Preparing for War with Iran?

As Israel prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary, the weak and internally divided government of Ehud Olmert persists in pursuing counterproductive policies detached from all regional and global realities except the guaranteed support of the United States.  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice soldiers on in her starring role keeping the theatrical performance known as “the peace process” from closing before President Bush leaves office.  But the chances that any meaningful Palestinian-Israeli agreement will be reached are nearly nonexistent.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with President Bush on April 24 and walked away with only a promise of $50 million dollars, many compliments, and more verbal proclamations from official Washington that Israel should stop settlement expansion and dismantle “illegal” settlement outposts (as if all the other settlements were legal).  Bush’s and Rice’s words on the settlement issue were more forceful than usual.  But they are no cause for optimism.

Israel responded by reminding President Bush of his joint press conference with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April 2004.  On that occasion Bush made public a letter in which he wrote to Sharon, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers [i.e., settlements], it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”   This commitment was made without consulting any Palestinian party, thereby reversing previous U.S. policy that the boundaries of a Palestinian state should be negotiated by Israel and the Palestinians.  Israel also revealed previously secret commitments by Bush and Rice giving Israel permission to expand settlements that it expects to retain in a final status agreement despite the fact that this would violate provisions of the roadmap.

White House spokespersons denied that Bush had given the go ahead for settlement expansion.  Nonetheless, Israel continues to announce new housing starts in the Jerusalem area as well as large settlements like the Jerusalem suburb of Ma‚alei Adumim, which it expects to annex.  In Jerusalem, the Bush administration’s verbal admonishments on settlement expansion are treated as tactics to placate (or deceive) the Arabs, but not more.

Abbas ended his Washington visit by telling the Associated Press,  “Frankly, so far nothing has been achieved.  But we are still conducting direct work to have a solution.”  Having no resources of his own, Abbas has apparently decided that he has no choice but to put his entire stakes on the Bush administration.  This is not a high percentage bet.

Back in the real world, as Abbas was returning from Washington, Israel proudly announced the removal of one more of the approximately 500 roadblocks and checkpoints that dot the West Bank and obstruct the conduct of daily life.  (On the eve of Condoleezza Rice’s last visit some sixty dirt roadblocks and two unmanned checkpoints were removed; but thirty of those roadblocks had been put in place only a month before, and several of the others had already been flattened by Palestinian farmers with bulldozers.)  Several days later a team sponsored by the Peres Center for Peace, The Palestine Center for National Strategic Studies and the Danish government submitted a report proposing that Israel remove ten roadblocks in the West Bank which have little security value and unnecessarily disrupt commerce.  Although the team includes two retired Israeli generals, the Israeli government’s initial reaction was skeptical.  Olmert’s inability to remove a substantial number of checkpoints, foot-dragging on compiling the list of Palestinian prisoners to be exchanged for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was captured near the Gaza Strip nearly two years ago, and periodic provocative announcements of new housing starts in the Jerusalem area exemplify his weakness and lack of a mandate for peace.

Meanwhile, with full support from Washington, Israel continues to besiege the Gaza Strip, imposing a severe collective punishment on its 1.5 million people who are becoming ever more deeply mired in poverty and deprivation.  At the same time, the Israeli army launches regular assaults on military and political leaders of Hamas and other armed Palestinian organizations using aircraft and tanks nearly indiscriminately, almost guaranteeing that innocent civilians will be killed and wounded.

On April 28 Israeli forces attacked the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanun.  Eyewitnesses claimed that a missile fired by an Israeli aircraft killed seven Palestinians, including a mother and four of her children aged one to five who were inside their home eating breakfast.  An Israeli army investigation, not a procedure likely to incriminate soldiers, was prompted by the international media attention.  Although admittedly basing its conclusion on limited evidence, the army insisted that the family was killed because “it is likely” that two militants standing near their home were carrying explosives which were detonated by the blast of the missile.  One way or another, Israeli military sources do not dispute that a missile was fired close enough to a civilian residence to cause, directly or indirectly, the deaths of five innocent people.

Nonetheless, Israel has failed to obtain its objectives in the Gaza Strip.  A report by the International Crisis Group (no. 73, March 19, 2008) concludes: “The policy of isolating Hamas and sanctioning Gaza is bankrupt and, by all conceivable measures, has backfired.  Violence is rising, harming both Gazans and Israelis.  Economic conditions are ruinous, generating anger and despair.  The credibility of President Mahmoud Abbas and other pragmatists has been further damaged.  The peace process is at a standstill.  Meanwhile, Hamas’ hold on Gaza, purportedly the policy’s principal target, has been consolidated.”

The Beit Hanun incident also highlighted divisions within Olmert’s government.  Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, who ousted Amir Peretz from the leadership of the Labor Party ten months ago, proclaimed that the army would not apologize for the civilian deaths and that “Hamas is responsible for the violence in the Gaza Strip [because] the way it operates endangers innocent civilians.”  This is certainly true.  But it did not prevent Prime Minister Olmert from expressing “regret” over their deaths (along with regret for the deaths of Israeli civilians) even if his words fell short of a full apology.

Behind these verbal differences, many observers believe that the army, and Barak in particular, are pressing for a full scale reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, which they call “mowing the grass.”  Unlike Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, they do not believe in diplomacy.  Given the failure of the policy of isolating and sanctioning Hamas, this is the only alternative.  Barak apparently believes that a victorious campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip is also his best ticket to becoming a credible candidate for prime minister in the next election.  His legendary arrogance does not permit him to consider the costs of failure.

This grim prospect, whether or not it is not realized, is consistent with the Bush administration’s policy, which is to pursue a confrontation with what it perceives as a Middle Eastern axis of evil comprised of Iran, Syria, Hizbollah, and Hamas while trying to construct a countervailing axis of righteousness consisting of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Mahmoud Abbas.  Such a policy could only succeed if Israel offered Abbas a two-state territorial deal so sweet that it would win broad Palestinian legitimacy.  In that case, even many of those who no longer support his Fatah organization would likely accept it.

The Bush administration has not pressed Olmert to do this.  Moreover, despite many recent indications that Syria is prepared for a deal with Israel on the Golan Heights and that Hamas is willing to negotiate with Israel, Washington also opposes exploring these diplomatic options.  Even if the Bush administration finds itself unable to launch a war against Iran before retiring to the dustbin of history, it is making every effort to make such a war a live policy option for the next president.  Hillary Clinton has obliged by declaring her willingness to “obliterate” Iran should it launch an attack on Israel.

Joel Beinin
May 1, 2008

Joel Beinin is currently Director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo while he is on temporary leave from his position as History Professor at Stanford University.  Beinin is also a past president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.  This essay first appeared in the 1 May 2008 Jewish Voice for Peace E-Newsletter.

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