After the first meeting between newish President Barack Obama and new Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in May of 2009, I wrote in these pages about the “acutely uncomfortable clash of divergent outlooks” so readily evident at their media conference.
I noted that while the Netanyahu camp had “rushed to talk up a purported meeting of minds over Iran,” it was plain that there was a gulf between the two men on the issue. Specially, I wrote, it had been Netanyahu’s hope that he would persuade Obama of the imperative to halt the Iranian nuclear drive “as a precondition for encouraging Arab moderation and thus enabling progress with the Palestinians, and on this he failed.”
Instead, I pointed out, “Obama insistently placed tackling the Palestinian issue – which has defeated even the most generous and flexible Israeli governments – on the road to fixing Iran.”
While Israel had argued internationally that stopping Iran would enable headway with the Palestinians, and other foreign heads of state, senior ministers and diplomats had politely suggested it was best to try to chivvy both processes along simultaneously, Obama, I observed, “has gone all the way over to the other side, and done so in public.”
I was referring to the president’s assertion, publicly contradicting Netanyahu, that, “If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians – between the Palestinians and the Israelis – then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”
In that column and many others since, I have often come back to Obama’s
unconvincing assertion that Netanyahu, and much of Israel besides, has
the Iran- Palestinian equation wrong. I often noted how illogical it
seemed for Obama to argue that there was a good prospect of dramatic
progress on the Palestinian front even while Iran, and by extension,
Palestinian extremists, were in the ascendant, and how much more room
for optimism there would be on the Palestinian front if Iran had been
faced down, its nuclear march halted, and relative moderates throughout
the region emboldened and empowered.
To my mind, the president’s thinking defied common sense. Now we know,
however, that it also defied the concrete information he was receiving
from his own diplomats.
THE OBAMA administration, it is now clear for all to see, was not
pressing a reluctant Netanyahu to make settlement-freeze and other
concessions to the Palestinians in part because it truly believed this
would be helpful in generating wider support for tackling Iran.
Not at all. The United States, we now know courtesy of WikiLeaks, was
being repeatedly urged by a succession of Arab leaders to smash an
Iranian nuclear program they feared would destabilize the entire region
and put their regimes at risk. Their priority was, and is, battering
Ahmadinejad, not bolstering Abbas.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, in 2008, had not urged the US to chivvy
those recalcitrant Israelis toward concessions to the Palestinians as a
pre-condition for grudging Saudi support for a firmer US-led position
against Iran. Anything but. Never mind the Palestinians, the king simply
implored Washington to “cut off the head of the [Iranian] snake.”
Likewise, with minor variations in the course of the following year, the rulers of Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.
We are now starting to hear, courtesy of WikiLeaks, what Jordan and Egypt had to say on the matter too.
Obama, that is, was not the prisoner of a misconception, convinced in
absolute good faith that if he could deliver Israeli concessions at the
negotiating table he might stand a greater chance of getting the Arabs
on board for the battle with the mullahs. No, he had the diplomatic
cables to prove that the Israeli- Palestinian conflict was no obstacle
to wide Arab backing, indeed wide Arab entreaties, for the toughest
possible measures against Iran, emphatically including military action.
Either the president, it can be concluded, was so attached to his
misconception that he refused to let the concrete information he had on
Arab leaders’ thinking get in the way – sticking to his view of the
region in defiance of the facts.
Or, more plausibly, he had internalized full well that he didn’t
actually need the cover of a substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace
process to generate Arab support for tackling Iran’s nuclear program,
but chose to pressure Israel just the same, as a tactic, because he felt
Israel was not being sufficiently forthcoming on the Palestinian front.
Neither explanation sits well, to put it mildly.
TELL NETANYAHU – who at the time of their first meeting had yet to
endorse the two-state solution, and who is extremely unlikely to repeat
the peace offer that Ehud Olmert had spurned by Abbas – that you feel he
should be doing more? That’s fair enough.
What’s not fair enough is to indicate to the Israeli prime minister,
when it’s patently untrue, that he ought to put aside some of his
skepticism and take risks for peace because otherwise Israel might
impede the US’s capacity to thwart the genocidal enemy, Iran.
In that May 2009 column, I noted that “If building international, and
more specifically regional pressure on Iran is perceived to be
contingent on dramatic progress toward resolving our vexed conflict with
the Palestinians, the outlook may be bleak indeed. To judge by the fate
of Israel’s peace overtures since the early 1990s, the Iranians, one
can only fear, would be up to their eyes in enriched uranium before
there’s a breakthrough here.”
So now here we are 18 months later. The peace process is deadlocked and
Iran is indeed a good deal closer to the bomb. And the Obama
administration has been pressing Israel for a second settlement freeze,
even though Abbas wasted the last one, even though Netanyahu has
demonstrably sought to encourage reconciliation by improving the
economic climate on the West Bank, and even though Israel’s uncertainty
about its Palestinian partner is magnified every time Fatah derides the
legitimacy of a Jewish nation-state or the PA endorses “research”
denying Jewish sovereign history here.
Until WikiLeaks, the US was presumably still reminding Israel of its
view that the “linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace
process… runs the other way.”
That the route to thwarting Teheran runs via Jerusalem. That, whatever
Israel’s misgivings, it should consider giving ground on the Palestinian
front in part because of the demands of the wider struggle against
What’s the president going to tell Israel now?