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 contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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