With US and Iran holding indirect talks on returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, we offer a view from the region derived from our military, intelligence and diplomatic backgrounds.
We are concerned about the threat Tehran poses to our region, but we view these talks as a positive step.
Former US president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, formally known at the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – a move that was encouraged and cheered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – has led to a dangerous situation. Iran is now much closer to a nuclear bomb than it was before Trump pulled out. As the outgoing deputy director of the Mossad declared in a March 5 interview: “Our situation today is worse than it was at the time of the  nuclear deal.”
In our view, the best way available for US President Joe Biden’s administration to attain the objective National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan articulated – “to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and to do so through diplomacy” – and to restore America’s standing in the Middle East is to connect the Iran issue and the Palestinian question and integrate both into a multilateral, three-tiered Middle East policy: returning to the Iran deal, initiating an Israeli-Palestinian process and creating a regional coalition.
To be sure, many obstacles stand in the way of this policy’s success. The key is to construct a framework that meets the interests of the parties involved and corrects the nuclear deal’s biggest flaw. It ignored two Iran threats: development of conventional missiles with extended range, improved precision, and ability to carry a nuclear warhead; and Tehran’s support of terrorist groups to undermine regional stability – Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Houthis in Yemen and Syria.
First, returning to the nuclear deal must involve lifting the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, but conditioned on Iran’s immediate and complete cessation of its violations of the agreement, return of full inspection and tightening of procedures for procuring military equipment also suitable for use in the nuclear program.
Second, the Biden administration should initiate a gradual Israeli-Palestinian political process aimed at attaining a “two states for two peoples” agreement, in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions and an up-to-date Arab Peace Initiative. Having been personally involved in this effort for decades, we understand the impediments all too well.
We think they can be overcome.
US State Department statements “reaffirming the US commitment” to “a negotiated two-state solution” show the Americans would be on board. The statement from the four Middle East mediators, the US, Russia, EU and UN – known as the Quartet – calling for a return “to meaningful negotiations that will lead to a two-state solution” indicates the international community would also be. And the Palestinians’ letter to Biden committing to a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders signify they would, too.
But would the Israelis?
We recognize that Netanyahu opposes a two-state outcome. But his precarious political situation notwithstanding, previous staunchly right-wing prime ministers undertook less likely actions that surprised most pundits. Menachem Begin pulled Israel out of the Sinai Peninsula to sign a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. Yitzhak Shamir attended the international Madrid Conference in 1991, which included Palestinians. Ariel Sharon pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Even Netanyahu has agreed, in the Abraham Accords, to waive unilateral annexation of the West Bank in exchange for normalization agreements with Arab states.
Thus, Israel engaging with the Palestinians should not be discounted no matter who its prime minister is, especially when the US maintains leverage.
And third, Washington should create a regional coalition comprising Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states. Led by the US, this partnership should also include key members of the EU and, most importantly, Israel. All parties to such a coalition have a common objective: to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, continuing its missile project and perpetrating terrorism.
The US-brokered Abraham Accords demonstrate that such a coalition is attainable. But genuine progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a prerequisite for leading Arab states accepting Israel’s participation. Indeed, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said earlier in April that any Israel deal with Saudi Arabia was “very much dependent on progress with the peace process.” Consequently, initiating an Israeli-Palestinian process and establishing a regional coalition must be done in tandem.
With this process and coalition under way, the Biden administration would be able to introduce the “sticks” that were missing when former US president Barack Obama’s administration formed the nuclear deal and to address its basic flaw. Thus, the US could convey a credible military option without dispatching troops, by, for example: intervening in regional conflicts through provision of weapons directly or through proxy organizations; deploying intelligence monitoring of Iranian-inspired terrorism and Iranian nuclear actions; or expanding the coalition’ activities to include joint military exercises to address the scenario of Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement.
THIS PROPOSED policy would bring other benefits: Dispel the notion that America is abandoning regional countries’ interests to reach an agreement with Iran; enhance Israel’s acceptance in the region; foster progress on the Palestinian question; and negate the exploitation of the Palestinian issue by Iran.
For Iran, this policy would lift the US-led sanctions and reinstate other gains it realized through the 2015 JCPOA.
In Israel, perhaps the greatest obstacle to our proposed framework, even our current leaders who fervently oppose a two-state solution will agree to engage with the Palestinians if that enables them to counter the Iranian threat, with normalization with Saudi Arabia as added benefit.
And for the US, this approach addresses two important Middle East challenges – Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – while enabling America to regain its role as a global leader for peace and security.
We realize that constructing this framework is a difficult undertaking, replete with potential pitfalls, and success far from certain. Nevertheless, if only because it would advance the interests of the parties involved, a policy integrating Iran talks, an Israeli-Palestinian process and a regional coalition is the most achievable course of action available for reaching the primary common goal: preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
Ami Ayalon is former director of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and commander of the Israel Navy.
Gilead Sher, former chief of staff for prime minister Ehud Barak and senior Israeli peace negotiator, heads the Institute for National Security Studies’ Center for Applied Negotiations.
Orni Petruschka is a hi-tech entrepreneur.
The writers are cofounders of the NGO Blue White Future.