Analysis: Unlinking the linkage... again

Netanyahu wants to see more US action on Iran; Obama wants to see more Israeli action with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu and Obama shake hands 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Obama shake hands 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Reflecting the gravity, weightiness and significance of US President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit in March, the Israeli organizers have given it a code name similar to those typically given to military operations: Nations United.
But better even than the code name, which obviously mirrors what Israel hopes will be the message that radiates from the two-and-a-half-day visit, is the English acronym of that moniker: “NU,” spelling out that grunt of a Yiddish word denoting impatience and gentle (or not so gentle) agitation.
That word is a perfect title for the visit, and encapsulates what the leaders of both countries will be asking each other when it comes to two of the three main issues both sides acknowledge will be at the center of the agenda – Iran and the Palestinians. (On the third issue, Syria, there is broad agreement.) “Nu?” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will surely ask Obama with regard to Iran. “When are you going to draw a red line in the sand, like I have done? When are you going to ratchet up sanctions? When are you going to unveil to the Iranians the outlines of a credible military threat needed to get Tehran to halt its nuclear program?” “Nu?” Obama will inquire of Netanyahu with regard to the Palestinian track. “When are you going to stop settlement construction to allow room for negotiations? When are you going to come out with some kind of initiative to get the diplomatic ball rolling? When are you going to give something to PA President Mahmoud Abbas to work with?” Each leader will prod, nudge and entreat the other to action in the different spheres – Netanyahu seeking US action on Iran; Obama wanting to see Israeli movement with the Palestinians.
And each will, in turn, wave in front of the other the dangers of inaction. Netanyahu will warn Obama that inaction on Iran will allow the country to brush up against the nuclear threshold, getting all the pieces for a bomb in place so it can cross that threshold at a convenient moment of its own choosing. And Obama will warn Netanyahu that inaction on the Palestinian track will possibly lead to the downfall of Abbas, a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, a violent third intifada and the destabilization of Jordan.
These “nu” conversations will take place in between carefully choreographed events designed to illustrate the Nations United theme – such as an Obama visit to an Iron Dome battery and to a hi-tech exhibit in Jerusalem. But those events and the obvious symbolic moments that will be interspersed throughout the visit will not drown out the “nu” questions, or the fact that these questions will place the two leaders at cross-purposes. As such, the idea of linkage will once again appear.
LINKAGE BETWEEN Iran and the Palestinian issue is not something unheard of in discussions between Obama and Netanyahu. Indeed, during the first, rough year of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, this was a cause of not inconsiderable friction.
Obama came into power in 2009 arguing that, if significant progress could be made on the Palestinian issue, it would be that much easier to deal with Iran since certain Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and even Egypt, would be more willing to put their shoulders to the Iranian wheel during an atmosphere of Israeli-Palestinian accommodation. Israeli-Palestinian progress, according to this argument, would have a positive ripple-effect and increase the Arab world’s appetite to cooperate with the US and the international community in working toward preventing an Iranian bomb.
Or, as Obama said during that first disastrous meeting with Netanyahu in the White House in May 2009, just weeks after each man took office, “There’s no doubt that it is difficult for any Israeli government to negotiate in a situation in which they feel under immediate threat. That’s not conducive to negotiations. And as I’ve said before, I recognize Israel’s legitimate concerns about the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon when they have a president who has in the past said that Israel should not exist. That would give any leader of any country pause.
“Having said that, if there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way,” the president went on. “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.”
Netanyahu argued the exact opposite: first take care of Iran, first remove that dark cloud over the region, and then it will be easier to deal with the Palestinian track. Defang Iran, this argument ran, and it will weaken that country’s two proxies – Hezbollah and Hamas – and make it more difficult for them to disrupt or threaten the diplomatic process any time there was a chance of progress.
The linkage issue, a major bone of contention during the first part of the so-called “Obibi era,” suddenly disappeared in late 2010, overtaken by two occurrences: the WikiLeaks revelations and the so-called Arab Spring.
Numerous comments in the cache of US diplomatic cables known as WikiLeaks were attributed to one Arab leader after the next and indicated clearly that their main concern was Iran, not Palestine, knocking the wind out of the whole linkage argument.
And then the revolutions in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain and Syria, which began in early 2011 and had absolutely nothing to do with Israel and the Palestinians, undercut even further the notion that regional stability could be ensured if the Israeli-Palestinian nut could be magically cracked.
WHILE THAT linkage, popularly know here at the time as “Yitzhar for Bushehr” – referring to the settlement in Samaria and an Iranian nuclear reactor – was knocked off the table, it was not buried. Former US ambassador to the US Itamar Rabinovich, who was sent to Washington by Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 and served there until 1996, alluded to it during comments to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that met this week in Jerusalem. He advised to keep linkage in mind when looking at the Obama visit.
If both sides have different issues in play, he said, “inevitably, linkage is established.”
In this type of situation it is to be expected, said the former ambassador and chief negotiator with Syria, that the discussions would end up along the lines of “if you give here, you will get there.”
Rabinovich made clear that linkage looms.
But if indeed it is either hinted at or discussed directly during Obama’s visit, it is not something any Netanyahu-led government will jump at. An indication of how negatively Netanyahu views the linkage idea was given this week by Eran Lerman, the deputy head of the National Security Council. Lerman, who also spoke at the Presidents’ Conference meeting, said that the “Bushehr for Yitzhar” equation never existed in reality, rather only in the minds of those in the media.
“Things happen in the media that don’t happen in the real world,” he said, adding the converse as well: things happen in reality that get no expression in the media.
Lerman said linkage between the Iranian and Palestinian issues implies that a nuclear Iran is an Israeli problem, not a global one, which is patently not the case. The reason why the discussion of how to solve the problem centers around Israel and the US – and why the US and Israel spend so much time and energy discussing the matter – is “because these are the only two countries capable of taking action, not because it is an Israeli problem.”
The only linkage between the two issues, Lerman said, was the ability of Israel to look out at the region with a greater degree of confidence after the Iranian threat was removed and, in that situation, believe that in a safer world it might be able to take certain risks.
Lerman’s words reflect what is clearly the thinking inside the Prime Minister’s Office on the eve of Obama’s visit: the Iranian cloud severely limits Israel’s capacity to take any significant risks with the Palestinians. •