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Iran’s Place in the Mideast Peace Puzzle

Divergent Israeli and U.S. views on the place of Iran and the Palestinian situation within the larger question of regional peace and stability reveal much about the underlying challenges facing Mideast peacemakers.

(Inter Press Service)

What is the relationship between U.S. policy towards Iran and its performance on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, including the crucial quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians? This issue took on new urgency after Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas had his first visit with President Barack Obama in Washington on May 28.

After the meeting, Obama told reporters that "time is of the essence" regarding ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Obama himself raised the question of  links between Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and Washington's Iran policy.

For example, right after his May 18 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama said, "To the extent that we can make peace ... between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat."

For his part, Netanyahu seems to hate the idea that any such linkage exists, since that would imply that Israel should engage seriously with the Palestinians if it wants to win full U.S. support for the confrontational policy he favors towards Iran. At that same May 18 press event, Netanyahu said defiantly, "There isn't a policy linkage, and that's what I hear the President saying, and that's what I'm saying too."

The difference between the two leaders is one of priorities—and also, perhaps, of the substance of their preferences regarding Iran.

Obama wants to prioritize progress in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, arguing that this will help win Arab support in case a tougher confrontation against Iran is needed down the road. Netanyahu wants to prioritize taking tough action against Iran, arguing that removing the threat he sees Iran posing to the whole Middle East will ease peacemaking with Israel's neighbors.

Regarding substance, Netanyahu has made clear on many occasions that tough action, including quite possibly even direct military action, will be needed to destroy Iran's ability to produce the nuclear weapons that Israel alleges the Tehran government is working fast to build. (The Iranian government, which has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, claims its current uranium enrichment program is for peaceful purposes only.)

Obama, by contrast, has promised that he will make a good faith effort to resolve his country’s differences with Iran through diplomacy. But he has still done little to deliver on that promise. Indeed, as Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, Obama has even continued a semi-clandestine program aimed at fomenting complete regime change in Tehran.

On May 18, Obama indicated that he hoped to be able to start serious discussions with Tehran soon after Iran's June 12 election. He added that he might have "a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction." That seems to fall far short of the demand Netanyahu has voiced that Obama set a strict and speedy deadline for the end of any negotiations with Tehran.

Meanwhile, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have pushed forward with their approach of prioritizing Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Clinton has spelled out publicly the Obama administration's view that in order to resume peace talks, the Israeli government needs to stop all construction activity in the West Bank settlements, in line with commitments Israel made under the 2002 “Road Map.”

Netanyahu has refused to comply. An Israeli government spokesman said on May 27 that although Netanyahu plans to dismantle some small settlement "outposts" within the older and larger West Bank settlements, "normal activity will continue."

Observers in the Middle East and elsewhere are watching closely to see how Washington will respond to Netanyahu's recalcitrance.

The difference between Obama and Netanyahu over whether Arab-Israeli peacemaking or the Iran question should have priority to a large degree rests on diverging views of the motives of those Arab parties that resist Israel's plans for the Middle East over recent years—primarily Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Syrian government.

Netanyahu and his advisers argue that these three actors resist Israel's plans primarily because they are tools or proxies for Iran. They argue that if Iran's power is radically decreased, the Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians will be more easily won over to other leaders with policies more favorable to Israel.

Most observers familiar with the politics and societies of these Arab communities challenge that assessment. They judge that these forces are popular among their followers mainly for reasons other than the support they get from Iran, including because of their ability to deliver valuable public goods. Additionally, the stance of nationalist dignity and resistance to Israel that they have long adopted is very popular among many members of these societies.

Hence, these observers say, though it is true that Iran gives some support to all these parties, this is not the crucial determinant of their popularity. They point to the similar arguments that were made a decade ago—by Netanyahu and others like him—about the support that Saddam Hussein gave to Palestinian and other hardliners.

Back then, supporters of Netanyahu's Likud Party argued that, ”the road to peace in Jerusalem lies in Baghdad.” Indeed, along with President Bush's claims about Saddam Hussein's WMD, that was one of the arguments used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

But Hussein was toppled, and nationalist sentiments among the Palestinians only got stronger—to the point that Hamas won the election in 2006.

"The argument made by the Israeli hardliners is very similar today," one Arab-affairs expert told the Inter Press Service. "Except now it's Iran that is blamed for Palestinian militancy, not Iraq. But in fact, the main cause of Palestinian militancy all along has been Israel's actions, and those are what need to change."

For now, the eyes of most Middle East observers are on Washington. How will Obama respond to Netanyahu's recalcitrance on settlements? What will he say about Israeli-Arab peace issues in the major speech he will deliver to the Muslim world when he goes to Cairo on June 4? What other plans might Obama and his team (including Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell) push to revive the peacemaking process—and aid the 1.5 million people of Gaza?

Two key Middle East elections are looming, too. Will Hezbollah and its allies do well in Lebanon's elections on June 5—and how will Washington respond to that? And how will Obama respond to results in the upcoming Iranian elections?

The weeks ahead will be momentous ones for the Middle East. And the way that linkage between the Israeli-Arab arena and Iran unfolds will crucially affect these developments.

Inter Press Service contributor Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org.

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