15 May 2009

Middle East: sequencing the talks

In a good op-ed piece on Mr Netanyahu’s trip to Washington “Israeli leader flies to the US on a chill wind”, in today’s edition of The Age, Jonathan Freedland, columnist with The Guardian, expresses the conventional wisdom that progress on the Israel-Palestine issue would help the cause of “restraining Iran”.

Specifically, he says:

Netanyahu will want to talk [to President Obama] about none of [the issues to do with the Palestinians]. He would prefer the focus to be Iran and its nuclear program. Obama should heed those Israeli fears, which are real. But he should also insist that Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot wait on the Iranian question. The two things have to be pursued at the same time. Indeed, if Obama can show on-the-ground progress on the Palestinian issue, he is more likely to win broader Arab and Muslim support to the cause of restraining Iran.

This sounds reasonable, but maybe we are all getting the sequence the wrong way around. Looking to resolve the Israel-Palestine issue as a means of “restraining Iran” puts too much control over the agenda in the hands of the Israelis. The Israelis can block progress on a Palestinian settlement by imposing impossible pre-conditions (prior recognition of Israel, cessation of violence) and the talks get nowhere, as indeed has been the case since 1948.

The Iranian nuclear program continues to serve as a convenient distraction; to hear the Israelis tell it, deployment of an Iranian nuclear weapon has been just a few years off ever since they invented the “existential threat” from Iran in 1993. At that time then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was assuring the world that Iran would have a nuclear weapon by 1999. Sixteen years on, and ten years after the date forecast by Peres, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair is testifying to the Congress that Iran has not yet decided to develop a nuclear capability, and that 2010-2015 is the earliest date that Iran could produce enough enriched uranium for a single bomb.

I accept completely Freedland’s position that settlements with Iran and the Palestinians need to be pursued at the same time – the key issues in the Middle East must be seen as part of a triangular relationship between the United States, Iran and Israel. But rather than seeing a settlement of the Palestinian issues as a way of “restraining Iran”, perhaps the time is ripe to set the more ambitious objective of normalising relations with (rather than “restraining”) Iran, and using that as the backdrop to driving a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That approach would certainly capture the undivided attention of Mr Netanyahu.

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