Don't forget the core problem

We must keep our eye on the ball. The ball is confronting and defeating the Iranian-led jihadi axis.

olmert abbas close 298.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert abbas close 298.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly told a visiting US Congressional delegation this week that he has been discussing the broad parameters of "core issues" with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Presumably, the two leaders are trying to agree on a set of principles for a permanent peace accord that would be endorsed by the regional conference in the US in November called by President George W. Bush. There is strong whiff of unreality to all this. Olmert has the sword of Winograd hanging over him; the panel's final report will likely call his judgment into even even greater question than the scathing interim version. Abbas is widely considered ineffectual even in the West Bank and is now, despite being ignominiously ousted by Hamas in Gaza, talking of a "return to national unity" with those openly sworn to Israel's destruction. As if this were not enough, the wider context is also not conducive to peace. It should be remembered that the last agreement-producing spate of peacemaking was from 1991 to 1993, when the Madrid Conference was held and the Oslo principles were signed. The timing was not a coincidence - immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ousting of Saddam Hussein from Iraq, which also left Yasser Arafat's PLO in a particularly weakened state. If peace is more obtainable when the forces favoring it have the upper hand, now is anything but a particularly propitious time. After Western advances in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Lebanon, the past two years have seen setbacks in Iraq and Lebanon, the Hamas takeover in Gaza, and the Iranian nuclear program moving ever closer to the point of no return, with no effective Western response in sight. Just as, before the 2003 war in Iraq, Europe worked to block the nonmilitary measures that might have avoided a resort to force, the E-3 (UK, France and Germany) are again refusing to sever their commercial and diplomatic ties to Iran, which again is leaving the choice between capitulation and the military option. The US implicitly admits that all this does not add up to a context conducive to peacemaking when it couches the creation of an Arab-Israeli "political horizon" as leverage to isolate Iran's jihadi axis, rather than as a chance to capitalize on Islamist defeats. The last time the US and Israel attempted a major peacemaking play from such a position of weakness was the Camp David summit in 2000. The failure there - caused by Arafat and suffered politically by then-prime minister Ehud Barak, who had already lost much of his cabinet and Knesset majority, and by then-lame duck Bill Clinton - was not cost free. And this was before 9/11, before the bogging down of the US in Iraq, and before Iran's nuclear challenge had advanced to a critical stage. None of this means that diplomacy should have no role at this moment. On the contrary, if the Arab states were to take major steps toward normalizing relations with Israel, whether or not in the context of a new "political horizon," that could help weaken the forces of radicalism and lay the groundwork for effectively confronting Iran. But the risks and context of peacemaking, at this moment, with these players, must not be ignored or forgotten. We must keep our eye on the ball. The ball is confronting and defeating the Iranian-led jihadi axis. Without that, anything agreed between Olmert and Abbas is sure to fall apart, and the prospects for real peace will recede further into oblivion. A peace process that is treated as an end in itself, rather than as a part of a comprehensive strategy to defeat the sources of Islamist radicalism in the region, could actually serve Iranian ends by distracting the West and giving the mullahs more time to advance their nuclear program. The same goes for arms transfers to American quasi-allies in the Gulf. Such measures dance around the periphery of the problem, and will not of themselves be sufficient to address its core. By some combination of economic, diplomatic, military and internal pressures, Iran must be forced to back down. Olmert may be discussing "core issues" in the Palestinian context, but without serious pursuit of this core agenda, no initialed principles will have a chance of becoming reality.