Some commentators and officials are starting to link the two main items on the Obama Administration’s Middle East agenda – Israel-Palestinian peace and the Iranian nuclear threat. The argued connection being made is that Israel needs to demonstrate significant progress on the Palestinian front in order to facilitate pressure on Iran, particularly from the Arab world. It is even sometimes implied that failure to do so will somehow make a nuclear Iran Israel’s fault.
While Israeli-Palestinian peace progress is important in its own right, making this link makes no sense.
First and foremost, the Arab states themselves don’t make such a link. Yes, the Arab states are highly critical of Israel, and wish Israel would do their bidding vis-à-vis the Saudi Initiative. However, for most countries in the region, the prospect of a nuclear Iran is far more worrying, regardless of what Israel does.
Consider that in 2006, and again earlier this year, when Israel carried out major military operations against Iran’s two main proxies, the Arab states were largely silent. Indeed, there were condemnations, not of the traditionally hated Zionist Entity, but of Hezbollah and Hamas, for goading Israel into war. Today, many commentators talk about a de facto alliance between Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
This shift occurred because of Iran’s rising regional push for hegemony – and its willingness to meddle in other countries’ affairs. Media in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have become openly hostile of Iran, especially after Egypt has made numerous arrests in Sinai of Hezbollah agents – and even Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
On top of concerns about subversion come fears of a potentially more aggressive Iranian foreign policy vis-à-vis the Persian Gulf, with its daily stream of exported oil. For these reasons, most of the Persian Gulf states, plus Egypt, have been talking about pursuing “peaceful” nuclear energy alternatives.
In other words, a nuclear arms race is about to begin in the world’s most volatile region, and linking attempts to stop it to resolution of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts would be foolish indeed.
Which brings us to a second reason not to conditionally link the two issues. Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not dependent on Israel. Even if Israel were to do everything its critics (and sometimes its friends) call on it to do in order to achieve peace with the Palestinians, it is more than likely that lasting peace would not result, at least in the short term.
The Palestinians today are hopelessly divided. Gaza is in the hands of a terrorist organisation that refuses to recognise Israel. The best it can offer is that – in exchange for all Palestinian demands including an Israel-destroying right of return – it will abide by a temporary ceasefire for a number of years, before restarting the war.
There is little serious hope that Hamas’ rule over Gaza is going to disappear anytime soon, nor that Hamas will drop its official, foundational desire to destroy Israel should it enter into a national unity government with Fatah, which retains control in the West Bank. Moreover, such a unity government looks increasingly unlikely.
Further, hopes Israeli-Fatah negotiations will lead to anything more than incremental improvements are slim indeed. To realise this, one need only look at the meagre results of negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Olmert Government – which was unequivocal in its desire to reach an agreement, and, according to Palestinian sources, offered far-reaching concessions.
Fatah is still as corrupt as it was when it lost the 2006 election to Hamas. Its security control over the West Bank, which prevents Hamas from taking control there, is only possible due to a large Israeli military presence. All evidence points to the fact that if Israel should withdraw from the West Bank in the near future, Hamas control and rockets – either imported from Iran or home-made – would follow. Unlike rockets from Gaza, which are painful, rockets from the West Bank falling on Israel’s main population centres would be an existential threat. It would effectively shut down the Israeli economy.
It is primarily because of this nightmare scenario that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to avoid saying the words “two state solution” – until he knows what guarantees he will receive that Gaza will not be transplanted to the West Bank.
The complexities and difficulties are such that significant Israeli-Palestinian progress before Teheran will either build nuclear weapons or be stopped – a timeline of perhaps a year or two – is unlikely in the extreme.
In addition, Iran has a very good capacity, through the use of its proxies, to hinder any attempts at peace. Before the outbreak of mass Palestinian violence in September 2000, many of the suicide attacks that blighted Israel were timed specifically to destroy diplomatic opportunities for progress.
It’s not hard to imagine that if Teheran realises real US pressure to stop its nuclear program is dependent on Israeli-Palestinian progress, it will do everything it can to derail the latter – through Hezbollah and Hamas rockets and other forms of terrorism.
Giving Iran this trump card to end international pressure over its nuclear program is a sure fire way of seeing both more Israelis die from terrorism, and Iran gaining nuclear weapons.
Helping Israel and the Palestinians towards an eventual final status peace agreement is a positive and necessary goal. Stopping the Iranian nuclear drive is essential. However, linking these two entirely different issues actually makes both harder to achieve – especially since a nuclear Iran would actually make establishing lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians all but impossible, for the reasons noted above.