Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Making a smart connection

A bridging formula is possible.

awadi 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
awadi 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
A message coming from the Obama administration in the past few weeks is that dealing effectively with Iran's nuclear ambitions is contingent on Israel being more forthcoming with regard to peace talks with the Palestinians. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has explained the connection: For Israel to get the kind of strong support it wants vis-à-vis Iran from Arab states, they must see movement as far as its willingness to reenter discussions on the Palestinian question, and visible efforts to achieve Palestinian statehood. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu advocates a reverse sequencing for any linkage between these two challenges. If there is a connection between them, Netanyahu has asserted that movement on the Palestinian issue is contingent on results in curbing Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions. Can this gap be bridged? The emerging US linkage is not only misguided, but potentially dangerous for the entire region. First of all, the key to successful negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is obviously not simply a function of change in Israel's approach. The failure of 15 years of previous efforts to reach a settlement underscores that there are no easy solutions that are just waiting to be embraced by the two sides. Indeed, a major constraint today is inter-Palestinian conflict; if serious discussions were to begin with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, with Iran's backing, would most likely take action to disrupt them. SECONDLY, MOST of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf as well as Egypt have demonstrated of late that their concern with Iran's hegemonic impulses has reached new and unprecedented heights, and that Iran is today much higher on their immediate agenda than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of the urgency of the emerging Iranian nuclear threat, they, like Israel, do not have time to wait for success in the Palestinian sphere. The common interest between Israel and these Arab states on Iran is real, and will not disappear if there is not movement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. If the Obama administration continues to adhere to the logic of this contingency, it could be handing success to Iran on a silver platter. This is because it would mean that lack of visible progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amounts to the inability of the US to confront Iran in a determined fashion, and Iran will slowly progress toward its goal in the nuclear realm. This is clearly a lose-lose proposition for all. And of course the blame for failure - in a negotiation that Clinton herself is on record as saying that in any case has little chance of success - will then be placed squarely on Israel's shoulders. The US must recognize that the number one threat to stability in the Middle East and to the security of many states in the region, as well as a contributing threat to the success of Israeli-Palestinian talks themselves due to its ability to disrupt them, is Iran. As such, curtailing its nuclear and regional ambitions is the major issue that must be resolved in the first place. And in this regard, Netanyahu's equation that says Iran first, and then the Palestinians, rests on solid ground as far as its basic strategic logic. The problem is that the Obama administration has taken Netanyahu's words to mean that while he wants to see progress on the Iranian issue, with regard to the Palestinians, well, we'll see. This is why Netanyahu's logical stance needs to be backed up by a much stronger sense of commitment to his version of the sequence. A BRIDGING FORMULA is possible. Two essential components are necessary, one short term and one long term. For the long term, Netanyahu must seriously commit himself to the following: If the US is successful in containing Iran's nuclear activities and cutting its military ties with Hamas and Hizbullah, Israel will be willing to enter negotiations with the PA on the basis of past understandings and agreements approved by previous governments. In the short term, it should take concrete steps in the coming months to freeze further settlements in the West Bank and remove illegal outposts, to dismantle roadblocks not necessary for security and to reduce activities in certain cities and give the PA more responsibility in the security realm. If Netanyahu adopted this stance, there is reason to believe that it would satisfy the US administration. From Clinton's portrayal, the goal is not to conclude peace with the Palestinians, but to indicate that Israel is seriously moving in that direction. Thus, some initial steps, backed up by a commitment to come back to this discussion once negotiations with Iran have produced results, are likely to be sufficient. Most importantly, the US would have no excuse not to move ahead with determination in confronting Iran. Oded Eran is the director of the Institute for National Security Studies and Emily B. Landau is a senior research associate at the institute.