The Israeli-Palestinian talks convened in Washington on 30 July 2013 are taking place after a long hiatus marked by events on the ground that make a resolution of the conflict even more difficult than it has always been. The preliminary scene-setting witnessed veteran Palestinian negotiator Sa'eb Erakat and Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni beginning to explore the possibilities of any advance on the present vastly unequal stalemate. The United States clearly has an interest in moving forward, with secretary of state John Kerry's personal commitment and President Barack Obama's relative freedom of manouevre providing the fuel. But as the president's new representative Martin Indyk prerpares to chair a round of more serious discussions in the coming weeks, expectations must be modest.
There are, after all, major differences on all four major issues: borders, settlements, the status of Jerusalem, and the rights of Palestinian refugees. These overshadow the limited space for compromise. A fundamental problem is that both sides have basic internal issues to address. Many of Livni's cabinet colleagues see no point at all in negotiating, and Erakat does not speak for Hamas.
In regional terms, there are other dynamics at work. Israel's unease when it gazes across its borders contrasts with its extraordinarily high level of domestic security and apparent safety. The Sinai border barrier separating it from Egypt is now complete, and the Mediterranean coast is very well protected. It may appear that Israelis have created a virtual prison for themselves within the region, a western outpost in an uncertain land; but the Arab world's upheavals reinforce their belief in the importance both of stringent frontier security and retention of their powerful nuclear arsenal. The latter is always there as the final guarantor - but it can only play this role as long as Israel alone within the region possesses a nuclear capability.
Israel, historically, prefers to deal with autocrats as neighbours - they know where they stand and don't have to worry too much about public opinion. Egypt's deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, was a worry because he spoke for a very large minority of Egyptians. Now, though, he has gone, leaving the Egyptian military to adopt a hard line towards Gaza and even bring back the secret police.
Israel's concerns over Syria and Iran remain. In the case of Syria, Israel fears that if Bashar al-Assad's regime falls, radical Islamists will wield influence in a successor state; but that if it remains in power it will continue to supply Hizbollah, its Lebanese ally which has aided it so much in recent months.
In the short term, not much can be done about the Islamists in Syria except to encourage the Americans privately to be cautious about any dalliance with the rebels. Where Hizbollah is concerned, though, Israel does have options in southern Lebanon that fall well short of another out-and-out war.
The Israeli outlook
In a scarcely reported operation on 5 July 2013, Israeli forces attacked a Syrian base near the port city of Latakia - reportedly a storage facility for Russian-built P-800 Yakhout anti-ship missiles (see Jeremy Binnie, “Syria silent on alleged Israeli strike”, Jane's Defence Weekly, 24 July 2013). The raid was probably carried out by Israeli strike-aircraft flying low over Lebanese territory before firing stand-off missiles, though it may have involved submarine-launched land-attack cruise-missiles. The P-800 has a range of 300 km and could be used by the Syrians to attack Israeli ships in retaliation for intervention in Syria, but Israel also sees the potential for these missiles to be supplied to Hizbollah. Israel bitterly recalls an incident during the war of July-August 2006 when Hizbollah fired a Chinese anti-ship missile from the Lebanese coast whichbadly damaged a powerful Israeli missile-boat.
This latest Israeli operation shows the willingness of the Netanyahu government to escalate. But however chaotic and violent - and right on Israel's border - is the situation in Syria, the government's much greater concern is with Iran and its nuclear programme. In this respect the Israelis are in a very odd position. In the coming weeks, Hassan Rowhani will be installed as president as successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after he won an outright victory over five opponents (four of them hardliners). Rowhani is also an experienced nuclear negotiator, and his victory both somewhat limits the power of the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and lends energy to his immediate aim of easing Iran's dire economic situation.
There are strong indications that Iran did have a nuclear-weapon programme in the early 2000s, run by the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), but that this was halted - partly through Rowhani's action after he became Iran's chief negotiator in October 2003 (see Francois Nicoullaud, “Rouhani and the Iranian bomb”, New York Times, 26 July 2013).
The Iranian risk
In this overall light, three factors are coalescing:
* Hassan Rowhani is a seasoned diplomat whose knowledge of the nuclear issue is more detailed than any previous Iranian president
* Barack Obama would welcome some degree of compromise, and it's early enough in his second term for him both to need some historically significant progress and be able to face down domestic opposition. He does not have another election to win and the mid-sessional elections to Congress are more than a year away.
This combination makes the chance of progress better than for several years. It is also clear that the Iranians, whatever they are prepared to negotiate over, will insist on maintaining a civil nuclear programme - even if fully safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
This leaves the Netanyahu government in a real dilemma. For it is simply not prepared to allow Iran to continue to accumulate the technical know-how that could suddenly enable a “break-out” to building a small nuclear arsenal. It is also deeply critical of Obama for being, in its view, soft on Tehran.
The current Israeli “red line” is Iran accumulating more than 250 kg of medium-enriched uranium (20% U-235). Iran so far has gathered over 300 kg, but about 130 kg the total has been converted into research-reactor fuel elements. So Tehran remains some way short of Israel's red line.
That may change. But Rowhani is smart enough to work around this, leaving the Israelis in a state of permanent suspicion. A number of reports cites Netanyahu as saying: “I can tell you, I won't wait until it's too late. We will have to address this question of how to stop Iran, perhaps before the United States”. For the Israeli prime minister, Rowhani's strategy “is to be a wolf in sheep's clothing, to smile and build a bomb” (see Jeremy Binnie, “Netanyahu repeats threats against Iran”, Jane's Defence Weekly, 17 July 2013).
This rhetoric may have the instrumental aim of persuading the White House and backing pro-Israel interest-groups in the US. But a very real fixation underlies it: that Israel must be the only power in the region that has nuclear weapons - and even the capability to develop them. That is why at the very time the possibility of progress in Israel-Palestine talks has arisen, so too has that of a serious crisis over Iran. Most analysts currently downplay or dismiss the risk of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. This might be an occasion when most analysts are wrong.