Iran, not Palestine, tops Israel’s agenda

Twelve US presidents and thirteen Israeli prime ministers have met since Israel’s independence in 1948. Yet no meeting before seems to have generated as much hype, commotion, expectation and speculation as today’s in Washington between the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Barack Obama. Is this merely a media-manufactured drama? Or is it a potential clash of views with far-reaching consequences for the Middle East political — formerly known as peace — process?

In order to save the reader unnecessary suspense, I would submit the following bottom line: there will not be any extraordinary drama. As a former foreign policy adviser and diplomat in four governments I have attended several such meetings and been privy to what happened in others. With all modesty I can describe the exchanges that will follow.

The meeting will be described as cordial, an honest exchange of opinions and ideas between perennial friends. Both gentlemen will reiterate clichés about unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and the unshakeable alliance between our two great countries. Both leaders will pay tribute to each other’s courageous leadership at a time of crisis and naturally and unavoidably will emphasise their dedication to lasting peace in the region.

It will take weeks before we know how persistent Obama and Netanyahu have been in advancing their respective policies despite their differences. During that time the US special envoy George Mitchell, of Northern Ireland fame, will arrive for clarifications and Obama is scheduled to go to Cairo to deliver a general outline of US policy towards the Muslim world. In that speech, Obama will determine to what extent the US will be active as mediator or power-broker in the process.

While the rest of the world focuses on the peace process, Israelis are more focused on US-Israeli relations. Israel views its relationship with the United States as a basic tenet of its national security, rather than a component of foreign affairs: the concept of shared values, two pioneering model societies emerging in defiance of Old World orders in an attempt to rectify history’s injustices, a “manifest destiny” for America and “light projected on to the world” for Zionist Israelis. The commonality of interests is an integral part of Israeli deterrence above and beyond generous military aid, a UN Security Council political umbrella and continuing co-operation on intelligence and military technology.

A rift with the US or a bad working relationship with the US President, especially a very popular one, would be a colossal problem for the Israeli Prime Minister.

There are currently two concepts governing Israeli thinking. The first is that bilateral negotiations leading inexorably to a Palestinian state have failed miserably.

What began ceremoniously and optimistically as the Oslo process in 1993 has produced nothing but terror, misery, further distrust and animosity and no political accommodation. It failed largely due to a lack of Palestinian leadership, absence of statesmanship and a tradition of missing opportunities dating back to the Peel commission of 1937 (advocating the end of the British Mandate) through the Security Council resolution of November 1947 on partition, through 1967, the Camp David summit of July 2000 and ever since. In other words, a politically stable, security-ensuring, economically viable Palestinian state is not a practical possibility now. Ask Tony Blair.

The fundamentalist, Iranian-backed Hamas controls the Gaza strip, effectively creating two Palestinian entities. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, is plain weak. On the core issues of the conflict, Palestinians still subscribe to an unrealistic and counter-productive claim of a so-called “right of return” of Palestinian refugees into Israel proper, ie, within the June 1967 borders. That is unacceptable even to the majority (yes, majority) of Israelis who favour the two-state solution. Therefore, adherence to the two-state formula is a recipe for failure that would almost guarantee instability rather than coexistence.

The second is Iran. Israel sees Iran as a clear and present threat. Imagine if the 9/11 terrorists who crashed planes into New York and Washington had nuclear weapons.

A nuclear Iran is a direct threat to Israel, to the US and to Europe. Islamic fundamentalism, especially the Shia strain, may be fighting a losing battle, but it may strive to go out with a bang. A nuclear Iran may negate Israel’s deterrence power and set-off a regional nuclear arms race.

Iran, Netanyahu will say to Obama, must be stopped. You, Mr President, should choose the appropriate means and methods, but it must be halted at all costs. By the way, Israel will most definitely not surprise you with any unilateral action. But, Netanyahu will hint, a pre-emptive Israeli strike is not science fiction. If Iran is not prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, an independent Palestine will constitute nothing more than an advanced and violent Iranian outpost.

US and Israeli positions are not as far apart as they seem. Relations are genuinely strong.

Differences will be exposed, but they are more about timetables and priorities than substance. Which is why, give or take a few months, all parties concerned will converge around King Abdullah of Jordan. His plan for a regional framework involving 57 Islamic states and Israel will be the only sensible game in town.

Alon Pinkas, Israeli Consul General in New York 2000-04. He heads the US-Israel Institute at the Rabin Centre.