Who’s to blame for reigniting the Israel-Palestine conflict? Take your pick from Iranian plots to US weakness

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters

Is this Iran’s revenge? There are good reasons to suspect the sudden, extraordinarily violent reigniting of the dormant Israel-Palestine conflict was plotted and triggered in Tehran.

Not so fast, say Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics. Repressive, racist policies pursued by Israel’s prime minister, egged on until recently by unscrupulous Donald Trump, are the main cause of the explosion, they insist.

Others claim it’s all the fault of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, and weak Palestinian leadership. One thing is certain: if and when the killing finally stops, there will be plenty of blame to go round.

Iran’s dominant hardliners had motive, opportunity and means. Security chiefs have been repeatedly humiliated by semi-covert Israeli attacks. Pressure to hit back in a big way has been growing. Most spectacular was a hugely damaging explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility in April, which Israel more or less admitted causing. This followed the assassination of a top nuclear scientist on Iranian soil.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps warns it has not yet fully avenged last year’s killing, in an American drone strike, of its Quds Force commander, General Qassem Suleimani. Israel, meanwhile, has extended its “shadow war” to maritime targets, attacking Iranian oil tankers. It regularly bombs Iranian bases and proxies in Syria.

Iran has lost out diplomatically, too, as its Gulf foes have forged “peace” deals with Israel. Tehran may now be hoping the so-called Abraham accords will unravel as Arab anger intensifies.

Iran’s presidential elections are due next month. If deepening regional polarisation prevents the US from lifting sanctions – and the Vienna nuclear talks collapse – hardliners in Iran (and Israel) will count it a victory.

Some Israeli commentators detect Iran’s hand behind the latest violence. Analyst Seth Frantzman pointed to a recent statement by the IRGC chief, Hossein Salami, that Israel was vulnerable to a swift, large-scale “tactical” operation.

“The massive rocket fire launched on 11 May, an unprecedented series of barrages … appear to be part of an Iranian-inspired plan,” Frantzman wrote in the Jerusalem Post.

“This is because Islamic Jihad, an Iranian proxy, is involved in the rocket fire and because Hamas is backed by Iran … Hamas is setting the pace – and that pace may be one that is being watched or even guided from Iran.”

Netanyahu’s critics, such as Louis Fishman, writing in Haaretz, blame him, first and foremost, for a predictable disaster – the culmination, they say, of his behaviour at home over many years. “Through illusions, incitement, a captive media, brutal policing and discriminatory laws, Netanyahu has repressed Israel’s Palestinian citizens, preparing the ground for violent conflict,” Fishman’s opinion piece declared.

An “almost impermeable bubble” enveloped Israeli Jews, blinding them to the escalating oppression. “What they couldn’t see from their segregated world was that, for Palestinians, the conflict never ended,” he wrote. This distortion helps explain why Israel’s Jewish citizens appear so shocked by the depth of anger directed at them, not only from Gaza but within mixed Jewish-Arab neighbourhoods. This mass delusion has been unwittingly assisted by a Palestinian leadership split between Mahmoud Abbas’s isolated, discredited Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the reckless rocketeers of Gaza.

Biden’s usual sure touch is missing here. He clearly has no plan

By its neglect, the international community, especially Britain and Europe, which had long championed Palestine’s cause, has effectively colluded in Netanyahu-Trump efforts to bury the two-state solution.

A deepening sense of abandonment and injustice, compounded by the relentless, officially tolerated depredations of rightwing settlers in the West Bank and, lately, in east Jerusalem, has now pushed Palestinians back to the perilous brink last reached during the 2000 intifada. This hopeless regression marks a fundamental failure of both Israeli politics and democracy.

In four elections in the past two years, Netanyahu proved only that a majority of voters rejected him as leader. Yet still he clings to power. Endless divisions between the numerous opposition parties ensured his ugly, rightwing populist-nationalist brand embedded itself in Israeli society.

Now it’s happening again. Some Israelis claim Netanyahu has deliberately created a new national security crisis to enable him to stay in office, just as he has done in the past by invoking the Persian bogeyman.

True or not, the upshot may be the same. Negotiations among anti-Netanyahu parties about forming a “change” government are foundering, shot apart by rocket fire from Gaza.

Trump, sulking, plotting and, inexplicably, still un-indicted in Florida, bears great responsibility. He never missed an opportunity to boost Netanyahu, his ideological alter ego, believing, wrongly, this would win him votes.

Trump rewarded bottomless sycophancy by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while cutting funding for Palestinian refugees. Neither man made any effort to engage the Palestinians in a search for a lasting settlement.

Instead, Trump and his gormless son-in-law, Jared Kushner, proposed a property developer-style “deal of the century” that trashed the very idea of a Palestinian state and pretended the occupied territories problem could be solved by ignoring it – or, preferably, by annexing it.

Sadly, Trump’s successor, Joe Biden is not doing much better. He and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, thought they could “park” Israel-Palestine. They want to concentrate on China, the pandemic, and a huge domestic agenda.

To their evident discomfort, it has come back to bite them. Biden’s usual sure touch is missing here. He clearly has no plan. And old reflexes die hard: the US blocked a UN security council statement last week that was critical of Israel.

Even if Biden intervenes forcefully to end the current violence, he lacks appetite for the sort of thankless, long-term peacemaking that defeated successive White House predecessors.

Iranian machinations; blind fury and political deadlock in Israel and Palestine; US impotence. Taken together, as of now, these elements suggest there is little prospect of a lasting halt to the mayhem.

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