- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Reports of severe disagreements between President Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are greatly exaggerated, a senior Israeli official told us Monday afternoon in Washington. He said the atmospherics at the U.S.-Israeli summit meeting were very positive, and policy agreements far outweighed any differences. He said Mr. Netanyahu is sincerely impressed with Mr. Obama and has been since they met in 2007. This augurs well for finding solutions to the critical issues these leaders face, but we fear that on at least one issue, time is running out.

Both leaders agree that the top priority is to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear-weapons capability. Mr. Obama reiterated on Monday that Iran must not possess nuclear weapons and set what he called a “clear timetable” for Iran to respond to diplomatic overtures by the end of the year. However, we got a sense from our source that the clock is ticking faster and that action may be required in seven months. Tehran’s uranium-enrichment efforts are accelerating, and most observers agree that the Islamic Republic either already has enough material for a nuclear weapon or will soon. If Iran tests a nuclear weapon this fall, we would not be surprised.

On the Palestinian issue, a two-state solution is possible depending on what the definition of “state” is. Our high-level source indicated that Israel has no desire to rule the Palestinians and that they should have complete self-governance. Israel, however, opposes the Palestinians being granted certain traditional sovereign rights, including the right to maintain military forces and the ability to import arms, sign defensive treaties and provide bases for foreign troops. In short, Israel opposes anything that would turn the prospective Palestinian state into a launching pad for aggression against Israel. If all parties can agree to a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel’s right to exist, such a solution is possible.

Our source indicated that Israel is as eager as the United States to start the negotiation process with the Palestinians. Working groups will convene in a matter of days or weeks to fast-track the process, and bilateral talks could begin right away. A regional dialogue is also possible, and it would be helpful, too, if the holdout Arab states made reciprocal moves, such as beginning the process of normalizing relations with Israel. While this has seemed impossible for decades, the growing Iranian threat is reshaping the map of Middle East diplomacy. Our source emphasized that Israel and the Arab states are aligning against their common adversary and overcoming a century of prejudice in the face of this existential hazard. Ironically, the emerging Arab-Israeli bloc against Iran could wind up pushing the Palestinian peace process forward, which would be an unintended and unwelcome consequence from Tehran’s point of view.

Our source rejected the notion that there is any official diplomatic linkage between the Iranian and Palestinian issues despite earlier statements from the Obama administration that suggested that pressure on Iran would be contingent on progress on the Palestinian front. If anything, such linkage would be backward; Iran could act as a spoiler through its Hamas and Hezbollah proxies, preventing resolution of the issue and buying more time for its pursuit of nuclear capability. A more reasonable tandem track seems to be in the offing, with Iran being the more urgent issue, but agreement on the goals does not necessarily mean agreement on the process.

The Obama administration has yet to spell out a comprehensive approach to Iran other than to say all options are on the table. We doubt that sanctions can stop Iran, and we wonder if Iran believes that other options, such as the use of force, represent a credible threat. Our source had nothing to say about any possible moves Israel might make directly to counter the Iranian nuclear program but did indicate that if the Iranians believe there is no credible threat of force, diplomacy will fail. As Frederick the Great said, diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.

The United States and Israel seem to be in agreement on the nature and importance of the critical issues in the Middle East. The points of dispute regarding the Palestinians - over Israel’s eastern border, the status of Jerusalem and the rights of refugees - will be hashed out eventually. But the Iranian threat is the immediate issue, and we fear Tehran has its own clear timetable that is rapidly reaching its goal.

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