More Mideast Doors Closing Than Opening

JERUSALEM — Israel is digging in its heels. Government officials said Wednesday that Israel does not intend to cooperate with the upcoming United Nations investigation into whether Israel and Hamas both committed war crimes during the recent Gaza war.

The officials say they fear the investigation appointed by the UN Human Rights Council last month, and headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone, will be a-priori anti-Israel, its conclusions already having been drawn.

Goldstone served as chief UN prosecutor of war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

A senior foreign ministry official said further that Israel would not allow the four-person delegation to enter the country since the mandate it has been given was "one-sided" and made no mention of missile launching against Israeli population centers preceding and during Israel’s 22-day war on Hamas. In the past, Israel has closed the door to other UN personnel, most recently to UN special rapporteur for the occupied territories Richard Falk for the same reasons.

Another Middle East door was closed Wednesday — this time in Israel’s face — by Israel’s most prominent Arab peace partner: Egypt’s foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit announced that his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman was not welcome in his country. "His feet will not step on Egyptian soil as long as he maintains his positions," he told Russia Today television.

Lieberman sparked outrage last year when he criticized the failure of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak to visit Israel, saying the Egyptian leader could "go to hell". He had also suggested the Aswan Dam could be considered a target in the event of relations between Israel and Egypt deteriorating.

On the other hand, intelligence doors are very much open between the two countries. This after Egyptian officials confirmed the arrest in the Sinai peninsula bordering Israel of several operatives said to be linked to the Lebanese Shia organization Hezbollah.

Israel is said to have provided "intelligence tips" that led to the arrests. Egyptian sources indicated the targets of the alleged Hezbollah ring included not only tourist facilities but also strategic Egyptian interests in the Suez Canal area.

Security is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s watchword as he seeks to avoid being seen as responsible for a closed door on revived peace-making efforts. Netanyahu is looking for ways to ensure no rift opens up with the U.S. as its special Middle East envoy George Mitchell launched his first serious diplomatic venture to Jerusalem and Ramallah. Officials in Netanyahu’s office made plain that "in Israel’s view, security questions are paramount and must take precedence over renewed efforts to promote a peace process with the Palestinians."

In advance of Mitchell’s third round of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders (but the first since Netanyahu took office), U.S. sources said blandly that "Mitchell is asking Israel to clarify its position regarding the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria."

At the same time, Mitchell has not concealed the direction in which the U.S. means to go, and hopes that Israel too will go. Mitchell has repeatedly echoed President Barack Obama in indicating that the U.S. expects Netanyahu to reverse the firm stance he has adopted until now of not committing verbally to the "two-state solution" and accepting the importance for a durable peace of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Top-level Israeli government sources continue, however, to put out a soothing message. They stress that the "shared interests" between the U.S. and Israel "far outweigh any unnecessary conflict of interests." The officials say that Netanyahu is counting on U.S. "understanding" that his newly installed government still needs "several more weeks" to map out its precise policy on peace talks.

Irrespective of Netanyahu’s own ideological commitment and past declarations, seeds of misunderstanding and potential rift were sown already a fortnight ago on the day of the new government take-over when his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, launched a most undiplomatic offensive, declaring that Israel is not obliged by the U.S.-led Annapolis peace process that maps the way to a two-state solution. Netanyahu has kept a studious silence on his foreign minister’s provocative stance.

Significantly, neither Netanyahu nor Mubarak will be the first Middle East leader to be invited to the Obama White House. That door will be first opened to Jordan’s King Abdullah II who visits Washington next Tuesday.

Hosting six Arab foreign ministers and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mussa, the King this week urged an "immediate" pan-Arab move with the aim of re-launching "serious" Arab-Israeli peace negotiations on the basis of the two-state formula and "in accordance with the agreed references, particularly the Arab peace initiative."

By "agreed reference", read the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — terms to which both Netanyahu and his foreign minister are reluctant to sign on.

At their meeting Thursday night, Netanyahu told Mitchell that he would be ready to discuss a Palestinian state only if Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. A senior official in the Israeli leader’s bureau quoted the prime minister as saying: "Israel expects the Palestinians first to recognize Israel as a Jewish state before there could be talking about two states for two peoples."

Until the U.S. Administration has formulated its comprehensive Middle East strategy, Netanyahu may yet be able to drag his feet and still keep the door open. But, once Obama decides on his peace openings, continued reluctance — both in words and deeds (for instance in not committing to a settlement freeze) — could suddenly find the Israeli leader confronting fast-closing doors on several fronts.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.