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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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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