Politics & Policy

It’s Iran, Stupid

The unintended consequences of Obama's attempt to jump-start the peace process.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday, in which he reversed his longstanding position on Palestine and said he would be willing to work toward the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, has met with almost no opposition in Israel. This is a very unusual course of events in a country where elections take place on average every two years because coalitions are so unstable and often fall with little provocation.

Netanyahu’s government, led by his own center-right Likud party, includes two settler parties and Avigdor Lieberman’s Russian-immigrant party, Yisrael Beiteinu, all of which might have been expected to pull out of the coalition after hearing the prime minister endorse a “two-state” solution. But the right wing remains firmly behind the prime minister, and now some members of Kadima, the largest center-left party, have indicated they might be willing to join Netanyahu’s coalition because he has met their demand that he recognize a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s speech met with so little opposition because his coalition partners, like most Israelis, realize that the conditions he posed for the creation of a Palestinian state are unlikely to be met any time soon. First, there is the fact that the Palestinian polity remains divided between Hamas in Gaza and Abu Mazen’s government in the West Bank, which makes any long-lasting solution improbable. Second, Washington, in its role of fostering the peace process, will be very hard pressed to find a Palestinian leadership that would be willing to accept demilitarization, agree to Israeli control of the whole of Jerusalem, cease to demand a right of return for Palestinians who fled from Israel, and, above all, recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Israelis on all points of the political spectrum understand that these preconditions are highly unlikely to be met, and therefore that a unified and independent Palestinian state is no closer today than it was before Netanyahu accepted it in theory.

But beyond this, one has to return to the opening sentences of Netanyahu’s speech to understand why it has met with so little opposition at home. The prime minister listed in order of priority the three greatest issues on his agenda: the Iranian threat, the financial crisis, and the promotion of peace. In this list, Iran remained the most crucial issue. It is not a mistake that the peace process received only the third order of priority. The centrality of the Iranian threat is a matter of consensus in Israel that crosses party lines. Every Jewish member of the Knesset understands that the Iranian question is a matter of Israel’s survival, whereas the conflict with the Palestinians, though important, does not directly threaten the existence of the state. Netanyahu gave his speech in response to hard pressure from the Obama administration, which believes that successfully implementing a two-state solution is the key to solving all the other issues of the Middle East. Without this American pressure it is improbable that Palestinian statehood would have been the subject of Netanyahu’s first major policy speech.

The centrality of the Iranian issue has muted opposition to Netanyahu. It would be difficult to oppose a prime minister who is facing what is viewed in Israel as a true crisis of national security. The Obama administration might have hoped that pressure on the Palestinian issue, and in particular on the question of settlements, would bring down the Netanyahu government. It may find out that, on the contrary, it has strengthened Netanyahu’s position. If Kadima, or even some of its members, now decide to join forces with him, Netanyahu will have one of the broadest coalitions in Israel’s history, one unifying the four largest parties: Likud, Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Labor. At that point his government could not be brought down by the defection of any single partner. With a coalition of this magnitude, Netanyahu will have a unified backing should he order a strike against Iran.

In entering the maze of Middle Eastern conflicts, President Obama is likely to learn the rule of unintended consequences. The president seems to have thought that he could pacify the Muslim world, negotiate with Iran, and force Israel to accept a compromise it had long rejected. But as is often the case in this region, matters have not proceeded according to plan. The president now faces upheaval in Iran, a Muslim world that is no more receptive to his message than it was previously, and an Israel in which Netanyahu now has a stronger standing both coalition-wise and in regard to an attack on Iran. The peace process will now get bogged down in pedantry and semantics, while Israel’s strong coalition has opened opportunities that could fundamentally change the rules of the game.

– Meyrav Wurmser is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.


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