Paul Vallely: Netanyahu stretches the world's patience

As long as one Israeli is worth 1,000 Palestinians, the release of Gilad Shalit is a political stumbling block
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The Independent Online

You have to admire the solidarity of the Israeli people. Any terrorist sufficiently bold or desperate to kidnap an Israeli national knows full well that a special forces unit in black balaclavas could come crashing through the window at any moment. But the sense of loyalty on which that rests is not confined to the military. That was amply demonstrated last week when more than 100,000 people turned out to join the 12-day march by the parents of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held in captivity by the militant Palestinians of Hamas for the past five years.

The country's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was clearly taken aback by the level of support for Shalit's parents who were demanding a prisoner swap with Hamas. He should not have been. In a country with conscription for its Jewish citizens, almost every family has someone in the army and huge numbers of people empathise with the plight of the captured man and his parents.

Yet the politics is harder to read. It was not clear how many marchers joined out of general sympathy, and how many agreed with the specific demand by the soldier's father that Israel should exchange 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for his son.

The semiotics of that proposal tell their own story. The Israeli is an individual with a name; the Palestinians are a number. There is an implicit contempt in the comparison; just one of us is worth 1,000 of you, it tells the enemy. The very idea speaks of the reality of power and oppression in modern-day Israel.

But this is all more than a broadbrush political gesture. Israel is serious about this 1,000-to-1 swap. It nearly happened in January in a deal brokered by the Germans. Netanyahu pulled out at the last minute, according to Der Speigel, because he would not accept the list proposed by Hamas. He did not want to free anyone he classed as an "arch terrorist", which poses an interesting question as to how bad are those he was prepared to release among the 6,338 Palestinians who Israel is detaining, according to its official figures. Of those, 300 are minors and 213 are held without trial or even charge.

For all Netanyahu's bullishness in Washington last week, and when he met Noam and Aviva Shalit on Friday, things are looking increasingly difficult for the current Israeli government. The PR spin was that he and President Obama had now made up after their tiff three months ago when Netanyahu was given the coolest reception any Israeli prime minister has ever had at the White House.

That came after Netanyahu announced plans to expand a Jewish settlement in Arab East Jerusalem just as the US vice-president, Joe Biden, was in Israel on an official visit. But last week's careful choreography was designed by Washington to placate the American Jewish vote ahead of Obama's forthcoming mid-term elections. So designed was the visit to save face all round that The Washington Post dubbed last week's meeting the Oil of Olay summit.

Behind the photo-op smiles, teeth remained gritted. Obama talked of a sovereign Palestinian state; Netanyahu pointedly didn't. And though four US senators arrived in Israel at the end of the week to proclaim that Washington and Tel Aviv were friends again, one of them was John McCain. His former national security adviser, Anthony Cordesman, last month stunned the Israelis with a Washington think-tank paper. In it he floated the shocking idea – after making the usual noises about America's commitment to Israel being rooted a moral and ethical reaction to the Holocaust – that Israel might now be a "strategic liability" to US geo-political interests.

Cordesman cited the problem of Netanyahu's apparently unshakeable determination to create new settlements in Palestinian areas. The number of settlers has almost trebled since 1994, despite a supposed moratorium on new incursions into the occupied land needed for a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The alternative to the much-vaunted two-state solution would then be a single state characterised by a kind of apartheid with two classes of citizens.

But US anxieties go way beyond that. Cordesman, of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, listed "a series of major strategic blunders". One was the bombing of Lebanon during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. Another was Israel's persisting in its attack on Gaza long after its key objectives were achieved. A third was embarrassing President Obama by expanding the settlement programmes, just as he was trying to get Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track. A fourth was sending commandos to seize a Turkish ship in a mismanaged effort to halt the aid flotilla to Gaza.

And Cordesman is not alone. The new Nato commander in Afghanistan, David Petraeus, has warned that Israeli intransigence is adversely affecting US interests in the Middle East. Critical voices have been heard among previously staunch Zionists in the American Jewish lobby. It is clear that Netanyahu is testing the limits of US patience.

Washington's particular fear is that the Israelis might launch a unilateral attack on Iran's nuclear programme. Obama is seriously concerned about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb; the US military presence in Afghanistan is a signal to Tehran as much as a fight against international terrorism. But US interests over oil and gas in the wider region could be put at risk by Israeli bellicosity just when Obama is trying to charm the Arab and Muslim worlds into believing that things have changed in Washington.

History has shown that Netanyahu could easily put short-term outrage at any development inside Iran before America's, or even Israel's, longer-term strategic interests. That impetuosity was clearly demonstrated by the raid on the aid flotilla; it ripped up three years of careful effort by Israel to nurture a diplomatic relationship with Turkey, the Muslim country with which it had most improved relations.

But the killing of Turks on the international aid convoy, and the extent of the blockade on Gaza to which it drew the world's attention, significantly damaged relations with more than one country. Israel now finds itself increasingly criticised by much of the rest of the world. European nations have begun to insist – in private so far – that Israel must talk to Hamas.

The renewed focus on Gilad Shalit had been Netanyahu's response to that setback. He even got Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, and other activists to launch their own "freedom flotilla" last week. They set sail on the Hudson River to the UN's New York headquarters reportedly carried an "aid" package containing underwear, eyeglasses and food intended for Shalit.

The stunt has backfired somewhat. Netanyahu was not prepared for the extent to which ordinary Israelis would rally behind the march by Shalit's parents. Now Noam Shalit has announced that he will be setting up a tent outside Netanyahu's home and refusing to leave it until his son was free. The Israeli prime minister clearly thought his best strategy in all this was to play for time. He may now be running out of it.

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