A Step Forward on Palestine and a Step Backward on Iran

In Israel, President Obama’s rhetoric was compassionate on Palestine but tone deaf on Iran.

Obama’s visit last week to the Jewish state, the West Bank and Jordan dealt with American-Israeli relations (security and the occupation of Palestine), Iran (nuclear ambitions) and Syria’s crises (anticipated regime change).

Obama’s televised public address to a large audience of university students in Jerusalem was very well received.

He bypassed the politicians and went directly to the people, as he reflected on the most sensitive aspects of US-Israeli relations.

In his speech, the President was sincere, wise and effective. He assured Israelis that America’s support for their state is eternal. He made the young feel proud of their “vibrant democracy”, which he described as the “strongest” and the most “innovative”. He explained that, under secure conditions, Israel’s ingenuity could stimulate unlimited prosperity in the Middle East. He rightly argued that the Jewish state needs and deserves good neighborly relations.

After telling his audience what it needed and liked to hear, the President addressed the 1967 occupation. He asserted that a viable Palestinian state is possible, just and vital for the security of Israel. Obama was bold: no security wall is “tall enough”; no Iron Dome is “strong enough” to protect an “isolated” Israel. All may be “lost” at the end of the day, if the occupation continues. For millions of domestic and global listeners, Obama’s analysis, authenticity and compassion to the suffering of Palestinians may have been the highlight of this visit.

Regrettably, Obama changed his previous tone when he spoke about Iran. His threat that “America will do what it must to prevent a nuclear Iran” was provocative. On the eve of his visit, Obama announced that the Islamic Republic will need about a year to acquire a nuclear weapon. A few days later, in Israel, he added that: “ Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. .... All options are on the table for achieving our objectives.”

Is Washington today in a position to start a new military front to control Mideast security? There is ample evidence from Iraq and Afghanistan that war does not lead to peace. We are now on a Mideast diplomatic cliff. Granted, if Iran soon halts its nuclear adventure in response to sanctions and military threats, Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu would have achieved a diplomatic victory. But if Iran does not yield, the United States and Israel are now expected to launch a new Mideast war-of-choice.

In dealing with Syria, the U.S. administration needs to reexamine its partnerships. Israel has occupied (in 1967) and annexed (in 1982) the Syrian Golan Heights. The Jewish state cannot be expected to play a neutral role in U.S. planning for the post-Assad regime. For Arab solutions Washington should look elsewhere. Russia and Iran may be key players in dealing with the current Syrian crisis.

In a highly interconnected political landscape, the United States misguidedly treats the problems of Iran, Syria and the Palestine/Israeli conflict separately.

If Washington would examine the many-sided benefits of solving the Iranian crisis, the war option would be shelved. US respect for Iran, with strong economic and security incentives, could help solve the nuclear crisis. Treated as a regional player, Iran could facilitate a non-violent regime transition in Syria, Tehran’s closest ally. And when Israel is no longer anxious about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions it may start taking the Arab-Israeli peace process seriously.

Obama has effectively used his first visit to Israel to encourage measurable risk-taking for forging peace with the Arabs. But, ironically, in pushing Iran into a diplomatic corner, the United States may be unintentionally, and unnecessarily, exposing the region to further instability. With such a combative temperament toward a regional power like Iran, neither Washington nor Jerusalem could contribute much to peace in the region.