Three key interrelated efforts are underway on Iran, Syria and Israeli-Palestinian peace.
At the outset of this new year, I’m reminded of the line from “All About Eve,” the classic 1950 film about ambition and betrayal on Broadway: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
This year portends to be a momentous one for Israel, hinging on its all-important relationship with the U.S. It could bring real progress on the road to peace or lead to at least one and possibly more dangerous military confrontations between Israel and its adversaries.
By April, the deadline will be approaching for two major diplomatic initiatives driven by the White House. They are the Israel-Palestinian peace talks and the nuclear agreement being negotiated between Iran and the six major Western countries. And talks are scheduled to begin later this month on resolving Syria’s civil war, almost in its third year of unspeakable tragedy.
Technically, these three key efforts are separate, but in fact they are interrelated, and the stakes could not be higher for Jerusalem.
I’m all for diplomatic efforts to end ongoing or potential military conflicts. But if the time and circumstances are not right, the results can be disastrous. And when it comes to Syria, where the death toll continues to rise well over the 100,000 mark, if talks are held without a prior agreement between Washington and Moscow that Syrian President Bashir Assad must go, they will not only fail, but strengthen Iran and its surrogate terror group, Hezbollah, next door in Lebanon.
Wisely, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to avoid exacerbating the volatile situation with Syria, to the north. But his seeming passivity on the talks with the Palestinian Authority gives the impression that his goal is to have them fail, with the PA to blame. Is that what he wants?
There’s no question about the Israeli leader’s goal on the Iran talks. He has been vocal and aggressive in calling them bad for the West and bad for Israel and the region because they would ease the crippling economic sanctions while allowing Tehran to pause, rather than begin to dismantle, its nuclear program.
Whether or not one agrees with Netanyahu, his approach on the Palestinians and Iran does not bode well for the upcoming crunch time, as he faces a determined John Kerry. The U.S. secretary of state, whether driven at this point by ego or a firm belief that his diplomatic initiatives can bring peace to the Mideast, or both, sees Netanyahu as an obstacle rather than a helpful ally. Kerry has expressed exasperation with Israel’s positions on both the Palestinian and Iran fronts.
That’s deeply unfair of him, given that Netanyahu calls for a two-state solution with the Palestinians and a peaceful resolution to the Iran crisis. All while the PA refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and Tehran continues to demonize Jerusalem and proclaim its right to continue its nuclear program, clearly bent on achieving weapon capability (though it won’t admit it), with Israel in its sights.
Still, Netanyahu would do well to shift his approach from appearing stubbornly opposed to change. Instead, he needs to articulate a positive position on both fronts, not just for diplomatic purposes but also for Israeli security.
When it comes to dealing with the Palestinians, the on-again, off-again, you-go-first dance that began with Oslo is more than 20 years old and isn’t working. Israel releases terrorist prisoners to show its willingness to advance peace talks, and at the same time announces settlement growth to stave off criticism from its political and religious right. That may work in keeping a coalition together, but Israelis have a right to know what the ultimate plan is for the future.
Even thought leaders on the right are calling for a coherent plan on the settlements. In his Jerusalem Post column last week, Isi Leibler noted that “the prime minister’s inconsistencies [on settlements] have been a major contributing factor toward alienating our allies” in addition to heightening internal divisiveness and allowing “our adversaries to depict us as duplicitous.”
Leibler sensibly calls for Netanyahu to hammer out a plan with his coalition to allow for growth in areas of the West Bank that clearly will be part of Israel in a future deal and cease construction elsewhere. Then the prime minister should let Kerry, and the world, know about it up front.
Every move is a gamble in this game, but having a clear policy on settlements would be a boost for Israelis, who deserve to know what they’re fighting for, and no doubt would win greater support for the government.
In truth, though, the Israel-Palestinian dilemma pales in comparison to dealing with Iran and the U.S. over the nuclear issue. The gap between Israel and America on this is real. While each insists its goal is the same, the U.S. is determined to prevent Iran from having a nuclear bomb; Israel insists that Iran not have the capability of producing one. Big difference. And the present deal appears to permit the world’s leader in terror to create a nuclear warhead on short notice.
Does Israel remain silent in the face of an existential threat so as to avoid alienating its most precious ally? It’s an impossible situation. For now Netanyahu and the organized Jewish community have gambled on an end-around the White House, supporting congressional legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if six months pass without a final-status agreement. The administration has put strong pressure on the Jewish groups to back off, insisting that the bill would kill the talks. The implicit but strong suggestion is that Jewish opposition would be blamed for the failure, which could lead to a military confrontation with Iran. (A headline on the Huffington Post website Dec. 19 deeply upset Jewish leaders, with good reason. It read: “Saboteur Sen. Launching War Push,” and referred to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is a sponsor of the controversial resolution.)
The Jewish groups assert that the Senate action is bipartisan, reflecting a widely held belief that the legislation would enhance the possibility of a peaceful resolution by putting additional pressure on Iran.
The White House says it would veto the Senate bill, if passed. What then? In the meantime Netanyahu should focus less on calling attention to Israel’s fears about a nuclear Iran and more on making clear that the proposed legislation in Washington is motivated by U.S. political leaders from both parties committed to protecting and strengthening America and the West, not just Jerusalem. But tensions in both capitals are high, along with the risks, and there are too many indications that 2014 indeed will be a bumpy year. So hold on.
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