TEL AVIV – The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, stymied by irreconcilable differences between the parties, has always depended on the strategic regional context. It was born, after all, in the wake of the first Gulf War, and was facilitated by the regional consequences of the Cold War’s end. These days, the process is shaped by two major regional dynamics, the so-called Arab Spring and the Iran nuclear deal.
The Iran deal has turned into one of the most serious crises of trust ever in the United States’ relations with its Middle East allies. Though they have no alternative, both Israel and the Arab states will find it difficult to trust future US commitments to their security. To Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama betrayed Israel when he sacrificed Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, and paved the way for the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power. Now he has wielded the knife a second time by reaching a deal with Iran, supposedly behind Netanyahu’s back.
Israel’s conventional strategic wisdom was based on an equation of “Bushehr versus Yitzhar” – that is, a readiness to dismantle West Bank settlements if the Iranian centrifuges in Bushehr were dismantled. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, this is not taking place.
Nor do the Arab revolutions counsel Israel’s strategic planners to take security risks. Israel, they would say, is now surrounded by imploding, failing states/regions (Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula), as well as by a strategically vital buffer state, Jordan, whose long-term survival cannot be taken for granted. The anarchy along Israel’s borders is becoming a breeding ground for Sunni extremists for whom the Jewish state is the ultimate enemy. To create a Palestinian state when existing Arab states are crumbling – and with a part of Palestine controlled by Hamas – does not seem like a brilliant idea.
Netanyahu is a conservative in revolutionary times. Unimpressed with what others saw as the beginning of an era of democracy in the Arab world, he preferred not to budge on any front, including Palestine. Now he is faced with a strategic nightmare come true: Iran’s possible integration into the international community without having to dismantle its nuclear-weapons potential.
In this context, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative has become trapped in a paralyzing power game. Should the process fail, Kerry warns, the US will not be able to rescue Israel from the wave of international condemnation and sanctions that would be unleashed against it. But Netanyahu’s card is more than a threat. His friends in the US Senate have already introduced a bill, which currently has 59 cosponsors, that would impose new sanctions on Iran; this is tantamount to torpedoing the entire Iran deal.
It is this reality that has led the Americans to endorse two Israeli positions – recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and intrusive security arrangements – that the Palestinians are bound to reject. Recognizing the “Jewish state” would be a betrayal of the constituent ethos of Palestinian nationalism, while intrusive security arrangements would be a standing invitation to radical groups to fight what would be seen as occupation in disguise. Instead of controlling the extremists, a robust Israeli security presence in Palestine would precipitate the collapse of its institutions.
Iran will not change its regional policies overnight. The nuclear deal is not the “grand bargain” that Iran proposed to the US in 2003 and that was supposed to address, in addition to the nuclear dispute, a wide array of regional issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Iran, a strategic partnership with the US would be the ultimate betrayal of the Islamic revolution, an inconceivable change of identity.
With or without a nuclear deal, Iran, which was disinvited from the Geneva II conference on Syria, because of its rejection of the conference’s US-inspired terms of reference, aspires to challenge America’s policies and represent an alternative path for the region. “We did not agree to dismantle anything,” Iran’s foreign minister insisted in defiance of the US interpretation of the nuclear deal.
Such talk allows Netanyahu to persist in his doomsday rhetoric. One would expect that, with the rising Iranian threat fostering tacit security cooperation between Israel and its more stable Arab neighbors (particularly Saudi Arabia), Netanyahu would aspire to resolve the Palestinian issue, thus removing the last obstacle to an overt strategic partnership. That was exactly the rationale behind Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s endorsement of the Oslo process from the outset.
But Netanyahu’s school of thought is radically different. Not only does it advocate an Israeli presence in the West Bank (the Biblical homeland of Judea and Samaria); it also links territorial concessions to the Palestinians to the neutralization of existential threats emanating from the outer circle of the region.
Among US presidents, George W. Bush identified most strongly with this right-wing Israeli philosophy, and his war in Iraq and policies toward Iran accorded with it perfectly. Indeed, both he and his father moved to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement only after their respective Iraq wars. The 1991 Madrid Peace Conference followed the Gulf War, while the “road map” came after the Iraq War.
Now, however, international acceptance of Iran as a nuclear-threshold state, together with the threat emanating from imploding Arab neighbors, flatly contradicts Netanyahu’s assumptions about the conditions that must be fulfilled for Israel to offer “painful concessions” to the Palestinians. Someone clearly looks likely to fall into a strategic trap, but who?