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In Israeli Foreign Policy, Everything Is Connected

The apology and the reconciliation with Turkey, writes Akiva Eldar, teaches us that Israel cannot address only one threat and sweep the others under the rug.
U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) participates in a farewell ceremony with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd R) and President Shimon Peres (L) at Tel Aviv International Airport, March 22, 2013.   REUTERS/Jason Reed   (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3FBUJ

The apology that President Obama extracted from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the subsequent dramatic reconciliation with Turkey only go to show that everything in the Middle East is connected.

The Iranian nuclear program, the insurgency in Syria, the negotiations with the Palestinians and the Arab Spring – none of these topics can "go on leave." You cannot deal with the Syrian chemical threat without mending fences with Ankara. And you cannot mend fences with the Turks without taking action to mend fences with the Palestinians. We can now say that the turn of phrase "what's the connection?" which has been the quintessential Israeli stance to date is now "yok." In Turkish, this word denotes "no longer in existence" or "defunct." All of a sudden, the Prime Minister's Office passionately makes the case that Israel and Turkey have a joint interest to stop the Middle Eastern axis of evil.

Presumably, Netanyahu fully understands that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will not make do with an apology and compensations to the families of the Marmara flotilla fatalities. The Muslim leader has undertaken to become the Palestinian savior, the messiah that will deliver the Palestinians from the Israeli occupation. The person who made peace with the Kurds and tried to broker a peace agreement between Israel and Syria will not sit quietly by if the diplomatic stalemate and the settlement activity lead to a third intifada.

And as for the remaining threats, one single sentence that came out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mouth on Wednesday [March 20] was worth the massive traffic jams on the roads leading to Jerusalem and the ocean of words, of similar proportions, that jammed Israeli airwaves during President Barack Obama’s visit. I am referring to the prime minister’s public pronouncement that he believes the president’s promise that he intends to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. This announcement, made at a joint news conference in Jerusalem, is truly good news for us. It ensures that at least over the coming year we won’t go to sleep at night worrying about waking up to a report of an Israeli attack on Iran and being on the verge of a regional war as a result. 

Starting this Passover holiday, and until the one next year, we won’t be hearing arguments in Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Security cabinet between proponents and opponents of an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations. Washington’s Jewish lobbyists will be freed of the need to mobilize the support of Republican members of Congress (who never miss a chance to use Israel as a hatchet with which to dig the political grave of the Democratic president) for a dangerous Israeli adventure in the Persian Gulf. On Wednesday, March 20, 2013, the Israeli public noted that the prime minister believes Obama will not allow Iran to complete its nuclear program. We all saw the Netanyahu family embracing Barack Obama. From now on, it will be hard to tell the Cohen family from [the town of] Ofakim that Obama is “a Muslim Israel basher.”

The removal, albeit temporary, of the Iranian problem from the agenda makes room for the issue of Iran’s plan to deepen Shiite influence in the Middle East, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict serving to oil its wheels. Up to now, every time an important US or European personality bothered the prime minister with the question of the occupation, the settlements and the freeze in negotiations with the Palestinians, Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] would wave away the question as one would a pesky fly. He did so (as previously published on this site) when the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, tried to discuss the Palestinian issue with him. Bibi said it was a “marginal matter” and suggested focusing on the Iranian issue. He also vigorously rebutted the claim of the senior European diplomat that progress toward resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help the West block the Iranian progress in developing a nuclear capability. 

Alongside a pledge not to bother him over the next few months with a strike on Iran, as well as the apology to the Turks, Obama was able to extract from Netanyahu the first positive statement in his third term about the two-state solution. But in order to force Netanyahu to reopen the Palestinian channel, Obama and Ashton need a bit of help from Palestinian Chairperson Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]. The Palestinian leader needs to relieve Netanyahu of the excuse that it is the Palestinian leadership which refuses to negotiate with the occupier on ways of ending the occupation. 

Al-Monitor has learned that Secretary of State John Kerry is planning a rescue operation from the settlement construction moratorium trap. Kerry's team will send Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairperson Abu Mazen an invitation for negotiations without preconditions, with the hope that both sides will avoid taking any unilateral actions during negotiations This way Abu Mazen will be able to tell his public that his demand for a construction freeze has been met, since everyone in the world regards the settlement enterprise as an unlawful and unilateral action. On the other hand, Netanyahu will dodge his first coalition crisis, giving the offensive word "freeze" a wide berth. 

The ball is now in the court of the Palestinian leader. Even though Abu Mazen’s precondition for resuming negotiations — a freeze on construction in the settlements — is just and perfectly legal, a wise and courageous policy requires putting a freeze on this condition. True, Obama was the one who sent Abu Mazen up that “freeze” tree and left him there alone. But with each passing day, dozens of houses are being added to settlements and outposts; each passing day reduces the odds of the two-state solution. Thus, the settlements have turned into a dual trap: They both rob the Palestinians of their land and undermine negotiations on handing it back to them.

When the moment of truth arrives, if and when Bibi is forced to divulge his real two-state solution plan (assuming there is one), he will have to choose between a national coalition crisis with chairperson of HaBayit HaYehudi party Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Likud Knesset Member Moshe Feiglin, or an international coalition crisis with Obama, Abu Mazen and Erdogan.

Don't be jealous of him. 

Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, German and Arabic.

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