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Friday, January 13, 2012

Netanyahu: "For the first time I see Iran wobble."

From The Australian (registration required):
Benjamin Netanyahu is cast as the ultimate "heavy" of the Middle East. But after a long discussion in this small office, a discussion sandwiched between meeting the Indian foreign minister in the morning and a delegation of powerful US congressmen in the afternoon, Netanyahu extends our time together for a few minutes because there's one thing he likes to show visitors.

He leads me over to his window.

"You see this," he points to a small collection of stones taken from an archeological dig. The stones are dated from nearly 3000 years ago. This is the signet ring of a Jewish official of that time. And the official's name was Netanyahu." The Israeli leader never misses an opportunity to emphasise the long, deep connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

He is, I suspect, all the things he is said to be: tough, ruthless, determined, qualities it is hardly surprising that an Israeli Prime Minister will possess. But he is also intensely self-aware, full of irony and humour, constantly making jokes he then rules off the record.

He is, in his own words, committed to peace and a fair settlement with the Palestinian people. But, for the moment, he is most of all concerned with the threat from Iran. At last, he believes, international pressure is starting to bite.

"For the first time I see Iran wobble," he declares, in words that will surely shake the Middle East.

Tehran is wobbling, in Netanyahu's view, "under the sanctions that have been adopted and especially under the threat of strong sanctions on their central bank".

Netanyahu believes they just might work: "If these sanctions are coupled with a clear statement from the international community led by the US to act militarily to stop Iran if the sanctions fail, Iran may consider not going through the pain. There's no point in gritting your teeth if you're going to be stopped anyway. In any case, the Iranian economy is showing signs of strain."

A few days before we meet, Iran announces it is moving a big nuclear facility underground. This would make it harder to hit. Netanyahu is trenchant, but measured, in response: "Iran is brazenly violating international law and its own commitments. It's trying to sneak underground its nuclear weapons program.

"It's enriching uranium now in two facilities. I believe this is a great danger to the peace of the Middle East and the world as a whole."

Netanyahu wants to stress that it is not only Israel that would be endangered by an Iran with nuclear weapons: "The greatest threat facing humanity is that nuclear weapons will meet up with a radical Islamic regime, or that a radical Islamic regime may meet up with nuclear weapons. The first will happen if the Taliban takes over Pakistan. The second will happen if the ayatollah regime were to acquire nuclear weapons. Either one would be a catastrophic development for peace, for the supply of oil to the world, for the peace and safety of many countries, first of all my own, but also many others."

If Iran is the most acute issue Israel faces, the agonising effort to find a modus vivendi with the Palestinian populations in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem is the most chronic and pathological. Shortly after he became Prime Minister for the second time three years ago, Netanyahu surprised many by declaring his commitment to a Palestinian state.

"My vision of peace is a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state of Israel," he said.

For much of the past three years the Palestinians have demanded that Israel stop all construction beyond the 1967 borders, that is, in the West Bank, and in the Jewish suburbs of East Jerusalem, and said it would not enter peace negotiations without that pre-condition being met. Israel responded that East Jerusalem occupied a different status from the West Bank and that within the West Bank it would not occupy any more land for Jewish settlements, but would not stop construction within existing settlements. This week, for the first time in a very long time, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Jordan to talk directly. What does Netanyahu hope these talks can achieve?

"The most important thing to come out of them is a commitment to have continuing negotiations in order to achieve an agreement. We're prepared to do that, the Palestinians aren't. They keep piling on pre-conditions for the beginning of such negotiations. I think this is a mistake.

"Israel is prepared to sit down without pre-conditions, the Palestinians are not. There's a simple way to prove it. I'm willing to get in a car and travel the eight minutes, 10 minutes, from here to Ramallah and sit down to negotiations immediately with (Palestinian) President (Mahmoud) Abbas. He is not prepared to do the same thing with me. This may not be the fashionable international perception, but sometimes it's important to cut through the accepted perception and get to the truth."

But could a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians really be practical in today's environment?

"We can't know until we do it. Obviously much has changed in the last year with the convulsions that have rocked the Arab world. This increases our concerns for our security because we are concerned that any territory we vacate will be taken over by radical Islamic forces. That has happened already twice - Lebanon taken over by Iran's proxy, Hezbollah. And when we left Gaza and it was taken over by Iran's proxy, Hamas. We cannot let this happen a third time, to have the Judean and Samarian (West Bank) mountains taken over by Iran.

"Israel would be left in a tiny corridor - 10 miles wide by the sea, and have over 100,000 rockets targeting our cities, our air fields, our vital installations. So, naturally, we are concerned about having security safeguards."

When a nation is absorbed with as many immediate threats and issues as Israel is, it can be easy to lose sight of the longer term, the more fundamental questions. But Netanyahu is deeply absorbed in both Jewish tradition and the wider world of ideas. He recently read Gertrude Himelfarb's study, The People of the Book, which recounts the tale of pro-Jewish sentiment within British history, what Netanyahu calls "philo-Semitism". It is perhaps typical of Netanyahu's robust outlook that he likes to take consolation from the existence of philo-Semitism as much as he is sobered by the evidence and legacy of anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, I ask him why there is so much hostility to Israel in the world. "First of all, it's not so uniform as one might think. I just had breakfast with the Indian foreign minister. We talked about great projects of co-operation. It was a very positive conversation. We have similar experiences with China, which we feel has a desire for greater co-operation with Israel. Both countries express a real appreciation for Israeli technology. Israel has become a world power in technology: in agriculture, in medicine, in irrigation, in telecommunications, in IT, in cyber and in many other areas.

"Our president just went to Vietnam. Israel, I would say, is quite popular in Asia. People judge that it makes sense to have a close collaboration with Israel in the 21st century, the century of knowledge. I said in jest to the Indian foreign minister that together our two countries comprise about one sixth of humanity. We're small, but we punch above our weight."

Netanyahu is actually making a profound point here. Israel is making very big gains in Asia, which an Atlantic-centric Western media and the Arab world both tend to miss. Israel is making significant progress in Asia diplomatically, economically, in all measures of trade and in military-to-military exchanges. And it's not just in Asia that Netanyahu has something positive to talk about: "The same thing is happening in Africa. I'm going there soon, but I just had visits from the leaders of Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan. They're concerned with the Islamist tide above them.

"We have excellent relations with many countries of central Europe. They're concerned with the Islamist tide to the south. Canada is like the other Australia, or Australia is like the other Canada, an extraordinary country.

"I would also mention that small, little-known country called the United States of America. The support for Israel in the US has skyrocketed. It has always been high, but it has gone up year by year."

Netanyahu cites a plethora of polls to bolster this claim, and continues: "An overwhelming swath of the American public identifies with Israel because they view it as sharing the same values and ideals as the US.

"So the description of Israel as isolated in the world is not correct.

"I didn't even talk about certain connections we have in the Arab world where there is concern with the directions things might go."

Nonetheless, Netanyahu certainly acknowledges a deep hostility to Israel in parts of the Western press and in parts of the Arab world: "Where you have this antagonism to Israel, it is intensified in certain segments of Western European opinion, not necessarily European opinion as a whole, but Western European opinion.

"Obviously you have bastions of friendship there for Israel, but you also have an amalgam, a strange union between radical Islamists and radical people on the fringe of European politics.

"It's almost as if the Anarchists join the Islamists. These radicals speak often of being progressive, of being for gay rights, women's rights and so on. The only point of common cause they make with radical Islamists is animosity to Israel and to the US. Israel is seen as representing the US. It's the most anti-Western forces in the West that cause the problem. They can sometimes even shape the positions of some governments."

Is traditional anti-Semitism a part of this?

"There is traditional anti-Jewish feeling in the Islamist movements. That is different from traditional European anti-Semitism. There are two forces in the West - traditional anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism. In the 19th century philo-Semitism won. There was a shift in the inter-war years. The pendulum has swung from very strong support for Zionism in British intellectual circles to opposition.

"In general the European vision of Israel is different from the American. The formative European experience in foreign affairs was colonialism. The formative American experience was nation-building. Some Europeans wrongly conceive of Israel as a foreign implantation in someone else's land. We don't view ourselves as foreign interlopers in our own land."

The wearer of the signet ring, that earlier Netanyahu officiating in Jerusalem those millennia ago, no doubt felt the same.

(h/t P)