Linking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran



JERUSALEM (JTA) — As Israel’s new government reviews its foreign policy options, Benjamin Netanyahu is coming under increasing pressure from Israel’s main ally and biggest trading partner to stay on course for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The prime minister’s refusal so far to make an explicit commitment to the two-state approach seems to have prompted both the United States and the European Union to link help toward major Israeli foreign policy goals to progress on the Palestinian track.

The United States is linking moves to stop Iran from going nuclear to serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and the European Union is linking a promised upgrade in ties with Israel to a renewed Israeli commitment to the two-state model.

“For Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-a-vis Iran, it can’t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in testimony to a U.S. House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee on April 23. “They go hand in hand.”

Clinton argues that deadlock on the Palestinian track would make it much harder for the Obama administration to mobilize an alliance of moderate Arab states against Iran’s nuclear program and, conversely, that Israel’s opening of serious talks with the Palestinians would create the right conditions for moderate Arab states to join a U.S.-led campaign.

Clinton’s view is part of what seems to be a new American modus operandi worldwide: solving international and regional problems by building large coalitions for joint action. After years of what the Obama administration views as George W. Bush’s failed unilateralism, President Obama intends to return to a more multilateralist approach.

Obama believes that a large U.S.-led Middle East coalition both could help secure U.S. preeminence in the region and provide important support for dealing with Iran. Backing by much of the Arab world would lend greater weight to U.S. peace overtures toward Iran and, even more so, to tougher sanctions or the use of force should the attempt at dialogue fail.

Just as during the first Gulf War in 1991 President George H.W. Bush urged Israel not to upset his anti-Saddam Hussein coalition by retaliating against Iraqi Scud missile attacks, Obama is urging Israel not to undermine his coalition-building efforts by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Indeed, Obama wants Israel to give his coalition-building a boost by making good-will gestures toward the Palestinians such as lifting roadblocks and removing illegal outposts in the West Bank, as well as holding serious peace talks based on the two-state model. Any preemptive Israeli action against Iran would undermine the new, more stable regional order Obama is trying to build.

The early signs are that the Obama administration views the Middle East as a set of interconnected problems it needs to address. Thus, just as progress on the Palestinian track would make Iran easier to handle, progress with Iran would facilitate peacemaking with the Palestinians by neutralizing the main potential spoiler.

Should dialogue with Iran bog down, Netanyahu might be ready for a deal under which Israel makes major moves against West Bank settlements if Obama promises to do whatever is necessary, including the use of force, to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The European Union’s use of the linkage weapon has been far less sophisticated than Washington’s. EU officials simply warn that if Israel does not embrace the two-state model, work begun in 2008 on a planned upgrade of Israel’s relations with Europe will be frozen.

During a late April visit to Jerusalem, Robert Rydberg, director general of the Foreign Ministry of Sweden, which assumes the union’s rotating presidency in July, delivered the message in no uncertain terms.

Although other European officials have been saying much the same thing for weeks, some key European players oppose the linkage ploy. After a meeting last week with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, the current EU president, declared that “the peace process cannot and should not be linked to relations between the EU and Israel.”

Netanyahu intends to complete his foreign policy review within the next few weeks before his crucial first meeting as prime minister with Obama, in Washington on May 18.

Given international pressure, Netanyahu is likely to tell Obama that he accepts the two-state model, but with two major provisos: that Israel be recognized by the Palestinians as the state of the Jewish people, and that the Palestinian state’s sovereignty be limited to ensure Israel’s basic security needs.

For Netanyahu, recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people is crucial for a number of reasons. It would enshrine in Palestinian Authority policy the Jews’ right to the Holy Land. It would remove the legal and moral basis for Palestinians to continue attacking the State of Israel. And it would put an end to Palestinian demands for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper.

But on Monday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

“A Jewish state, what is that supposed to mean?” Abbas asked in a speech in Ramallah. “You can call yourselves as you like, but I don’t accept it and I say so publicly.”

Abbas also said he will not resume peace talks until Israel enforces a complete settlement freeze and that Netanyahu must commit to the notion of a Palestinian state, not the “economic peace” the Israeli leader has been promoting.

“If you do not want the two-state solution, then what do you accept?” Abbas said.

Abbas also drew his red line on the final borders of the two states. 

“We want a state on the 1967 borders, not a centimeter more, not a centimeter less,” he said.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry responded to Abbas’ remarks in a statement released Monday evening.

“The recognition of Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people is an essential and necessary step in the historic process of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians,” the statement read. “The more the Palestinians assimilate this fundamental and substantive fact, the sooner the peace between the two nations will progress toward fruition.” 

Netanyahu is expected to put three major requests to Obama in mid-May: That the United States undertake to prevent Iran going nuclear, that it recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, and that it back the notion of limited sovereignty for the Palestinians.

At the start of the policy review in early April, Netanyahu seemed to make Palestinian recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people a condition for resuming talks. Now, however, he says there are no preconditions, but that such recognition and acceptance by the Palestinians of limited sovereignty will be imperative if future talks are to be successful.

The Americans seem ready to accept the idea of Israel as the Jewish state. Special U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell, on his most recent visit to Jerusalem in mid-April, deliberately referred to Israel as such. The Americans also traditionally have supported the idea of limited sovereignty for the Palestinian state — for example, that it would not be allowed to maintain an army, conclude treaties with foreign powers hostile to Israel or control its air and electro-magnetic space, and that its border entry points would be monitored for contraband weaponry.

Given the Obama administration’s proactive, interlinked problem-solving approach, Israel and the Palestinians soon will be under strong pressure to reengage. When they do, the degree to which Netanyahu is able to enlist American support for his vision of the Israeli-Palestinian solution will be crucial in shaping the final outcome.

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