Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gates Goes to Israel

by Robert D. Onley

The nuclear timeline is running out fast.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was on a brief six-hour trip to the Holy Land this week to discuss settlement activity, US-Israeli relations and the enigma of the Iranian nuclear crisis. Along with Gates were Mideast envoy George Mitchell, National Security Advisor James Jones and the venerable Dennis Ross.
The entire US diplomatic trip risks aggrandizing relatively inconsequential issues.

Gates' all-star American diplomatic team packs considerable diplomatic punch to potentially push Israel into supporting President Obama's aggressive peace plan. However, no matter who negotiates on either side, in the realm of international relations, progress and history are rarely made in a single meeting when nations are not united on the same issue.

This has been more evident throughout the tragic course of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute than in any other conflict, with Israel and the Palestinian Authority perpetually disagreeing on the most foundational elements of a peace agreement. In many cases, Israel and the United States have similarly disagreed on how best to approach the final-status deal or on brokering a regional foreign policy problem.

Today, the US and Israel find themselves at yet another impasse, this time with the world openly siding with President Obama in calling for an abrupt halt to settlement activity as a precondition to peace negotiations. Over the last week, voices from around the globe - Russia, Germany and France - called on Israel to immediately stop settlement activity in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Shimon Hatzadik.

Rebuffing these cries, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu boldly declared, "Our sovereignty in Jerusalem is indisputable.... I wish to make this clear - united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people in the State of Israel." He said that Israel "cannot accept the idea that Jews will not have the right to live and purchase in all parts of Jerusalem."

Netanyahu strategically attempted to close the settlement door in a deft effort to dictate this week's agenda with the US. However, with Gates leading the American diplomatic team, Netanyahu's open defiance of international demands to halt settlement activity has the potential to embitter the American position on settlements and distract attention from Israel's greatest concern - Iran's rapidly-progressing nuclear program.

For Israel, the cold, calculated reality is this: a settlement spat threatens only to delay Obama's dream of a peace plan during his term. Conversely, further delay in dealing with Iran's nuclear program threatens to one day annihilate the entire State of Israel while pumping nearly forty percent of the world's oil supply through a trembling Iranian nuclear guillotine. At the same time, a final-status peace deal is only good so long as Israel still exists to be a part of it; this final point is what keeps Netanyahu up at night.

The contrast in the relative immediacy of the two issues could not be starker. Even with a settlement halt, Netanyahu recognizes the multitude of physical military threats and intractable security dilemmas literally on each of Israel's short borders. Israeli defence officials have clearly considered the odds that Hamas will continue to fire rockets from Gaza and that Hizbullah will keep stocking up on long-range missiles for a future battle in Israel's north, settlement freeze or not.

Israel's recent past provides damning evidence for this inevitability. In 2004-5, under the persuasion of then-President Bush, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon completed a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip along with the evacuation of Jewish settlements there in the greatest test of the "land for peace" and "settlement freeze" initiatives ever seen. The violent failure of these plans in Gaza over the last five years, and the resultant rocket attacks from Hamas, provide tangible evidence for Israeli leaders to "delay" today's settlement freeze push.

Israeli leaders such as Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman have witnessed multiple international Mideast peace initiatives miserably fail over various timelines and many agonizing decades - regardless of the status of Israeli settlements. While the world pushes the US through back channels to hammer Israel into stopping settlement activity yet another time this week, the issue barely registers a pulse in Israel's top defence circles when compared to discussions on how best to halt Iran's nuclear program.

As such, unless the Americans actively and purposefully engage Israel's legitimate concerns about Iran's nuclear program and drop their recent aggressive posturing on the Israeli settlement issue, the entire US diplomatic trip risks aggrandizing relatively inconsequential issues while blindly ignoring the far more menacing and pertinent danger lurking deep within Iran.

No one would suggest the US is entirely ignoring the Iranian nuclear issue. However, while President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton make public calls for "negotiations without preconditions" with Iran, progress has been painfully slow for Israelis watching from a land within striking distance of Iran's Shahab-3 missiles. Obama and Clinton's foot-dragging also seems to strangely ignore the proximity of Iran to 130,000+ US troops in neighbouring Iraq.

The sad reality is that the nuclear timeline is running out fast for any nation with hopes of actually negotiating with Iran. Moreover, Iran's defiance of calls for a transparent recount of their blatantly fraudulent June 12 election once more showcased the immense likelihood of unsuccessful negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.

Yet, despite Iran's obstinacy and a ticking clock, the world body's unanimity and adamancy on halting the construction of 20 Israeli apartment buildings will undoubtedly bring tremendous heat on Israel to acquiesce to the Obama all-star team's demands this week. This intractable focus on Israeli settlement activity delegitimizes Israel's internal anxiety over the on-going Iranian enrichment of uranium by shifting the focus back on Israel at the worst possible time.

In recent weeks, many critical observers have been quick to suggest that the two issues are inextricably linked - if only the West could persuade Israel on a settlement freeze, then a solution to the Iranian nuclear program might be found as part of a deal. For Israel, this is simply not plausible; one does not follow the other. Nonetheless the US, Russia, France and others continue to unduly press Israel on an entirely separate issue of marginal short-term consequence.
The strategic movement of powerful Israeli naval assets is a potent statement.

It is perhaps no surprise then that over the last two weeks Israel has quietly - yet publicly - moved two warships and a nuclear submarine through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, in preparation for potential surgical strikes against Iran's assorted nuclear targets. The strategic movement of powerful Israeli naval assets is a potent statement to the US Defence Secretary that Israel will continue with its military plans no matter what Gates brings to the discussion table.

The naval maneuver is also an overt statement that the settlement question is a non-issue for the Israelis at this point in history. Given Israel's legitimate primacy of focus on the Iran issue, the same should be so for Gates and the rest of the US diplomatic team. It is Iran's nuclear program - and not Israeli settlements - that must be the sole priority; not simply to appease the Israelis, but to act in the United States' own national security interests as well.

President Obama may grumble with disapproval at this rejection of his hallowed demand for a settlement freeze. What is ignored is that the planet will be a much safer place to begin final-status peace negotiations when the frightening nuclear program of the world's most fanatical, terror-sponsoring regime in Iran is multilaterally stopped once and for all. Israel should not be forced to halt Iran's nuclear program by herself; shame on us all if it comes to that point nonetheless.