24 September 2009

Game, set and match to Mr Netanyahu

Winners are grinners they say and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must be laughing all the way home at the outcome of the meetings on Middle East Peace sponsored by President Obama. On West Bank settlements he has been utterly intransigent, and all of the Americans’ tough talk from last May about how the President “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” (see West Bank Settlements: full marks to Mrs Clinton) has collapsed to the usual posture in the face of Israeli intransigence – hand-wringing and bleating from the sidelines. As The Age’s correspondent in Jerusalem, Jason Koutsoukis, put it in today’s edition (Everyone a loser in Mid-East stalemate, but some more than others - available here):

... the much-talked-about freeze on building Jewish settlements on the West Bank has been downgraded to a meek plea that Israel ought to “restrain” itself from further construction.

So Mr Netanyahu can now cheerfully press on with the great project of “changing the facts on the ground” in the West Bank, with its dual purposes of enlarging the Israeli population of the West Bank and steadily erasing the physical signs of centuries of Arab habitation and culture in the region.

That is not the end of the story of course. Mr Netanyahu’s licence to continue what he was always going to do means that Mahmoud Abbas returns to Ramallah a dead man walking, so Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh must be having a quiet chuckle about this turn of events.

Another person who must be having a quiet chuckle is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Holding itself out as the protector of the interests of the Palestinian people has been a key plank of Iranian foreign policy that goes right back to the early days of the Shah. This is what Iranian support for Hezbollah is all about. In its alignment with the sentiments of the Arab “street”, this stance is a kind of insurance policy against any assault from the US-aligned Sunni Arab autocracies in the region. The last thing in the world Mr Ahmadinejad would have wanted to see would be progress towards a Palestinian settlement taking place without his involvement. He can always rely on Mr Netanyahu in that regard.

It is one of the paradoxes of the Middle East situation that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Ahmadinejad need each other. Mr Netanyahu needs “existential threats” in order to keep the Americans in line, and Iran under Mr Ahamdinejad fills that role very nicely. Given the existential threat, Mr Netanyahu has the ultimate trump card to ensure that the Americans never even think about going soft on their security guarantees to Israel: a nuclear strike force which the Israelis have put on full alert on various occasions in the past, and which the Americans know some Israeli leaders might just be mad enough to use. So a peaceful transition to an Iranian Government led by Mir-Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi would not have suited Mr Netanyahu at all.

One of the big losers out of all of this is President Obama. This is a strategic defeat for him, not a tactical withdrawal. He talked tough to the Israelis, they didn’t budge, and he blinked. So forget about all the brave talk of moving to “final status” negotiations. Mr Netanyahu will turn up for the talks in the second half of October, but he knows that he simply has to insist on unacceptable parameters for the final status and the talks will go nowhere. The Israelis are quite comfortable with the status quo; it is the Palestinians who are desperate for change.

Forget also the American spin to the effect that “the US President would issue a stern reprimand to both sides”. Mr Netanyahu has broad enough shoulders to cope with all the reprimands in the world, as long as he gets what he wants.

This is a big loss for President Obama in another respect. This little circus has had many audiences, and a lot of very unpleasant people around the world will have drawn their own conclusions about the Obama Administration.

The conclusions I draw from this turn of events are:

(1) The two-state solution is dead. Netanyahu never wanted it, he can barely bring himself to utter the words, and he now knows that the Administration lacks the will to impose it on him – and he knows that everyone else knows.

(2) This means that Israel will remain in control of all the territory of Mandate Palestine for as far ahead as one can see.

(3) Fatah is a spent force – it demonstrably cannot deliver anything to the Palestinian people. The West has made its usual mistake of dealing with the people it likes rather than the people that represent the mindset and aspirations of the local population, and as always, the realities overtake us sooner or later.

(4) For anyone wanting to engage seriously with the aspirations of the Palestinian people Hamas is now the only game in town, and knows it is. The West would have been better to treat Hamas with due respect when it won a free and fair election in 2006, instead of trying to starve them into submission while dabbling in the internal workings of Palestinian politics and trying to create a situation in which Fatah would come out on top.

(5) There will be no peaceful solution to the plight of the Palestinians, which takes me back to President Obama’s Cairo speech in which he counselled the Palestinians that:

Resistance through violence is wrong and does not succeed.

The Likud (formerly Irgun) boys must have had a giggle when they heard that one – it was through violence that they succeeded, and one of the guests of honour at the 60th anniversary of their bombing of the King David Hotel was none other than Binyamin Netanyahu, to the fury of the British.

The irony is that in the same speech President Obama was the first President to come right out and acknowledge that the Palestinians were living under “occupation”, i.e., military occupation. What he did not acknowledge was that military occupation is itself an act of violence. It is a declaration that the occupying power makes the rules, and that if any of the locals violates those rules then the occupying power can, at its own discretion, kill, incarcerate and/or torture anyone who may or may not be involved in the violation, and/or confiscate their property, without due process and without redress.

It is for this reason that it is quite normal for military occupations to end violently if they end at all. President Obama apparently saw no irony in saying “violence gets you nowhere” in Cairo and then proceeding directly from Cairo to the D-Day commemoration on the Normandy beaches. As I recall, the German occupation of Europe ended quite violently.

Of course the long term outlook is not so rosy for Israel. As the Eretz Israel project, an avowedly Jewish State with an emerging Arab majority population, continues on its merry way, it will have to look more and more like an apartheid state in which the indigenous people are confined to reservations and have grossly inferior political, legal and economic rights. That of course is not a durable solution – it can last only until the first time the dominant minority loses its grip, after which it will see irreversible change.

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