Israelis press U.S. not to rejoin Iran nuclear deal

“The 2015 nuclear deal, struck during Barack Obama’s presidency, lifted an array of U.S. sanctions on Iran in exchange for major restraints on its nuclear program. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, saying it was too weak and too narrow and he reimposed the sanctions while adding new ones. After about a year, Iran began violating the terms of the deal, including by enriching uranium to high levels and shutting out inspectors.

President Joe Biden has sought to rejoin the deal — he and his aides argued that it remains the best vehicle to contain an Iranian nuclear threat. Over nearly a year and a half, a period that included some long pauses, Biden’s emissaries have engaged in indirect talks with Iranian officials about reviving the agreement.

The two sides, whose discussions have been mediated primarily by European officials, have tangled on a variety of thorny topics. Those include: whether the U.S. will rescind Trump’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; the fate of a probe by the International Atomic Energy Agency into traces of nuclear materials at various Iranian sites; and Iranian demands for certain guarantees that the lifting of sanctions will lead to economic benefits — and that the U.S. won’t pull out of the deal under a different president.

Biden has said he will not rescind the IRGC’s terrorism designation, and the IAEA has indicated it will not give up on the probe.

Iran recently responded to a European draft proposal on reviving the deal with comments mostly focused on sanctions and economic guarantees. U.S. officials have been looking at the Iranian demands and preparing their own response, which may be sent to European negotiators later this week.

The U.S. has been consulting allies, among them Israel, before sending its response, though it wasn’t immediately clear if it would wait until after Gantz’s meeting with Sullivan.

“At every step of the process, we have been in touch with our Israeli partners to update them on where we are, to compare notes on the state of Iran’s nuclear program,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday.

The Israeli officials are making their push at a sensitive time: the country, currently being overseen by a caretaker government, will soon hold its fifth election in less than four years.

The main internal debate among U.S. negotiators has been about the economic guarantees sought by Iran, said Ali Vaez, a top Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group. Those guarantees deal in part with Iran’s concerns that even if the 2015 deal is revived, foreign companies will consider it too risky to invest in the country. Even when the deal was in full force, many foreign firms were hesitant to do business in Iran.

For Israel’s political leaders, an Iran whose economy is stronger is an Iran that is a bigger threat to their country’s existence. Iran’s rulers consider Israel an illegitimate state, and some have predicted its eventual doom.

Israeli political leaders’ argument against the nuclear deal often boils down to concerns that, if the U.S. lifts sanctions on Iran, the regime will use the incoming cash to engage even more in an array of unsavory activities, including funding and arming terrorist groups that target Israel.”

“some Israelis in the security establishment — often retired officers with more freedom to speak out — have broken with their political leaders on this issue. They argue that, as imperfect as the nuclear deal may be, it’s better than having no restraints on or surveillance of Iran’s program.”

“At present, Iran’s breakout time — the amount of time needed to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon — is believed to be a few weeks. Under a restored deal, it would likely be around six months. Under the original 2015 agreement, it was estimated at around a year.”

Biden says he wants a two-state solution. Why is he silent on Israeli settlements?

“Severe setbacks for the two-state solution have made US policy seem far-fetched at this point.

That reality came across in Biden’s remarks. “We’ll discuss my continued support — even though I know it’s not in the near term — a two-state solution,” he said upon his arrival this week. He conceded that such an outcome was elusive, while still clinging to it.

A number of factors have contributed to the declining prospects for an independent Palestinian state. Not enough US diplomatic muscle has been put into making the deal happen. The recently disbanded Israeli government didn’t even agree to it as policy (and the previous prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t really, either). Divisions between the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza have detracted from the Palestine Liberation Organization’s authority and legitimacy as a negotiating partner. And wealthy Arab states, like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have prioritized normalizing relationships with Israel — which come with economic and tech cooperation, defense business, and weapons sales — at the expense of Palestinian rights.

But the largest by far is the rampant expansion of settlements in the West Bank that has precluded Palestinians from living there.”

After the latest clash with Israel, Gazans’ struggle continues

“Israeli forces launched a preemptive strike against PIJ targets on August 5, Reuters reported, after one of the group’s leaders, Bassam al-Saadi, was arrested in the Occupied West Bank. Israel claims to have hit a number of PIJ targets. However, several civilians, including 17 children, were killed in the clashes, both by Israeli weapons and possibly by errant PIJ rockets intended for Israeli targets. A ceasefire brokered by Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, the US, the UN, and the Palestinian Authority between Israel and the PIJ last Sunday has thus far held; however, an attack on worshipers in Jerusalem’s Old City late on Sunday could portend more violence. At least eight people, including US citizens, were injured in the attack, which was allegedly carried out by a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, according to Israeli authorities. They have not yet released his name, and there is no indication that he is affiliated with any larger group, according to Reuters.

Despite the ceasefire, the aftermath of even short-term hostilities in Gaza goes far beyond active bombardments and shelling; the combination of years of violence, a brutal blockade, and state repression has created an enduring crisis. What’s more, there’s little chance to recover before violence breaks out again.

According to initial UN reporting, 360 Palestinians have been injured in the fighting, and Gazans experienced a tightened Israeli blockade of goods and services that led to 20-plus-hour rolling blackouts each day. There were no Israeli deaths or serious injuries, the Associated Press reported”

“The Gaza strip is home to around 2 million Palestinians and has been governed by Hamas since 2007, when the group took control from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank. The two groups have had no success in creating a unity government over the past 15 years, despite repeated attempts, weakening the Palestinian resistance and further disenfranchising ordinary Palestinians. Although Fatah and Hamas agreed to hold elections in 2021, which would be the first since 2006, those elections have been postponed indefinitely.”

What Biden wanted in the Middle East — and what he actually got

“Biden, who says he went to the Middle East to address “the needs of the free world,” has explained the strengthening of relationships with Arab states and Israel as a success.

But it’s worth taking a look at what concrete victories that closeness produced.

Saudi airspace will be opened to Israeli planes — an incremental step toward normalizing relations between the two countries, yes, but more of a victory for jetliner rights than human rights. A new peacekeeping arrangement was announced for the Red Sea Islands between Egypt and Saudi Arabia; the islands have been a regional geopolitical touchpoint, but the deal is hardly a major win beyond the region. There was talk of bringing Iraq closer to its neighbors, with a new electricity initiative to connect Iraq with the Middle East. Infrastructure projects totaling about $100 million were announced for Palestinians, including 4G networks for the occupied West Bank. The latter two, while worthwhile, are minor compared to other US development and foreign aid streams of funding — and minuscule compared to annual military aid to Israel.

A moderate success was Saudi Arabia’s ongoing commitment to maintaining a ceasefire in Yemen, a worthy goal considering the destruction wrought there, in part with the support of American weaponry, though hardly an issue that demanded a presidential visit.

As for oil, we haven’t seen any grand announcements. Ahead of the trip, a US official told reporters there wouldn’t be any big energy news, and instead pointed to an announcement a month prior from OPEC that the group of oil-producing nations would increase production.

It has left observers wondering exactly why Biden made the journey.”

“A senior Biden administration official, on the last day of Biden’s Middle East trip, described human rights at the center of America’s goals — “I’d go so far, literally, to say right at the forefront of our foreign policy,” they said.

But human rights is not even at the forefront of the administration’s press releases, fact sheets, and meeting summaries.

The official touted a “Biden doctrine” for the region. In the document, values rank lowest — fifth — after bullet points about partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy, and integration. So partnerships (with unsavory leaders) and deterrence (through our security assistance) are the priorities here.”

“This Biden trip is a preview of US foreign policy in an era of great power competition with China and new fault lines of a world divided by Russian aggression. There are trade-offs. “You sanction Russian oil, and you give power to Middle Eastern autocrats,” Khalidi told me. “The only reason he’s sidling up to these human rights abusers is because of the knock-on effects of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, and the energy impact of that invasion.”

Or, as Freeman put it, “The message to the people in the region is we only care about you in the context of our great power rivalry.”

Despite the emphasis on Russia, there was little movement on solidifying a Middle East coalition in support of Ukraine. The United Arab Emirates is a major hub for Russian businesspeople and dirty money, and that seems unlikely to change. Egypt is a hot spot for Russian tourists. Saudi Arabia and Israel are still fence-sitters in the Ukraine conflict, hesitant to definitively take a side. While Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE voted to condemn Russia’s invasion in the UN resolution, none has joined the US-led sanctions against Moscow.

Yet all of these regional powers are making demands of the US to take a harder line on Iran and enable them militarily. (Wait, wouldn’t realpolitik be crafting a deal with Iran, and getting more oil production online in the process?)”

Israel and the Gulf States Are Becoming Closer. But It Won’t Make Biden’s Life Much Easier.

https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/12/16/israel-emirati-rapprochement-biden-middle-east-problem-524851

Why Biden’s team didn’t go all-in on Israel-Gaza

“Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a choice to make. It was mid-May, and in a few days he’d travel to Europe for talks with allies on the Arctic and climate change, and to meet with his Russian counterpart ahead of a presidential-level summit in June.

But a fight broke out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, threatening to explode into a larger, bloodier conflict.

Looking at his agenda and the events in the Middle East, Blinken consulted with his staff and the White House on what he should do. There were discussions about having him drop everything to shuttle back and forth between Middle Eastern capitals and help broker a ceasefire. Instead, Blinken decided he should keep his long-planned commitments in Europe but, along with other administration officials, get on the phone with key players in the brewing war.

He made that choice, the opposite of what previous secretaries of state had done during recent Israel-Gaza conflicts, for two main reasons.

The first was that he could still engage in “telephonic diplomacy” while in Europe, in the words of a senior State Department official, without the risk of having to potentially fly home empty-handed and embarrassed.

The second reason, though, speaks to the Biden administration’s view of foreign policy writ large: Less is sometimes more.

“I find that in the current moment in Washington, although it’s been true for a long time, the answer is to do more. Everyone wants more, more, we should be doing more,” said a senior State Department official who, like two others, spoke to me on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. “Of course, more of everything is not a strategy.”

Blinken and others in the administration simply don’t believe solving a regional crisis requires top officials like Blinken to drop everything and fly to the hot spot, especially if there are larger, more consequential, longer-term issues to focus on elsewhere.”

“It’s not that the US was disengaged from the Israel-Gaza conflict. Top administration figures made more than 80 calls to world leaders during the conflict — with Blinken on the phone for at least 15 of them while in or traveling between Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland — in service of the ceasefire reached after 11 days of fighting.”

“it’s never a good idea to send your top diplomatic official by themselves to solve thorny problems. “The secretary of state doesn’t always have to be the desk officer of the crisis of the moment,” Conley told me.”

“Martin Indyk, who served as the US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013 to 2014, recapped for me the last two times a secretary of state flew to the region during a flare-up.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Egypt and other nations in 2012 when calls to counterparts weren’t working. Her efforts helped secure a ceasefire, making it seem like that should be the playbook: When there’s a crisis, send the secretary.

But the new secretary of state, John Kerry, wasn’t as successful two years later. Despite drafting a ceasefire document for Israel and Hamas to work from, he came back to Washington “really humiliated,” Indyk said.

Watching those events from within the Obama administration was Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s national security adviser. What he took away from both cases, per Indyk, was that the nation’s top diplomat should travel to the area only to finalize terms that could make the ceasefire a success. Otherwise, the chances of in-person engagement working remained low, leading to inevitable embarrassment for the secretary and the administration.”

““A premature intervention would’ve prolonged the crisis, it wouldn’t have ended it,” said Indyk, now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The way to move Israel forward is to put your arm around them, reassure them that you’re in their corner, and push them in the direction you want to go.”

Threatening to place conditions on arms sales or call for a ceasefire early, as some critics from the left wanted, likely wouldn’t have worked. “The Israelis would dig in their heels and say, ‘Screw you, we’ve got rockets falling on our people and we’re going to respond,’” Indyk continued. Plus, he and others said, Hamas surely would’ve defied the US by launching more than the 4,500 rockets they did.

That a ceasefire came together after 11 days, and that Blinken was welcomed by both warring parties shortly after the fighting, has led Biden administration officials to consider their efforts a clear success.”

The fighting in Gaza is over. The humanitarian crisis isn’t.

“Gaza is no longer an active war zone, but the emergency hasn’t fully abated. Israeli airstrikes have toppled high-rise buildings and turned homes and apartments to rubble. Israel said it was targeting Hamas and its networks, including rocket launchers and tunnels, but those targets are often intertwined with schools, clinics, and residential buildings.”

The Israel-Hamas ceasefire stopped the fighting — but changed nothing

“The ceasefire announced Thursday between Israel and Hamas will hopefully end the worst of the violence that in the course of 11 days killed well over 200 people, the vast majority of them Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

In the narrowest sense, Hamas and Israel have both accomplished their immediate goals. Hamas got to portray itself as the defender of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, where much of the unrest began in recent weeks, and prove its capacity to hit most of Israel with its rockets. Israel, meanwhile, can say it has degraded Hamas’s military capabilities, in particular the underground network of tunnels from which it operates.

Yet the ceasefire does nothing to address the underlying conditions that have fueled the decade-and-a-half standoff between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, nor the issues that sparked this latest round of fighting.”

“Sheikh Jarrah is an East Jerusalem neighborhood located just outside the old city that for weeks has been the site of mass demonstrations by Palestinians protesting the imminent evictions of six Arab families from their homes by Israeli courts, to make way for Jewish activists who claim ownership of the land.

The homes in question were built by the Jordanian government in the 1950s for Palestinian refugees from Israel, after Jewish residents fled the neighborhood during the 1948 war and found refuge in Israel.

Israeli law provides Jewish Israelis the chance to reclaim property lost during that conflict — including in Sheikh Jarrah. But it offers no reciprocal right to Palestinians, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, who lost their homes. In general, Israeli authorities and right-wing NGOs have been working for years to change the demographic balance of the city in favor of Jewish Israelis.

Aryeh King, a far-right activist who is currently deputy mayor of Jerusalem, told the New York Times last week that installing “layers of Jews” throughout East Jerusalem is specifically aimed at making its division impossible. “If we will not be in big numbers and if we will not be at the right places in strategic areas in East Jerusalem,” he said, then future peace negotiators “will try to divide Jerusalem and to give part of Jerusalem to our enemy.”

Naturally, the Palestinians who have lived there since the 1950s strongly oppose these attempts to evict them. The Sheikh Jarrah case has gone all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, which was originally scheduled to announce its ruling on May 10.

“To avoid further inflaming the situation, the Supreme Court delayed its ruling the day before it was scheduled, but by that point it was too late. Demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah already included violent clashes with police and extreme right-wing Israeli activists had come to provoke the clashes further.”

“Combined with the simmering tensions fueled by the Damascus Gate crackdowns and then images of a violent police raid on al-Aqsa, a central religious and national symbol, Palestinians across the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel, and Gaza shared a sense of national and religious outrage.
And then Hamas got involved.”

“This is the fourth major conflict between Israel and Hamas since 2006”