from 'all options are on the table' if the chances are less than fifty-fifty that Iran will jettison its nuclear weapons project in the long run.

But does anyone really believe the Ayatollahs will give up their nuclear ambitions after spending an enormous $170 billion and with their final objective in sight?

 Obama has now espoused a far fainter policy of 'where possible we take targeted strikes'. But on condition they won't roll the boulder back on the U.S.  If so, is Obama preparing to ride out his second term without a military confrontation with Tehran? That is not good news for Israel, bearing in mind that Iran may be only months away from acquiring atomic bombs, if it decides to break out. Ironically Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have a vested interest in keeping the lid on in the foreseeable future. But does anyone really believe the Ayatollahs will give up their nuclear ambitions after spending an enormous $170 billion and with their final objective in sight?  And once the fanatic Muslims get their hands on atomic bombs, they believe they will have acquired an insurance policy that will not only guarantee the regime's survival but will also enable them to dominate the Muslim world, and possibly carry out their declared goal to 'wipe Israel off the map'. Meanwhile General (ret.) Amos Yadlin, a former chief of IDF intelligence, describes Iran's nuclear program as a car that was previously moving forward (toward atomic bombs). But the vehicle was stopped by the international sanctions, which have forced Iran to shift into neutral gear for the next six months. Nonetheless, Iran has been permitted to maintain its capability and resources to restart its nuclear weapons project. Now the interim agreement has gone into force, the goal must now be:

  • To strip Iran of its sophisticated centrifuges and enriched uranium that are not required for peaceful purposes.
  • To conduct international monitoring of the Arak heavy water reactor that could supply plutonium for a nuclear weapon.
  • To conduct international monitoring of Iran's other nuclear sites.

 Yadlin's bottom line is that the permanent accord must force the Iranians to shift from neutral into reverse and dispose of their actual capacity to produce atomic bombs. Can Obama checkmate the Iranians? It’s an extremely tall order, and remember the Iranians claim to have invented the game of chess.

 Netanyahu at the Rubicon, again?

Today, Netanyahu is in a weaker position. The Palestinian diplomatic intifada launched in the U.N. and elsewhere has been steadily gaining ground, particularly in EU countries where several economic boycotts have been imposed on the Jewish state.

 If Obama has now laid out a new grand strategy for the Middle East, how should Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu respond? Secretary Kerry's unflagging efforts indicate the U.S. is investing a great deal of diplomatic prestige in trying to advance the peace progress. The last time Washington launched such a mission was the Roadmap plan for a two state solution that was presented by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2003. The U.S. sought support for its war in Iraq, by backing the proposal in concert with the European Union, Russia and the U.N.  At the time, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not enamored by the founding of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and added on fourteen points, which no one took seriously. But Sharon realized that his good friend Bush was in need of the international backing and bent with the political winds of the time. The Israeli leader did insist the Palestinians must first halt all terror activity against Israel and the agreement would be implemented in sequence. For example, there would be no advancing to the next stage unless Palestinian terror was brought to a total halt. Sharon, drawing on his farming background, had previously portrayed President Mahmoud Abbas as a weak 'chick without feathers' who could not eliminate the Palestinian terrorism. In the end, Sharon proved right. Radical Hamas expelled Abbas and Fatah from Gaza, and the Roadmap petered out. Today, Netanyahu is in a weaker position. The Palestinian diplomatic intifada launched in the U.N. and elsewhere has been steadily gaining ground, particularly in EU countries where several economic boycotts have been imposed on the Jewish state. The recent Israeli government announcement about housing tenders for building 1,400 new housing units in Judea & Samaria has only added fuel to the flames. (The fact that the housing units were a counter to Israel's release of Palestinian terrorists cuts no ice with Israel's critics at home and abroad). The settlement building on the West Bank inflicts more political harm on Israel than anything else. Even Israel's supporters have told Netanyahu that it is in Israel's own interest to halt the settlement construction. If Israel's Prime Minister is sincere about a two state solution, why is he announcing new housing developments on the West Bank that are destined for that proposed Palestinian state? But clearly Israel will not be returning to the old lines of 1949 (pre-1967) that invited repeated Arab attacks on the Jewish state.

...there is international support for land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians that would leave the major settlement blocs, where most 'settlers' live, inside Israel.

 Today, after U.S. Presidents Bush and Obama supported the idea of land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians, there is international support for land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians that would leave the major settlement blocs, where most 'settlers' live, inside Israel. Dan Meridor, a former Likud cabinet minister, has come up with a solution that is worth serious consideration. The idea is that Israel would announce that it will build only within territory that will clearly remain within its territory in any future peace agreement. But what about the Jordan Valley Basin, which is now part of a hot public debate in Israel?  There is a general consensus that the region is vital for Israel's defense. Meridor has noted that previously Netanyahu stressed that Israeli forces must remain deployed along the Jordan River for an indefinite period of time to prevent an influx of terrorists (Hamas, al Qaeda, you name it) into the West Bank.

 

 

 David Essing 

 

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