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Ira Sharkansky



Two Israeli preoccupations: 
the Palestinians and the Iranians, April 29, 2006

By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM —Mahmoud Abbas does not give up. He is traveling in Europe, and telling all who will listen that Israel should begin negotiations for a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Israel has said no. The agreement on the "Road Map" calls on the Palestinians first to disarm the various groups that have been violent, i.e., the terrorists. But one of the terrorist parties won the Palestinian election. While Abbas (the president or chair of the Palestinian Authority, depending on whether you use the lesser title Israel agreed to or the greater one the Palestinians use for themselves) calls for peace, he did not use any of his security forces to do serious work against the violence. Now he is stuck with a prime minister who does not listen to him, and who has appointed one of the most wanted of the bad guys to head his security forces.

Abbas' political party, Fatah, and Hamas agreed on a peace between them after several days of fighting and a dozen or so casualties. It lasted about half a day until the next event, the armed seizure by some Fatah fighters of a government building in Gaza.

Comic opera, or caricature of a chaos wanting to be a state, but not knowing how to do it? As always, Abbas is calling on international actors to move in and settle things. He can still order flights from one capital to another, and count on courteous receptions, but not much else. His travels may reflect his loss of authority at home. His audiences are more receptive elsewhere, where it really does not matter. 

European and North American governments are trying to send money to Palestinian organizations, but not to the Hamas government. Soon it is likely that Hamas will control all the organizations worth talking about. Arab banks are sitting on a hundred million or so US dollars donated by Arab governments, but are refusing to transfer the funds to the accounts of the Palestine National Authority out of fear of being read out of international banking by US banks operating under the direction of the US government.

All told, it is not a good time to be a Palestinian.

It may not be the best time to be an Israeli, insofar as some of this is happening a couple of hundred yards from these fingers. But tourism is up by 25 percent or so over last year, which was better than the year before that. As travelers view the world, this does not appear to be one of the worst places.

The Palestinians provide our political theater, and not a little bit of danger, but also a shield against the Iranian threat. It is not perfect, but the best they do for us. The Persians cannot aim a missile at Jerusalem without fear of it landing on an Arab neighborhood or the Muslim holy sites in the Old City. And no nuclear attack would be possible on this small country without doing a great deal of damage to one Arab town or another.

Is this our best hope? There is no immanent sign that the international community is about to do anything significant against the Iranian nuclear program. Both Russia and China are still calling for a diplomatic solution, shorthand for nothing. An American Jewish friend recently told me that an attack against Iran would be unthinkable. As an anti-Bush academic he said what I expected. Yet an attack against a threat of nuclear terror might be enough to improve even Bush's public standing. Such things usually do lift the opinion polls. And if the US does not do it Israel might have to make its best effort. The 1930s was the last time it was conventional to say that a vicious anti-Semitic head of state was a madman who could not possibly achieve what he said he would.

One of the curiosities of international relations is that the Russians are a key element likely to block United Nations sanctions against their Iranian customers, yet they also provide the rocket that put an Israeli spy satellite in orbit. It can photograph objects as small as a foot and one-half across. So if Israel despairs of someone else dealing with the regime that has spoken of destroying it, the way will be paved in part by the satellite lifted by the Russians.

Gruesome thoughts? That's life.  

Sharkansky is an emeritus member of the political science department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem