Can Israel be deflected from its war path?

The real danger of Binyamin Netanyahu's irrational arguments for military action in Iran.

Tensions over Iran rumble on. Following Binyamin Netanyahu's speech on Monday to the lobby group Aipac, in which he declared that "a nuclear-armed Iran must be stopped", the Israeli prime minister has reiterated his belief that negotiations with Tehran would serve only to "deceive" or "bamboozle" the west.

But this time round, he came up with a curious suggestion. "The only way you get a result is if you got them to agree to freeze their enrichment, take out all the enriched uranium that they have enriched, take it out of Iran, the stuff that can make bombs," he said. "If they want to make medical isotopes, you can give them back -- uranium that can serve that purpose, a peaceful purpose."

It's curious because not so long ago, a similar plan was proposed by Turkey and Brazil. In 2010, Turkey offered to receive a substantial shipment of uranium from Iran, to be exchanged for nuclear rods that can be used in scientific research but cannot be processed to make weapons. Under the terms of the agreement, Iran would not stop its enrichment programme but would be left with too little uranium to develop a bomb. An Israeli official quickly dismissed the plan at the time as a "trick"; Netanyahu announced soon afterwards that it was "a bogus suggestion . . . This is transparently an Iranian act of deception that is meant to divert international opinion."

Norman Lamont writes in more depth about the deal and the Iranian question at large in a recent review of Trita Parsi's book A Single Roll of the Dice, so I won't go further than to ask: is there anything that Iran can do to placate the increasingly war-hungry Israel? Netanyahu's blinkered enthusiasm for military action sits oddly with recent political history -- he seems to have forgotten the Brazil-Turkey episode altogether.

This kind of inconsistency is nothing new from Israel. And it's the kind of double-think that made it possible for Shaul Chorev, head of Israel's atomic energy commission, to assert before the 55th general conference of the IAEA in September 2011: "The essential preconditions for the establishment of the Middle East as a mutually verifiable zone, free of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems, are comprehensive and durable regional peace and full compliance by all regional states, with their arms control and non-proliferation obligations." (An odd sentiment from a spokesman for a country that refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and almost certainly possesses a secret atomic arsenal.)

Chorev's apparent enthusiasm for conducting "direct negotiations" to bring about such a "mutually verifiable zone" was undercut by Netanyahu's insistence at the Aipac meeting that time was running out for diplomacy with Iran. The Israeli prime minister compared the supposed inaction of the US and its western allies to the years preceding the Holocaust and declared, with his characteristic flair for drama: "I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation."

Iran's domestic policy -- like Iraq's under Saddam Hussein, like Syria's under al-Assad, like Libya's under Gaddafi -- is easy to criticise. And it is rightly criticised: the country's record on women's and gay rights, as well as its suppression of dissent, is no trifling matter. Furthermore, Israel's concern for its safety may be genuine. In his IAEA speech, Chorev observed: "Regimes that brutally oppress their own citizens and do not hesitate to plunge into bloodshed have no hesitation when it comes to non-compliance with their legally binding obligations under international law."

Yet this is equally true of Israel, which negotiates its hypocrisy regarding its treatment of Palestinians and its flouting of countless UN resolutions through a strategy of deflection and denial. Iran has never invaded another country; no substantial new evidence has emerged in years relating to its alleged plans to develop weapons of mass destruction. Israel, on the other hand, has launched widely condemned assaults on Lebanon and Gaza, habitually defies international calls to cease its settlement activity and maintains a position of ambiguity regarding its status as the Middle East's only nuclear power. Its polarised assumption that the threat lies on one side alone and not the other is a hinderance to peace.

The real danger of Netanyahu's bellicose agenda lies in its potential to trigger an unmanageable situation in the region -- a situation that will surely be as bloody as it will be unnecessary. If the irrationality of his argument for war is reflected in his conduct of one, the region can expect only more misery.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.