The Obama administration’s push for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace may have a much stronger likelihood of succeeding this time around because of the prevailing political and security dynamics. For an agreement to occur however, Israel must concede the inevitable by relinquishing territories captured in the 1967 war, and the United States must provide a new security umbrella to its regional allies. This would lead not only to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, but it could seriously impede Iran’s ambitions for regional hegemony with nuclear weapon capabilities.
The administration’s ambitious agenda came to a focus this past week as Special Envoy George Mitchell, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, National Security advisor Jim Jones, and Obama’s Iran strategist Dennis Ross all converged in the region for a series of high level security meetings with Israeli officials. Subsequent visits by Mitchell to Ramallah, Cairo and Damascus are clear evidence of this administration’s emphasis on a regional diplomatic push that goes well beyond the Israeli-Palestinian track.
With the international spotlight on Israel, it now must find a way to work harmoniously with the Obama administration if it wants to be viewed as a genuine partner in the peace process. The United States remains indispensable to Israel’s national security and is ultimately the last line of defense against any threat—including Iran’s, so for Israel to appear flippant to US pressure at this juncture is a dangerous gamble. The territorial concessions necessary to forge a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace could further cement Israel’s relations with the United States by upgrading Israel’s US strategic cooperation into a new security arrangement akin to a defense treaty. If Israel has full American backing in security and defense, it will have more flexibility to concede the occupied territories because ultimately ensuring Israel’s security takes away its main rational for keeping Palestinian and Syrian territories.
Such a security agreement with Israel does not mean that the Obama administration has resigned itself to the inevitability of a nuclear Iran. Israeli Minster of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor recently alluded to this in an interview with Army Radio, noting that, "Now, we don't need to deal with the assumption that Iran will attain nuclear weapons but to prevent this." A US-Israel security agreement, and possibly a larger security umbrella that covers Arab allies as well would likely make Iran’s nuclear ambitions less compelling. This agreement, combined with potentially crippling sanctions might provide enough deterrence for Iran to consider cooperating with the international community on its nuclear program. Moreover, since Iran never admitted to pursuing nuclear weapons, the US strategy might offer Iran a face saving way out. But if diplomacy nevertheless fails and Tehran continues with its refusal to settle the nuclear conflict through negotiations, then Israel will still have gained from the United States’ full cooperation and security partnership, as long as the negotiations with Iran are not open-ended.
Israel’s other significant advantage would be an opening to the rest of the Arab world. The Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco deeply dread the Iranian nuclear threat and many would be willing to work with Israel to mitigate their deep concerns. But they are loath to cooperate with Israel, and rightfully so, as long as Israel continues to occupy Arab land and expand the settlements which, symbolize to them an indefinite occupation. The Iranian nuclear menace has created a new power equation in the Middle East, where Israel and the Arab states share a common threat. Israel, which for decades has been seen as the enemy of the Arab world, could now become a potential ally through various cooperative defense deterrents against Iran. For Israel this represents not only an historic opportunity to forge a comprehensive peace, but to form a de-facto united Arab-Israeli front while working closely with the United States for a sustained regional security.
Finally, there is the international public opinion which is unified on the issue of occupation and sees Israel’s intransigence as cause not only for regional instability, but as a threat to global energy resources. In case of a major conflagration between Israel and Iran, the effects of oil and gas volatility could be potentially devastating. As for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, much of the international community with the EU at the forefront has become far more forthcoming in its opposition to Israeli policies. Recently twenty-seven EU foreign ministers decided to put off the planned upgrading of EU-Israel relations to an “association agreement” which would have large trade benefits, until they can see a stronger commitment from Israel to a Palestinian state. No one should expect Israel to compromise its national security only to please the international community. That being said, Israel has made tremendous strides in becoming a respected member of the international community in terms of diplomatic and trade cooperation. But the scores of countries affected by the continuing turmoil in the Middle East are fed up with a conflict they believe can be resolved by ending the occupation. From their perspective, linking territory to national security no longer holds the weight it used to, not only because of Israel’s technological superiority but because the Arab world has come full circle to accept Israel’s reality. If Israel were to forfeit this opportunity, it will be blamed for many of the regional ills as well as the growing rift with the United States—which most Israelis will not tolerate.
The Obama administration is investing tremendous political capital in its effort to forge a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. Moreover, for the Obama administration to restore its moral leadership, neutralize Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and reach a major breakthrough in US-Middle East relations—following eight years of President Bush’s disastrous policies—it has no alternative but to tackle the Arab-Israeli peace process head on. If these efforts require a regional security umbrella by the United States, as was suggested by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Israel can come out of this not only with a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal but with stronger security ties with the United States.
This prospect offers what most Israelis yearn for—peace with security. Any Israeli government that refuses to see that will have forfeited its mandate to govern and should give way to a new Israeli government capable of delivering peace.