How the West’s wariness of Iran put the Palestinian issue on the back burner

November 26, 2017

Looking back over the past generation – specif­ically to the year 1977, when the first Likud government assumed power in Israel – it is clear that many political lead­ers in the West grew to view the threat from Iran as more press­ing than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This view slowly gained trac­tion, particularly after the Iranian revolution of 1979, and is now the received wisdom of many West­ern commentators and political leaders. It has been fuelled by the Israeli lobby in the US, which has been dominated for more than two decades by AIPAC, a cheer­leader of the Israeli right. The view has also been pushed more recently by the ongoing campaign against Iran’s influence spreading waged by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

This fight appears to have the support of US President Donald Trump, who is not at all happy with the nuclear deal signed between the US, Russia and other leading Western countries with Iran two years ago. Aims to coun­ter Iranian influence and what appears to be Tehran’s attempt to build a continuous supply line from the Iranian to the Lebanese frontiers to support Hezbol­lah have brought together two unlikely bedfellows, Israel and Saudi Arabia. This, however, has been questioned by a number of people within Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad.

There are also concerns in the United States and Western Eu­rope among security and military services that it could be unwise to get overtly involved in what increasingly looks like a Sunni- Shia fight. Iraqi leaders, who are Shia, have not taken well to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s complaints about what he and other Arab states view as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps activ­ity in Iraq.

French, British, German and Russian leaders have made their support for the Iran nuclear agreement very clear. But will they be able to hold out against US, Saudi and Israeli pressure and stop Trump from tearing it up? Only time will tell.

The way many in the West have come to view the Iranian threat has caused the issue to dominate Middle East policy, relegating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the back burner. Since public opin­ion is shaped to a large extent by the media, the Middle Eastern media’s overwhelming hostility towards Iran is reflected in public opinion. People seem more inter­ested in Iran than in Palestine.

Events in the Middle East do, however, have their way of play­ing up in unexpected ways. The relative indifference to the suffer­ing of Yemeni people, for exam­ple, could surface in unexpected ways in the Arabian peninsula.

Along with the temporary side­lining of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come the tremendous decline of the Israeli left. Until the murder of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Labour Party was open to territo­rial compromise with the Pales­tinians, while the Likud party, which has dominated politics in recent years, is more ideologi­cal and stands for what it terms “Greater Israel.” The difference between the two parties, how­ever, has become blurred. This is partly due to the failure of the 2009 Camp David summit, for which then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is responsible. Unlike former President Jimmy Carter a quarter of a century earlier, US President Bill Clinton did not act as an honest broker in the process, but as Israel’s friend and ally.

After Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused to sign the agree­ment, Barak claimed that Pal­estine was not Israel’s partner in peace. If that was the case, Israeli voters reasoned, why vote for Labour, which believes in negotiations with the Palestin­ians? A few years of Ariel Sharon, whose record of killing Arabs and war crimes is well attested, led the Israelis to believe it was best to have a strong leader. The Palestinians, as they saw it, did not want peace. Since 2001, Likud or its offshoot, Kadina, has held power.

As an older generation of Eu­ropean immigrants who used to vote Labour die, a younger one has grown accustomed to the occupation of what was formerly Palestinian land as the natural or­der. The rising number of Sephar­di Jews, relative to the Ashkena­zis, has also contributed to the trend, as many adhere to a more literalist religious tradition. There is little chance of Labour coming back to power, which means there is little chance of serious dialogue with the Palestinians. The rise of the Palestinian Hamas as opposed to the traditional Fatah leadership is the direct consequence.

It is worth remembering that when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in the early 1980s, the US, Russia and Euro­pean powers sold him weapons, while Israel sold weapons to the regime they hate today, Iran. Alliances are strangely fickle in the Middle East. It will be inter­esting to see how Israel’s newly proclaimed alliance with Saudi Arabia, which, until recently distributed the antisemitic text “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to visiting journalists, stands the test of time.