This week President Obama brings the Middle East peace talks charade to Washington. Meetings with Israeli peace negotiators are intended to create the perception of a breakthrough that musters support for tougher sanctions against atomic Iran. But Obama’s charade won’t advance Mideast peace or result in sanctions that shock Tehran into abandoning nuclear weapons.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in Europe where he met with British and German leaders who pressed the Israeli for progress on peace talks and expressed support for sanctions if Iran fails to be more transparent with its nuclear program. During his trip Netanyahu also met with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell to “…find a bridging formula that will enable us to at once launch the process.”
This week Netanyahu’s representatives are in Washington to put final touches on the “bridging formula” which at its center is a West Bank settlement construction freeze. Last December, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas abandoned talks until the Israelis freeze settlement construction. Half a million Jews live in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, territory Israel captured in the 1967 war and which is home to 2.5 million Palestinians.
Netanyahu demands that any talks “formula” allows Israel to continue some settlement construction. The draft compromise, according to press reports, lets Israel complete housing units now under construction but freezes all others for a specific time. But the prime minister insists any Israeli freeze must be matched by the Palestinians and the U.S. must guarantee it won’t oppose renewed building if negotiations fail.
The Obama administration is unlikely to agree to either condition.
While in Europe the prime minister reiterated Israel’s “winning formula” for a lasting peace – “a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.” He called on President Abbas to be a “courageous partner” who declares unequivocally “It’s over.” “We are going to make a real peace” that ends the conflict, resolves the Palestinian refugee issue and creates a separate Palestinian state.
But Abbas is not the “courageous partner” Netanyahu needs. The Palestinian has an unstable, fractured government and besides Abbas doesn’t represent Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the terror group Hamas. That’s why even if Abbas agrees to rejoin negotiations his influence will not win the needed Palestinian support if an agreement is reached.
Washington understands a weak Palestinian leader makes Obama’s task of charting a Mideast peace nearly impossible. But that didn’t stop the President’s efforts this spring.
In June, Obama spoke to the Muslim world from Cairo, Egypt to declare that freezing Israeli settlements was his top priority to help reach an agreement. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements…. It is time for these settlements to stop,” Obama said. These words earned Obama Arab gratitude and a public rejection from Netanyahu. It also torpedoed Obama’s support among Israelis and made Netanyahu’s hard line on settlements more politically defensible.
Last week, a Smith Research poll taken on behalf of the Jerusalem Post found that 51 percent of Israelis consider Obama’s administration more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel and 35 percent are neutral on the issue. No wonder Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman called Obama’s peace efforts politically “unrealistic.”
But it doesn’t matter to Obama that Lieberman is right. The President needs to create the perception of progress before next month’s G-8 meeting in Pittsburgh in hope of persuading the world’s economic leaders to impose sanctions on atomic weapon-seeking Iran. After all, the atomic mullahs should be his primary Mideast concern, not the Palestinians, because the President knows 80 percent of Americans believe a nuclear-armed Iran would constitute a threat to the U.S.
But for the Europeans, the reverse is true, which explains Obama’s rush to find a “formula” acceptable to Abbas. It also explains the push for Netanyahu to meet with Abbas at the mid-September United Nations General Assembly meeting. These actions are about the appearance of progress, a diplomatic charade for the benefit of the G-8 and Arab world.
Just before the G-8 meeting expect Obama to announce a “breakthrough” in Mideast peace talks based on the Netanyahu-Abbas meeting and their agreement to the “formula.” Obama will celebrate his pyrrhic victory before the fawning press and then call upon the G-8 to impose tough sanctions on Iran. But tougher sanctions — even cutting the import of refined petroleum products — may come too late to stop Iran’s atomic program because Tehran’s new government is much worse than the last.
Iran’s government radically changed for the worse this summer. After a rigged election and weeks of massive street demonstrations Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began his second term as president by purging his cabinet and installing ultra-conservative loyalists and former members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). These hard-right cronies will soon occupy the regime’s most powerful positions such as the interior, intelligence, defense and oil ministries.
The best known of the IRGC alumni is Ahmad Vahidi, the defense nominee, who is sought by Interpol in connection with a 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires and as the mastermind of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemembers. He is the former commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds (Jerusalem) Force, which organizes, trains, equips, and finances foreign Islamic revolutionary movements. In 2008, the European Union identified Vahidi, a deputy defense minister, as a person linked to Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities. Vahidi is expected to be confirmed as defense chief on September 1st.
It’s unlikely the new ultra-conservative Iranian government will abandon atomic energy or its lust for nuclear weapons. After all, atomic weapons will provide the regime regional prestige, bolster national pride and achieve a significant degree of military superiority and hegemony over its Arab neighbors who, like the West, fear Iran’s nuclear potential.
But is Iran really developing an atomic weapon? Most western intelligence agencies believe Tehran has the capability to build a bomb and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency indicates an atomic Iran is possible in a couple years.
On August 19, 2009, Yousri Abu Dhadi, a former senior official with the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told an Egyptian audience “If Iran wants to produce nuclear bombs within a short period of time, it can.”
Last Friday, the IAEA released a new report that states for the first time Iran’s atomic program may contain “military dimensions.” The report indicates Iran may be working towards acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and Iran has confirmed that it carried out experiments in order to test the process known as “detonation,” a key stage in the development of nuclear weapons.
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Talmor accused the IAEA of hiding “…information that would be far more incriminating for Iran” than exposed in the new report. The report confirms Iran continues to enrich uranium with more than 8,300 operational centrifuges at its Nataz facility and has amassed over 2,200 pounds of low-grade enriched uranium or enough to produce at least one atomic bomb after further enrichment.
Obama’s charade of a Mideast peace effort might persuade the G -8 to back sanctions against Iran but they will likely come too late to stop the radicalized Iranian regime from acquiring atomic weapons. And there is virtually no chance it will actually advance peace because it lacks a credible Palestinian partner. What then will Obama and/or Netanyahu do?