Israel's strategic necessity

Israel could become an ally of the Arab world through cooperative deterrence against Iran.

barak gates 248.88  (photo credit: AP)
barak gates 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Obama administration's push for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace may have a strong likelihood of succeeding because of the prevailing political and security dynamics. For an agreement to occur, however, Israel must concede the inevitable by relinquishing territories captured in the 1967 war, and the US must provide a new security umbrella. This would lead not only to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, but could seriously impede Iran's ambitions for regional hegemony using nuclear weapons. The administration's ambitious agenda came to a focus last week as special Mideast envoy George Mitchell, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Obama's Iran strategist Dennis Ross all converged in the region for high-level security meetings with Israeli officials. Subsequent visits by Mitchell to Ramallah, Cairo and Damascus are clear evidence of this administration's emphasis on a regional diplomatic push. WITH THE international spotlight on Israel, it must find a way to work harmoniously with the Obama administration if it wants to be viewed as a genuine partner in the peace process. The US remains indispensable to Israel's national security and is ultimately the last line of defense against any threat, including Iran's, so for Israel to appear flippant at this juncture is a dangerous gamble. The territorial concessions necessary to forge a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace could further cement Israel's relations with the US by upgrading strategic cooperation between the two countries. If Israel has full American backing in security and defense, it will have more flexibility to concede territory. Such a security agreement with Israel does not mean that the Obama administration has resigned itself to a nuclear Iran. Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor recently alluded to this in an interview with Army Radio, noting that "now, we don't need to deal with the assumption that Iran will attain nuclear weapons, but to prevent this." A US-Israel security agreement, and possibly a larger security umbrella that covers Arab allies as well, would likely make Iran's nuclear ambitions less compelling. This agreement, combined with potentially crippling sanctions, might provide enough deterrence for Iran to consider cooperating with the international community on its nuclear program. Moreover, since Iran never admitted to pursuing nuclear weapons, the US strategy might offer it a face-saving way out. But if diplomacy nevertheless fails and Teheran continues to refuse to settle the nuclear conflict through negotiations, Israel will still have gained from the US's full cooperation and security partnership. ISRAEL'S OTHER significant advantage would be an opening to the rest of the Arab world. The Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, dread the Iranian nuclear threat, and many would even be willing to work with Israel to mitigate their deep concerns. But they are loath to cooperate, and rightfully so, as long as Israel continues to occupy Arab land and expand the settlements, which symbolize to them an indefinite occupation. The Iranian nuclear menace has created a new power equation in the Middle East, where Israel and the Arab states share a common threat. Israel, which for decades has been seen as the enemy of the Arab world, could now become an ally against Iran. For Israel this represents not only an historic opportunity to forge a comprehensive peace, but to form a de facto united Arab-Israeli front while working closely with the US for sustained regional security. Finally, there is international public opinion, which is unified on the issue of occupation and sees Israel's intransigence as cause not only for regional instability, but as a threat to global energy resources. In case of a major conflagration between Israel and Iran, the effects on oil and gas volatility could be devastating. As for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, much of the international community, with the EU at the forefront, has become forthcoming in its opposition to Israeli policies. Recently 27 EU foreign ministers decided to put off the planned upgrading of EU-Israel relations to an "association agreement" (which would have large trade benefits) until they can see a stronger commitment from Israel to a Palestinian state. No one should expect Israel to compromise its security to please the international community. That being said, Israel has made tremendous strides in becoming a respected member of the community in terms of diplomatic and trade cooperation. But the scores of countries affected by the turmoil in the Middle East are fed up with a conflict they believe can be resolved by ending the occupation. From their perspective, linking territory to national security no longer holds the weight it used to, not only because of Israel's technological superiority, but because the Arab world has come full circle to accept Israel's existence. If Israel were to forfeit this opportunity, it will be blamed for many of the regional ills as well as the growing rift with the US. The Obama administration is investing tremendous political capital in its effort to forge a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. Moreover, for the administration to restore its moral leadership, neutralize Iran's nuclear ambitions and reach a major breakthrough in US-Middle East relations following eight years of president George W. Bush's disastrous policies, it has no alternative but to tackle the Arab-Israeli peace process head on. If these efforts require a regional security umbrella, as was suggested by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israel can come out of this not only with a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal but with stronger US security ties. This prospect offers what most Israelis yearn for - peace with security. Any government that refuses to see this will have forfeited its mandate to govern, and should give way to a new government capable of delivering peace. The writer is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.