Amid the upheaval of the Arab uprisings, there have been a couple of constants in the Middle East. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime in Iran is still defying international pressure over its nuclear programme; and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government is attempting to scupper any prospect of a two-state accord with the Palestinians.
Israel’s escalation of the conflict in Gaza can be seen as a simple act of deterrence: every nation has the right to defend itself. Mr Netanyahu’s record suggests more complicated motives. He is fighting an election; and he wants to forestall any effort by Barack Obama’s administration to restart peace negotiations. This summer Mr Obama vetoed an Israeli attack on Iran. Mr Netanyahu does not intend to give ground on Palestine.
The effect of Israeli attacks on Gaza has been to underpin Hamas’s legitimacy across the Arab world and to weaken Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. Not so long ago the Israeli government was talking, albeit through the Egyptians, to Ahmed Al-Jabari, the head of Hamas’s military organisation. By killing Mr Al-Jabari, it created another martyr to Palestinian radicalism. Mr Abbas, sidelined by Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank, struggles to seem relevant.
This is of a piece with the reactionary world view of the Israeli prime minister. Almost everything has changed in the Middle East; Mr Netanyahu has not. He lives in the shadow of a war hero brother, who perished during the Israeli rescue of hostages at Entebbe, and a father who believed Arabs would never make peace with Jews. As long as Hamas can be cast as terrorists, Mr Netanyahu can refuse to talk peace. The unspoken delusion is that Israel’s security can be forever underwritten by military victories.
Even before the Arab uprisings the strategy had run out of road. Ehud Olmert, Mr Netanyahu’s predecessor, also waged war on Hamas in an effort to show it would pay a heavy price for terror attacks. Mr Olmert, however, had also begun to understand that military might was not enough. He concluded that durable security depended on facing up to the decision Israel had long avoided: a negotiated withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. “The time has come to say these things,” Mr Olmert remarked during the dying months of his premiership.
Mr Netanyahu is creating facts on the ground intended to defy this strategic logic. His settlement policy has left the West Bank resembling nothing so much as a Bantustan from South Africa’s apartheid era. You hear his supporters say that it will soon be impossible for any Israeli leader to hand back the land.
All the while, Israel is running out of friends. Hamas hails from the same Islamist family as Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Not so long ago the US shunned contact with the Brotherhood. This week Mr Obama praised Mr Morsi for his leadership in brokering the Gaza ceasefire.
Turkey, once a close partner, is as hostile to the present government as is any Arab state. The leaders across Europe who this week affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself did so through gritted teeth. Even Tony Blair, who as an international envoy to the region has never strayed far from Mr Netanyahu, seems to think it is time to talk to Hamas.
Mr Netanyahu draws a link between Palestine and Iran’s nuclear programme. He says Israel can consider peace only when the US has dealt with the threat from an Iranian bomb. Logic runs in the opposite direction. International pressure cannot properly be mobilised against Tehran until the west shakes off the charge of double standards.
The parallel with Iran is anyway an uncomfortable one. Ayatollah Khamenei is a fellow reactionary. He shares Mr Netanyahu’s view that military force is the sole source of security. Tehran sees a nuclear capability as an insurance policy against outside threats. The only hope of persuading the regime to forsake the bomb lies in a US offer of security guarantees.
Mr Obama’s response to the latest crisis was to send Hillary Clinton, the outgoing secretary of state, to the region. The US president cannot stop there. His visit to Asia this week was another reminder of the pivot towards the Pacific – the US hope that it can shed responsibilities elsewhere to concentrate diplomatic and military resources in east Asia. The flare-up in Gaza was a reminder that some responsibilities cannot be shirked.
During his first term Mr Obama blinked in the face of Mr Netanyahu’s intransigence. He took advice from officials who said that the US could never challenge Israel.
What is required now is American leadership – a decision by the White House to set out the parameters for a settlement and to seek broad regional and international support for them. The elements are familiar enough: a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps; unbreakable security guarantees for Israel and its recognition across the Arab world; and a shared capital in Jerusalem. Past Israeli leaders have accepted this as a fair template. If Mr Netanyahu rejects it, he must explain why.
The time has also come for Europeans to leave the sidelines. Instead of whispering behind their hands, they should say publicly what they agree privately. After all, they need do no more than take Mr Olmert’s script: Israel’s security and democracy cannot indefinitely survive the subjugation of Palestinians. One way to start would be to offer European backing for Palestinian statehood at the UN. If there is a single lesson from the tumultuous events of the past few years, it is that the era of the armed reactionary is coming to a close.
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