Posts Tagged ‘Arabs’


Thursday, Sep. 02, 2010

Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace

Heli and Eli sell condos on Exodus Street, a name that evokes a certain historical hardship in a neighborhood that suggests none at all, the ingathering of the Jews having entered a whole new realm here. The talk in the little office is of interest rates and panoramic sea views from handsomely appointed properties selling on the Ashdod waterfront for half what people are asked to pay in Tel Aviv, 18 miles (29 km) to the north. And sell they do, hand over fist — never mind the rockets that fly out of Gaza, 14 miles (22.5 km) to the south. “Even when the Qassams fell, we continued to sell!” says Heli Itach, slapping a palm on the office desk. The skull on her designer shirt is made of sequins spelling out “Love Kills Slowly.” “What the people see on the TV there is not true here,” she says. “I sold, this week, 12 apartments. You’re not client, I tell you the truth.”
The truth? In the week that three Presidents, a King and their own Prime Minister gather at the White House to begin a fresh round of talks on peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the truth is, Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the matter. They’re otherwise engaged; they’re making money; they’re enjoying the rays of late summer. A watching world may still define their country by the blood feud with the Arabs whose families used to live on this land and whether that conflict can be negotiated away, but Israelis say they have moved on. (See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)
Now observing 2½ years without a single suicide bombing on their territory, with the economy robust and with souls a trifle weary of having to handle big elemental thoughts, the Israeli public prefers to explore such satisfactions as might be available from the private sphere, in a land first imagined as a utopia. “Listen to me,” says Eli Bengozi, born in Soviet Georgia and for 40 years an Israeli. “Peace? Forget about it. They’ll never have peace. Remember Clinton gave 99% to Arafat, and instead of them fighting for 1%, what? Intifadeh.” (See TIME’s photo-essay “Palestinian ‘Day of Rage.’ “)
But wait. Deep down (you can almost hear the outside world ask), don’t Israelis know that finding peace with the Palestinians is the only way to guarantee their happiness and prosperity? Well, not exactly. Asked in a March poll to name the “most urgent problem” facing Israel, just 8% of Israeli Jews cited the conflict with Palestinians, putting it fifth behind education, crime, national security and poverty. Israeli Arabs placed peace first, but among Jews here, the issue that President Obama calls “critical for the world” just doesn’t seem — critical.
Another whack for the desk. “The people,” Heli says, “don’t believe.” Eli searches for a word. “People in Israel are indifferent,” he decides. “They don’t care if there’s going to be war. They don’t care if there’s going to be peace. They don’t care. They live in the day.”
See a story on Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
Is the U.S. pursuing the wrong Middle East peace process?

This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the Sept. 13, 2010, print and iPad editions of TIME magazine.

Find this article at:

Why Israelis Don’t Care About Peace with Palestinians — Printout — TIME

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An excellent intelligence assessment from Stratfor. 

I completely agree: If the world – and notably the Middle Eastern countries – wants to contain Iran, this is the way to go forward.

Rethinking American Options on Iran

August 31, 2010 | 0856 GMT

By George Friedman

 Public discussion of potential attacks on Iran’s nuclear development sites is surging again. This has happened before. On several occasions, leaks about potential airstrikes have created an atmosphere of impending war. These leaks normally coincided with diplomatic initiatives and were designed to intimidate the Iranians and facilitate a settlement favorable to the United States and Israel. These initiatives have failed in the past. It is therefore reasonable to associate the current avalanche of reports with the imposition of sanctions and view it as an attempt to increase the pressure on Iran and either force a policy shift or take advantage of divisions within the regime.

My first instinct is to dismiss the war talk as simply another round of psychological warfare against Iran, this time originating with Israel. Most of the reports indicate that Israel is on the verge of attacking Iran. From a psychological-warfare standpoint, this sets up the good-cop/bad-cop routine. The Israelis play the mad dog barely restrained by the more sober Americans, who urge the Iranians through intermediaries to make concessions and head off a war. As I said, we have been here before several times, and this hasn’t worked.

The worst sin of intelligence is complacency, the belief that simply because something has happened (or has not happened) several times before it is not going to happen this time. But each episode must be considered carefully in its own light and preconceptions from previous episodes must be banished. Indeed, the previous episodes might well have been intended to lull the Iranians into complacency themselves. Paradoxically, the very existence of another round of war talk could be intended to convince the Iranians that war is distant while covert war preparations take place. An attack may be in the offing, but the public displays neither confirm nor deny that possibility.

The Evolving Iranian Assessment
STRATFOR has gone through three phases in its evaluation of the possibility of war. The first, which was in place until July 2009, held that while Iran was working toward a nuclear weapon, its progress could not be judged by its accumulation of enriched uranium. While that would give you an underground explosion, the creation of a weapon required sophisticated technologies for ruggedizing and miniaturizing the device, along with a very reliable delivery system. In our view, Iran might be nearing a testable device but it was far from a deliverable weapon <> . Therefore, we dismissed war talk and argued that there was no meaningful pressure for an attack on Iran.

We modified this view somewhat in July 2009, after the Iranian elections and the demonstrations. While we dismissed the significance of the demonstrations, we noted close collaboration developing between Russia and Iran. That meant there could be no effective sanctions against Iran, so stalling for time in order for sanctions to work had no value. Therefore, the possibility of a strike increased.

But then Russian support stalled as well, and we turned back to our analysis, adding to it an evaluation of potential Iranian responses to any air attack. We noted three potential counters: activating Shiite militant groups (most notably Hezbollah), creating chaos in Iraq and blocking the Strait of Hormuz <> , through which 45 percent of global oil exports travel. Of the three Iranian counters, the last was the real “nuclear option.” Interfering with the supply of oil from the Persian Gulf would raise oil prices stunningly and would certainly abort the tepid global economic recovery. Iran would have the option of plunging the world into a global recession or worse.

There has been debate over whether Iran would choose to do the latter or whether the U.S. Navy could rapidly clear mines <> . It is hard to imagine how an Iranian government could survive air attacks without countering them in some way. It is also a painful lesson of history that the confidence of any military force cannot be a guide to its performance. At the very least, there is a possibility that the Iranians could block the Strait of Hormuz, and that means the possibility of devastating global economic consequences. That is a massive risk for the United States to take, against an unknown probability of successful Iranian action. In our mind, it was not a risk that the United States could take, especially when added to the other Iranian counters. Therefore, we did not think the United States would strike.

Certainly, we did not believe that the Israelis would strike Iran alone. First, the Israelis are much less likely to succeed than the Americans would be, given the size of their force and their distance from Iran (not to mention the fact that they would have to traverse either Turkish, Iraqi or Saudi airspace). More important, Israel lacks the ability to mitigate any consequences. Any Israeli attack would have to be coordinated with the United States so that the United States could alert and deploy its counter-mine, anti-submarine and missile-suppression assets. For Israel to act without giving the United States time to mitigate the Hormuz option would put Israel in the position of triggering a global economic crisis. The political consequences of that would not be manageable by Israel. Therefore, we found an Israeli strike against Iran without U.S. involvement difficult to imagine.

The Current Evaluation
Our current view is that the accumulation of enough enriched uranium to build a weapon does not mean that the Iranians are anywhere close to having a weapon. Moreover, the risks inherent in an airstrike on its nuclear facilities outstrip the benefits (and even that assumes that the entire nuclear industry is destroyed in one fell swoop — an unsure outcome at best). It also assumes the absence of other necessary technologies. Assumptions of U.S. prowess against mines might be faulty, and so, too, could my assumption about weapon development. The calculus becomes murky, and one would expect all governments involved to be waffling.

There is, of course, a massive additional issue. Apart from the direct actions that Iran might make, there is the fact that the destruction of its nuclear capability would not solve the underlying strategic challenge that Iran poses. It has the largest military force in the Persian Gulf, absent the United States. The United States is in the process of withdrawing from Iraq, which would further diminish the ability of the United States to contain Iran. Therefore, a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear capability combined with the continuing withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would create a profound strategic crisis in the Persian Gulf.

The country most concerned about Iran is not Israel, but Saudi Arabia. The Saudis recall the result of the last strategic imbalance in the region, when Iraq, following its armistice with Iran, proceeded to invade Kuwait, opening the possibility that its next intention was to seize the northeastern oil fields of Saudi Arabia. In that case, the United States intervened. Given that the United States is now withdrawing from Iraq, intervention following withdrawal would be politically difficult unless the threat to the United States was clear. More important, the Iranians might not give the Saudis the present Saddam Hussein gave them by seizing Kuwait and then halting. They might continue. They certainly have the military capacity to try.

In a real sense, the Iranians would not have to execute such a military operation in order to gain the benefits. The simple imbalance of forces would compel the Saudis and others in the Persian Gulf to seek a political accommodation with the Iranians. Strategic domination of the Persian Gulf does not necessarily require military occupation — as the Americans have abundantly demonstrated over the past 40 years. It merely requires the ability to carry out those operations.

The Saudis, therefore, have been far quieter — and far more urgent — than the Israelis in asking the United States to do something about the Iranians. The Saudis certainly do not want the United States to leave Iraq. They want the Americans there as a blocking force protecting Saudi Arabia but not positioned on Saudi soil. They obviously are not happy about Iran’s nuclear efforts, but the Saudis see the conventional and nuclear threat as a single entity. The collapse of the Iran-Iraq balance of power has left the Arabian Peninsula in a precarious position.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia did an interesting thing a few weeks ago. He visited Lebanon personally and in the company of the president of Syria. The Syrian and Saudi regimes are not normally friendly, given different ideologies, Syria’s close relationship with Iran and their divergent interests in Lebanon. But there they were together, meeting with the Lebanese government and giving not very subtle warnings to Hezbollah <> . Saudi influence and money and the threat of Iran jeopardizing the Saudi regime by excessive adventurism seems to have created an anti-Hezbollah dynamic in Lebanon. Hezbollah is suddenly finding many of its supposed allies cooperating with some of its certain enemies. The threat of a Hezbollah response to an airstrike on Iran seems to be mitigated somewhat.

Eliminating Iranian Leverage In Hormuz
I said that there were three counters. One was Hezbollah, which is the least potent of the three from the American perspective. The other two are Iraq and Hormuz. If the Iraqis were able to form a government that boxed in pro-Iranian factions in a manner similar to how Hezbollah is being tentatively contained, then the second Iranian counter would be weakened. That would “just” leave the major issue — Hormuz.

The problem with Hormuz is that the United States cannot tolerate any risk there. The only way to control that risk is to destroy Iranian naval capability before airstrikes on nuclear targets take place. Since many of the Iranian mine layers would be small boats, this would mean an extensive air campaign and special operations forces raids against Iranian ports designed to destroy anything that could lay mines, along with any and all potential mine-storage facilities, anti-ship missile emplacements, submarines and aircraft. Put simply, any piece of infrastructure within a few miles of any port would need to be eliminated. The risk to Hormuz cannot be eliminated after the attack on nuclear sites. It must be eliminated before an attack on the nuclear sites. And the damage must be overwhelming.

There are two benefits to this strategy. First, the nuclear facilities aren’t going anywhere. It is the facilities that are producing the enriched uranium and other parts of the weapon that must be destroyed more than any uranium that has already been enriched. And the vast bulk of those facilities will remain where they are even if there is an attack on Iran’s maritime capabilities. Key personnel would undoubtedly escape, but considering that within minutes of the first American strike anywhere in Iran a mass evacuation of key scientists would be under way anyway, there is little appreciable difference between a first strike against nuclear sites and a first strike against maritime targets. (U.S. air assets are good, but even the United States cannot strike 100-plus targets simultaneously.)

Second, the counter-nuclear strategy wouldn’t deal with the more fundamental problem of Iran’s conventional military power. This opening gambit would necessarily attack Iran’s command-and-control, air-defense and offensive air capabilities as well as maritime capabilities. This would sequence with an attack on the nuclear capabilities and could be extended into a prolonged air campaign targeting Iran’s ground forces.

The United States is very good at gaining command of the air and attacking conventional military capabilities (see Yugoslavia in 1999). Its strategic air capability is massive and, unlike most of the U.S. military, underutilized. The United States also has substantial air forces deployed around Iran, along with special operations forces teams trained in penetration, evasion and targeting, and satellite surveillance. Far from the less-than-rewarding task of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, going after Iran would be the kind of war the United States excels at fighting. No conventional land invasion, no boots-on-the-ground occupation, just a very thorough bombing campaign. If regime change happens as a consequence, great, but that is not the primary goal. Defanging the Iranian state is.

It is also the only type of operation that could destroy the nuclear capabilities (and then some) while preventing an Iranian response. It would devastate Iran’s conventional military forces, eliminating the near-term threat to the Arabian Peninsula. Such an attack, properly executed, would be the worst-case scenario for Iran and, in my view, the only way an extended air campaign against nuclear facilities could be safely executed.

Just as Iran’s domination of the Persian Gulf rests on its ability to conduct military operations, not on its actually conducting the operations, the reverse is also true. It is the capacity and apparent will to conduct broadened military operations against Iran that can shape Iranian calculations and decision-making. So long as the only threat is to Iran’s nuclear facilities, its conventional forces remain intact and its counter options remain viable, Iran will not shift its strategy. Once its counter options are shut down and its conventional forces are put at risk, Iran must draw up another calculus.

In this scenario, Israel is a marginal player. The United States is the only significant actor, and it might not strike Iran simply over the nuclear issue. That’s not a major U.S. problem. But the continuing withdrawal from Iraq and Iran’s conventional forces are very much an American problem. Destroying Iran’s nuclear capability is merely an added benefit.

Given the Saudi intervention in Lebanese politics, this scenario now requires a radical change in Iraq, one in which a government would be quickly formed and Iranian influence quickly curtailed. Interestingly, we have heard recent comments by administration officials asserting that Iranian influence has, in fact, been dramatically reduced. At present, such a reduction is not obvious to us, but the first step of shifting perceptions tends to be propaganda. If such a reduction became real, then the two lesser Iranian counter moves would be blocked and the U.S. offensive option would become more viable.

Internal Tension in Tehran
At this point, we would expect to see the Iranians recalculating their position, with some of the clerical leadership using the shifting sands of Lebanon against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, there have been many indications of internal stress, not between the mythical democratic masses and the elite, but within the elite itself. This past weekend the Iranian speaker of the house attacked Ahmadinejad’s handling of special emissaries. For what purpose we don’t yet know, but the internal tension is growing.

The Iranians are not concerned about the sanctions. The destruction of their nuclear capacity would, from their point of view, be a pity. But the destruction of large amounts of their conventional forces would threaten not only their goals in the wider Islamic world but also their stability at home. That would be unacceptable and would require a shift in their general strategy.

From the Iranian point of view — and from ours — Washington’s intentions are opaque. But when we consider the Obama administration’s stated need to withdraw from Iraq, Saudi pressure on the United States not to withdraw while Iran remains a threat, Saudi moves against Hezbollah to split Syria from Iran and Israeli pressure on the United States to deal with nuclear weapons, the pieces for a new American strategy are emerging from the mist. Certainly the Iranians appear to be nervous. And the threat of a new strategy might just be enough to move the Iranians off dead center. If they don’t, logic would dictate the consideration of a broader treatment of the military problem posed by Iran.

Rethinking American Options on Iran  is republished with permission of STRATFOR.”

<> The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

The Last Jews of Essaouira

Jun. 25, 2009

Josef Sebag says he has a fine life in his native Essaouira, though he has
no friends here. This retail-artisan heaven for tourists on Morocco’s
southern Atlantic coast is a town unique in the Arab world for its history
of Jewish-Muslim relations.

He is often in his casbah antiques and book store, just off the large main
square and next to the hippest night spot in town. Sebag does not hang out
in the rooftop Taros Café, but does spend a good amount of time in London,
Paris and New York. Something about living in Western cultural capitals
suits him. He has friends there.

Visitors come to see him, from France, Canada and Israel, but most tourists
are not insiders in Essaouira, known as “Souira” to the locals. The Moroccan
Arabs call him “el yahoudi” (the Jew) but Sebag says it is never meant
nastily. He is as Moroccan and Souiri as they are, and they know it. His
family has been in Morocco since fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

His store is a must for British, Australian, American and French tourists,
as well as for surfers from all over and for increasing numbers of Israelis,
especially the ones born in Morocco who don’t come as part of organized tour

Most Moroccan and foreign Arabs do not come to his store, though it has
nothing to do with Sebag’s being a Jew. An exception is certain Arab authors
who leave their poetry and prose with him, a sign of respect, as they know
he carries few Arabic-language books.

“I know everyone born and raised here but have few friends,” he begins in
French. “What can we talk about – art, literature? No, we can’t. The local
people are more concerned about making money in their stores and restaurants
than reading. Some do very well here in Souira, but many have never been out
of Morocco.”

Sebag is one of some 4,000 Jews still living in Morocco, mostly in
Casablanca, but that is another story. He and his ailing mother are two of
perhaps four – or seven or eight, depending on whom you ask – Jewish
Essaouira natives left from a community that has lived here since 1760.

ESSAOUIRA USED to be an example of a small Arab town in which Muslims and
Jews lived side by side in both rich and poor districts, working together
but socially segregated – and in peace. It was unique because there were
almost as many Jews as there were Muslims, so the term “minority” did not
really apply, as it did in every other town and city in Morocco and
everywhere in the Arab world.

Aside from ownership of the land in and around the town, which always
remained in the hands of the caids and makhsen – local landed gentry and
royal family clans – most urban-style import-export business was dominated
by Jewish families.

The one exception was all artisan work connected to wood, directly linked to
the vast forests around the town. But as an example, from the very beginning
of royal trading in the 18th century, the Corcos family dominated the import
of tea leaves from Britain, which originated from its Far East colonies, and
was thus responsible for making tea the traditional morning beverage in

Essaouira’s last Jews began to leave following the Six Day War. Many of the
working-class families left the mellah, the Jewish district in Arab cities,
for Israel. The casbah’s well-off business leaders headed mostly to France
and Canada. But thousands of Jews remain here, buried in two cemeteries on
the edge of town, including Rabbi Haim Pinto, whose tomb thousands of Jews
from abroad visit every September in a hiloula, a pilgrimage.

Today, real estate and tourism are booming in Essaouira, but the boom has
little to do with the Jewish world, other than a few very active key
players. The same is true for the music festivals, including the Gnawa
Festival in June that draws up to 400,000 mostly Western visitors.

“There are leading Moroccan Arab families here making a lot of money with
French firms in construction and tourism-linked activities in general, and
that is grand for them and for the town,” Sebag says, “but let’s say that
aside from the music festivals, culture is limited. Jews here were always a
bridge between small-town Muslim society and the Western world. There were
very few tourists here. Now the opposite is true. The Jews are gone, but
Souira is a tourist center.”

The walled city is home to hundreds of boutiques, some of which are attached
to small workshops, often with two stories of apartments above. Restaurants
and cafés are everywhere. Visitors check out the ramparts, the port and
historical sites, walking for kilometers along the beaches in the wind that
blows 20 hours a day. They drive to the surrounding villages, or surf, also
a big attraction here.

When people are anywhere inside the walls, the impulse to buy and buy again
in the casbah and medina is overwhelming. Visitors walk up and down the
car-free streets and allies, purchasing fantastically colored rugs and
scarves. They buy blue Gnawa cotton robes and head pieces, more clothing,
bed linen in gorgeous muted colors, paintings, silver jewelry, leather
footwear, metal lamps and objects and intricate wooden boxes and ornate

Essaouira was known as Mogador until the end of French colonial rule in the
early 1960s. Portuguese occupiers built the wall and ramparts, known as
Castello Real, in 1505 before Mogador was much of a town, but the
inhabitants of the Arab Chiadma region to the north and the Berber Haha to
the south gave them no peace, and by 1512 the Portuguese were pulling out
and sacking much of the region.

Mogador, cité sous les alizées or “Mogador, a town in the wind” was written
by Hamza Ben Driss Ottmani, a French grande-école graduate and public-sector
research director in Rabat born of a well-known family in Essaouira. Ottmani
offers accounts of all the local villages, written in 1516 by celebrated
traveler and author known as Leon the African. Born El Hassan Ben Muhammad
el-Ouazzan el-Gharnati in Grenada, Spain in 1483, he moved with his family
to Fez in Morocco when Grenada was taken by the Catholic kings in 1492.

IN THE southern Berber Haha region, in prosperous and long-gone villages
with names like Tednest, Hadecchis and Eitdeuet, Berber Jews were a majority
or close to it, in a totally Muslim world.

Very little is known about these tens of thousands of people who lived in
relative comfort in this tiny isolated corner of Jewish and Moroccan
history. The Berber Jews are thought to have been there since the
destruction of the Temple. And it is believed that hundreds of thousands of
other people in southern Morocco are Islamic converts of Jewish origin.

Long before Leon the African, this area produced the royal purple color of
the Roman Empire from mollusks on the coast that was busy with trading
ships. Even earlier, the Phoenicians bought argan oil here; 2,500 years
later, argan oil is still made here and only here. Argan, used sometimes as
salad oil but mostly as a skin product rich in vitamin E, is a growing
organic rage in France and Europe – very expensive and not without a certain

Essaouira’s real beginning as a import-export center came in 1760 when the
sultan of Morocco appointed families from Casablanca, Marrakech and other
northern cities to settle here and become official royal traders. Many if
not most were Jewish. The town grew. According to Ottmani, seven of the
town’s leading families in the 19th century were Muslim, while 25 were
Jewish, with names such as Corcos, Afriat, Bensaoud, Cohen Solal, Belisha,
Ohana, Pinto and El-Maleh.

In the beginning, these families conducted trade by ship mostly with
Britain, but also handled local trade and the camel caravans coming from
Timbuktu across the desert, with links to Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo and
Mecca. In modern times the caravans disappeared, but international trade
focused on Europe became highly competitive.

The railroad built by the French in 1912 on did not reach Essaouira from
Marrakech, today a two-hour bus ride away. Casablanca and Tangiers were
deemed much more important, and the glory and prosperity of the town in the
wind slowly began to fade.

Its leading citizens were still Muslim, Jewish and European, but there also
were thousands of working-class Muslims and Jews. Essaouira was known for
its artisan work, using wood from the close-by thuya and argania trees to
make ornate, silver and stone-inlaid tables and mirrors. This was an
exclusively Muslim sector.

The silver jewelry work was famous for the much sought-after filogram
design, the Dag Ed Essaouiri – thin lines converge on a circular center as
meticulous radii, a design that was instantly recognizable as native to
Essaouira. The master silversmiths were all Jewish, as were many of the
workers, who lived mostly in the mellah. Today, the remaining silver
designers are Berbers, many of whom worked with the local Jews until they
left. The local Arab jewelers all work in gold.

SUDDENLY, AN Israeli couple enters Sebag’s bookstore, and there are smiles
and greetings in French, Maghrebi Arabic and Hebrew. Isaac Azencot was born
and raised in the mellah and at 16 left with his parents for Israel. His
father was a cantor in one of the 30 local synagogues, none of which exists

“My parents were Zionists,” he says, “so we left. But they remained
Moroccans their entire lives, and I’ve done the same. I’m proud to be a

His Hebrew is obviously fluent, with a Moroccan accent; his French is good,
if rusty; his English very good, and his Maghrebi Arabic is native and still
fluent, with a good Arab accent.

“Sbahelchir, la besse halik,” he says, meaning, “good morning, everything is

His brother, a professor, directs all research on Essaouira at the
University of Haifa, near their hometown of Kiryat Ata, complete with
original documents transferred from Morocco.

“It feels good to see old Muslim friends here in Souira,” Azencot says
sincerely, in English. “We all lived modestly and respectfully back then,
and we boys in the mellah had Muslim friends.” But, he adds, they lived
differently. He mentions the Alliance Française school right away.

“We were 28 Jewish boys and girls in the class, but there was only one
Muslim boy,” he says. “It wasn’t the money. Working-class Muslims simply
didn’t learn to read and write back then. And then we all left, except for
Josef and his mother.” He laughs. Continue Reading »



What Obama must tell Bibi

Only a dramatic break from previous US policy on Israel can end the Middle East deadlock

The toughest meeting of Barack Obama’s young presidency is approaching. In the next few weeks, he will have to sit down with Israel’s ­Binyamin Netanyahu. The difficulty is not just that the prime minister refuses to accept the right of a Palestinian state to exist and thereby shows the Palestinians have no partner for peace.

Far more burdensome are the ghosts of US policies past. If Obama is sincere in wanting to break the stalemate of the Middle East’s core conflict, he will have to launch the US relationship with Israel on to radically new lines. Israel must be treated as a normal country. It cannot enjoy permanent licence to escape ­criticism for practising policies that would be condemned if carried out by any other country’s government. Even if Israelis, through their complex coalition arrangements, had anointed a more progressive and enlightened leader, this would be necessary. It is doubly essential now that Israel has chosen a man of aggressive and narrow vision.

The day of the blank cheque must be over. The day of the huge cheque must be over, too. Why should a country with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes receive around $3bn annually, or roughly a third of the US foreign aid budget (not including extra support from the Pentagon)? Why should it not have to account for its purchases like every other recipient country – a conscious lack of oversight that allows Washington to turn a blind eye to the fact that US tax dollars are financing ­illegal settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank and helping to build the ­so-called apartheid wall?

Unless Obama ends America’s special relationship with Israel, this omission will be the achilles heel of his foreign policy. America’s standing in the Middle East, its influence in the Gulf, its image in the Muslim world, its relationship with Iran, and even its support in Europe are all linked to the way it treats Israel.

Obama’s fulsome comments about Israel before his election already ­suggested that this was likely to be his most dangerous weakness. His first 100 days in power have done nothing to negate that. His speeches in Turkey, which were directed at Muslim ­audiences, showed no recognition of the fact that most Turks, Arabs and Iranians see US policy towards Israel as unfair and partisan.

His resounding appeal in Prague for a nuclear-free world contained no reference to Israel’s nuclear arsenal or the need for all nuclear countries (including India and Pakistan) to join the non-­proliferation treaty. If Iran, a signatory of the NPT, is rightly pressed to adhere to the requirement for transparency, it is hypocrisy not to press the non-signatories to be as honest. To argue that countries which have not signed up are exempt from the rules may be legally right, but is politically absurd. Obama’s admirable wish to reduce the world’s nuclear stockpile cannot stop at the gates of Dimona and the sites where Israel’s nuclear warheads are kept.

Israel’s decades of indulgence from US presidents and a largely supine Congress have produced a culture where it virtually dictates what US policy should be. Israel helped to empower Hamas as a way of undermining its then bugbear, Yasser Arafat. Now that Hamas is independent, strong and popular, Israel sees it as the new target. The Obama administration should not go along with that. As David Gardner argues in his excellent book, Last Chance, “boycotting Hamas has been self-defeating. There is no legal or moral reason why Hamas – or anyone else – should recognise a state that refuses to define its boundaries, which are being expanded daily on ­Palestinian land.”

Seeking to destroy Hamas after it won the Palestinian elections was, apart from the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s biggest ­foreign policy blunder, and one that the European Union foolishly supported. Some European governments would like to change. They have held indirect talks with Hamas and may move to direct ones. Obama should do the same.

If Washington can talk to North Korea and Iran, it has no reason to boycott the people who won the last Palestinian elections and are likely to win the next one. Far from defeating Hamas, Israel’s war on Gaza has made it stronger while further rein­forcing Israel’s image as a bully. By the same token, the US needs to talk to ­Hezbollah in ­Lebanon. Israel’s war on Hezbollah in 2006 was as brutal as its war on Gaza this year, nothing more than the old strategy, taken to a ­grotesque level, of demolishing homes as a collective punishment.

Now Netanyahu is seeking to link Iran even more closely to Israeli policy than the former prime minister Ehud Olmert did. Without moves to stop Iran’s suspected pursuit of a nuclear bomb and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, there can be no chance of Israel agreeing to peace talks, his officials are saying.

The most important thing that Obama should tell Netanyahu is that Washington rejects such linkage. The main source of tension in the ­Middle East and the Gulf is not Iran, but Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. An old issue cannot be hidden by a new one. Until Israel pulls back to the 1967 borders, give or take some land swaps, under international ­agreement, Palestinian resistance will continue – and other states will be ­entitled to support it.

As for an attack on Iran’s nuclear ­facilities, Obama must reject it openly. When Olmert raised the issue last year, as the Guardian reported in September, even Bush told him it was unacceptable because an attack would be seen as ­having US support, since ­Israel’s ­bombers would have to fly across US-controlled airspace in Iraq.

Bush saw that his last hopes of retaining credibility in the Muslim world would collapse, but his message to the then Israeli prime minister was made privately. Obama should not only tell Netanyahu the same thing. He should give his message loud and clear. He should also declare that any US attack on Iran is off the table. What Washington rightly warns Israel not to do, it ­cannot reserve the right to do itself.

Obama’s third point should be that he does not stand behind the letter that Bush wrote to Ariel Sharon in 2004, accepting Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as “new realities” that need not be abandoned. The document was not a treaty or even a bilateral government agreement. It should be overridden by a new letter stating that the US considers every post-1967 settlement illegal. Only by making a dramatic break from previous American policy can Obama prepare the ground for a lasting agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Mediation cannot succeed when the mediator treats one side as special. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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