Bloomberg: President Barack Obama is counting on Iran to accomplish what six decades of diplomacy haven’t: forge a regional Mideast peace that includes a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It isn’t Iranian diplomacy the U.S. president is banking on; it’s the widespread unease over Iran’s nuclear program and its support of militant Islamic movements.
By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan and Jonathan Ferziger
May 18 (Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama is counting on Iran to accomplish what six decades of diplomacy haven’t: forge a regional Mideast peace that includes a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It isn’t Iranian diplomacy the U.S. president is banking on; it’s the widespread unease over Iran’s nuclear program and its support of militant Islamic movements, which U.S. officials say may motivate Israel and the Arabs to finally overcome their antipathy in the face of what both perceive to be a long-term threat.
A regional peace would benefit all sides and “allow the U.S. to tackle other problems like the Iranian issue,” says Hussein Hassouna, ambassador in Washington for the 22-nation Arab League. “We support this, and we want to work with the administration.”
Obama’s strategy faces its first reality check today when he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is dubious about the Palestinian statehood that would be at the heart of any regional settlement.
There are plenty of skeptics about the U.S. approach. “It’s almost inconceivable to me that they can get to a comprehensive peace,” says Aaron David Miller, who advised six U.S. secretaries of state on Middle East issues between 1985 and 2003. “An Israeli-Palestinian agreement and an Israeli-Syrian agreement in a matter of years is simply an illusion.”
Moreover, trying to solve everything at a time when the Palestinian leadership is split and the chasm between Israelis and Arabs has widened following the Gaza Strip war “may put the Palestinian political system through a test that it is likely to fail,” says Gidi Greenstein, an adviser to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the 2000 Camp David talks with Yasser Arafat.
Still, says Shlomo Ben-Ami, who led negotiations with the Palestinians when he was Israeli foreign minister during those same talks, “it may be our last resort for a two-state solution, and that might be a major incentive for the Israelis and Palestinians to make the necessary concessions.”
Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration marked the start of a flurry of diplomatic activity. U.S. special envoy George Mitchell has already made three trips to the region, during which he met 13 Arab leaders.
In addition to Netanyahu’s visit today, King Abdullah II of Jordan visited the White House last month, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrive next week. Netanyahu went to Egypt and Jordan last week to consult with the only Arab countries that have made peace with Israel.
Israel and the U.S. suspect Iran’s nuclear program is intended to produce a bomb; Iran says it is for electricity generation. In addition, Iran backs the Shiite Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, where it has used military strength to further its political aims, as well as the Islamic Hamas movement in Gaza, which routed the more moderate Fatah forces of Abbas in 2007.
Iran has also been accused of training insurgents who have operated in Iraq against Iraqis and U.S. forces.
Netanyahu says the Iranian nuclear program must be neutralized before a peace agreement can be reached. The Obama administration, and its Arab allies, see it the other way around: Fear of Iran could jumpstart moribund peace efforts.
“We will not tolerate the interventions of regional forces that are opposed to peace and that are pushing this region to the edge only to serve their agenda and to expand their influence,” Mubarak, 81, said in an April 29 speech. The Egyptian state-run Al-Ahram Weekly said it was an oblique reference to Iran.
And Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told an Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on March 3 that Arab countries needed to work together in the face of the “Iranian challenge” to the Gulf’s security.
Obama’s advisers — aware that Palestinians can’t make concessions on such sticky issues as the return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem without the backing of Arab countries — say it’s critical everyone be involved from the start.
“The Arab states should act now, not later,” Vice President Joe Biden told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington on May 5. “Now is the time for Arab states to make meaningful gestures to show the Israeli leadership and the people that the promise of ending Israel’s isolation in the region is real and genuine.”
The new president’s belief that he can pull off a diplomatic coup that eluded his predecessors has drawn skepticism from those who say ground conditions are the worst in years. Hamas is firmly in control of the Gaza Strip, and the Netanyahu government is composed largely of parties that oppose major territorial concessions.
Obama, 47, has praised “constructive elements” in the 2002 Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for Israel to return to 1967 borders in exchange for full relations with the Arab world.
Zalman Shoval, a Netanyahu adviser and former ambassador to the U.S., says Israel could consider the 2002 Arab plan as a starting point for negotiations “as long as it’s presented not as an ultimatum.”
Israel and the Palestinians differ over resettling millions of Palestinian refugees, sharing the city of Jerusalem and the region’s shrinking water resources, and resolving disputes over Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Forging a compromise will require the U.S. to extract concessions from both sides. The Obama administration has already signaled it is prepared to tangle with Netanyahu over settlements, and the prime minister “is susceptible to pressure if it’s applied strongly and directly,” says Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, a New York-based advocacy group that supports a two-state solution.
Still, Netanyahu, 59, has said swift moves toward Palestinian statehood are premature and that Israel needs assurances that its security won’t be compromised. In his March 31 inaugural speech, he spoke only of Palestinian self-rule, not sovereignty.
As for Abbas, 74, a regional peace process would give him backing from other Arab countries when negotiations snag with Israel. The Palestinian Authority has supported a regional peace plan since 2002, and took out full-page advertisements in Israeli newspapers last year for the regional plan.
“We are basically talking about lining up the Palestinian and Syrian-Lebanese tracks because they are the core of the conflict,” says Ziad Abu Amr, a former Palestinian Authority foreign minister and longtime negotiator with Israel. “If you can put them together, you guarantee that no party will try to sabotage the other and you can count on comprehensive Arab support across the region.”
The Arab League believes “Israel’s willingness to re-enter into discussions with the Palestinian Authority strengthens them” and weakens Iran’s influence, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a congressional panel last month. The U.S. must “get everybody together in one place” to make that happen.
No doubt more than once.
“Something always turns up in the Mideast that’s unexpected, and it’s usually bad,” says Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a Middle East negotiator under President Bill Clinton. “The president has leadership, but he can’t do it on his own.”