Have President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cornered themselves into what Washington and Jerusalem fear is the “End of the Year” trap? It seems so.
Obama, steadily refused Israel's request before and during this summit to set a deadline for his diplomatic engagement with Iran – even when Israeli and Arab leaders warned that an open-ended dialogue would let Tehran continue developing nuclear arms. Suddenly, he changed his mind.
“These talks can't go on forever. We’re not going to create a situation in which talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds,” he said when he and the Israeli premier faced reporters at the White House on May 18 after their meeting. He then announced: “At the end of the year we'll see where we stand” – i.e. gauge whether the diplomatic approach was producing results.
Since the direct US-Iran dialogue will not start before the end of June or early July, the US president has set himself a six-month time frame for progress. This was a bad idea, in the view of his three key advisers – National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones and special envoys to Iran and to Afghanistan/Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross. The Iranians will reject it out of hand, they say, and before they get down to serious, practical talks they will demand that all deadlines be lifted.
After setting a time line for a policy review, the president will find it hard to back off. But White House sources said that after his summit with the Israeli prime minister he had no choice in the light of Netanyahu's refusal in their face-to-face conversation to pledge that Israel would not attack Iran without first touching base with Washington.
In fact, the day before his arrival in Washington, the Israeli Air Force began a four-day exercise drilling a possible strike against Iran.
Iran could do anything in six months
The prime minister reiterated that he had no idea where Iranian nuclear planning was heading in the next six months. For example, no Israeli government could hope to survive if it held still in the face of an Iranian a nuclear test, he said.
But in the end, say Washington sources, Obama and Netanyahu agreed implicitly that, barring extraordinary strategic events, Israel would refrain from military action during the six-month period of dialogue. After that, the two leaders would reassess the situation.
Clear proof that Tehran, for its part, had no intention of remaining idle for six months, came two days later: Wednesday, May 20, Iran successfully tested a solid-fuel, surface-to-surface missile with a range of around 2,000 km that could reach almost any point in the Middle East and southeast Europe.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking from his home in Semnan province in northern Iran, crowed: “The Sejil 2 missile, which has an advanced technology, was launched today … and it landed exactly on the target!”
This was his reply, too, to President Obama's suggestion to Netanyahu that it was necessary to await developments in Iran, such as the June 12 presidential elections. Ahmadinejad was telling Washington not to count on any changes; he was assured of re-election. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backs him to the hilt as the only candidate capable of pushing the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions and missile program forward and whom the whole world, including the US, was powerless to stop.
On May 11, the ayatollah said: “We should elect the one who lives is in a simple and modest way… who is pained by the pain of his people.”
Just to show Washington that Tehran has no intention of giving an inch on any front, Khamenei in person harshly accused the United States Tuesday, May 19, of training “terrorists” in the Kurdish region of neighboring Iraq.
Palestinian issue even less susceptible to diplomacy
“Behind our western border, the US is training terrorists. It is spending money and handing out weapons to be used against the Islamic republic” of Iran, he said in a televised speech in the western Iranian province of Kordestan.
“The Americans have dangerous plans for (Iraqi) Kurdistan … Their plans are not aimed at defending the Kurdish people, but they want to control them,” he said. “Our Kurdish friends on the other side of the border have told us that the US officers are paying the Kurdish youth on the Qandil Hills for information,” he said. “They pay money to create mercenaries. It is unworthy of Kurdish youth.”
Khamenei's reference to the Qandil Hills of northern Iraq, bastions of the Turkish rebel Kurdish PKK and the anti-Iranian Kurdish militia Pajak, was a broad hint to Ankara not to put his trust in the Americans, whom he accused of paying money to Kurdish terrorists behind Ankara's back.
These charges hardly set an amicable tone for the forthcoming talks with the US. Nor did they augur a successful outcome.
Our sources in Washington say the US president expects the early months of his dialogue with Tehran to be difficult. For this reason, he wants to use the time for simultaneous peacemaking on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
But here too time will not stop for six months. In fact, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources report a serious deterioration in the prospects of any sort of diplomacy.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has lost the last tatters of his prestige at home and among Arab rulers. Since he is President Obama's only candidate for president of an independent Palestinian state, the two-state solution he is promoting has gone into limbo.
Even the rank and file of Abu Mazen's own Fatah movement refused to support the new Palestinian government, whose formation under the outgoing Salam Fayyad he announced Tuesday, May 19. Most Fatah deputies in the Palestinian parliament angrily called the new Ramallah administration illegitimate, echoing their rivals, the rejectionist Hamas in Gaza.
Palestinian rift knocks legs out from under two-state solution
A fifth round of Fatah-Hamas “reconciliation talks” in Cairo this week failed to heal the rift dividing the two Palestinian factions, or hold out hope of bringing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under the single roof of a Palestinian government.
Palestinian attitudes are knocking the legs out from under the formula of “two states, living alongside each other in peace.” Unable to make peace with each other, they are in no shape for constructive diplomacy with Israel.
A strong, down-to-earth perspective was clearly laid out Tuesday, May 19, by Israeli General Security Service (Shin Bet) director Yuval Diskin in a briefing to the foreign relations and security committee of the Knesset.
Peace negotiations with the Palestinians had no chance of progress, he said, as long as Hamas rules the Gaza Strip and clings to its rejectionist ideology.
Neither Hamas nor Fatah will ever give up their strongholds – the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, respectively. he said. At the same time, Diskin estimated that Hamas was popular enough among the Palestinian people to win an election if it was held today on the West Bank too.
The Shin Bet chief then appealed to Israel's national policy-makers to decide once and for all whether to topple Hamas rule of Gaza. In his view, it could be done without reoccupying the Gaza Strip which Israel unilaterally evacuated in 2005.
He did not elaborate on a plan, but was very clear on the options he saw confronting the US and Israeli governments: A single, representative Palestinian address for fruitful engagement on a Palestinian state carried a price: Removal of Hamas rule of Gaza. The Iran-backed radical Palestinian organization is on the march. If nothing is done by Israel or the US – or both – to oust its regime in Gaza, Hamas will seize control of the West Bank too. If that happens, Tehran will lead the way in establishing a Palestinian state – not the Obama administration.
Taking this probable scenario into account, together with the fragile political balance in Lebanon (reviewed in a separate article in this issue), Obama may face a far worse situation six months hence than today on all the Middle East tracks he has mapped out for peaceful diplomacy.