November 2009 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
ISRAEL FOCUSES ON IRANIAN NUCLEAR THREAT
Israeli government officials spent much of November dealing with daunting issues related to Iran's menacing nuclear program. The annihilationist threat posed by the fundamentalist Shiite regime was raised by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during a White House meeting with American President Barack Obama in early November. Discussions about Iran were also held in Paris and other world capitals. Obama secured Russian backing for stiffer economic sanctions against Iran during a meeting in Singapore with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev.
The discussions came amid fresh Iranian resistance to United Nations attempts to get it to come clean on its self declared "nuclear energy" program. A proposal to send uranium for supervised enrichment abroad was formally rejected by Iran's bellicose leaders, who also issued fresh verbal assaults against the Jewish state and further denunciations of the United States, Great Britain and other Western countries that are leading international efforts to get Tehran to reveal the full details and final aims of its nuclear program.
Meanwhile a huge Iranian arms shipment, apparently heading to Shiite Hizbullah forces in Lebanon, was intercepted off the coast of Cyprus by Israeli naval vessels acting on information provided by the United States. The massive weapons cache, including rockets that can hit many parts of Israel, was later displayed at the port of Ashdod for inspection by foreign diplomats stationed in Israel.
Instability and verbal brawling continued to rock the Palestinian political scene during November, with the radical Hamas movement rejecting Palestinian Authority plans to hold legislative and presidential elections early next year. This came as PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he will not be a candidate in the leadership race.
PA leaders said that in light of the ongoing impasse in peace negotiations with Israel, they are preparing to declare a unilateral Palestinian state alongside of Israel in the near future. This prompted PM Netanyahu to retort that any such move will completely crush the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
Meanwhile more warnings were issued by PA and Hamas officials that a new violent Palestinian uprising may be looming on the horizon. Tensions escalated after the Jerusalem municipality announced that 900 new apartment units will be constructed in the southern neighborhood of Gilo, a move condemned by the Palestinians, the White House, European leaders and Iran. Obama himself added significant fuel to the political firestorm, saying the apartment construction "does not contribute to Israel's security, and embitters the Palestinians."
On the brighter side of the news-really the wetter side-Israel experienced some of its heaviest ever "former rains" the end of October and early November, bringing flooding to several parts of the country. Despite the damage done, hydrological officials were generally delighted, given the huge water deficit that they are projecting in the coming years.
NICE MEETING OR NASTY?
Aids to PM Netanyahu were sitting on pins and needles as they waited in early November for late word whether or not US President Obama would meet with the visiting Israeli leader. Although primarily in the country to address the General Assembly of the influential Jewish Federations of America, Netanyahu was hoping for another chance to speak face to face with Obama, especially since there has been public tension between the two leaders over the stalled peace process; in particular the President's vocal demand that Netanyahu halt all Jewish home construction in the eastern half of Jerusalem and throughout all of Judea and Samaria.
In the end, the meeting not only took place in the US capital city, but lasted over half an hour longer than planned. Netanyahu was accompanied by several top aids, including National Security Council chief Uzi Arad. Also present was Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who like Netanyahu, is a well known figure in Washington. Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel sat in on the President's team.
During the last portion of the one hour forty minute meeting, the two elected leaders sat alone. What exactly was discussed between them was not revealed. Reports that the White House parlay had been sour started to circulate in the Israeli media when both Netanyahu and Ehud Barak unexpectedly cancelled scheduled press conferences. However the PM later vigorously denied that his talks with Obama had been difficult, insisting just the opposite was the case. He cryptically stated that "the importance of the meeting will be ascertained in the future," which some speculated might indicate that he received some level of presidential approval for Israeli military action against Iran if the rogue Muslim nation continues to defy international demands that it halt its uranium enrichment program. Other reports said Netanyahu pledged to halt all settlement building for ten months, which was said to be well received by the US leader.
The only thing known for sure is that two topics were discussed at the meeting: the faltering Palestinian-Israeli peace process and something to do with Iran. This was spelled out in a brief White House statement which said "The President reaffirmed our strong commitment to Israel's security, and discussed security cooperation on a range of issues," adding that "The President and Prime Minister also discussed Iran and how to move forward on Middle East peace."
SECRET DEAL IN THE WORKS?
The Washington meeting came soon after Iranian officials formally rejected the latest United Nations offer regarding the country's controversial nuclear program. As noted last month, the UN's Atomic Energy Agency signaled it would oppose any further international economic sanctions against Iran if the country's leaders agreed to ship 70% of their current uranium stockpile to an energy facility in Russia, where it would be further enriched under UN supervision for use as fuel rods. According to the rejected proposal, the rods would then be sent to France for additional treatment before being returned to Iran for use in nuclear energy and research reactors. Israeli leaders had expressed strong reservations over the proposal, saying the UN should instead be insisting that Iran stop enriching uranium altogether.
The Times of London newspaper later reported that retiring Atomic Agency chief Mohamed El Baradei has been conducting backchannel talks with Iranian leaders to persuade them to open up their entire nuclear program to full international inspection. According to the report, all three rounds of economic sanctions previously imposed upon Tehran by the United Nations would be lifted, and five UN resolutions censuring Iran's uranium enrichment program cancelled, in exchange for permission to inspect all Iranian nuclear facilities. Most disturbing to Israeli officials, the reported deal-leaked to the Times by an unnamed European diplomat with access to UN documents-would allow Iran to carry on enriching uranium.
The Egyptian-born El Baradei had earlier upset Israeli officials when he averred that an underground nuclear facility Iran has been secretly constructing for the past few years deep inside a mountain southwest of Tehran was merely "some sort of security bunker" and therefore "nothing to worry about." The existence of the hidden facility was first revealed in September by President Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. All three said the fact that Iranian leaders had been hiding the facility from international eyes was itself very worrisome, noting that the action adds significant weight to existing evidence that Iran is planning to produce nuclear bombs.
European diplomats with access to UN documents detailing Iran's nuclear program revealed that the underground facility was too small to house the uranium enrichment centrifuges needed if the site was indeed part of Iran's supposed nuclear energy program. However they said the previously hidden bunker was just the right size to house highly sophisticated equipment designed to produce enough enriched uranium to construct one nuclear warhead per year.
BURY YOUR NUKES
Several days after El Baradei made his controversial comments about the clandestine site near the Shiite holy city of Qom, his own UN agency published a report revealing that Iranian technicians and workers had begun moving expensive "cutting edge" equipment into the illicit bunker. The reports said the intricate machines are designed to produce up to one ton of highly enriched uranium per year, which experts say is more than enough to construct a nuclear weapon.
The report also expressed Atomic Energy Agency concerns that Iran may well have hidden other nuclear facilities from international inspection, as Israeli leaders have long maintained. "The agency has indicated that Iran's declaration of the new facility reduces the level of confidence in the absence of other nuclear facilities under construction, and gives rise to questions about whether there were any other nuclear facilities not declared to the agency," it stated.
Responding to the latest news regarding Iran's ominous nuclear program, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned once again that the Shiite regime presents a severe danger to many more nations than just Israel: "The threat that Iran poses is very grave for the state of Israel, for peace in the Middle East, and in the whole world." Netanyahu added that "without any doubt, we are Iran's first target, but we are not the last one."
Significantly, the statement was made while the Premier was inspecting one of Israel's four German-built submarines that are widely thought to carry Israeli-made missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. One week after the visit, Iranian clerical leaders announced that their military forces are currently engaged in the biggest war games ever staged in the country, purportedly designed to protect the Shiite regime's nuclear facilities from possible foreign attack.
SHIPPING DEATH AND DESTRUCTION
In the largest such operation ever carried out, Israeli naval commandoes from the elite Shayetet 13 unit staged a daring raid on the storm-buffeted Mediterranean Sea before dawn on November 4, boarding a German-owned cargo ship flying the flag of Antigua. Media reports said they were ordered to seize the vessel after American officials passed on intelligence information about the deadly cargo to their Israeli counterparts. The ship, bound for the Syrian port of Latakia, turned out to be carrying nearly 500 tones of Iranian-supplied weaponry, apparently heading to Hizbullah militia forces operating in Lebanon.
According to the German newspaper Der Spiegel , the existence of the massive arms cache, hidden in some 40 Iranian commercial containers, was first detected by American naval forces operating near the Suez Canal. For some unknown reason, the ship-called the Francop-was not halted and searched at that point. When Israeli officials became aware of the situation, they made enquiries to their American counterparts, who then passed on precise details about the vessel.
After being stopped and searched off of the coast of Cyprus, the Francop was towed to Ashdod port, south of Tel Aviv, where the weapons were carefully unloaded and documented. Officials said the huge haul was enough to supply Hizbullah fighters with up to one month's worth of wartime rockets and ammunition. Port workers unloaded around 3,000 missiles and hundreds of 122-millimeter Katyusha rockets, along with many mortar shells, hand grenades and hundred of thousands of machine gun bullets. After it was established that the Polish and German crew on board the ship did not realize they were carrying Iranian-supplied weapons hidden in cargo containers, they were allowed to leave Ashdod port.
Syrian and Lebanese officials termed the seizure "an illegal act of piracy" while denying that the ship was carrying any weapons-a contention rendered absurd when the huge cache was subsequently displayed at Ashdod port. Israeli PM Netanyahu noted that the UN resolution which ended the 2006 Lebanon War forbids any country from rearming Hizbullah militia forces. "Iran is sending these weapons to terror organizations to harm Israeli cities and kill its citizens," he said, adding that "the time has come for the international community to exert real pressure on Iran to stop this criminal activity and to support Israel when it defends itself against these terrorists and their patrons."
PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS POSTPONED
Although Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas announced last month that national elections would be held on January 24, he was subsequently forced to postpone the vote after Hamas said it would prevent people from going to the polls in the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders threatened that anyone daring to cast a ballot would be "punished" by Hamas thugs. Israeli political analysts said the Iranian-backed Sunni Muslim group fears that Abbas will attempt to use elections as a springboard to return PA control over the crowded coastal zone, which Hamas has ruled since it violently seized control in June 2007.
Abbas retorted that Palestinian law mandates legislative and presidential elections every four years, noting that next February will be exactly four years since the last vote was held. Hamas triumphed in the 2006 ballot, winning a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature. Opinion surveys suggest that the radical group would come out on top once again, but this is apparently not enough of an incentive to overcome fears that the PA might end up back in control over Gaza if voters return to the polls.
Adding the drama, the nearly 75 year old Palestinian leader said he has "no intention or desire" to stand as a presidential candidate if and when elections are held next year. This prompted Israeli President Shimon Peres to urge Abbas to change his mind, contending there is no other suitable candidate who might be able to get the stalled peace process rolling again. Analysts said that with Palestinian elections postponed, Abbas will probably remain in power by default, meaning Hamas might actually be doing Israel a favor by blocking a national vote.
Meanwhile Fatah leaders have reportedly made a "strategic decision" to declare a third uprising against Israel. PA officials told the Nazareth-based newspaper Hadith Anas that the moribund peace process is the main reason for their resolve to reignite widespread protest demonstrations against the Jewish state. However the unnamed officials quoted by the paper said that unlike the first two violent attrition campaigns, the new one would not feature terror attacks and armed clashes. Israeli officials were said to be quite skeptical of that contention.
STATE OF PALESTINE COMING SOON?
Various statements were issued during the month by senior PA officials concerning the possibility that they might declare statehood in the near future. The issue was initially broached by Mahmoud Abbas, who said continuing Israeli home building in Judea and Samaria might result in a unilateral statehood declaration in the coming months.
PA negotiator Saeb Erekat later said that Palestinian leaders are prepared to request that the UN Security Council endorse an independent state based on the 1949 ceasefire lines, which became the unofficial border between Israel and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. Erekat said PA officials have asked European Union nations and the United States to back its statehood proposal. He maintained that Russian leaders support the plan, along with several unnamed European countries. Erekat's comments came soon after PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad presented his own plan that designed to create a Palestinian state in several stages over a period of two years.
Prime Minister Netanyahu retorted that negotiating with Israel is "the only way" the Palestinians can finally achieve statehood. "Any unilateral attempts outside that framework will unravel the existing agreements between us," he warned, adding cryptically that it could also force Israel "to take its own unilateral steps."
The US State Department reiterated the Obama administration's support for a negotiated Palestinian state: "It is our strong belief and conviction that the best means to achieve the common goal of a contiguous and viable Palestine is through negotiations between the parties."
A spate of recent media reports contend that Hamas and Israel are finally nearing a deal to release abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. According to various sources quoted in the reports, Israel will free over 400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the young soldier, captured by Hamas forces in June 2006. Germany and Egypt continue to play central roles in the backchannel negotiations to secure a deal.
Despite all of the serious struggles plaguing Israel and the world in these difficult days, we who know and serve the sovereign God of Abraham have the wonderful privilege of knowing that the Righteous Branch of the Lord, the Son of David, will soon return to Jerusalem to begin His liberating earthly rule. In that day "Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety, and this is the name by which He will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness" (Jeremiah 23:6).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.