Comment: On Mideast security, the US has only just begun

The Obama administration appears as determined as ever to advance a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to curtail the Iranian nuclear threat in a way that will enhance, not endanger, Israeli security.

Kerry and Netanyahu shake hands at press conference 370 (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Pool)
Kerry and Netanyahu shake hands at press conference 370
(photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Pool)
Listening to the speeches of US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum last weekend, we were reassured that the administration is approaching the Iranian threat and the Mideast peace process with appropriate caution and commitment.
Many in our community have raised questions about the interim agreement struck in Geneva on November 24 between Iran and the P5+1.
Some of these questions are quite legitimate. The agreement was not a victory for diplomacy. It did not neutralize the Iranian threat and could even exacerbate the threat if the US drops its guard one bit.
What the agreement did was merely impose a momentary pause. Whether the diplomatic pathway will prove fruitful, or whether tougher action will be required, remains to be determined.
Overstating the significance of what has been achieved so far serves to unsettle those who worry about Israel’s security, not to calm them.
Thankfully, both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry indicated this weekend that they understand these points well.
The goal of the Geneva exercise is to “test the possibility that we can we resolve this issue diplomatically,” Obama said. It is about “testing the process, testing their commitment,” Kerry echoed.
At no point did either Obama or Kerry hint that he thought America’s work is done. Quite to the contrary, both men stated unequivocally that they were prepared to ratchet up sanctions and potentially even take military action if talks fail to produce satisfactory results.
At the same time, Obama and Kerry made a strong case that the agreement reached in Geneva could, in principle, be a step in the right direction.
The agreement seeks to freeze the status quo for a period, giving the US the opportunity to negotiate without facing the ticking clock of Iran’s advancements. Freezing the status quo buys time for the parties to explore a diplomatic approach without Israel having to fear that Iran’s nuclear program is marching toward a point at which an Israeli military response would be ineffective. This is far from a solution to the problem.
Nevertheless, it should be recognized that, if the agreement is implemented as designed – which is a big “if” – it is a positive development.
Whether this interim agreement proves helpful or hurtful to US and Israeli security interests will depend on how carefully it is monitored, verified and enforced. Secretary Kerry was absolutely correct to note that “we have a right to be skeptical” of the Iranians. They have done nothing to date to inspire any measure of confidence or good faith.
Adding insult to injury, we also have reason to doubt that China and Russia – which stubbornly resisted imposing sanctions in the first place – will now stringently enforce the agreement. Israeli officials have expressed concerns that corporate interests will pressure the weakest links among the P5+1 to turn the limited sanctions relief contemplated by the Geneva agreement into a wholesale rollback. These concerns do not seem unreasonable.
Given this dynamic, the US will have to play an outsized role in policing the agreement and the sanctions regime in the months ahead, vigilantly rooting out defectors wherever they tread. Allowing ourselves to be duped would be nothing short of catastrophic; it could enable the menacing Iranian regime to become virtually invincible, just as the North Korean regime has become.
To ensure Iran abides by the terms of the Geneva agreement, it will be critical that the US and Israel continue working together closely.
Similarly, Israel and the United States must continue working together closely to address another ever-present Israeli security concern – the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Here, too, the administration has shown an admirable understanding of Israel’s needs, maintaining a laser focus on security concerns.
By all accounts, the program proposed by US Gen. (ret.) John Allen has been unprecedented in its scope and rigor.
As Kerry said, “Never before – ever – has the United States conducted such an in-depth analysis of Israel’s security requirements that arise from the potential of a two-state solution.”
The importance of this effort cannot be overstated. As Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon (2002) and the Gaza Strip (2005) proved, territorial concessions carry real risks.
Without providing adequate assurances that Israel will be able to defend its borders after a withdrawal from the West Bank, there is no chance that a two-state solution will be achieved. As Kerry said in Israel last week, “If Israel’s security can’t increase as a result of an agreement, it’s very difficult to make an agreement.”
But Allen’s effort, like the interim arrangement with Iran, is just the beginning. The real work lies ahead if Iran is to be kept free of nuclear weapons and if a realistic framework for a two-state solution is to be agreed upon.
In September, President Obama told the UN General Assembly that his two foreign policy priorities for the coming year were to advance a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to curtail the Iranian nuclear threat. We are encouraged that the administration appears as determined as ever to see these goals through, and in a way that will enhance, not endanger, Israeli security.
Peter Joseph is chairman of the Israel Policy Forum. Charles Bronfman is a member of the board of the Israel Policy Forum and chairman of its advisory council.