Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Arabs Strap Up for Netanyahu Era

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO, Apr 10 2009 (IPS) - Many Arabs are seeing the emergence of Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel as the death knell for the already moribund peace process.

“A Netanyahu government will be sure to hinder any and all peace efforts,” Abdelaziz Shadi, coordinator of Cairo University’s Israel studies programme told IPS. “This government, which includes extremist nationalist and religious elements, will rebuff all pressure – international or otherwise – to offer any concessions whatsoever to the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu, leader of Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, officially replaced the embattled Ehud Olmert as prime minister Mar. 31. Along with major military offensives in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, Olmert’s three-year premiership was defined by inconclusive peace talks, mandated by the U.S.-backed 2007 Annapolis summit, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Those talks failed to achieve any breakthrough before being abruptly suspended following Israel’s three-week assault on the Gaza Strip earlier this year.

Netanyahu, who served once before as Israeli PM from 1996 to 1999, has repeatedly stressed his opposition both to peace talks and to the establishment of a Palestinian state. In place of a long-envisioned “two-state solution”, Netanyahu advocates “economic peace” premised on investment in the Palestinian economy and perceived economic interests.

Netanyahu has also consistently advocated mass construction of Jewish-only settlements on occupied Arab land – a policy he appears to maintain as prime minister. Late last month, Israeli army radio reported that Netanyahu had struck a deal with ultra-nationalist coalition partners within his government to drastically expand existing settlements in the West Bank.

“Even if Netanyahu talks with the Palestinians and the Arabs, negotiations are sure to do little more than tread water,” political analyst Fayez Rasheed wrote in Omani daily Al-Watan Mar. 28. “While blaming the Palestinians for preventing peace, Netanyahu will no doubt continue longstanding policies of Jewish settlement-building, the Judaisation of Jerusalem, daily assaults on Palestinians, and the denial of all national rights to the Palestinian people.”

Netanyahu has also called the extirpation of Palestinian resistance faction Hamas in the Gaza Strip a “strategic goal”. According to the new Israeli PM, the outgoing government’s recent onslaught against the Hamas-run enclave – which killed more than 1,400 mostly civilian Palestinians and destroyed vast swathes of infrastructure – ended prematurely.

Not unlike his “centrist” opponents, Netanyahu also refuses to rule out an Israeli military strike against Iran, which Israel, along with its U.S. patron, accuses of having nuclear weapons ambitions.

“Strap yourselves in – Netanyahu’s arrived,” editorialist Abdel-Rahman Al- Rashed wrote in London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Mar. 28. “The big question is, where will Netanyahu lead the region? Will his era be marked by more wars and bloodshed in Gaza and the West Bank – or even in Iran?”

Perhaps most controversial has been Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman, head of the extreme nationalist Yisrael Beitenu Party, as foreign minister.

Lieberman, who has called for forcing Israel’s Arab citizens to take “loyalty oaths” to the state, is already notorious in the Arab world for making radical statements and threats. In 2001, he called for Israel to bomb Egypt’s High Dam; late last year he said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell” for declining to visit Israel.

Upon assuming the foreign ministry portfolio, Lieberman told reporters Apr. 1 that the U.S.-backed Annapolis understandings – calling for regular Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – “have no validity.”

“This government wants to change the very meaning of peace from a negotiated two-state solution to a vaguely-defined ‘economic’ peace,” said Shadi. Under these circumstances, he added, even Israel’s relationships with Arab “moderate” states – namely Egypt and Jordan – will be adversely impacted.

“Israel’s ties with the so-called moderate Arab governments are sure to suffer as a result of this government’s extremists positions,” he said. “These frictions, along with the possibility of another assault on Gaza, could very easily set the whole region ablaze.”

“What’s more worrying, unlike his predecessor, Netanyahu will be unreceptive to Egyptian ceasefire efforts in the event of another conflict,” Shadi warned. “He threatens to effectively neutralise Egypt’s historical role as mediator in the peace process.”

Indeed, Netanyahu’s assumption of the premiership met a glum reception in official Arab quarters, with Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit stating that the development was “hardly cause for optimism.”

“Until now, we haven’t heard any encouraging statements from any of the figures expected to participate in the new government,” Aboul-Gheit said Mar. 29. “Nevertheless, Egypt will deal with this government as the government of Israel – and not based on the individuals and elements that comprise it – with the aim of realising Egyptian interests.”

In late March, the Israeli Labour Party under Ehud Barak also joined Israel’s new coalition government, in a move some hoped would serve to moderate official policy. Shadi, however, believes the influence of Barak – who has assumed the post of defence minister – will be negligible.

“Barak won’t have much influence on decision-making because his Labour Party only has 13 seats in Israel’s parliament,” said Shadi. “Also, Barak represents the most right-leaning of Israel’s so-called moderate camp: after all, he directed the recent massacre in Gaza and – despite public statements to the contrary – he is not in favour of a fair settlement with the Palestinians.”

Since the assassination of (late Israeli PM Yitzhak) Rabin in 1995, Israeli public opinion has veered farther and farther to the right,” Shadi said. “In order to maintain a role in government, therefore, the Labour Party has been forced to adopt increasingly right-of-centre positions.”

Shadi went on to downplay hopes that the U.S., under the new Barack Obama administration, would be able to moderate the behaviour of its bellicose ally.

“Obama might try to pressure Netanyahu to reach a settlement with the Palestinians and Syrians,” he said. “But this can only happen in the absence of interference by the all-powerful Israeli lobby in the U.S., which currently dominates decision-making at the White House, in Congress and in American mainstream media.”

Echoing a common concern, Shadi also questioned the implications for the region of an extremist Israeli regime armed with nuclear weapons.

“The international community is always raising the alarm about Muslim countries having nuclear weapons,” said Shadi. “Now there’s an extremist government in Israel sitting on an enormous nuclear arsenal – which Lieberman has repeatedly threatened to use on neighbouring countries.”

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