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Regime change redux?

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Robin Lustig | 12:22 UK time, Friday, 26 March 2010

I suppose I should only whisper this - but I have the distinct impression that the words "regime change" are in the air again.

No, not Iraq this time. Not Iran either. Israel.

In both Washington and London, there seems to be a growing feeling that the current Israeli government, led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is not one they can do business with.

In Washington, President Obama's people are furious about Mr Netanyahu's insistence on Israel's right to continue building in parts of Jerusalem that the rest of the world regard as illegally occupied.

In London, there's real anger about the forging of the British passports that were used in the assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January. (You may have noticed that after the UK expelled an Israeli diplomat in protest on Tuesday, there was no retaliatory move by Israel. In the world of diplomacy, inactions sometimes speak louder than actions.)

So let's scroll back the calendar to 1991. The US had just led a successful military operation to defeat Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait. It wanted to make progress in resolving the Israel-Palestinian issue, and under the first President Bush was putting pressure on Israel to agree to freeze its settlement-building programme in the West Bank.

Sound familiar? The then Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, refused. President Bush threatened to withhold $10 billion worth of Israeli loan guarantees. He forced Israel to the Madrid peace conference - and in mid-1992, Israeli voters defeated Mr Shamir's Likud party and elected Yitzhak Rabin instead.

See what I mean about regime change? And if you think I'm exaggerating, look at these words: "The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbours present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests ... The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favouritism for Israel.

"Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships ... and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilise support."

The words come from written evidence given to the US Senate armed services committee 10 days ago by General David Petraeus. He's the man who's in charge of fighting the US wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and you can be sure they will be heeded in Washington.

As for Mr Netanyahu, well, both Washington and London have had their difficulties with him in the past. In 1998, the then British foreign secretary Robin Cook insisted on visiting the site of a proposed new Israeli settlement in the West Bank, Har Homa. It created such a row that Mr Netanyahu cancelled dinner with him. (In the world of diplomacy, who has dinner with whom matters a lot.)

A word about Jerusalem: Israel insists that settlements like Har Homa - and the area for which the new building permits were announced just as US vice-president Joe Biden was in town last week (bad timing, as all now admit) - are in Jerusalem, not the West Bank, and therefore part of a city that it regards as its eternal and undivided capital.

As Mr Netanyahu put it in a speech in Washington last Monday: "The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It's our capital."

But we need to be careful with definitions here: after the 1967 war, when Israel gained control of all of Jerusalem, it extended the city boundaries by some 64 square kilometres, nearly doubling the area it regarded as sovereign Israeli territory. (And remember, under the terms of the 1947 UN resolution that established the State of Israel, Jerusalem was meant to be "a corpus separatum under a special international regime, administered by the United Nations".)

Be all that as it may, you could well argue that Mr Netanyahu is the democratically-elected prime minister of Israel, and if Washington and London don't like it, well, that's just too bad. Which, up to a point, is perfectly true. (Pedants might point out that in fact, Mr Netanyahu's Likud party won about 30,000 fewer votes than the centrist Kadima party in last year's elections, but as all Israeli governments are coalitions, that's mainly a theoretical debating point.)

Israel needs friends. It's a small country, surrounded by neighbours who have no great love for it. It receives some $3 billion a year in aid from Washington. And for that reason, if for no other, Mr Netanyahu and his coalition partners may well be wondering this weekend how to start mending a few fences again.


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