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