August 2, 2010

Israel’s First Smart Move in Months

That Israel agreed to a UN investigation into the Freedom flotilla incident is being viewed as a sudden 180, which is true in several ways. Not only does Israel openly disdain the UN, it’s also taking a leap of faith that no wrong doing will be found on its part.

"Israel has nothing to hide,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed in a statement. “The opposite is true. It is in Israel's national interest to ensure that the factual truth about the entire flotilla incident will be made public, and that is precisely the principle we are promoting."

"We are sure that any independent look at the facts will verify that Israel took appropriate steps enforcing the naval blockade," added government spokesman Mark Regev. "Ultimately we are sure that the facts are on our side. We have no problem whatsoever with a credible, objective panel."

This brimming confidence follows Israel’s own investigation that found multiple flaws in the intelligence, planning, and command aspects of the raid. Elements of Israel’s press called for a stricter probe as international pressure mounted and a UN panel is more evidence against Israel’s internal investigation. Israeli officials must be fronting given these holes in their testimony.

The UN could easily find Israel guilty of criminal acts in international waters.

But participation is Israel’s only real move, and in that sense it’s the right decision. Israel has been known to back itself into corners and stay there, so maybe the biggest surprise is Kadima’s counter-response. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni has repeated condemned Netanyahu for isolating Israel, but Kadima said after his cooperation with the UN, "Netanyahu's government has dragged Israel into one of the worst diplomatic situations in its history and continues to break negative records of pushing the country into a corner.”

Assuming Livni isn’t opposing the UN, Kadima’s statement suggests that it fears the UN probe will ultimately rule against Israel. The statement concluded, “Had the Netanyahu government listened to our call to establish a true committee of inquiry, it would not need to deal with foreign committees. And had Barak and Netanyahu worried less about themselves and more about the soldiers, the IDF would not now be investigated by the UN.”

This feeds back into aforementioned concerns.

Yet for all the potential to sink deeper into trouble, a UN investigation also offers the chance to avoid a settlement freeze and build confidence going into the UN Security Council meetings in September. Whether or not Palestinians demand statehood in the absence of progress with Israel is uncertain. Today Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad told The Media Line, “There is not going to be a unilateral declaration of statehood. What’s the point? We did that in 1988, and what did it get us?”

Either way Palestinians have exploited the threat, building pressure on themselves but also on Israel and America to demonstrate guarantees of a sovereign Palestinian state. Netanyahu must extract Israel from its corner or he may find himself out of power, and settling the Gaza raid could go a long way towards battling Israel's negative image. With a Turkish representative to make up one of the four investigators, Israel could also begin repairing ties with a critical ally in the Iranian endgame.

Their latest actions suggest that a UN probe is America’s plan to dodge Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Washington undoubtedly lies behind Israel’s decision, having likely vouched for its sovereignty in some fashion, and cooperating with the UN days after leaked reports of US threats against the Palestinians is no coincidence. Hanan Ashrawi, the member of the Palestinian Legislative Council that initially made the claim, later rejected these reports as Israeli propaganda.

But a reading of Monday’s State Department briefing suggests otherwise. Spokesman Philip Crowley ensnares himself in the question over threats but never actually denies the report, only attempting to re-frame the question and language. A classic non-denial denial. So low and behold, the next day Israel signs up for the UN raid, likely as a quid pro quo with Washington to cancel out each other’s heat.

"There was no choice but to agree to the international community's demands, first and foremost those of the US and the UN," said an anonymous Israeli official.

Just in time for next week’s trilateral meeting between Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and US President Barack Obama. And since the investigation is scheduled to conclude in mid-September - just in time for the UN assembly - Netanyahu and Obama’s sights are clearly set on escaping from Abbas and the Arab League’s requirement for direct talks: a settlement freeze.

Crowley correctly points out that Abbas has the Arab League’s approval, but forgets to mention that a settlement freeze hasn’t changed.

The level of synchronization within these events hold the potential to unlock Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. A positive experience with the UN, coupled with formal apologies to Turkey and additional good will measures towards Gazans, may be enough to provide Abbas with enough cover to enter direct talks before the UN Security Council meets in September. Avoiding one more clash with the White House won’t hurt either.

Unfortunately for Israel, UN cooperation may still fall short of the Palestinian’s demands after Netanyahu produced a new wave of skepticism. Cooperation also becomes null and void were Israel to obstruct the process. In response to Kadima, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying, “it was unfortunate that the opposition was issuing irresponsible statements to the media instead of checking simple facts.”

“If they had bothered to check,” the statement read, “they would have found that IDF soldiers and officers will not be investigated by the UN or any other body.”

Kadima responded that, “it was clear the UN body would not be investigating the decision-making of the septet, but rather the actions of the IDF.” That would put Netanyahu in the clear, a perception sure to arouse new doubts in Palestinians and Arabs. Israel’s decision comes with a severe qualifier. Though it has chosen correctly, it had only one choice to pick from - leaving it with no alternatives.

If the UN deems Israel’s cooperation and insufficient - or if Israel disobeys any ruling - Netanyahu will be left with absolutely nothing to stand on in September. Palestinians may not demand statehood, but the situation will fly into the turbulence of US Congressional elections and the expiration of Israel’s tenuous settlement freeze in the West Bank. Try as America will to shield Israel, these conditions favor the Palestinians’ ability to extract stipulations for direct talks.

Today marked Netanyahu’s first good move in months. It remains to be seen if his decision is a surface response, and whether Israel can string multiple moves together.

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