Editor's Notes: Toward a 'grand bargain'

The world's would-be peacemakers may try to tackle Iran and Israel-Palestine simultaneously.

The world's would-be peacemakers may try to tackle Iran and Israel-Palestine simultaneously. Barack Obama's adviser Dennis Ross this week flatly denied a London Sunday Times report that the president-elect planned to base his Middle East peacemaking efforts on the Saudi-championed 2002 Arab League peace initiative. With similar derision, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, visiting Israel ahead of a subsequent rare visit to Damascus, dismissed as "nonsense" a London Times report that suggested he'd be trying to lift the Syrians off the axis-of-evil by offering them a tasty package of carrots including the Golan Heights. The predominance of such apparently speculative reports may be a case of vacuum journalism - reporters and analysts striding a few speculative steps too far in the absence of any documentable, officially confirmed evidence of real progress toward resolving this region's intractable problems. But if so, the speculation is understandable. For one thing, many of the key players - key opposing players - are loudly declaring their desire for progress. For another, the would-be international peace mediators - sometimes in public statements, and more substantively in background briefings - are indicating a new readiness to try to stitch together some kind of wide Middle East accommodation once Obama is safely installed in the Oval Office. Miliband reiterated at a short briefing for this and three other Israeli journalists this week, for instance, that he hopes Obama gets engaged in Middle East peacemaking under the Annapolis umbrella "from day one." The president-elect telephoned Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday with the promise that he'd "continue efforts to push the peace process forward in order to arrive at a two-state solution." American reporters have come away from briefings with Obama's circle to report that he does not intend to repeat his predecessor's mistake of trying to remain disengaged until our bitter realities draw him in. And then, of course, there is the unavoidable catalyst of Iran. At the panel I moderated at the United Jewish Communities' General Assembly in Jerusalem on Monday, former chief of staff Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon put Teheran at a year or two from a nuclear weapons capability, castigated the international community for its failure thus far to act concertedly to stop this, declared that Israel most certainly cannot be reconciled to nuclear mullahs, and insisted that Israel, if all else fails, does have a military option. Probably a little wary given that he knew he was going to announce his entry into politics, with the Likud, the next day, Ya'alon gave a cautious, conditional assent to Obama's declared path of tough diplomacy to persuade Iran that its interests lie in abandoning the program. But even Obama cannot be too optimistic that Iran - progressing serenely toward its goal while the diplomatic community woos, waits and wonders - is going to be talked into abandoning the nuclear prize. For a president-elect who insists he recognizes the untenable threat to the free world posed by a nuclear Iran, and who has vowed to do everything he can to stop it, the challenge will be urgent indeed. And with Israel very possibly led by a Likud government from early next spring, and Ya'alon quite conceivably serving as defense minister, the imperative to assuage Israel's concerns about Iran, and thus avoid the implementation of this ostensible military option, will be an additional incentive for president Obama. "MODERATES" IN the Arab world have long argued that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the heart of the wider Islamist conflict with the West, and that if it can be resolved, the murderous extremists will find it considerably harder to rally recruits and sympathizers. ("Immoderates" might argue the same thing, but would advocate resolution in the shape of Israel's elimination.) Many key European players firmly endorse this mind-set, despite the impassioned insistence of credible dissidents - notably disillusioned Islamic extremists themselves - that "Israel-Palestine" is a mere pretext, and that if it were finessed away, other pretexts would swiftly be co-opted and hyped to foment aggressive hostility to the free-world values that are the fundamental object of Islamist opposition. The contrary argument widely deployed by Israel, emphatically including by this newspaper, meanwhile, is that there is no prospect whatsoever of relative moderates in this region being emboldened to seek genuine reconciliation with Israel so long as the Islamists, and their Iranian state champions, seem to be holding the upper hand and facing down the hesitant West. If Iran's nuclear drive is thwarted, this argument runs, then stabilizing Iraq, marginalizing Hamas and Hizbullah, drawing Syria back into the Sunni consensus, and encouraging Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority to adopt viable positions on the core "final status" issues all look a little more possible. Should Iran go nuclear, forget it. The behind-the-scenes conversations I've had lately with various Israeli and overseas sources would suggest that Obama and the other Quartet players may try to navigate between these poles - to try to tackle the Iran and Israel-Palestine hot potatoes simultaneously, concluding that neither can be solved in isolation and that they dare not leave either behind. This would not be within the kind of firm and unrealistic timetable that President George W. Bush misguidedly set himself with his declared ambition of a "peace deal by the end of 2008" under the Annapolis framework. Rather, the aim would be to move gradually forward in both areas, each hopefully cooling potato impacting the other. Thus, for instance, substantive movement in Israeli-Palestinian talks might encourage the Saudis to believe that their Arab League initiative - promoted by the PA this week, unprecedentedly, with advertisements in this and other Israeli newspapers - is being taken seriously. The Saudis, in turn, might move more strenuously to encourage their heavyweight Chinese trading partners to ratchet up the economic pressure on Iran, and so on. If this is the moderately ambitious direction, the ideal would be to broker some type of ultra-dramatic "grand bargain": Israel and the Palestinians, improbably vindicating outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's confidence in the ultimate pragmatism and moderation of Abbas, cut a "shelf agreement" that both sides' majorities find acceptable. Israel and Syria seal a Golan-for-real-peace deal. The Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, Gulf states et al give their delighted support to such revolutionary change, and embrace a widening international economic sanctions campaign to ensure Iran can't play regional spoiler, directly or through its military and terrorist proxies. And an isolated, failing Islamic Republic either recognizes the need to suspend its nuclear program or is pushed from power by an angry, alienated Iranian public. Detailing such scenarios, of course, takes us far beyond the kind of media speculation we've seen in the last few days. Unfortunately, the events that are far more likely to unfold, given the balance of forces and interests in this region and beyond, are also far more forbidding.