Thursday, February 25, 2010

"What Does Netanyahu Want?"

From time to time, the Palestine Center distributes articles it believes will enhance understanding of the Palestinian political reality. The following article by Patrick Seale was published in Middle East Online on 22 February 2010. To view this article online, please go to
By Patrick Seale
Monday, February 22, 2010
Courtesy Of
The Jerusalem Fund

It is widely accepted that Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, does not want peace with the Palestinians or even with Syria -- or, at least, not the sort of peace that would involve ceding territory. The right-wing coalition he heads would not allow it. But does he want war?

This also is extremely doubtful. Netanyahu is riding high in the polls. His coalition is stable: His rule assured for the time being. The opposition is in disarray, and the ‘peace camp’ virtually non-existent. Moreover, Israel faces no immediate threat from its neighbors, while its high-tech economy is enjoying a moment of considerable prosperity.

These are not circumstances in which Israeli reservists -- busy making money in civilian life and basking on the beaches in the winter heat wave -- can readily be called up in large numbers to wage war on a wave of patriotic fervour.

So, if Netanyahu does not want peace, and if the prospect of war is, at least for the moment, unattractive to the great majority of Israelis, the evident conclusion is that he is happy for things to remain as they are. In other words, he would like the status quo to endure for as long as possible.

But in politics things rarely remain the same for long. Political leaders must always be prepared to deal with unforeseen events. A good deal of forward planning is therefore required, especially in an environment as turbulent as the Middle East.

What can one, therefore, reasonably guess of Netanyahu’s preoccupations? He nourishes a deep-seated hatred for Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon -- the two defiant resistance movements which Israel, for all its military might, has not managed to destroy. Both are said to have rearmed.

In order to pre-empt any serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu is obviously concerned to prevent any reconciliation between Hamas and Mahmud Abbas’ Fatah-dominated administration on the West Bank. A Fatah-Hamas reconciliation would present him with a most unwelcome united Palestinian front. This would explain why, in any prisoner exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, he has adamantly opposed the release of Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic Palestinian leader. Barghouti is possibly the one man who could unite the rival Palestinian factions.

It would also explain the recent revelation of sex scandals and corruption among Abbas’ close aides, clearly orchestrated by Israel’s security service. The assassination in Dubai by an Israeli hit team of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas official, is another even more dramatic event calculated to create chaos in Palestinian ranks. Vowing revenge for the murder, Hamas will be less inclined than ever to lend its support to Abbas’ strategy of negotiations. The involvement of Palestinian collaborators in the killing of Mabhouh will also serve to set one Palestinian faction against the other.

In any event, Netanyahu has vowed not to lift the siege of Gaza so long as Hamas is in control. Most Israelis seem totally indifferent to the suffering they are inflicting on the captive Palestinians. Netanyahu has, in fact, managed to persuade Egypt to tighten the siege by sinking a metal barrier deep into the ground along the Egyptian border with Gaza, thus disrupting the tunnel trade which has kept the Strip alive. To Netanyahu’s way of thinking, the threat from Hamas has been contained.

Hizbullah, on the other hand, poses a far more difficult problem. This powerful Lebanese Shi‘ite movement does not stand alone. It is a partner in the Tehran-Damascus-Hizbullah axis which, in recent years, has posed the main challenge to US-Israeli hegemony in the region.

According to TTU Monde Arabe, a Paris-based weekly bulletin of strategic news, large numbers of Iranian-built Fateh 110 missiles, with a range of 200 to 250 kilometres, have in recent months transited Syria on their way to Hizbullah, and have been deployed in several parts of Lebanon, notably in the Bekaa valley.

To disrupt the axis, Netanyahu has devoted all his attention to rallying the world, and especially the United States, against Iran, portraying its nuclear programme as an ‘existential’ threat. In this, he has had considerable success. US President Barack Obama has abandoned his earlier attempt to reach out in friendship to Iran, and has instead taken the lead in seeking tougher international sanctions against Tehran.

Syria is also in Israel’s sights. A current of opinion is gaining ground in Israeli defense and intelligence circles in favor of re-launching a peace process with Damascus. The argument goes as follows: If Syria could be neutralised by a peace agreement, the Tehran-Damascus-Hizbullah axis would be brought low. Iran would be isolated, Hizbullah enfeebled. Stripped of their Syrian champion, the Palestinians would have to make do with whatever crumbs were thrown to them. Some Israeli strategic thinkers argue that it would be well worth returning the Golan for such strategic gains.

There are several flaws in this thinking. Netanyahu does not want to give up the Golan, and Syria is most unlikely to agree to a separate peace. Much as it is anxious to recover the Golan, this may not be enough to persuade it to abandon its Iranian, Lebanese and Palestinian allies and condemn the region to indefinite Israeli hegemony.

The current status quo, so beloved by Netanyahu, may not prove as stable or as enduring as he would like.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria;also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.

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