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Middle East peace talks: a glimmer of optimism

The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has given Israel, most of the Arab countries and the United States a common interest in working together to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

September 05, 2010|Doyle McManus

Something unexpected broke out at last week's relaunch of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians: a glimmer of what looked almost like optimism.

After two years of estrangement and truculence, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas put on their best behavior, said all the right things about seizing the opportunity and even huddled chummily together like old friends, which they are not.

Of course, we have seen this opening ceremony before. The conventional wisdom is that it was mostly a show aimed at placating President Obama, who has labored for these talks since the day of his inauguration. The two sides are still far apart over issues that have divided them for decades; neither Israeli voters nor Palestinian militants look ready for hard compromises, and in the Middle East, skepticism is rarely proved wrong.

But even some skeptics say that new elements in the mix could give these talks a better chance of making progress than the half a dozen rounds that came and went before.

Netanyahu, long an uncompromising hawk and an opponent of Israel's 1993 Oslo agreement with the Palestinians, now says he wants a peace agreement to be his legacy. Aides and associates insist that he means it.

Obama, after a series of early collisions with Netanyahu, has backed off a step and decided to accept the prickly Israeli on his own terms.

But the biggest difference is something outside the control of any of the parties at the bargaining table: Iran. The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has given Israel, most of the Arab countries and the United States a common interest in working together against a regional power they all fear.

Despite stepped-up economic sanctions, Iran is still enriching uranium that it could use to build a nuclear weapon. U.S. officials say it's possible the Iranians could reach the point of nuclear capability in as little as a year.

After negotiations between Iran and the world's major powers broke down this year, Israel stepped up its warnings that it would consider a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its existence — one that would justify a military strike to head off. And American officials say they take Israel's warnings seriously.

"To keep its monopoly on the bomb, Israel may well choose to strike," Bruce Riedel, a former Obama adviser, wrote recently in the foreign policy journal the National Interest. "An Israeli attack on Iran is a disaster in the making."

The Obama administration wants to head off that disaster, but it's a delicate situation. Riedel and others have proposed giving Israel a formal, public commitment that any attack by Iran on the Jewish state would draw retaliation from the United States. Meanwhile, the administration has been building a stronger defensive network among the Arab states that border Iran, including Saudi Arabia.

But Israelis say that's not enough. Even if a nuclear Iran could be deterred from attacking Israel, they argue, Tehran's influence throughout the Middle East would expand and threaten Israel's security indirectly.

What Israel wants is the leeway to plan a military strike against Iran and know that it would still have some allies the next morning. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks help on that front by making it easier for Arab countries to maintain ties with Israel.

But if the threat of a nuclear Iran helped get the talks started, it isn't a big enough factor to push them to a finish.

Netanyahu strengthened Israel's position by patching up his relationship with Obama and agreeing to direct talks, but he wasn't required to give anything up on the way there. Actually reaching an agreement with the Palestinians would require major sacrifices, such as dismantling some settlements in the West Bank and giving up sovereignty over part of East Jerusalem. (Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak floated both of those offers last week, but Barak is the leftmost edge of Netanyahu's governing coalition, and the rest of the Cabinet hasn't signed on.)

Abbas and Obama also would have to take serious political risks to get an agreement. Abbas would have to persuade his constituents to accept an outcome that falls far short of their demands, including, in all likelihood, forgoing any "right of return" to Israel for Palestinians. And the more Abbas agrees to compromise, the greater the certainty of escalating the already simmering civil war with his enemies in Hamas.

Obama, for his part, runs the risk of alienating Americans who would rather have him focus on the economy than immerse himself in Middle East peace talks. And at some point, he almost certainly would have to press Israel for concessions, a posture presidents normally avoid if they plan to seek reelection.

So skepticism is justified. It's noteworthy that Obama made the goal of these talks not completion but progress — a "framework agreement," not an actual peace treaty.

These negotiations are driven by fear of failure, not high hopes for success. But in the Middle East, even that is enough to sustain a faint glimmer of optimism.

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