Iran, peace process converge in U.S.-Israel talks

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, left, with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak before their meeting in Tel Aviv on July 26, 2009, is emphasizing Syria as part of a regional peace package. (U.S. Department of State)

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, left, with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak before their meeting in Tel Aviv on July 26, 2009, is emphasizing Syria as part of a regional peace package. (U.S. Department of State)

NEWS ANALYSIS

WASHINGTON (JTA) — It’s hard to claim that U.S.-Israel talks on the Iran and Palestinian issues are not linked when their major players are jostling each other at the airport.

Four senior U.S. officials — James Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser; Dennis Ross, Jones’ point man on Iran; Robert Gates, the defense secretary; and George Mitchell, the top Middle East negotiator — are in Israel this week meeting with their Israeli counterparts:

Jones, Ross and Gates ostensibly are discussing Iran, and Mitchell is focusing on Israel and the Palestinians, but the issues have a habit of bleeding into one another.

Obama has told Israeli and U.S. Jewish organizational officials that there is no formal link between advancing Palestinian-Israeli talks and containing Iran’s suspected nuclear threat. However, he has said there is a causal relationship, and that success in one arena spurs progress in the other.

Mitchell is emphasizing Syria as part of the peace package; drawing Syria into the western sphere of influence would weaken Iran’s influence. Israeli officials want to make it clear that they need to see results on Iran if they are to take risks on the peace front.

In a private call last week with U.S. Jewish organizational leaders organized through the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a suggestion from James Tisch, a former Presidents Conference chairman, that Obama was making cooperation on Iran contingent on Israeli peace concessions.

Netanyahu said there was no pressure, and that he agreed with Obama that the processes were mutually reinforcing: Containing Iran would give Arab nations the confidence to rally around peace moves, and improving life for Palestinians would remove an arrow from the Iranian propaganda quiver.

It was clear after the meeting Monday between Gates and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the sides see the two issues as interrelated, if not linked.

"The Iranian nuclear program is a central issue in our minds," Barak said. "We also discussed the prospects of a regional peace in the Middle East."

Gates reiterated U.S. assurances that engagement with Iran was not "open-ended," an assurance delivered in recent weeks by Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It was not enough for Barak, who made it clear that the success of Obama’s hopes for regional peace are wrapped up with Iran containment.

"We do welcome a concrete, effective and time-framed international plan, under the leadership of the U.S., to block the Iranian nuclear program," Barak said. "We have worries that the continuing of the Iranian program could destabilize the whole region, which will threaten the stability and peace in our region and beyond."

Pressed by reporters, Barak betrayed impatience.

"If there is an engagement, we believe it should be short in time, well defined in objectives, followed by sanctions that won’t take too much time to clarify whether Iran is trying to deceive the whole world or is sincerely ready to cooperate," he said. "We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table."

Meanwhile, Mitchell did not explicitly make Iran part of his pitch for pulling in Syria, but he made it clear that the goal was to draw Syria into the West’s sphere.

"We will welcome the full cooperation of the government of the Syrian Arab Republic in this historic endeavor," Mitchell said Sunday in Israel after having flown in from Damascus.

Syria would deprive Iran of its most powerful Arab ally and cut its principal route for supplying the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon.

U.S. and Israeli officials tamped down talk of differences. The Obama administration has been pressing Israel to freeze settlement building, and Netanyahu has resisted. Mitchell described the talks as "discussions among friends."

It appeared that one emphasis in the coming talks would be on improving the Palestinian economy. On July 24, Clinton hosted a videolink news conference with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister — Clinton in Washington, Fayyad in Ramallah — to announce the transfer of $200 million directly to the Palestinian Authority.

"It is our hope that the support of the United States and other nations will help foster conditions in which a Palestinian state can be fully realized, a state that is a responsible partner, is at peace with Israel and its Arab neighbors, accountable to its people, a state that Palestinians everywhere can be proud of and that will be respected worldwide," Clinton said.

Israeli officials also stressed economic assistance as an incentive.

"The government of Israel has taken a series of measures to relieve and promote the Palestinian economy," Israeli President Shimon Peres said Monday after meeting with Mitchell. "Within the framework of those measures, 25 checkpoints have been removed in the West Bank, and free passage of goods and persons throughout the West Bank has been made possible."

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