While publicly Israel has been deferential to US President Barack Obama's linkage between progress on the Palestinian track and dealing with Iran's nuclear development, privately senior officials are downright flabbergasted by the connection - pithily referred to as Yitzhar-for-Bushehr, or the settlement in Samaria in exchange for the nuclear reactor in southwestern Iran. "If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way," Obama said in his press conference last month with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "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." That has been translated in Jerusalem as the following: "You want us [the US] to deal with Iran, your existential threat, then give up on the settlements." Netanyahu gave voice to this interpretation himself last week in the Likud faction meeting when he said that certain things were more important than settlements. "We are not in regular times," the prime minister said in a closed-door meeting last week with Likud MKs, indicating that he would remove outposts in an attempt to satisfy the Obama administration at a time when he wants America to take action against Iran. "The danger is approaching, and the most dangerous thing for a live organism is to not recognize the danger on the way," he said. "My job is to ensure Israel's future, and that comes before anything else. Our relations with the US are important. We need to put our real national needs at the top of our priorities." Nevertheless, senior officials have pointed to some gaping holes in the Yitzhar-for-Bushehr logic, the first being whether it means that if Israel doesn't deal with the settlements, then it is no longer necessary for the US to deal with nuclear Iran. Or, whether if Israel doesn't deal with the settlements, then Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have as much - if not more - to fear from a nuclear Iran than Israel does, will not deem it in their own interests to stop the Iranian nuclear march. But forget those issues, for the sake of this argument they are only detours. Over the last week another issue has emerged which has given those making decisions in Jerusalem some pause. Israel has proven that it can take down settlements. Granted, doing so is traumatic, splits the country, and is heart wrenching, but if it wants to, the country - as it proved in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 - can remove settlements. But can the US deliver on Iran? Either by itself, or by getting the international community to do so? And here is where Kim Jong Il and North Korea are providing an important test case. A lot of people are watching how Obama deals with his first big test, which is shaping up - perhaps - as his own little Cuban missile crisis. The Japanese are watching, the Chinese are watching, the Russians are watching, and the South Koreans are watching extremely intently. And so is Israel. The settlements-for-Iran equation is premised on a US capable of stopping Iran. But can it? Will it? Does Obama have the ability, the gumption? Obama is asking Israel for a major downpayment on stopping Iran. But what if he can't get the world to take more stringent action, and what if he is not willing to do so himself? In that case, the downpayment could all be for naught. The way Obama deals with North Korea will give Jerusalem some indication of how he may handle Iran. It is unlikely, then, that Netanyahu would do more on the settlements than take down some of the outposts, until he is sure that in the bargain that the administration is painting - settlements-for-Iran, Peduel-for-Bushehr - the US can uphold its part of the deal. And right now in Jerusalem, America's willingness to uphold its part of various deals is being questioned, amid real concern inside the government that Obama is eroding understandings about settlement construction that flowed from George W. Bush's famous letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004, the letter that Sharon waved to the public as the compensation Israel was getting for disengagement from Gaza. And what was the payback enshrined in that letter: a closer strategic relationship with the US based on three cardinal points:
That the US will "preserve and strengthen Israel's capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats."
That the US is strongly committed to Israel's security and well-being as a Jewish state, and that a realistic, just and fair solution to the Palestinian refugee issue will have to be found "in a future Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."
That "in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion."
Subsumed under this third point were understandings, encapsulated in letters between then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Sharon's top adviser Dov Weisglass, that settlements in the major blocs would be treated differently than those outside the security barrier, and that a natural-growth freeze would not apply to these settlements.
But now US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has come along and said there can be no construction anywhere, and there are those in Jerusalem wondering whether ditching these understandings means that the Bush letter itself is no longer seen as binding by the new administration.
The Bush letter has no statutory standing, although it is rare for US presidents to just toss out understandings - executive agreements - reached with foreign countries by their predecessors. Some are wondering how Washington could expect Israel to live up to its commitments, if the US is treating understandings reached by the previous White House in a rather cavalier manner.
And that was all before North Korea detonated its second nuclear test last week. Now Pyongyang has come along and introduced a whole new factor into the equation. If Israel goes a long way toward stopping construction in the settlements to get the US to "deliver " on Iran, will the US be able to do so, or get the international community to do so. And if not, how big a downpayment should Israel give for goods it may - in the end - never receive.
Forget Yitzhar-for-Bushehr. There is now a connection between Peduel and Pyongyang.