04 August 2014

Where Is Netanyahu Taking Israel? Part 3

Just as I don't hold Netanyahu in high esteem, I don't have much respect for Mahmoud Abbas, the President of Palestinian Authority (or the State of Palestine). For one thing, his family got too rich for me to entertain any notion that he is an honorable politician. For another, his 1984 book, The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism is essentially an effort to deny the Holocaust.

So, in case you are wondering, I have no illusions about him.

But I have to admit that, in the last three years, he earned my grudging admiration by outmaneuvering Netanyahu at almost every turn. Abu Mazen, as he is popularly known, proved that he was a wily adversary, crazy like a fox.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Reasonable Statesman

What Abbas did was to elevate the chess game to a new platform. Instead of dealing with a broken process and trying to govern an impoverished and desperate population, he took the fight to international institutions. What is even more remarkable, he did so not to win any concessions from the ruling conservative forces in Israel, as he knew they were immutable, but to isolate Israel internationally by branding it as a builder of an apartheid regime.

In their nationalistic folly, the conservative politicians of Israel helped him every step of the way.

The starting point, at least for this narrative, is the dark days after Hamas decided that Abbas was no longer the legitimate President of the unrecognized State of Palestine. The most realistic peace prospect pushed by Ehud Olmert had also fallen victim to the Hamas-Fatah split.

In 2011, Abbas first declared that the rejection of 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was a mistake and he wanted to correct it. This was a clear recognition of a two-state solution and the right to exist for the state of Israel.

In November 2011, he surprised everyone (including this blogger) by applying for membership to UNESCO. Astonishingly, it got through. In and of itself UNESCO membership does not bring much to the Palestinian Authority. But it opens up the way to automatic membership to a dozen of other international organizations, among which were WIPO and IAEA. Since both the US and Israel were legally obligated to stop paying their dues to these agencies, it could have created a very difficult situation for them.

Curiously, Abbas refrained from applying.

For a full year, he baited Netanyahu with the prospect of membership application to the United Nations. While all Netanyahu could muster was more bluster, in November 2012, Abbas applied for it and Palestine was granted the "non-member observer state" status by the General Assembly.

Besides allowing Abbas to rebrand Palestinian Authority the State of Palestine, this status enables the Palestinians to apply to other UN agency and especially to the International Criminal Court (ICC). ICC is a permanent tribunal that handles acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Although Israel (along with the US and Sudan) declared that they do not intend to become states party to the founding treaty, a Palestinian membership worries the Israeli government deeply.

Finally, on 1 April 2014 Abbas declared that he was applying to join 15 international treaties. 13 of which are UN treaties.

This one is an intriguing move. Abbas had promised not to apply to these treaties until 29 April. He said that he did it a month early because Israel failed to release a batch of Palestinian prisoners at the end of March, as agreed.

But he did not have to move right away: He knew that Naftali Bennett had just threatened to quit government if these prisoners were released and Netanyahu was in no position to do it. He could have waited till the end of the month and expose the Israeli government's inability to deliver on its promises. Instead, by moving immediately, he gave Netanyahu cover, allowing him to claim that if Abbas waited till the end of the month everything could have been fine. Even though, as everyone knew, it just wouldn't be.

It was as if he was asked by a very convincing third party (who feigned surprise later on) to provide cover to Netanyahu.

Is that possible? Well, think of it this way: the list of treaties and agencies Abbas applied to did not include the ICC. In that sense, it was a carefully crafted gesture: Large number of fairly obscure treaties registered his disappointment but not including the most feared agencies showed his reasonableness.

He was in a position for force a coalition crisis or start a new Netanyahu - Obama confrontation. And he simply did not do it.

There is more. What would you do if your interlocutor argues that in a two-state solution Israel's security might be permanently jeopardized? Why, you'd offer a demilitarized vision for the future State of Palestine with NATO forces patrolling the territory.
Six months into peace talks dominated by discussion about security, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has proposed to Secretary of State John Kerry that an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem.
Mr. Abbas said in an interview with The New York Times at his headquarters here over the weekend that Israeli soldiers could remain in the West Bank for up to five years — not three, as he previously stated — and that Jewish settlements should be phased out of the new Palestinian state along a similar timetable. Palestine, he said, would not have its own army, only a police force, so the NATO mission would be responsible for preventing the weapons smuggling and terrorism that Israel fears.
When you add up all these moves, you become aware that Abbas has been astutely branding himself and his side as reasonable people, willing to do anything for a two-state solution.

The flip side of this skillfully constructed image is the portrait of an unreasonable man, using any pretext to make a two-state solution impossible. This is also a man who tarnishes Israel's image by forming unsavory regional alliances and by ignoring the growing international backlash against the Jewish state.

Netanyahu's Shortsighted Alliances and Choices

While the hapless Turkish PM was completely out of his depth when he suggested that Israel was behind the coup in Egypt, there is no question that the Netanyahu government became uncontrollably giddy when the Egyptian army removed President Mursi from power.

The simple equation is that Mursi was supportive of Hamas and his quiet stance was making Israel nervous about dragging its feet at the negotiating table. Without Mursi as President, Netanyahu thought they would go back to status quo ante, that is, the passive aggressive silence of the Mubarak era.

The bonus, this time around, was the fact that the top military commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hated Hamas with a passion and one of the first things he did was to destroy the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. So, what's not to like for Israel, you might ask.

There are quite a few things to dislike actually. Since the coup was more or less sponsored by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, Israel found itself aligned with the Kingdom, one of the most ruthless regimes in the world and one of Israel's most implacable enemies. And it was not an accidental or ad hoc situation. The New York Times reported that, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring:
Once viewed as a potential threat by Jerusalem, the government in Saudi Arabia is increasingly viewed as a guarantor of stability in a region in upheaval, as revolutionary fervor sweeps through the Middle East.
The idea of viewing the Saudis "as a guarantor of stability" tells me that there is a policy in place, however misguided such a thing might be. To support this assumption, I can cite a couple of interesting events.

There is the secret meeting that took place in Israel between senior intelligence officials.
Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Salman bin-Sultan and two other officers are said to have paid a “secret visit” to Israel, where they “met Israeli security leaders”, according to confidential sources of the Palestinian news agency, al-Manar and Israeli radio.

"The Saudi delegation," the sources said, "met Israeli security leaders and Bin-Sultan visited one of the military Israeli bases accompanied by a senior member of the Israeli staff board."

Salman is the brother of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence head, Prince Bandar bin-Sultan bin Abdulaziz.
This was also reported by the Sunday Times. According to the British paper, the collaboration between their respective intelligence agencies is much more extensive than previously known and in fact, the paper claimed that Saudis made it clear to their counterparts that Saudi Arabia would give airspace clearance to IDF planes attacking Iran.
As part of the growing co-operation, Riyadh is understood already to have given the go-ahead for Israeli planes to use its airspace in the event of an attack on Iran.
Both sides are now prepared to go much further. The Sunni kingdom is as alarmed as Israel by the nuclear ambitions of the Shi’ite-dominated Iran.
Uncharacteristically for intelligence matters, this was vehemently and categorically denied by the PMO.

Still, you can see a trend forming.
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is good, and we hope for more peaceful relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December — a surprisingly strong statement given that the two countries do not have diplomatic ties. Such a public statement would have been unthinkable even weeks before.

In fact, as I noted in my previous post, these Sunni alliances got so cozy that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf Emirates now openly side with Israel in the latest Gaza conflict. In fact, it has been reported that Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been in daily contact during the Gaza war.

If you ask me, aligning Israel with the House of Saud and Wahhab and an assortment of autocratic Arab rulers is a very shortsighted approach. It pushes Israel along a militaristic path and further isolates the country internationally.

Indeed, the New York Times recently suggested that the response of the Israeli government to the challenges ahead was to adopt a castle mentality.
[T]hey have embraced a castle mentality, hoping the moat they have dug — in the form of high-tech border fences, intensified military deployments and sophisticated intelligence — is broad enough at least to buy time. 
Mr. Amidror, a former major general in military intelligence, summed up the strategy as “Wait, and keep the castle.”
Part of this strategy is to continue to cultivate their back channel dialog with the autocratic leaders in their neighborhood.
“Historically, Israel has preferred to have strong leaders, even if they’re hostile to Israel,” said Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, citing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria as an example. (..) 
 “Israel always likes to have an address. Assad we don’t like, but when something happens in Assad’s territory, we can bargain with him. 
In short, as Abbas is re-branding himself as a reasonable, peace seeking elder statesman, Netanyahu is trying to preserve the status quo through dubious alliances, to disrupt the Fatah - Hamas unity government and to avoid any negotiations towards a two-state solution.

I am of the opinion that his path is untenable. It is not possible to destroy Hamas through military means without in the process killing huge numbers of civilians. As I noted yesterday, since even those Palestinians who hate Hamas are willing to die to avoid going back to the pre-war situation, sooner or later Israel will be facing a huge international backlash and will be forced to relent.

So, what is next and will there be a peace process are the burning questions.

My answer is in the next and final installment of this series.

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