Israel Update for September 2009

David Dolan
David Dolan

More rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip during September as American President Barrack Obama prodded Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to quickly begin final status peace negotiations. This action was deemed extremely risky by many Israeli political commentators, who warned that intense White House pressure for what most termed a premature resumption of peace talks could easily backfire and help ignite a new violent Palestinian attrition war backed by Iran.

The issue of Israeli home building in the disputed territories and parts of Jerusalem remained front and centre during the month, as the Palestinians continued to echo Obama's demand for a total settlement freeze before they would sit down at the negotiating table. Strong opposition to such action was expressed by many legislators inside Netanyahu's Likud party, while rallies were held in the capital city to protest against the proposed building suspension.

Extremist Iranian leaders continued to speak of Israel's destruction during the month as they simultaneously denounced escalating calls in the West for stepped up economic sanctions designed to pressure them to halt their nefarious nuclear programme. This came as Obama joined European leaders in revealing that Iran has been secretly building a second uranium enrichment plant capable of supplying fuel for nuclear bombs.

Three weeks before, PM Netanyahu flew clandestinely to Moscow to urge Russian leaders to stop supplying advanced anti aircraft missiles to Tehran. The Israeli Premier was said to be heartened by the Obama administration's subsequent announcement that Israel would be integrated into a new NATO anti-missile shield designed to protect regional and European countries from Iranian long range missiles.

Tensions remained high during September between Israel and Lebanon, where reports emerged that Iran has taken complete military control over the menacing Shiite Hizbullah militia. In Beirut, the anti-Syrian political block failed to form a new government, which analysts said might result in fresh sectarian violence in the troubled land, and possibly another Hizbullah rocket assault upon Israel.

On the brighter side, early and heavy rains fell in parts of northern Israel during the Rosh Ha Shana New Year weekend. Nearly two and a half inches poured down on the Golan Heights, whose streams feed into the severely depleted Sea of Galilee below-Israel's main fresh water reservoir. The amount was above the annual average rainfall for all of September and October. Lesser but still significant amounts fell in and around Jerusalem, and also along the coast from Nahariya in the north to Ashkelon, with some precipitation even falling in the arid Negev Desert. Israeli meteorologists are predicting an above average winter rainfall due mainly to El NiƱo conditions currently prevailing in the eastern Pacific Ocean, over half a world away.

Too Eager By Half

Described by the American Associated Press news agency as "bristling with impatience," President Barrack Obama hosted a tripartite meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas on September 22 at Manhattan's renowned Waldorf Astoria hotel. According to the AP report, the US leader "won an awkward, stone-faced handshake, but no other apparent progress beyond a promise to talk about more talks."

Israeli Defense Minister and Labor party leader Ehud Barak sat in on the meeting, as did Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the right wing Israel Beiteinu party. American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was publicly tasked by Obama with following up on the summit meeting to get the two sides back to the peace table by mid October, attended as well, along with special Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who brokered the New York meeting with great difficulty.

Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper quoted a "senior US official" who reported that "Obama strongly expressed his impatience" to the two regional leaders over his constantly thwarted efforts to get the negotiating process moving again. The unnamed American source described the closed three way summit meeting as "business like" but not cordial. This was apparently reflected in the short and terse handshake between Abbas and Netanyahu in front of cameras after the short parlay ended. Obama "scolded Netanyahu and Abbas" said the Israeli newspaper when he stated to reporters after the 45 minute meeting ended that "We've had enough talks. We need to end this conflict. There is a window of opportunity but it might shut."

In their own comments, both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders reiterated their desire to unthaw the frozen peace process, but not at any price. Israel would continue to build Jewish homes in the eastern half of its capital city, Netanyahu made clear during several subsequent media interviews-as he has many times since coming to power in early April. Abbas again demanded a total cessation of such construction, although he did not unequivocally state that he would refuse to attend renewed American-sponsored peace talks if such a complete halt was not ordered by the veteran Israeli leader. Indeed, both politicians agreed to send delegations to Washington the last week of September to hold more discussions that could lead to renewed peace negotiations, although most Israeli and Palestinian commentators doubted the meetings would produce any breakthroughs.

Senior Israeli officials were said to be happy to hear a slight but important change in tone coming from the American President concerning the disputed Jewish communities. Obama told reporters he held important talks with the leaders about "restraining" settlement building. He had earlier used such words as "complete halt" and "stop" when calling for a construction curb. Palestinian officials noticed the difference as well, and expressed their chagrin.

Political Suicide

Israeli analysts said it should be abundantly clear to both Obama and Abbas that they are essentially asking Binyamin Netanyahu to commit political suicide by demanding a halt to Jewish home building in the contested territories, especially in a city that has been the center of Jewish life and religious devotion for over 3,000 years. There is little doubt that his coalition government, if not his own Likud party, would split apart if he ever agreed to stop all construction within eyesight of Judaism's holiest ground on earth. In fact, some pointed out that the Premier does not even possess the legal authority to issue a building ban anywhere inside of Jerusalem's municipal boundaries, since the eastern half of the city, captured from Jordan in 1967, was formally annexed by the Knesset in 1980. "It's the same as saying no new homes can be built in Tel Aviv-it is not within the national government's sphere of powers to halt construction once local building permits have been issued," noted one Jerusalem city council member.