Palestine and Israel: What’s Iran Got to Do with It?

Responding to the Israeli voices and actions noisily advocating a preemptive strike against Iran, Ha-Aretz columnist Uzi Benziman (July 21, 2008) writes, “Before bombing Iran, it would be best [for Israel] to solve the conflict with the Palestinians.  By the way, there does appear to be a link between the two threats.”  While Benziman doesn’t specify the links, there are at least two significant ones.

First, the effect of foregrounding the Iranian nuclear threat, which both the International Atomic Energy Agency and US intelligence agencies say does not now exist, has been to take the spotlight off Israel’s continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories.  The agreement brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to open the Gaza Strip crossings last November was only a partial palliative at best.  No political progress has been made on the Gaza front since Israel and the US continue to isolate and reject negotiations with Hamas, which they simplemindedly define as a terrorist organization allied to Iran.  According to the latest report of the Crisis Group, in the West Bank, Israel has not loosened its closure regime or halted its military incursions.  The economy has not grown much.  And the Palestinian Authority has used harsh tactics against Hamas sympathizers, including torture, that undermine good governance.  Meanwhile, the negotiations launched at Annapolis in November 2007 are on life support and President Bush is taking no heroic measures to resuscitate them.

Second, the political forces in the United States who have been loudest in advocating a confrontational stance towards Iran are the same forces that have obstructed Palestinian-Israeli peace.  Prominent among them are AIPAC, the ADL, the ZOA, the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and right-wing evangelical Protestants exemplified by John Hagee‘s Christians United for Israel.

On June 8 Shaul Mofaz, Minister of Transportation and former defense minister and IDF chief-of-staff, proclaimed that an Israeli attack on Iran was becoming “unavoidable.”  That same week the Israeli air force carried out a practice bombing run on Iran in the eastern Mediterranean.  Two weeks later Israeli officials “leaked” the news of the exercise.

Mofaz is positioning himself as the security hawk in the potential contest to succeed Ehud Olmert as Prime Minister and leader of the Kadima party should Olmert be forced to resign due to ongoing investigations of alleged financial corruption.  Like President Bush and Vice-President Cheney, both Mofaz and Prime Minister Olmert reject the findings of the US National Intelligence Estimate released in December 2007 which concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.  Olmert and Mofaz also apparently dismiss the views of former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy, who said in a public lecture last October that the Iranian threat “is substantive, but not existential” (Ha-Aretz, Oct. 18, 2007).

Not to be outdone by Mofaz’s blustering, Olmert made a not-so-secret visit to Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona on July 1 which served to advertise its nuclear capacity.  Israel’s nuclear weapons are a major source of regional insecurity, and its neighbors often express their concern about their danger.  Doesn’t Olmert’s visit then seem counterproductive?  Isn’t it notable that, as was the case before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, intelligence professionals have a more sober analysis than the political leaders to whom they report and whose policies are supposedly based on that analysis?

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livini, another aspirant for Olmert’s job, is positioning herself as the “moderate” in the Kadima leadership.  She has criticized Olmert’s exaggeration of the Iranian threat.  Shortly after Halevy publicly downplayed the Iranian danger, Ha-Aretz reported that Livini also believed that “Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel.”  The same article revealed that Livni was out of the loop on Israel’s decision to attack Lebanon in 2006 and that her chief advisor was pessimistic about the possibility of reaching a permanent settlement with the Palestinians any time soon.

However, President Bush and Secretary of State Rice, were interested in convening the Annapolis conference and encouraging Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, although there was no hope of them succeeding during the president’s last year in office.  The real purpose of this charade remains unclear.  To the extent that it had a strategic vision, it seems to have been motivated by the desire to line up America’s “moderate” Sunni Arab allies — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Persian Gulf statelets — against Hamas and its shi’a supporters, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.

So, Livni has dutifully headed up the Israeli negotiating team and Rice has logged tens of thousands of miles in fruitless visits to the Middle East with almost nothing to show for her efforts. Until she dispatched Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns to Geneva to meet with Javier Solana, the European Union’s High Representative for a Common Foreign and Security Policy, and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, on July 19, Condi had fallen into line behind warmonger-in-chief Cheney on Iran.

This is the first official contact between the United States and Iran since the revolution of 1979, a momentous policy shift followed up by public discussion of the possibility of opening a US interests section in Teheran.  It is especially remarkable since only two months before, while addressing the Israeli Knesset, President Bush compared Barack Obama’s willingness to engage in diplomatic talks with Iran to Europe’s appeasement of Nazis at Munich in 1938.  Meanwhile, Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff has been conducting his own campaign against a US strike on Iran.  Earlier this month, he warned against opening a “third front” and called for “dialogue” with Iran.  On July 20 he told Fox News Sunday that he was concerned that any US or Israeli strike on Iran would risk “significant” turmoil in the Middle East.  Thus, it appears that the likelihood of an American assault on Iran has been significantly reduced.  Since two-thirds of all Israelis oppose a solo Israeli attack on Iran according to a poll conducted last December, Prime Minister Olmert might want to avoid a second unpopular and potentially disastrous military adventure.

However, it’s too soon to breathe a sigh of relief.  The Geneva talks did not produce the result that Solana hoped for.  He gave Iran a two week deadline to freeze uranium enrichment in return for freezing the sanctions now in place.  However, as Julian Borger wrote in The Observer, “for now, US moderates are in the ascendant.”

Lest good sense win the day, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has leaped into the breach to promote an ultra-aggressive posture towards Iran embodied in House Concurrent Resolution 362.  According to Trita Parsi, n president of the National Iranian American Council, this non-binding resolution “was the top agenda point of the 7,000 AIPAC members who descended on Capitol Hill” after their annual conference in June.

The resolution, which is on the fast track to adoption by the House and Senate,

demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program. 

This language, as one of the bill’s 247 (!) co-sponsors Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) acknowledged, “could lead to a US blockade of Iran.”  Unless it is authorized by a UN Security Council resolution, a blockade is a violation of international law and an act of war.  Should this occur it would be the ultimate irony, since Israel claimed that the casus belli for its preemptive attack on Egypt and Syria in 1967 was Egypt’s blockade of the Straits of Tiran.  But AIPAC and its allies in the Bush administration and the US war party are not particularly good at learning from history.

Joel Beinin
Oakland, CA, July 22, 2008

Joel Beinin is Professor of Middle East History, Stanford University.  This article was first published on the mailing list of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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