Israel

What does the vote upgrading Palestine’s status at the UN to “non-member state” with observer status actually mean? Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, was quick to rubbish the vote as essentially meaningless in her speech. She could be right. But it all hinges on whether the Palestinians will now be able to pursue the Israelis through the International Criminal Court in the Hague. If that happens, then this really is a big deal. If the ICC does not come into play, then today’s vote matters a lot less.

As far as I can gather the legal situation is very unclear – and different lawyers take different views on whether Palestine’s new status will allow it to use the ICC. Inevitably, politics will also come into play. It would be a bold and risky decision for a fledgling institution like the ICC to go after Israel, since that would immediately and possibly permanently sour relations with the US. Most of the European powers would also be opposed. The reason that Britain abstained on today’s vote, for example, was this hovering question of the ICC and the refusal of the Palestinians to give assurances that they would not head straight for the Hague. On the contrary, Mahmoud Abbas hinted heavily in his speech that he was considering doing exactly that. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

Anybody might think that Susan Rice is gearing up for a confirmation hearing. Last week, the US ambassador to the UN tweeted: “I condemn today’s cowardly terrorist attack targeting innocents on a Tel Aviv bus.” Yet trawling back through her Twitter feed over the previous week, there is no indication that innocents might be dying anywhere else in the Middle East. The word “Gaza” is noticeable by its absence – although the ambassador did find time to hail America’s Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Ceasefire agreed in Gaza but will the calm hold?
After a short and bloody conflict in which at least 152 Palestinians and 5 Israelis died, a ceasefire has been declared between Israel and Hamas. In this week’s podcast, Gideon Rachman is joined by Tobias Buck in Gaza City and Middle East editor Roula Khalaf to discuss the recent fighting and its implications for the wider region

In Israel and the Gaza Strip, there might be no real winners from the week-long conflict that ended last night. But there is already a clear loser, writes Roula Khalaf – he is Mahmoud Abbas and he is the president of the Palestinian Authority. Read more

In wartime, everyone wants a hero. The one that has emerged from Israel in recent days is no individual soldier, but a technology: the so-called ‘Iron Dome’. Read more

Whatever happens on the diplomatic front in the latest conflict over Gaza, defence analysts will be reflecting for some time on the big military revelation of recent days – the role played by Israel’s Iron Dome interceptor and what it tells us about the value of missile defence systems. Read more

Last month, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, made two announcements regarding his country’s stance on the Iranian nuclear programme.

First, he said that Israel would not be going ahead with a unilateral military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities this year, abandoning the much feared “October surprise.” Secondly, he spelled out a new “red line” that Iran will not be allowed to cross as far as its nuclear activities are concerned. This will be the moment when Iran has acquired enough more highly enriched uranium to build one nuclear bomb – a moment that in Mr Netanyahu’s view may come by next summer.

In recent days, Israeli officials visiting London have spelled out the details regarding this new red line. In their view, Iran by next summer will have acquired some 240kg of more highly enriched uranium (that is uranium at a 20 per cent concentration). This could be converted by Iran into enough weapons grade uranium (at a 90 per cent concentration) to provide Iran with one nuclear weapon.

The difficulty for the Israeli government is that while western leaders are relieved that Mr Netanyahu postponed plans for a strike this autumn, they don’t regard his new red line as having much credibility either. Read more

Under normal circumstances, an American president running for re-election would do his utmost to avoid a row with the Israeli prime minister. But I wonder whether President Obama really will be damaged by his semi-public clash with Benjamin Netanyahu?

The conventional argument is that the Jewish vote is very important in two vital swing states, Florida and Ohio. The major American-Jewish organisations are passionate in their support for Israel and their concerns about Iran. So being perceived to be tough on Israel and weak on Iran is dangerous for Obama. Read more

Tobias Buck, our esteemed Jerusalem correspondent, dropped into my office the other day. He told me (tactfully) that I was probably wrong, in my recent blog post, to give such credence to the idea that Israel is on the point of bombing the Iranian nuclear programme. I should return to my previous scepticism.

As it happens, I had already reconsidered, after reading this analysis by Shai Feldman. Feldman stresses the significance of the recent public opposition to a strike, voiced by President Shimon Peres. Read more

At a demonstration in March, an Israeli protester holds a sign directed at Benjamin Netanyahu (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Until recently, I have always been sceptical about the idea that Israel will stage a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But, in recent months, I’ve changed my mind, because so many people I know who follow the issue much more closely than me, seem convinced that it will indeed happen.

Because of the sensitivity of the issue, most of the conversations I’ve had have been off-the-record. But the people who’ve told me that they think an Israeli attack is imminent include: a top European politician (although that was in January), a senior British defence official (speaking in June), one of the best think-tank analysts, Mark Fitzpatrick of the IISS; another top think-tanker from the US. Most recently, a French diplomat who deals with the Iran dossier, told me that he expected an Israeli attack within weeks. Read more

Here’s what caught our eyes today:

Mitt Romney in Israel (Getty)

Mitt Romney has caused something of a stir over recent days with comments that he and his campaign team have made about Iran. On a visit to Israel he and his aides said two things on the Iranian nuclear weapons programme that have left politicians and commentators wondering how he would act on this issue if elected.

First there was a comment made in Jerusalem by Dan Senor, Mr Romney’s senior foreign policy aide, who suggested that his boss supports a unilateral military strike on Iran by Israel. “If Israel has to take action on its own,” Mr Senor said in a briefing, “the governor would respect that decision.” Read more

The inability of Russia and the US to forge a collective response to the Syria crisis at the United Nations is a significant moment in the 16-month-long uprising.

It makes it inevitable that the conflict between the Assad regime and rebels will develop into an even more bloody confrontation over the next few weeks, with a potentially significant impact on the wider region. The crisis now poses a range of security risks which will this weekend be much on the minds of policymakers in western states and in the Middle East. Read more

These are the pieces that got us talking over the weekend and this morning:

The endless guessing game about whether Israel is planning to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities in the coming months continues. Now we have two pieces of fresh evidence – but they seem to point in opposite directions. First, there is the outbreak of dissent amongst top Israeli securocrats – several of whom have gone on the record, to say that an attack on Iran would be a v.bad idea. On the other hand, Netanyahu has just formed a government of national unity - which includes three former chiefs of the defence staff. Read more

Articles about the threat of a war over Iran’s nuclear programme often refer to Israeli pressure for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. There is no doubt that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister and Ehud Barak, his defence minister, are in the hawkish camp on Iran. What is much less clear is whether these two actually speak for Israel as a whole – or even for the whole of the government.

This report from Haaretz, a liberal Israeli paper, has two interesting snippets in it. First, it suggests that Netanyahu and Barak are still struggling to win clear-cut support for an attack from an inner quorum of eight senior ministers in the government. (It is already well known that several senior figures in the Israeli security establishment are opposed to an attack.) Second, the paper reports an opinion poll that suggests that less than 50% of the Israeli public currently support an attack on Iran. The poll suggests 41% in favour, and 39% opposed – with the rest undecided. And when Israelis are asked if they support a unilateral attack, without US support – and that’s the only real option, at the moment – then opposition rises to 58% against an attack. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

The question of whether a war will break out over Iran’s nuclear programme has been around for so long that it is easy to become almost blasé. In 2006 Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was already asserting dramatically: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.”

Gilad Shalit crossed into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula this morning at the start of a highly emotional day of prisoner exchanges between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas. The 25-year-old soldier captured five years ago by Hamas will be receiving a hero’s welcome in Israel, and Palestinians will celebrate the return of 477 prisoners, the first batch in the 1,000-to-one exchange. Read more

Just a day after the visit to Tripoli by Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, the Libyan National Transitional Council played host to another foreign leader – Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. The Brits and the French might have regarded it as a bit cheeky of Erdogan to roll up in Tripoli to try and bask in the success of the revolution, given that the Turkish prime minister had initially opposed Nato intervention. But the Turks saw it a bit differently. Some of the papers here in Istanbul reported that the British and the French leaders had rushed to Tripoli to upstage the Turkish prime minister. Erdogan himself seemed to see things this way, remarking sniffily – “We’ll see who gets the better reception.” Read more