Israel and Iran: masters of the art of stalling

Analysis Tehran's policy of wasting time at global meetings while continuing to enrich uranium is similar to that of Tel Aviv's.

Powered by automated translation

For all their foaming-at-the-mouth antipathy towards each other, Israel and Iran share one thing in common: they have perfected the art of stalling. Today, the delays and evasions of the Middle East's two most formidable powers hold the region in thrall.

It was no surprise that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, seemed content after his meeting with Barack Obama, the US president, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, yesterday in New York. Even the Obama administration acknowledged beforehand that the meeting would probably not produce any results. Instead, Ian Kelly, a state department spokesman, noted tepidly that the talks would "advance our efforts towards our ultimate goal" and would show that Mr Obama "is personally engaged in the effort". Mr Netanyahu could rest easily.

In fact, the Israeli leader's satisfaction represents another victory for delay diplomacy, which has succeeded in defying the Obama administration over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and once again staved off pressure for peace talks with the Palestinians. For a time after Mr Netanyahu took office in March, it did not appear that the usual Israeli stalling tactics would prevail. First, the Israeli premier tried to change the subject, saying the principal issue facing the world was Iran's nuclear ambitions.

When the shifting-the-goalposts gambit failed to keep Washington at bay, Mr Netanyahu turned to another manoeuvre in Israel's diplomatic playbook. Through aides, he complained that Mr Obama was applying more pressure on West Bank settlements than his government could bear. Since then, the my-government-is-too-fragile-to-make-concessions stall has been coupled, with considerable success, to another oft-used talking point, this one suggesting that US and Palestinian attempts to hold Israel to the commitments it made regarding settlements in the 2003 "road map" peace plan were counterproductive, even cruel.

This week, for instance, The New York Times quoted an unnamed "top Israeli official" as saying that the Palestinians should not object to the construction of kindergartens or other new public buildings inside existing settlements because if those communities are ultimately transferred to the Palestinians, those buildings would go to them. It was a particularly polished example of diplomatic spin. For one thing, it suggested that Palestinians were undermining their own self-interest by demanding that Israel live up to its pledges regarding settlements. For another, it intimated that Palestinians were against children and education.

The tactic - at once trivialising, sensationalising and disparaging - was nothing new. In 2004, George W Bush asked Ariel Sharon why Israel was violating its commitments on settlement growth. Mr Sharon reportedly replied: "What do you expect me to do - to ask the settlers' wives to have abortions?" Even Mr Bush, the closest friend Israel has had in Washington in years, was said to have been stunned.

Perhaps the most effective stall in the Israeli diplomatic playbook leading up to yesterday's meeting was the suggestion that inherent weaknesses in Palestinian society make them ineligible and undeserving of statehood. Final status talks, therefore, are a waste of time. The most frequently cited example is the divided rule of the Palestinian territories. From the trivial to the ingenious, the goal of the stalling tactics by Israel's political establishment is simple, Palestinians say. While it publicly professes to support the formation of a Palestinian state and have its hand perennially "extended in peace", it continues inexorably to make conditions for such a state all but impossible.

According to sceptics about official pronouncements out of Tehran, the goal of Iran's stalling tactics over its nuclear programme also is simple. By dawdling on the dance floors of various international institutions such as the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency, they say, Tehran is buying time to complete the uranium enrichment process and build a nuclear weapon. Upon completing a bomb, it will unveil its membership in the nuclear club and dare the world to expel it.

Tehran is simply denying the existence, as it were, of the goalposts: it has proposed a meeting agenda that seems to include everything but its uranium enrichment activities. Along with the US shuttle diplomacy that is expected to follow yesterday's meeting in New York, the coming weeks will determine whether Iran and Israel can continue the delay game, which is slowly paralysing the region. Owing to the power of his office, Mr Obama may be the one person who can stop the game, change the rules and relieve the region of two predicaments that have drawn it into the mire. With Cairo a faded memory, the day of reckoning for the US president appears to be drawing near.

Mr Obama already has said there will have to be an "assessment" of Tehran's position by the end of the year. But with his hopes for health care reform and re-election lurking in the back of his mind, what will he stake in a showdown with Iran, let alone Israel? To complicate matters further, Israel's own atomic arsenal is a factor in the Iranian nuclear debate. Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, indicated last week that Israel's arsenal would not be included in any regional disarmament discussion. In a variant on the they-aren't-ready-for-primetime theme, Mr Barak said the Muslim world must first "behave like Western Europe".

With confrontation looming, there persists the hope - at least among some in Israel - that the US president will cease to be a factor at all and that the delay game will be able to continue apace. "My right-wing friends say Obama is getting weaker, and soon they'll find out that he wasn't even born in the US," one Israeli recently confided.