March 12, 2012 Edition 9 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Ramifications of the Israel-US-Iran confrontation
Palestinians are caught in the middle  - Ghassan Khatib
The western tension with Iran is having a variety of impacts regionally.

It's not Iran  - Yossi Alpher
So where is the linkage?

The impact of the US-Israeli confrontation with Iran  - Mkhaimar Abusada
Netanyahu is trying to extort Obama in an election year to give more concessions on other regional issues.

From crisis to crisis  - Gershon Baskin
The "landlord has gone crazy" attitude has proven its effectiveness in creating deterrence both in the north and the south.

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Palestinians are caught in the middle
 Ghassan Khatib
The tension between Iran, on one hand, and Israel and the United States, on the other hand, is growing and having a variety of impacts regionally and internationally. The reason for the increased tension is numerous official statements and periodic leaks over a possible Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities as a way to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. These, in turn, are instigating activity by the United States--and to a lesser extent its western allies--to try to convince Israel to restrain itself by promising alternative means of circumscribing Iran, including an intensification of sanctions.

The recent visit of Israel's prime minister to the United States was dominated by these concerns. Everybody had the distinct impression that the Iran issue tops the agenda between the two sides. What is complicating the matter internationally (but especially for the United States) is the fear that an Israeli attack and possible Iranian response would drag the United States into another war. An Israeli attack could produce an Iranian response against American troops that are now spread throughout the region. Finally, an Israeli attack might cause Iran to retaliate against the Arab Gulf allies of the United States and the world's main oil producers, generating dire economic consequences.

In the immediate term, the regional tension is manifesting itself in the internal conflict in Syria, giving the revolution there a regional and international dimension. Iran, supported by Russia and China, is trying to prevent the collapse of its ally in Syria because the continuity of the regime led by Bashar Assad will allow Iran to maintain its influence over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (through Iran's proxy Hizballah). The fall of the Assad regime would interrupt this strategically significant axis and strategically weaken Iran. As a result, the internal conflict in Syria is becoming increasingly complicated, with dimensions beyond the "Arab spring" considerations of democratization and social and economic development, stretching into regional strategic politics.

The other clear consequence of the tension between Iran and the West is visible in internal Palestinian politics. This heightened rhetoric unfortunately coincides with the reconciliation dialogue underway between Palestinian factions Fateh and Hamas and efforts to reunify the Palestinian political systems and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When Palestinian President and Fateh leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal signed an agreement in Doha earlier this year, debate began immediately within Hamas and soon became the main obstacle to reconciliation. The Hamas movement seems to have become entangled in the ongoing tension between Iran and the United States and other regional players, including the Arab states. Prominent leaders in Hamas announced their opposition to the Doha accord. Meshaal and his allies, particularly those outside Palestine, are being encouraged to go ahead with the reconciliation agreement by Arab countries such as Qatar (which mediated the agreement), as well as Egypt and its key Muslim Brotherhood movement. Others in Hamas, represented largely by local Gaza leaders including Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahhar, were quite unhappy with the Doha agreement and have established direct contacts with Iran, which is discouraging them from supporting the agreement. As a result, the options before Palestinians at this difficult time are also being limited by the tension between Iran and the West and its Arab allies.-Published 12/3/2012 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

It's not Iran
 Yossi Alpher
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as we have known it since the 1993 signing of the Oslo accords, essentially died more than three years ago with the demise of the final status talks between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Whatever happens in the months ahead between Israel and Iran or between the United States and Iran will not directly affect a non-existent peace process.

Theoretically speaking, if indeed there was a flourishing Israeli-Palestinian peace process, this might soften the impact of an armed conflict with Iran and reduce instinctive Arab popular anti-Israel reaction and support for a besieged Iran. But that is not the case and is not likely to be the case, at least throughout 2012. Thus all parties concerned should bear in mind that a war with Iran could ignite violence in the West Bank and (despite recent Hamas assurances to the contrary) in Gaza as well.

Yet an attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure is not likely in the coming months. That is one of the conclusions we can draw from the statements made in recent days during the AIPAC convention and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington. Yet this reality, too, does not render a peace process more probable or more likely to succeed.

So where is the linkage?

Paradoxically, if the Palestinian leadership wants to encounter a more forthcoming Netanyahu government and generate more intense international pressure on Netanyahu to get serious about a two-state solution, it has to hope that the current confrontation with Iran eliminates Tehran's nuclear threat. Whether this happens through diplomacy or by force of American or Israeli arms is immaterial. With the Iran nuclear issue off the regional and international agenda, attention would and could again be focused on the Palestine issue.

To a more limited extent, the collapse of the Alawite regime in Syria might also help refocus attention on Israel-Palestine. By eliminating a major supporter of Islamic Jihad, Hizballah and (until recently) Hamas and, more significantly, by weakening Iran's penetration into the Levant and by extension the threat Tehran projects toward Israel, the fall of the Alawites would also help restore the Palestinian question to the top of the agenda.

Some argue that Netanyahu is using the Iran threat to avoid dealing with the Palestinian issue. Personally, I take the threat posed by Iran more seriously than that. But regardless of Netanyahu's motives, we have to concede that he has succeeded in focusing the world's attention, and particularly Washington's attention, on Iran, and that this--in addition to the Obama administration's electoral preoccupation--comes at the expense of the Palestinian issue.

At the same time, we must also acknowledge that neither Iran nor the American election season is the only reason the international community is neglecting the Palestinian issue. The Arab revolutionary wave has effectively relegated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to lower priority than, say, the events in Syria. Egypt, once a key catalyst for peace, has partially shifted its support to Hamas. Efforts to bring about Fateh-Hamas reconciliation have foundered. In all these issue areas, Iran is not a primary factor.

Nor, indeed, can the Iran issue explain the demise of the Oslo formula for ending the conflict. That we need a new peace paradigm is demonstrated by Abbas' search for an international formula that places the conflict on a state-to-state basis. Abbas apparently realizes that his positions on pre-1967 "narrative" issues like holy places and the right of return are irreconcilable with those of any Israeli prime minister. Even in ideal negotiating circumstances, Netanyahu's pro-settlement government is not the only obstacle.

At the end of the day, the combination of Iran, Arab revolutions and US elections has placed all these calculations on the back burner. Those in the international community who are not otherwise preoccupied should be exploiting the hiatus of 2012 to think about better alternatives to Oslo.

From this standpoint, the problem is not Iran.-Published 12/3/2012 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The impact of the US-Israeli confrontation with Iran
 Mkhaimar Abusada
The debate over Iran's nuclear program has been at the forefront of official US-Israel deliberations. The recent meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama at the White House was overshadowed by Iran's nuclear program and whether an attack should be used to derail it. The debate is not over whether or not to attack, but rather when.

Obama, like most US presidents, is hoping for a second presidential term and therefore warned Netanyahu against any unilateral attacks before the US presidential elections in November 2012. Obama is afraid that an attack on Iran will deepen the American economic crisis and thus sabotage his efforts for a second term.

A military strike against Iran would probably provoke it to close the Straits of Hormuz, through which 25 percent of the world's oil is exported. Also, any attack against Iran will probably lead to Iranian retaliation against oil fields in the Arab Gulf countries as well as attacks on US military bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Finally, Israel might not be able to absorb an Iranian retaliation that uses ballistic missiles. Obama does not want any last-minute surprises before the US elections.

But Netanyahu has his own political calculations. He is well aware that after three years in office, eventually he will have to face Israeli voters. A successful military attack against Iranian nuclear facilities would guarantee him another election victory, just like Menachem Begin after he attacked the Iraqi nuclear program before Israeli parliamentary elections in the summer of 1981. Netanyahu is surrounded by hawkish Israeli party leaders and military generals who favor an attack against Iran.

In contrast, most Israeli public opinion polls have indicated recently that the majority of Israelis do not support a unilateral Israeli military attack against Iran. They favor US participation--or at least US approval. In spite of assurances by Israeli military commanders that Israel would be able to carry out the attack alone and defend itself against any Iranian retaliation, the Israeli public is obsessed with its partnership and strategic alliance with the United States, which could prevent Iran from launching massive retaliation.

American and western security agencies do not feel the rush to attack Iran. They are confident that it will take Iran a long time to develop nuclear weapons, and they believe that economic and financial sanctions against Iran will derail its program and bring Tehran back to the negotiating table. Europe is in a very delicate situation. If it warns Israel against attacking Iran, it is accused of betraying Israel (Europeans do not want to revive memories of the Nazi Holocaust). But Europe also knows that any attack against Iran will have heavy economic, financial, and military ramifications.

Netanyahu will probably not attack Iran without American approval and support. But Netanyahu is trying to extort Obama in an election year to give more concessions on other regional issues. First, Israel is probably against any NATO intervention in Syria that could lead to the collapse of the Syrian regime and the eruption of a civil war there that could have negative implications for the long-quiet Israel-Syria border.

Netanyahu is also trying to keep the Palestinian issue on the sideline. He is not ready for any serious negotiations with Palestinians before the final political map of the Middle East is clear. Thus, Netanyahu is trying to postpone resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict until after the US elections, seeking guarantees from Obama of a policy of "no pressure".

The irony of the Middle East is that Palestinians seem to pay the price of any regional conflict. The Gulf War in 1991 resulted in the convening of the Madrid peace conference, but with no political results for Palestinians. The Gulf War in 2003 paved the way for the launching of the Quartet roadmap, but no Palestinian state was established as the roadmap's second phase envisioned.

The Palestinians will have to wait another year before any progress in the peace process with Israel. The Americans, Europeans and the Arabs are all busy with their internal political, economic, and financial problems. No new initiatives are expected before the US elections and a determination on the fate of the Iranian nuclear program. Still, Palestinians can make use of this time by reorganizing internally and preparing for the uncertain political future.-Published 12/3/2012 ©

Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

From crisis to crisis
 Gershon Baskin
A few weeks ago, when the "attack Iran chatter" in Israel took an upgrading shift in quality (of the people doing the chatter) and in quantity (the amount of times the chatter focused on operational options), I was convinced that a decision had been taken to hit Iran. In thinking about the consequences of that attack, I immediately pondered the unintended consequences as well.

One of the concerns of the West, if in fact Israel does attack Iran, will be the rallying of the Arab and Islamic world behind the Iranian regime. Many Iran analysts in the West believe that the regime of the ayatollahs is on the decline and that opposition forces are just waiting for the opportune moment to reemerge on the streets and challenge the Revolutionary Guards once again. In the aftermath of an Israeli attack, the forces of opposition would feel compelled to support the regime, as would most of Iran's neighbors, including the Saudis.

No doubt the Palestinian street, too, would back Iran and cheer the incoming rockets and missiles falling on Israel no matter where they came from. One of the best ways for the West to combat Arab and Islamic support for Iran would be for the US and Europe to exert extreme pressure on Israel to move forward on the Palestinian track.

It seems that after Netanyahu's United States trip, the impending Israeli strike has been postponed in order to allow US-led sanctions to have their full impact. At the same time, Israel's attack rhetoric has reached new heights, with the Auschwitz comparison now imbedded in the Jewish collective memory. The notion that Netanyahu surely wanted to deliver is that in the face of existential danger, Israel will take extreme measures to ensure our survival. The "landlord has gone crazy" attitude, which the West calls using disproportionate force, that was employed in the second Lebanon war and in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-9, has proven its effectiveness in creating deterrence both in the north and the south.

Acute tension and anxiety in Israel, both in government and in society, are likely to manifest themselves as a very short fuse should any security situations arise in the West Bank or in Gaza. Palestinian Authority suggestions of ceasing security coordination at this time would likely result in an immediate tightening of a renewed closure regime on the West Bank and renewed and regular Israeli army incursions into Palestinian cities. I imagine that those who are responsible for the daily coordination at field and command levels have already passed on the message that the Palestinians shouldn't even consider such an option at this time.

The relative calm from Gaza will probably continue, with the understanding that "relative" means about 20-30 rockets a month, almost all landing in open spaces. Hamas is not taking orders from Tehran, and even if there is an Israeli strike against Iran I don't think there would be a significant retaliation from Hamas. Islamic Jihad would respond and Hamas would initially not stop it, but after some disproportionate Israeli force being used in Gaza, Hamas would plead with the Egyptians to convince Israel that it is willing to impose a ceasefire.

With all of Israel's attention and political and military energies focused on Iran, there seems to be nothing to spare for thinking creatively about using the opportunity to move some kind of political process forward with the Palestinians. No one in the Israeli government believes that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is interested in reaching an agreement with Israel to end the conflict. Naturally, on the Palestinian side they say the exact same thing about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Almost no one in Israel or Palestine or in the international community believes that any peace process can exist at this time and everyone seems resolved to accept the notion fostered by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon that we can speak only about conflict management.

Going against this trend, I believe from private discussions with Abbas that he is quite prepared for serious negotiations to end the conflict, including making all the well-known concessions that the Palestinian side would have to accept. He is quite convinced that Israel is not prepared and is, indeed, even ideologically opposed to the creation of a viable Palestinian state next to Israel.

Netanyahu and his ministers continue to exploit the internal Palestinian split to claim that there is no one to negotiate with. But when the Palestinians plan to move forward with their internal reconciliation, Netanyahu threatens to cut all contacts because Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction. Abbas' refusal to enter talks without Israel freezing settlements and Israel's refusal to do so have put an end to negotiations.

Both sides are quite aware that agreeing to negotiate is not doing a favor to the other side. They also know that there is no chance of resolving the conflict without negotiations. The Palestinians' United Nations plans have reached a dead end, even if they have not yet pronounced them dead.

The Chinese say that crises create opportunities. The Israeli-Palestinian track certainly is in need of a new opportunity. Without it, the current crisis between the parties will definitely deepen and become much more dangerous.-Published 12/3/2012 ©

Gershon Baskin is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, a radio host on All for Peace Radio and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Shalit.