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 work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.