Speaker by Various Artists

Escalation of threats

by David Williams

It started well enough. When Ariel Sharon took over as Israel's Prime Minister in March 2001 he offered Palestinians the hand of peace, saying he was willing to make "painful compromises".

But, as Bill Clinton found out, peace in the Middle East is no easy feat. Still, there have been a few ticks on the "plus" side of the ledger.

In October 2002, US President George W Bush set out his road map to peace, which he hoped would bring an end to hostilities by 2005.

By the start of 2004, however, interest in the road map appeared to have waned. Cue Sharon, and a shock announcement that he plans to withdraw all Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. Hope springs again.

There have been setbacks - and when you're talking about the Middle East, you know that means the kind which are bathed in blood. Horrible suicide bombings, incursions into Palestinian refugee camps, the re-occupation of parts of the occupied territories, the second intifada, rockets fired into Israeli settlements, the assassination of key figures in militant Palestinian factions. And more. Neither side has a monopoly on suffering. Normal Israelis living in fear. Desperate Palestinians, humiliated and out of work. Death and slaughter the norm.

Occasionally things would seem better. Some who see the Israeli barrier as a positive will recall three months earlier this year during which there was only one suicide bombing which claimed the life of an Israeli. People who see the barrier as a negative will say it has allowed the Israelis to grab more land and further oppress the Palestinian people. They will also note a brutal operation in the Rafah refugee camp by Israel during this time and highlight international opposition to the wall, including a UN resolution.

Always on a knife-edge, this "peace process", sometimes punctuated by hope.

Like the proposed pullout in Gaza. I interviewed the Israeli spokesman in Washington, Mark Regev, some months back, not long after the World Court had ruled the Israeli barrier illegal. Aside from the standard rubbishing of the World Court and the UN, he told me that Sharon was resolute in pushing the Gaza pullout through, that he wanted peace and was just waiting for a viable peace partner to come to the bargaining table (I guess he means the Palestinian people without Yasser Arafat).

Oh how I wanted to believe! Through more rocket attacks, assassinations, military operations and suicide bombings I have clutched desperately to optimism.

This week, however, I am very troubled, with the weak and smashed body of optimism barely registering a pulse.

The first cause for alarm is a Haaretz story quoting Sharon's senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, as saying the Gaza pullout plan was meant to "freeze" the peace process.

I came to the story after seeing an item on CNN, in which Weisglass said his comments were "taken out of context". I assume he is referring to quotes like "The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process" and "effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda". I think Mr Weisglass would be hard-pressed to show a "context" in which those comments could be taken more than one way.

Out of interest, this is the same Don Weisglass who wrote to US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in April stating, on behalf of his prime minister, how the Israeli government remained committed to "the negotiation between the parties of a final status resolution of all outstanding issues".

The second item with a danger sign attached is a column by intelligence expert and author Gordon Thomas, who runs the globe-intel.net site. He asserts Israel is preparing for a pre-emptive strike on Iran and it turns out he's not the only one.

Israel has made a series of threats against Iran's nuclear programme lately.

Last month, Newsweek says Israel and the US were discussing a pre-emptive strike and were even war-gaming the possibility - although no one liked the predicted outcome.

Michael Costello of The Australian newspaper wrote a column under the headline "To survive, Israel will have to strike nuclear Iran".

And how about this loaded statement from Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, stating Israel would consider "all options" in dealing with Iran?

It turns out Israel was declaring itself "ready" for such a strike as far back as July!

Political posturing or a signal of its intentions?

Israel has launched pre-emptive strikes before - bombing Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in June, 1981. First-strike offensives "have been an essential element of Israel's defensive doctrine for decades" says one Christian Science Monitor story - the most famous instance being the Israeli Air Force's destruction of Egyptian air bases to open the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

In recent weeks, the rhetoric was turned up at the United Nations - a body generally loathed by Israelis - during which Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the general assembly that Iran was "the new Saddam". Not only does it threaten Israel, Shalom said, but it threatens "the security and stability of the whole world". And you remember what happened to Saddam...

Just when you think things can't get any worse, Iran apparently has a new missile which could reach London, Paris, Berlin and southern Russia and Israel is buying up the US's "bunker-buster" bombs by the hundred.

What about the influence of the US? Those who say the US has a leash on Israel must remember history doesn't lie (think: Osirak) and Sharon has made it clear (as far back as 2001 and as recently as last month) that he has no problem thumbing his nose at his American sponsors if Israel's national interest is at stake.

I understand Israel is surrounded by Arab countries (22, I think) and the region has a history of war. (I remember Mr Regev, the Israeli spokesman guy in Washington, telling me the possibility of a country like Iran having nuclear weapons was Israel's "worst nightmare". "That's jihadists with a bomb.") But haven't we learned anything yet? Doesn't that burning hole called Iraq tell us that rushing into things only makes things worse?

We relied on "intelligence" on WMD before. We've massed troops on the borders before - so much so that the Anglo-American coalition would have looked like sissies if they didn't go in (although some would say it was a fait accompli considering who was president and who his father was).

Diplomacy is not always the best option but it's a bloody good start, particularly when you're dealing with mullahs who are digging their toes firmly into the sand, the very sand that may be hiding a nuclear bomb. Much of the Arab world is already turning against us (the West) and if Israel strikes then that clash of civilisations that George W Bush is so careful of avoiding would easily come to pass.

Let's hope Israel stops this escalation of threats before it turns the region into full-blown war.