Israel has enjoyed a quiet few years. No wars, no intifada, no increase in the international pressure on the Israeli state – and a strong economy. With the rest of the Middle East in flames, it has been hard to make the traditional argument that the Israeli-Palestinian question is the key to solving all other issues – or to argue that the plight of the Palestinians is the most urgent human-rights priority in the region.
But Israel’s quiet times may be about to end. The Scarlett Johansson controversy is just one part of it – the less important part, in fact. The other really significant element is that John Kerry seems to be about to launch his peace plan. When Kerry does that it will put Israel on the spot and may split its government. And if and when the talks fail (as I’m afraid, they surely will), Israel is likely to get a lot of the blame. The country will be back in the spotlight – and not in a good way. Read more
Ariel Sharon (right), then Israel's prime minister, shakes hands with Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas as US President George W Bush watches during a 2003 summit in Aqaba, Jordan. (AFP/Getty)
Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday, was unquestionably a historic figure. He fought in all of Israel’s major wars – including the disastrous 1982 Lebanon invasion he essentially originated. He is also the principal architect of an Israeli settlement policy long designed to make the occupation of roughly half the West Bank and most of Arab east Jerusalem permanent. While all can agree – as no portrait of Sharon and his impressive but dynamic bulk neglects to point out – that he was “larger than life”, only within the solipsistic terms of debate of much of Israel’s political elite, and those who defer to it, can he be seen as a great statesman and master strategist.
Sharon’s reputation as a warrior began with his role in the 1948 war that established the state of Israel. But, as historian Avi Shlaim and other revisionist scholars have shown, he quickly became the spearhead of a policy of reprisals and provocations aimed at expanding the new state’s borders, which its political and military establishment regarded as dangerously vulnerable if not indefensible. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father, backed by General Moshe Dayan and usually using Arab infiltration as the pretext, attacked Jordan, Egypt and Syria across the 1948-49 armistice lines between 1953 and 1955. The officer who led the main operations, establishing early on a reputation for bloodthirstiness, was Ariel Sharon. Read more
By Richard McGregor in Washington
After sensitive details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden began leaking, an infuriated Robert Gates, then secretary of defence, stormed into the office of Tom Donilon, the national security adviser.
“Why doesn’t everybody just shut the f*** up?” said the incensed Pentagon chief.
At the end of every year, I attempt a first draft of history by listing what seem to me to be the five most significant events of the past twelve months. Some of my picks for 2013 also featured in 2012. I hope this is not because of intellectual laziness, but simply because the war in Syria, and the turmoil in Egypt remain defining events of our era. I probably should also once again include the tensions between China and Japan – but they are still simmering and have not yet boiled over. So I’ll give the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands a rest this year.
So let me start the list for 2013 with a genuinely new event that has global significance: Read more
By Gideon Rachman
I executed a personal pivot to Asia this year, with separate trips to South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and China (twice). There was certainly plenty to write about – new leadership in China, Abenomics in Japan, Sino-Japanese confrontation, nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula. Yet, on more than one occasion, I found myself sitting in a hotel room in East Asia – but writing about the Middle East.
By Gideon Rachman
In recent years, Benjamin Netanyahu has specialised in playing the role of prophet-in-the-wilderness. While much of the world cheered last month’s interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, the Israeli prime minister denounced it as a “very bad deal”. In a recent speech, Mr Netanyahu warned again that the Iranian government remained a “regime committed to our destruction” and had a “genocidal policy” towards Israel.
International reaction to the Iran nuclear deal
The United States and European Union are clearly delighted with the historic nuclear deal struck with Iran in Geneva last week, but some key US allies in the region, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia are not happy. John Reed, Jerusalem correspondent, James Blitz, defence and security editor and Siona Jenkins, Middle East news editor, join Gideon Rachman to discuss how the agreement will affect the balance of power in the region.
By Luisa Frey
• Back-channel conversations between the US and Iran paved way for the historic nuclear agreement and broke 34 years of hostility, writes the FT’s Geoff Dyer. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
For Barack Obama, striking a nuclear deal with Iran may turn out to be the easy part. The president’s biggest struggle now is facing down Israel and its supporters in the US as they attempt to rally opposition to the deal. The administration knows this and it is quietly confident that it can take on the Israel lobby in Congress – and win.
Iran and the P5+1 meet for nuclear talks in Geneva in October. Getty
In the unlikely setting of a bucolic French chateau complete with a pack of fox-hounds, former officials from Iran, Israel, China and the US have got together for a weekend of banquet-fuelled and ground-breaking discussions over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
The unusual talks, perhaps a first in the grey realm of “track two” or parallel diplomacy, sought to overcome the mistrust of hardliners on the many sides of the Middle East’s divides ahead of the resumption on Thursday of official negotiations in Geneva between Iran and the P-5+1, meaning the five permanent members of the UN security council plus Germany. Read more