George Hishmeh
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
October 19, 2007 - 4:46pm

The continued give-and-take over the predawn Israeli air strike at an unmanned Syrian site, reportedly a nascent nuclear facility close to the Turkish border, remains a mystery several weeks after it happened. Even the United Nations watchdog organisation handling nuclear issues, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has pleaded ignorance on the subject.

“The IAEA has no information about any undeclared nuclear facility in Syria and no information about recent reports [to this effect],” said the agency in a statement last Monday. It promised to investigate “any relevant information coming our way”. It said it would ask the Syrians about these reports, which were mainly published in the American and, belatedly, due the military censors, in the Israeli press.

What is intriguing about this mystery is the timing, coming on the eve of an international conference that the Bush administration hopes will lead to a final Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

Some encouragement has been prompted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s comment in Israel: “Frankly, it’s time for the establishment of a Palestinian state,” she told Jewish leaders.

The secretary has also tried to draw a line between nuclear proliferation and the lethargic peace process which began about 16 years ago.

“The issues of proliferation do not affect the Palestinian-Israel peace efforts we are making,” she said, warning, as The New York Times put it, against actions that could derail the peace effort.

“This is the time to be extremely careful,” she said.

Israel has often capitalised on big power (especially US) involvement elsewhere to pursue its own objectives in the region, thereby derailing any attempts by Western powers to accommodate Arab and Palestinian objectives.

A case in point has been cited by Philip Mattar, a former senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu took two actions more than 10 years ago that inflamed the Palestinians and derailed the Oslo Accords: he began opening the tunnel to Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 1996, an action that brought about the death of 80 Palestinians and 15 Israeli policemen. A year later, he began the Har Homa settlement in order to separate East Jerusalem from the West Bank. The then British foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, predicted: “The start of the construction can do nothing but harm the peace process.”

It did, Mattar stressed.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak is in the US to promote joint anti-missile projects that Israel considers a prerequisite for any future transfer of the West Bank to the Palestinians. He told the Israeli press in August that there can be no significant pullout from the West Bank before anti-rocket systems are in place. The two Israeli missiles that Israel is developing, David’s Sling and Iron Dome, will be ready in two years. At present, the Pentagon is a partner in Israel’s Arrow II, a system designed to intercept ballistic missiles like those deployed by Iran and Syria.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, who has been meticulously cultivating his country’s ties with neighbouring Turkey and who, in turn, has been promoting Syrian-Israeli negotiations, said that Syria is still considering the appropriate response to the Israeli raid. He said it wouldn’t have to be “missile-for-missile”, but could be political. Whatever he has in mind remains unclear.

Russian president Vladimir Putin, who was in Tehran this week for a conference of the leaders of the five nations bordering the Caspian Sea, took time to stress that all nations must be allowed “peaceful nuclear activities”. He also cautioned against using force to resolve the Western-led dispute with Iran over its nuclear programme.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was, meanwhile, assuring the influential Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington that one of the US objectives in the Middle East is denying Iran the ability to build nuclear weapons or “hold Israel hostage with the threat of attack”.

Although the Bush administration was said to be divided over the Israeli strike in Syria, many analysts here saw it as a dry run in the event either the US or Israel would want to snuff out a new nuclear project in the region. Others argued that since Israel’s war on Lebanon last year was an embarrassing failure, it could not take another risk without neutralising Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Syria.

This being the situation, the upcoming Middle East peace conference in Annapolis would do well to add one more item on its agenda, namely an Israeli commitment to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel is the only Middle Eastern state that has not signed the accord and, curiously, it still escapes retribution from any party.

Such an achievement will add luster to the anticipated peace trophy.


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