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Israel's Next Move

Armageddon Now?

by NADIA HIJAB

Of all the analysis generated by the Obama-Netanyahu meeting Robert Satloff’s is the most significant. Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which serves as AIPAC’s think tank. His piece, circulated Thursday, provides insights into what the lobby — and Israel — might do next. And it should ring alarm bells.

Satloff starts quietly enough. Unlike other analysts, he is relatively sanguine about the divergences between the United States president and the Israeli prime minister over the peace process.

For example, he believes that American-Israeli differences about the "natural growth" of Israel’s existing (illegal) settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, though contentious, have been managed before and can be managed again.

This demonstrates confidence in AIPAC’s clout in Congress as regards the peace process. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can tell Al Jazeera, as she did Tuesday, "We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth – any kind of settlement activity" as often as she likes. Water off the AIPAC back.

But when it comes to Iran, Satloff is very worried indeed. He doesn’t buy the New York Times’ spin that Barack Obama, a master of nuance, gave Iran a clear deadline. He frets that Obama’s plan to wait until year-end to reassess the position means Iran can spin its centrifuges for six more months. And even then there may still be no stomach for "crippling" sanctions in Europe or America.

Satloff sees a "stark" difference between Obama’s goal of preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon and Netanyahu’s determination to prevent Iran from even acquiring a nuclear capability.

He believes there are chances of a collision between the United States and Israel potentially more damaging than the "face-off" over Suez. Great care, he concludes, should be taken to prevent the divergence over Iran from "metastasizing into the worst crisis in the six decades of U.S.-Israeli relations."

Satloff’s analysis is alarming because Iran has been an Israeli — hence AIPAC — priority for several years. The peace process consistently takes second or third place on the AIPAC agenda behind sanctioning Iran and aid to Israel. Indeed, the lobby treats the Palestinian question as something largely dealt with, on the back burner while more urgent matters are pursued.

For example, at the 2007 conference of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) — AIPAC’s strange bedfellows on the Christian right whom Netanyahu has assiduously courted for years — the 4,000 attendees were asked to push three issues with their Congressional representatives. The top demand: stop Iran’s nuclear program and let it know military action is an option. The other two: stopping Hezbollah rearmament, and supporting aid to Israel. All three also featured prominently on the AIPAC website.

A fourth lobbying issue — not to pressure Israel to give up land — was only added when former president George Bush proposed an international peace conference in a speech that coincided with the CUFI conference. (See the Autumn 2007 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies for an in-depth account.)

That addition was particularly important to the Christian Zionists, who don’t want Israel to cede an inch of occupied territory. They believe the Second Coming will take place after the ingathering of Jews and the Battle of Armageddon. CUFI lobbied hard to delay a ceasefire during Israel’s attack on Lebanon in June 2006 in case that was it. Netanyahu’s Christian Zionist allies would eagerly support an Israeli attack on Iran.

AIPAC’s top legislative priority at present is securing legislation to sanction Iran’s ability to import and produce petroleum products (draft resolutions H.R. 2194 in the House and S. 908 in the Senate.) Iran imports some 40% of its needs so such sanctions would indeed be crippling.

AIPAC also wants legislation to support state and local government divestment from Iran’s oil and gas sector (H.R. 1327), another longstanding Israeli desire.

So will Israel wait quietly for the next six months while centrifuges spin before its eyes? Not if Netanyahu’s take-home message is that the Obama Administration is willing to live with an Iranian nuclear capability as distinct from a nuclear weapon. And not if the past is any guide: Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and a suspected Syrian site in 2007 were just two pre-emptive Israeli strikes against perceived threats.

Israel often launches surprise attacks when the world is on holiday or there is a power vacuum. Most recently, it attacked Gaza just before New Year and a few weeks before Obama took office. Summer holidays are just around the corner, as is a political transition — the Iranian presidential elections scheduled for June 12. If you’d rather not be around for Armageddon, pray for a short, cool summer.

NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.