Iran, the Arabs and Israel: the domino-effect

Akiva Eldar
27 July 2009

Israel's former prime minister Ehud Olmert article in the Washington Post on 17 July 2009, assailing Barack Obama's campaign against West Bank settlements, made a lot of noise in Israel. Few noticed that the same paper the next day published a piece by the crown prince of Bahrain.

Akiva Eldar is an award-winning Israeli journalist with the daily newspaper Ha'aretz, where this article was first published

Also by Akiva Eldar in openDemocracy:

"The United States and Israel: moment of truth" (18 May 2009)

"Binyamin Netanyahu's mirage" (15 June 2009)

In his own op-ed, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa notes that peace is not a lightbulb easily switched on, but admits that the Arabs have made public-relations blunders. He writes: "An Israeli might be forgiven for thinking that every Muslim voice is raised in hatred, because that is usually the only one he hears. Just as an Arab might be forgiven for thinking every Israeli wants the destruction of every Palestinian." Khalifa urges the Arabs to communicate directly with the Israelis and tell them their story.

If Olmert's defence of the settlements was reinforcement for his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Bahraini prince's call for normalisation between the Arabs and Israel was balm to Barack Obama. For the start of normalisation between the nations is a key item on the United States president's agenda - and the undertone intended to ease the creation of a blueprint for a final-status agreement.

Washington has learned the lesson of the Annapolis meeting on 27 November 2007, and concluded that a senior American presence in the negotiating room is needed for talks to succeed. This presence will be a quiet observer in the initial stage, who however will become an active mediator if the gap between the sides turns out to be too big. If all goes according to plan, by the end of 2009 the international "quartet" of middle-east mediators - United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations - will produce a detailed roadmap for regional peace.

Washington's curveball

The United States envoy George Mitchell has become even more certain during his latest visits to the region of the need to avoid repeating the mistake of conducting negotiations while disregarding the situation on the ground. He has convinced his superiors to postpone discussions on an agreement until things are calm and the political process has (as far as possible) been protected from surprises - such as attacks on Jews or settlements on Palestinian land.

It is Israel that has insisted that the roadmap's first stage - before solutions are discussed - must be the neutralisation of these problems. Ariel Sharon was interested in security problems, while the Palestinians talked about the settlements. Israel cited the Palestinians' difficulty in dismantling "terrorist capabilities and infrastructure" (in the language of the roadmap) as an excuse to postpone freezing settlements and evacuating outposts. This chapter ended when General Keith Dayton, responsible for training the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, began to praise the Palestinians at every turn for their efforts to impose order in every city and on every street the Israeli army restored to their control.

At the same time, semi-official envoys such as Thomas Pickering are trying to allay Hamas's fears. (Pickering's meeting with Mahmoud al-Zahar in June 2009, under Swiss auspices, was not his first with the group's leaders in the recent past.) The quiet on the Gaza front - even though Netanyahu and defence minister Ehud Barak are ignoring Obama's demand to ease the siege - is not due to the summer heat.

Barack Obama and his staff reject the criticism of Ehud Olmert and others that they are excessively preoccupied with the settlements and are diverting attention from the vital problems: borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security. In Washington's view, an Israeli suspension of unilateral acts and Arab moves toward normalisation are essential stages in the political process. Obama believes that a visit to Saudi Arabia by an Israeli journalist will have a greater influence on Israeli public opinion than a visit to Israel by an American president.

Tehran's gift

But Arab princes are also subject to public opinion. In a meeting in Oxford in early 2009 attended by Israelis and Arabs, Prince Turki al-Faisal - formerly Saudi Arabia's intelligence minister and his country's ambassador to the United States - posed a question: how would an Arab ruler appear in the eyes of his public if he invited an Israeli leader to visit his country, and the next day al-Jazeera reported the establishment of a new Israeli settlement?

It goes without saying that from such an Arab viewpoint, as from an American, there is no difference between the expansion of an illegal outpost in the West Bank and the construction of Jewish homes in east Jerusalem. In the event, "creating facts" near the holy places is more serious.

The Arab leaders' original interpretation of their initiative was that normalisation would wait for Israel's withdrawal from the territories. Things changed after the priorities changed: the common Iranian threat pushed aside the common Israeli enemy.

This is reflected in an article by Hosni Mubarak in the Wall Street Journal on 19 June 2009. Egypt's president promised Israelis to begin normalisation measures alongside the peace process. The piece by Bahrain's crown prince in the Washington Post is a further product of Obama's effort to enlist the moderate Arab states in a government-bypassing public-relations campaign to reach Israeli public opinion.

These states shared with Obama a refusal to believe that Binyamin Netanyahu, an Israeli leader who likens Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler, would declare war on the great American patron. But also like Obama, they did not take into account that Israeli leaders' fear of the settlers is greater than all external threats.

Also in openDemocracy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009:

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (20 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Mustafa Kibaroglu, "Turkey-Israel relations after Gaza" (26 January 2009)

Sadegh Zibakalam, "Iran and the Gaza war" (26 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Hugo Slim, "NGOs in Gaza: humanitarianism vs politics" (30 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (23 February 2009)

Eyal Weizman, "Lawfare in Gaza: legislative attack" (1 March 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "The state of Israel: key to peace" (19 May 2009)

Gideon Levy, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "Israel's path: from occupation to peace" (7 July 2009)

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