x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Iran crisis eases pressure on Israel

Discussions at the White House are likely to focus on Barack Obama's bid to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu to put off an attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities.

TEL AVIV // A day before Benjamin Netanyahu meets the US President Barack Obama in Washington, the Israeli prime minister has already accomplished one thing - putting Iran at the top of the agenda instead of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Israeli and US commentators say the discussions at the White House tomorrow are likely to focus on Mr Obama's bid to persuade Mr Netanyahu to put off plans for an attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities.

Analysts say Mr Obama agrees with the Israeli leader that a military mission may be needed but does not want it before international sanctions have a chance to take effect.

The clash reflects a growing discord between Israel and its staunchest ally on the approach to Iran's nuclear sites. Commentators say the chasm may widen amid speculation that Israel could launch a strike without the green light from Washington.

Mr Obama, in his clearest remarks yet, was quoted in an interview with The Atlantic magazine on Friday warning an attack would only draw sympathy for Iran in the Middle East, where it has few allies.

In an election-year statement, which was likely aimed at the Jewish vote, Mr Obama - who is also due to address the powerful pro-Israeli lobby group AIPAC today - said he was committed to Israel's security and added that the US would strike Iran if necessary

Mr Netanyahu, speaking on Friday after talks with the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, said Israelis "reserve the right to defend ourselves against a country that calls and works for our destruction".

For Mr Netanyahu, the head of a predominantly pro-settler, right-wing governing coalition, the focus on Iran - instead of on peace talks and Israeli settlements - is a likely source of satisfaction.

After all, he has drawn much international condemnation since taking power in 2009 for resisting US and European pressure to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Ahead of possible elections in Israel this year, analysts say the tamer international focus on settlements would probably boost support for Mr Netanyahu among the right.

"Netanyahu has deftly used the Iranian issue as a diversion away from the settlements," said Yaron Ezrahi, a veteran Israeli political commentator. "He does not want to move an inch unless absolutely forced to do so."

Aluf Benn, a commentator for the liberal daily newspaper Haaretz, said the Israeli leader managed to catapult Iran to the top of the international agenda by increasing Israeli threats of a strike on Iran and publicising air force training drills that suggested the country was preparing for such an attack.

"The Palestinians have been forgotten," he wrote on Friday. "Netanyahu proved that the conflict with them could be reduced to a battle of speeches and press releases. The settlements have disappeared from the US national agenda and the Israeli right-wing government is working on developing and expanding them."

Indeed, while its allies abroad were growing concerned of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran, the Israeli government had made several key moves in its settlement enterprise in territory Palestinians want as part of their future state.

Last week, the Israeli defence ministry gave initial approval to a plan to build 600 new homes in Shiloh, a hardline settlement deep inside the West Bank.

The Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now called the approval the biggest move on settlements by Mr Netanyahu's government.

It added that Shiloh's expansion aims to undermine the two-state solution because the settlement is in an area of the West Bank that has long been assumed to eventually be transferred to the Palestinians.

This week, a committee of the Jerusalem municipality confirmed it was advancing plans to build an industrial zone in an area of east Jerusalem the Palestinians had slated for the construction of their first airport in an independent state.

The plan for the area that had served as a small airport during the British rule of Palestine before Israel's 1948 creation was a "symbolic act" against the two-state solution, said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now.

In December, Israel's housing ministry said it planed to issue tenders for more than 1,000 housing units in the West Bank.

According to Peace Now, those would be the first tenders issued by Mr Netanyahu's government since it came to power for state-sponsored housing expansion, which accounts for about half of total building in the settlements.

The rest of construction is typically initiated by private investors.