Washington watch: The new linkage

Many in the Jewish community and in the Congress share the Netanyahu’s skepticism, but few if any want to scuttle the negotiations.

Rouhani laughing 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Keith Bedford )
Rouhani laughing 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Keith Bedford )
Three years ago next week, a young Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, unable to find a job and fed up with corrupt officials who wouldn’t even let him sell his produce on the streets of his town, doused himself with gasoline and set himself ablaze.
By the time he died of his burns in mid-January he had ignited a popular uprising that still engulfs the Arab world, even if the hope he sparked has largely been extinguished by new tyrants.
Another casualty of his self-immolation was the gospel of linkage that said the source of instability in the Middle East is the Arab-Israeli conflict; solve that and there can be a new dawning of peace. Those who preach that oldtime gospel say that at the heart of the problem are Israeli settlements. Make them go away and the problems will follow.
But the evidence says something very different. Over these three chaotic years, the Arab Spring has become a nightmare. Just look at Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and, especially, Syria, where more than 100,000 have been killed and over two million have become refugees.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said, “None of these is rooted in our dispute with the Palestinians.”
And he’s right.
But if the old theory of linkage has been debunked, there is a new one, and its primary purveyor is Netanyahu himself. “Our best efforts to reach Palestinian-Israeli peace will come to nothing if Iran succeeds in building atomic bombs,” he told the Saban Forum in Washington Sunday by satellite hookup. The new linkage was embraced by the Obama administration, denials notwithstanding, but from a different direction. While Netanyahu says peace is not possible so long as the Iranian nuclear threat exists, Washington is saying the two are linked in a symbiotic relationship.
Many here and in Israel see Netanyahu’s linkage as an excuse to stall a peace process he shows little enthusiasm for, notwithstanding weak-sounding assurances aimed at Washington. He talks the talk because he sees it as necessary to keep the Americans committed on the Iranian track, but he’s not ready to walk the walk.
The American message, more subtle than Netanyahu’s, is that if you want us to do all the heavy lifting on the Iran front and keep our European partners committed, you have to take the peace talks more seriously.
Barack Obama and John Kerry addressed the Saban group on “US-Israel Relations in a Dynamic Middle East” a day earlier. Both stressed that the two issues are, in Kerry’s words, “at the heart of Israel’s security” and American involvement demonstrates “our commitment to Israel’s security is paramount.”
Kerry coupled the Iranian nuclear threat with “the demographic time bomb” of a growing Palestinian population.
Both, he said, pose existential threats to Israel.
It will be “impossible for Israel to preserve its future as a democratic, Jewish state without resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict in a two-state solution.”
Diplomacy backed by the threat of credible military force can prevent the menace of nuclear weapons in Iran, and “diplomacy can solve the existential, demographic threat to Israel’s future as both a Jewish and a democratic state.... Force cannot defeat or defuse the demographic time bomb.”
The American message to Netanyahu is he does not suffer from a surfeit of friends, and progress toward peace is essential to convince the other big powers to back the sanctions and hold firm in the negotiations, which resume this week in Vienna.
Israel insists a nuclear Iran is a global problem and it is, but Netanyahu has – probably more for domestic political reasons than strategic reasons – ramped up the rhetoric and picked a fight with Washington over the Iran talks in ways that have undercut that argument and undercut US efforts to build a broad international coalition.
Many foreign leaders don’t trust him because they believe he is being obstinate at the peace table and not making a serious effort; as evidence they – not unreasonably – point to his policy of extensive settlement construction. “If we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimization of Israel that’s been taking place on an international basis,” Kerry warned. “[I]f we cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to non-violence, you may wind up with leadership that is committed to violence.”
Obama came down strongly on Israel’s side on the issue of security, echoing Netanyahu’s words that “Israel must be able to defend itself by itself.” Washington appears to have endorsed Israel’s insistence on the need for a long-term security presence in the Jordan Valley, something rejected by the Palestinians, and the president has warned the Palestinians that any likely peace agreement with Israel will be implemented in stages over an extended period, not on Day One.
The administration believes there is real change taking place in Iran, that the sanctions have done much damage to the economy and the Rouhani government is seeking relief. Washington and the big powers believe they should test Iran’s intentions through diplomacy.
That view is shared by many top Israeli intelligence officials – the source of a growing seismic fault in his own government.
Netanyahu insists the new Iranian leader is just “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and if that country is hurting so much it is time to tighten the screws in expectation of forcing it to collapse. Many in the Jewish community and in the Congress share the Netanyahu’s skepticism, but few if any want to scuttle the negotiations.
Kerry returns this week to Jerusalem and Ramallah to prod the apparently unproductive negotiations amid unconfirmed reports that, possibly as early as next month, he will try to break the stalemate with an American bringing a bridging proposal for dealing with the major issues, including borders, refugees and Jerusalem.
Linkage is dead; long live linkage in both the Israeli and American capitals.