The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

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.