x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Netanyahu studiously ignores the elephant

In a speech to Cabinet, the Israeli premier conspicuously fails to mention settlement construction and the Palestinain threat to quit the peace talks, focusing instead on Iran.

JERUSALEM // Even as talks with the Palestinians teeter on the brink of collapse Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, managed this week to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room when he addressed his cabinet.

He did not mention that construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank had resumed. He did not bring up the threat by Palestinians to quit the talks unless the building stopped, either.

Instead, Mr Netanyahu focused on a subject that Palestinians say is an all-too-convenient dodge that speaks volumes about Israel's commitment to negotiations: Iran.

The Israeli leader declared that the recent visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, to Lebanon proved that the Islamic Republic was transforming its neighbour into a "satellite" of Tehran.

Some Palestinians, especially those who support the western-backed Palestinian Authority, pin part of the blame for Israel's routine use of the Iran "card" on Mr Ahmadinejad himself. They say his anti-Israeli bluster has given Israel plenty of excuses to allow itself to be distracted from hammering out solutions to the so-called core issues in Palestinian-Israeli ties.

"Ahmadinejad has become a liability for the negotiations," said a senior official in the PA, whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, leads the Palestinians in the talks.

The Iranian leader's rhetoric is only part of the problem.

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has financial and some say military ties with Tehran.

"Iranian support for Hamas," said the official, "has helped deepen the rift between the two Palestinian factions". And, he added, "Israel has been manipulating this to its own benefit. This is a problem."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Israel was citing reconciliation efforts between the Iranian-influenced Hamas and Fatah, which dominates the PA, to avoid compromise in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. PA officials were instructed not to comment on Mr Ahmadinejad's tour of Lebanon to avoid upsetting either Hamas or Israel.

Khader H Khader, a Palestinian commentator and analyst at the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, said Israel has used the Hamas issue and its support from Tehran to punish Mr Abbas for refusing to negotiate because of the settlement issue. This was evidenced by senior Israeli military officials who on Monday advocated preparing for a Hamas takeover of the PA and its western-backed security forces in the West Bank.

"This is an example of how Israel wants to punish the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, by using these claims of a Hamas takeover, in order to tell them that they can't control the West Bank, which is not true," said Mr Khader.

Still, some analysts believe Mr Netanyahu may be interested in forging an agreement with the Palestinians as a tool to oppose Iran. This, so goes the thinking, would create a united front of the so-called moderate Arab countries and the United States against Tehran and its regional allies, such as the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah.

"This is what is behind the American understanding of what they call this 'window of opportunity', in which Israel finds itself in similar position of the Arab countries when it comes to Iran," said Itzak Galnoor, a professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

As The National reported yesterday, a group of scholars at the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya have encouraged Mr Netanyahu to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative in order, they say, to address the threat posed by Iran, their common enemy.

But Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst and former military intelligence officer, does not see much benefit for Israel in such an alliance. He said that because of the "overall weakness of the Arab state system and the Arab attempts to deal with Iran", countries "like Egypt and Saudi are no longer pulling their weight".

Israel should focus on convincing Syria to enter peace talks, given the country's firm ties to both Hizbollah and Tehran, he added: "More light should be shed on the failed track of Netanyahu regarding to Syria" and the peace process with that country.

Concern that Israel lacks commitment to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians is likely why Mr Abbas recently has searched out international recognition for the creation of an independent Palestinian state if the negotiations fail.

However, said Mr Khader, Israel would work hard to prevent that from happening. He added that for the Israelis, unless a solution is found to Iran and its regional proxies, Israel would be loath to allow an autonomous, and possibly militarily equipped, Palestinian state next door.

"Their thinking is that they're dealing with a different kind of enemy, and they're concerned that they are being surrounded by them," Mr Khader said.

"Until they find a solution to this problem, I'm sure Israel will not give the Palestinians a sovereign state."