Opinion | Columnists

The Netanyahu game plan

Israel’s strikes on Syria are seen as an attempt by Tel Aviv to scupper resumption of peace negotiations with Palestine

  • By George S. Hishmeh | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 May 8, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Reuters
  • Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s unexpected aggressive bombardment of military sites near the Syrian capital last week has complicated matters both regionally and internationally, raising serious doubts about the intentions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, immediately after the raids on Friday and Sunday, left directly for Beijing for talks with new Chinese leaders.

Netanyahu’s trip followed immediately after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had concluded his talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who revealed a four-point proposal for settling the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The proposal endorsed full Palestinian sovereignty on the basis of the 1967 armistice lines and occupied East Jerusalem serving as the Palestinian capital, underlying the fact that this “is an alienable right of the Palestinian people and the key to the settlement of the Palestinian Question”. At the same time, the four-point proposal said: “Israel’s right to exist and its legitimate security concerns should be fully respected.”

Whether the Chinese proposal that has also endorsed the amended 2002 Arab Peace Initiative will be a catalyst in the anticipated negotiations remains to be seen. The amendments were revealed in Washington during a visit by an Arab League delegation in order to placate the Israelis.

However, the motive behind Israel’s aggressive actions in Syria, which the Obama administration said was undertaken without prior consultation with the White House, had been seen as an attempt by the Netanyahu government to shelve any talks about a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and focus all attention on the bloody upheaval in Syria.

The Israeli prime minister was reported earlier this month to be worried that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who seemed determined to focus immediately on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has been “drifting” towards the Arab League stance on the two-state solution.

“The prime minister’s advisers are not keen about the Arab League’s announcement,” the Israeli daily, Haaretz, reported. “Netanyahu and his advisers believe it would have been better had this announcement not been made.”

Israel has reportedly been dissatisfied with the Arab announcement underlying the new amendment that revealed Arab willingness to make “small shifts” in Israel’s 1967 armistice lines. In other words, “minimal” land swaps. At present, there are more than 500,000 Israelis who settled illegally in the West Bank.

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, now Justice Minister in the Netanyahu cabinet in charge of the peace process, had, in the past, accepted land swaps of 6-10 per cent of the Israeli-occupied West Bank area. The Palestinians were reportedly ready to exchange 1.9 per cent of the West Bank’s area in the past. Haaretz reported: “The fact that Kerry stood beside Qatar’s prime minister while he was reading the announcement (about the ”small shifts” in the 1967 Israeli armistice line) increased Netanyahu’s aides’ suspicions toward Kerry.”

The Arab League officials who were in Washington had assured Kerry and Vice-President Joe Biden that the League was still committed to the plan it first proposed more than 10 years ago in 2002. Once the agreement is signed, all Arab states are committed to normalise relations with Israel. This position was reported to President Barack Obama during his visit to Ramallah last month.

Israel’s public dissatisfaction with the amended Arab League initiative prompted it to launch its attacks on Syria in a bid to divert international attention to the presence in Syria of caches of Iranian missiles bound for Hezbollah, the fighter group that controls the Lebanese-Israeli armistice lines. Israeli leaders have apparently forgotten that Hezbollah has not had any confrontation with Israel since the 2006 war; hence their exaggeration should be dismissed outright.

Although the Obama administration is still uncertain about its next step towards Syria, Israel’s blatant raids last week carry enormous risks. “Instead of prodding Russia into calling for Al Assad’s ouster, it can bring greater Arab sympathy for Al Assad and prompt deeper involvement from Iran and Hezbollah,” the Associated Press acknowledged in a dispatch from Moscow. In fact, the Arab League has already denounced the two Israeli airstrikes.

In an obvious attempt to improve the political atmosphere, the Israeli Army radio station claimed that Netanyahu has this week ordered a freeze on publishing tenders for new West Bank colony homes to avoid hampering US efforts to renew peace talks. However, a quick response from Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran exposed the farce. “This is not a settlement [colony] freeze because construction in the settlements [colonies] is continuing, but you could say it is a show of restraint by Benjamin Netanyahu who does not want to be accused by the Americans of being responsible for the failure of their efforts to restart negotiations with the Palestinians.”

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at ghishmeh@gulfnews.com

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