Iran General NewsIsrael faces a hard sell in bid to shift...

Israel faces a hard sell in bid to shift policy


ImageNew York Times: The new government of Israel is seeking to reorient the country’s foreign policy, arguing that to rely purely on the formulas of trading land for peace and promising a Palestinian state fails to grasp what it views as the deeper issues: Muslim rejection of a Jewish state and the rising hegemonic appetite of Iran.

The New York Times

News Analysis

Published: May 3, 2009

ImageJERUSALEM — The new government of Israel is seeking to reorient the country’s foreign policy, arguing that to rely purely on the formulas of trading land for peace and promising a Palestinian state fails to grasp what it views as the deeper issues: Muslim rejection of a Jewish state and the rising hegemonic appetite of Iran.

Advisers to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are drafting policy suggestions aimed at forming a framework that he plans to present to President Obama at their first summit meeting, in Washington on May 18. In addition, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman left Sunday for Europe on his first official visit, and on Tuesday, President Shimon Peres is to meet with Mr. Obama in Washington.

Such an ambitious effort to reformulate the conflict will be, by all accounts, tough to sell for two reasons.

First, even though the standard approaches have not yielded success, no alternative has emerged.

Second, the Obama administration has repeatedly backed the two-state solution, as have the Europeans. In other ways, too, this White House has seemed to be closer in outlook to Europe than the past administration was.

Israel’s effort to switch the discussion to Iran is likely to be met in Washington and in European capitals with the assertion that it is precisely because of the need to build an alliance to confront Iran that Israel must move ahead vigorously with the Palestinians as well as with the Syrians.

“President Obama views the region as a whole, and trying to isolate each problem does not reflect reality,” said a senior American official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the American policy was still in formation. “It will be a lot easier to build a coalition to deal with Iran if the peace process is moving forward.”

A senior Israeli official, who also would speak only if not named because Israeli policy was being formed, said he believed that when Mr. Netanyahu met Mr. Obama, he would acknowledge that ultimately the goal was a Palestinian state. But it is expected that he would say that such a state was far in the future because Palestinian institutions and economic development required a great deal of work — as well as investment from Arab states — and that Palestinian education and public discourse needed to be more oriented toward coexistence.

Mr. Lieberman is to begin his trip in Rome, seeing Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Monday, and then travel to Paris, Prague and Berlin for similar meetings. He is one of the most controversial senior members of the Israeli government. As a candidate, he called for a loyalty oath aimed at Israeli Arabs. In addition, his public speech has been tough, sometimes brutal. And he himself lives in a West Bank settlement.

Israel’s own diplomats view his arrival as their chief with circumspection, especially because his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, was admired by her colleagues in Europe. Whenever she went to Paris, for example, she saw not only the foreign minister but also President Nicolas Sarkozy. So far, Mr. Sarkozy has not agreed to see Mr. Lieberman this week.

“I tell people who worry about Lieberman that I worry too,” a senior Israeli diplomat said, requesting anonymity to speak freely of his boss. “But after I stop worrying I tell myself, you have to be fair, you have to give this guy a chance to express himself as the foreign minister of Israel, not just as a candidate.”

Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that Mr. Lieberman had been scheduled to meet with all 27 European Union foreign ministers this month at a summit meeting, but that Mr. Lieberman had asked for a delay so the government could come up with its policy guidelines. The European Union agreed.

It seems likely that the plan that Mr. Netanyahu will present to Mr. Obama will have a strong regional component in an attempt to fend off pressure on Israel to accept the Arab League peace plan, which calls on Israel to return to the 1967 borders as well as to accept a right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel. The new Israeli government completely rejects both.

Mr. Lieberman is one of the strongest advocates for rethinking Israel’s approach and rejecting what he views as failed past formulas. He wants tough sanctions against Iran as the first step. He told The Jerusalem Post in an interview published last week that the aim of the policy review was to make progress on Palestinian economic and political developments and “to take the initiative” in the region.

“People try to simplify the situation with these formulas: land for peace, two-state solution,” Mr. Lieberman told the newspaper. “It’s a lot more complicated.” He added that the real reason for the deadlock “is not occupation, not settlements and not settlers.” Nor, he said, is it the Palestinians. The biggest obstacle, he said, is “the Iranians.”

He, like the entire Israeli leadership, argues that since Iran sponsors Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, both of which reject Israel’s existence and seek its destruction, the key to the Palestinian solution is to defang Iran and stop it from acquiring the means to build a nuclear weapon.

Increasingly, the Arab world — especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — seems worried about Iran as well. American officials who have recently visited those countries said that their leaders spoke about Iran in ways that were almost identical to what they heard from officials in Jerusalem. Therefore, the opportunity for a regional alliance against Iranian influence is great.

But, they say, for Arab leaders to work alongside Israel on this, even quietly, requires demonstrable Israeli movement on ending its occupation of the West Bank by freezing or reducing settlements and handing over more power to the Palestinians.

Israel dislikes that formulation, arguing that the two issues need to be addressed separately. If they are linked, it is in the opposite way from what the West says. In other words, Israel says the occupation can be ended most easily once Iran is put in its place because then there will be much less risk of Iranian weapons being used against Israel from neighboring territory. Meanwhile, Israel says it cannot be expected to freeze settlement growth entirely.

The American, European and Arab response is that for Iran to be checked, every nation needs to do its part, and Israel’s part is to work toward ending the occupation, stopping settlement construction and fostering the creation of a Palestinian state.

When a senior American official was told that the Israelis did not view the Iranian and Palestinian problems as linked, he replied simply, “Well, we do.”

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