Meretz USA Weekly Update – Focus on Olmert/Bush Meeting and Iran

Meretz USA Weekly Update – November 17, 2006
Below is a summary of recent news items from Israel and the Middle East

Focus on: Olmert/Bush Meeting and Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s meeting with President Bush, which occurred on Monday, made the headlines because of his pronouncement that the Iraq War had brought stability to the Middle East and had contributed positively to Israel’s strategic position in the region.  Other than that, it was reviewed as having accomplished nothing more than reaffirming the status quo. 

Nevertheless, with its focus on the Iranian nuclear threat, the discussion marked a change for Israel’s Prime Minister.  Ha’aretz’s Aluf Benn pointed out that, in the past, Olmert has avoided high-profile attacks on Iran, leaving that job to far-right Israelis.  But recently, he has been playing up the threat.  In an interview with Newsweek, he stated that Iran must be made to fear the consequences of its actions, implying that Israel might be prepared to engage in military strikes.  And his speech at the United Jewish Community’s General Assembly, which took place is Los Angeles this week, emphasized the necessity of acting against Iran at this “pivotal moment.”

Other high-level officials have made similar statements, and, throughout Jewish American and Israeli communities, there’s an increasing sense of urgency about dealing with Iran.  Last week, the new Deputy Minister of Defense Ephraim Sneh implied that a preemptive strike against Iran may be necessary to prevent the country’s nuclear ambitions.  On Monday, Likud Chairman MK Benjamin Netanyahu gave his speech to the G.A., a speech that was widely considered the most compelling (and horrifying) of the entire event, comparing Iran to 1938 Germany. 

With Iran occupying the spotlight, both Bush and Olmert will need to decide how to handle the threat – whether through military strikes, military deterrence, or international pressure.  Importantly, Olmert announced ahead of his meeting with President Bush that he would accept any compromise that might prevent Iran from getting its hands on nuclear weapons. 

So far, the Bush administration seems to be learning towards resolving the issue nonviolently.  Indeed, according to Nathan Guttman of The Forward, the administration’s current goal is to isolate Iran by pulling moderate Arab states – such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – onto its side.  Along the same lines, Leslie Susser wrote last week that Israel and the U.S. are discussing ways to strengthen Arab moderates and reinvigorate the peace process. 

This could be one reason Olmert has recently backed down from exerting intense military pressure on Hamas and other Palestinian militants.  On Wednesday, Qassam rocket attacks killed one Sderot woman, wounding two others.  These attacks were met by outrage in Israel, and Public Defense Minister Avi Dichter immediately called for the IDF to expand its operation in Gaza and to use any means necessary to eliminate the Qassam fire.  These calls were followed by Defense Minister Amir Peretz’s affirmation of Israel’s commitment to destroying militant capabilities in the Gaza Strip.  However, upon his return from the United States, Olmert backpedaled from these statements, expressing reservations about a wide scale operation and stating that there is no “quick fix” to the situation – perhaps a hint that he’s ready to restart diplomacy. 

Several analysts have recently linked renewed diplomatic momentum in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere to the efforts of the U.S. and its allies to put pressure on Iran and to weaken Muslim extremism.  Early this week, Jackson Diehl wrote that Israel should encourage the formation of a Palestinian unity government in order to “break the momentum of Iran and its allies and energize demoralized Arab moderates.”  Daniel Levy similarly argued that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fuels “jihadism” across the Middle East.  A UN report also highlighted the significance of the conflict in creating a rift between the West and the Muslim world.

Whether motivated by the Iranian threat or not, both Israel and the international community do seem to be placing increased importance on resolving the conflict.  In the international arena, the Quartet of peacemakers (the U.S., E.U., Russia, and the U.N), held its first meeting since the formation of the Hamas government in Cairo, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch met with Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, urging them to keep pressure on Hamas to create a unity government which recognizes Israel.  Meanwhile, Spain, France, and Italy have proposed a new peace initiative, which would include an international conference.  However, Israel has rejected this proposal since it was not consulted prior to its launch. 

Perhaps more significantly, it was revealed on Friday that Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin (who initiated the secret negotiations which led to the Oslo Accords) has been working on a new document which presents a way to move forward on negotiations.  This document suggests that the Israelis and the Palestinians implement a complete ceasefire, followed by a coordinated withdrawal and permanent status negotiations. 

Initiatives like these are a positive sign that there are still individuals and organizations working to move forward.  Progress in the Israeli-Palestinian arena is important in and of itself, and it can only help stem other tensions in the region.
In other news

* The Palestinians made progress in their unity government talks this week, selecting a professor to be the new Prime Minister.  However, it was left unclear whether the new government would explicitly recognize Israel.  President Abbas is currently in Gaza for talks, and the Hamas government is expected to hand over power this weekend.

* In Lebanon, as Hezbollah tries to gain more power in the government, several Shi’ite ministers have resigned.  Read an analysis of the situation here.

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