Getting the Iran-Palestine Connection Wrong

In his column, the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius presents an important piece of reporting about the Obama Administration’s approach to Iran and the Palestinian issue.  David opens his column by citing “two top administration officials” as telling him that President Obama is seriously considering putting forward an American plan for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  This plan would be based on proposals put on the table at the Camp David summit in July 2000 and in follow-on negotiations at Taba, Egypt later that year.  If he decides to move ahead, Obama would advance such a plan by this fall, after “detailed interagency talks to frame the strategy and form a political consensus for it,” in much the same way that the Obama Administration produced its current strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to the two senior officials who spoke with David, the rationale for proceeding along these lines is twofold:

  • First, there is a growing recognition that the incremental approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace pursued by the Obama Administration so far — trying “to coax concessions from the Israelis and Palestinians, with the United States offering ‘bridging proposals’ later” — is clearly failing.  (The failure of this approach should hardly be surprising to anyone who knows anything about Arab-Israeli diplomacy, but it is noteworthy that at least some senior Administration officials are now prepared to admit it to a prominent journalist.)
  • Second, a perception is gaining ground within the Administration that movement on the Palestinian issue is critical to building regional support for “confronting Iran,” and that Israeli concern about a perceived Iranian threat can be used to leverage greater cooperation from the Netanyahu government toward the pursuit of a two-state solution.  Netanyahu and his supporters, of course, have consistently argued that dealing with the Iranian threat must take priority over dealing with the Palestinian issue.  To bridge this clear disconnect between American and Israeli preferences, one of the two senior Administration officials argued that “it’s not either Iran or the Middle East peace process.  You have to do both.”

If President Obama moves in this direction — and that strikes us as a big “if,” at this point — it will undoubtedly be praised by many in the foreign policy establishment as a significant and positive step toward a serious Middle East strategy for the United States.  Indeed, David reports in his column that an important catalyst for Obama’s thinking in this regard was a discussion he had at the White House on March 24 with six former national security advisers — Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Colin Powell, Sandy Berger, Frank Carlucci, and Robert McFarlane — who encouraged bolder U.S. action on the Palestinian issue.

The argument that a “push” for Israeli-Palestinian peace would marginalize the Islamic Republic and reduce its influence in regional affairs is also gaining traction among the more “liberal” parts of the pro-Israel community in the United States.  These actors believe that a two-state solution is critical to Israel’s long-term future and think the argument that Israeli-Palestinian peace would marginalize Iran could be an important “selling point” in overcoming resistance in Israel and among most pro-Israel groups in the United States to the prospect of a U.S. “blueprint” for peace.

Unfortunately, such an approach, if pursued by President Obama and his administration, will, in fact, constitute a continued and deepening denial by the United States of key regional realities — and genuine strategy can only be forged on the basis of an acute understanding and appreciation of such realities.  Two points warrant special consideration in this regard.

First, the prospective approach reported in David’s column will not work on its own terms, for several reasons.

Netanyahu will say “no.”  Obama Administration officials can argue as much as they want that resolving the Palestinian conflict is essential to a viable regional strategy for containing Iran, but Netanyahu — and, it should be said, most Israeli political and policy elites — do not buy it.  Netanyahu will continue to insist that the Iranian challenge must take priority over the Palestinian issue and that Israel cannot deal with both at the same time — and he will have considerable domestic political support for such a posture.  Moreover, Netanyahu will almost certainly reject any peace plan based on what was on the table at Camp David and Taba in 2000 as overly demanding of Israel.

Will the Obama Administration deal with Netanyahu’s “no” over major concessions to the Palestinians in a more effective (or at least less embarrassing) manner than it has dealt with Netanyahu’s “no” over a settlement freeze?  The likely outcome will be that the Administration raises expectations, once again, among Arabs, Muslims, and the international community more generally, only to dash those expectations with more supine accommodation of Israeli resistance — doing further damage to already badly eroded perceptions of America’s credibility and effectiveness as a regional and global leader.

The Palestinians will not be able to say “yes.”  Who, exactly, is going to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement for the Palestinian side and how will that agreement be legitimated by the Palestinian people?  We will be surprised if the Obama Administration is really prepared to advance a peace plan with parameters for resolving core final status issues (border, Jerusalem, refugees) that actually meet minimum requirements for the Palestinians.  But, even if the Administration surprises us, there is no way that HAMAS — which still holds the largest number of parliamentary seats from the last national elections in the Palestinian territories — will let a PLO that is functioning essentially as an extension of Abu Mazen’s Fatah movement conclude a major agreement determining the political future of the Palestinian people for generations to come while excluding HAMAS and the constituencies that it represents.  HAMAS will fight vigorously against such an outcome — and they would almost certainly prevail.

The Obama Administration’s refusal to deal with HAMAS or, at least, to allow HAMAS to be brought into a unified Palestinian political structure that could provide a serious interlocutor for peace talks with Israel is a fatal mistake.  Last fall, the Administration began telling Egyptians, Palestinians, and others that it did not want the Egyptian effort to broker a Fatah-HAMAS unity accord to move forward; the Administration wanted to see what it could accomplish in an Israeli-Palestinian process that involved only Fatah and its allies on the Palestinian side.  But the reality today is that it is simply not possible to get a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement without HAMAS’s involvement as a major player on the Palestinian side, commensurate with HAMAS’s political standing among Palestinians.

Dealing with” the Palestinian issue will not catalyze a regional coalition against Iran.  Certainly, key Arab allies of the United States — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia — have been pleading with Washington for years for more effective U.S. mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian track.  But what, exactly, are the steps that these states would be prepared to take against Iran, as a result of a more active U.S. role on the Palestinian track and in concert with the United States and Israel, that these states are not prepared to take today?  Last year, the Obama Administration tried to peddle George Mitchell’s appointment as Middle East peace envoy and Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world as worthy downpayment for Arab cooperation with Israel in an anti-Iranian regional coalition.  Arab states almost uniformly rejected the offer.  This approach failed last year and, if tried by the Obama Administration this year, will fail again.  America’s Arab allies are clearly concerned by what they see as Iran’s growing regional influence and its expanding involvement in what the Saudis characterize as “Arab affairs” — Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen.  But these states know that they must live in the same neighborhood as Iran; none has an interest in a prolonged, Cold War-style confrontation with the Islamic Republic, much less an actual military confrontation.

Moreover, a more active U.S. role on the Palestinian track will do nothing to incentivize Syria or Lebanon (where Hizballah, as the most powerful single political party, is part of the current national unity government and has an effective veto over any government decision of importance) to join a U.S.-led coalition against Iran.  As we reported from our meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in February, Damascus wants better relations with the United States and a peace settlement with Israel that meets well-established Syrian red lines — but, as President Assad made clear, “Syria’s relations with Iran, as well as its ties to Hizballah and HAMAS, are not on the table.”  That is why Assad has, since late 2008, adopted a rhetorical position on Arab-Israeli issues emphasizing the need for a “comprehensive” Arab-Israeli settlement, encompassing the Palestinian track along with the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, and with HAMAS playing a central role on the Palestinian side.  (And, Assad pointed out, he can play a critical role in bringing HAMAS and his other “rejectionist” allies into a truly comprehensive regional settlement.)

This observation about HAMAS’s indispensable role in the search for resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, indeed, for a broader regional settlement brings us to our second major point: the prospective approach that David Ignatius reports is under serious consideration by President Obama draws the wrong relationship between Iran and Palestine.  As we have pointed out, it is simply not possible any more — if it were ever possible at some point in the past — to achieve Israeli-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli peace in a manner that excludes and marginalizes the Islamic Republic and its regional allies.  Rather, today, the link between Iran and Palestine runs in the opposite direction: the United States needs a better and more productive relationship with the Islamic Republic, in part, because it will be impossible to achieve Arab-Israeli peace absent U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 7 April 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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