North Korea's nuclear test has cast a shadow over Barack Obama's visit to Israel.
Speculation was that a key item on the agenda would be Obama's pressure that Israel forget about its own attack on Iran. We're hearing that Israel might have been planning such a thing in the spring, and that Obama is convinced that any hint of an attack would get in the way of his being able to persuade the Iranians to abandon a nuclear option via negotiations along with sanctions.
If there were any Israelis who expected results from the Obama approach to Iran, especially with the appointments of John Kerry to State and Chuck Hagel to Defense, the North Korean explosion will make those Israelis even more remote from where things are decided.
Sanctions and diplomatic pressure could not keep the poor and isolated regime of North Korea from developing its nuclear option, so how can they possibly work against energy rich Iran that also claims world leadership of Shiite Muslims?
If Israelis and others needed another reminder of how out of sync is the United States, it came in the news that several hundred thousand homes remained without electricity days after a snow storm. What is arguably the richest country in the world and more certainly the most powerful has yet to learn how to bury electric lines and thus to keep the residents of cities and towns from the agony of no current for several days when trees fall, as they will in high winds and snow, and the crews cannot cope with the incidence of damaged wires.
Along with guns, murder rate, and shocking indicators of life expectancy, the backward infrastructure of exposed electric wires makes the US an across-the-board laggard.
Clumsiness, and lack of accomplishments in international affairs also makes it easy to think of the US as the dullest boy in class who is also the strongest, and most inclined to tell others what to do.
Israel's own options with respect to Iran are far from rosy. One has to listen closely to hear anyone close to the seat of power say that Israel can set back Iran's nuclear ambitions significantly, then escape from a counter attack plus international condemnation.
Also on the President's agenda is to move Israel and the Palestinians to conversations and maybe negotiations. Netanyahu reiterates that he remains in favor of a two state solution, Palestinians say they cannot negotiate as long as Israel continues to build in the settlements, and just this week Israel has given final approval to the construction of 90 housing units in the settlement of Beit El.
One can quarrel whether Beit El is one of the major settlement blocs that are bound to remain with Israel. Its population is somewhere around 6,000, but it is beyond the security barrier seen as a likely border.
Especially now that North Korea is doing what it wishes, can the President persuade Bibi to behave himself on settlements while also relying on a force-avoiding leadership in the Untied States to keep Iran from going nuclear?
Tit for tat is one of the informal rules of international relations. Even a country as strong as the United States cannot demand too much of a country even as dependent on it as Israel.
If the North Korean nuclear test casts one shadow over the Obama visit to Israel, the muddied results of the Israeli election cast another shadow. Bibi is having trouble putting together a coalition. There may be be another election. or a government cobbled together with flimsy promises that cannot survive.
If any prospective coalition partner is making a strong case for concessions to the Palestinians, it has not penetrated the loud noises from those demanding to rein in the Haredim, and the counter insistence from the Haredim that they cannot accept anything that would force young men to leave their academies. There are compromises conceivable that would substantially increase the exit from the academies to the IDF, national service, and then employment. However, it is not clear that prevailing extremists in the Haredi and anti-Haredi camps can agree on anything reasonable.
Also in the air are reports of European government preparing sanctions against Israel on account of Bibi's mollycoddling of settlers, and fibbing to international counterparts about being willing to negotiate Palestinian statehood. Most apparent are demands that products from industries over the 1967 borders stop calling themselves Israeli and stop qualifying for the agreements that make them attractive in European markets. Even more ominous is the prospect of requiring visas for Israelis wanting to visit member countries of the European Union.
It's hard to know how serious are those threats. They are being promoted locally by commentators from the left, who claim they are already drafted and waiting a nod from someone on high to being implemented. Actually, they may be nothing more than ideas floated by left-leaning European bureaucrats, and still far from being approved by political leaders who are wary about pushing Israel too far.
Israel's options in the event of sanctions may be limited, but substantial nonetheless. The first to suffer from limitations on products produced over the 1967 line will be Palestinians who work in those locations. Israel can also respond by again withholding funds from Palestine in order to cover its unpaid electric bill, increasing construction in the settlements, and even to begin building in E 1.
Living close to the mayhem of Syria, we may be forgiven if we do not assume that all actions relevant to us are moderate and subject to negotiations.
The North Korean nuclear explosion is another reminder that madness remains an element in international relations. What can that country expect to accomplish from nuclear arms acquired at the cost of considerable suffering by its population? Surely it ahready had enough conventional arms to deter any conceivable aggression from South Korea or elsewhere. And any use of its nuclear weapons would invite a catastrophe produced by the conventional weapons of South Korea or Japan, or a nuclear retaliation by the United States.
Iran may be more justified than North Korea in being wary of an attack, but there, too, the cost to citizens of the existing sanctions is considerable, and the payoff of having nuclear weapons is doubtful.
A primary task of politicians in the enlightened part of the world is to keep one another from extremism.
Let us hope that Europeans as well as Americans and Israelis know how to do that.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at February 12, 2013 04:15 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem