Israel Puts Iran Issue Ahead of Palestinians

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attends a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. (By Dan Balilty -- Associated Press)
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By Howard Schneider and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

JERUSALEM -- The new Israeli government will not move ahead on the core issues of peace talks with the Palestinians until it sees progress in U.S. efforts to stop Iran's suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon and limit Tehran's rising influence in the region, according to top government officials familiar with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's developing policy on the issue.

"It's a crucial condition if we want to move forward," said Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon, a member of the Israeli parliament and former ambassador to the United States. "If we want to have a real political process with the Palestinians, then you can't have the Iranians undermining and sabotaging."

The emerging Israeli position, a significant change from that of previous governments, presents a challenge for President Obama, who has made quick progress on Palestinian statehood a key foreign policy goal. Obama is also trying to begin engagement with Iran as part of a broad effort to slow its nuclear program and curtail its growing strength in the Middle East.

U.S. officials are wary of linking the two issues and, if anything, would like to do the reverse of what Israel has proposed, by using progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks to curb Iranian influence, which is wielded in the region through anti-Israeli organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

"We have to be pretty careful how you approach that kind of connection," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "We are dealing with Iran because there are behaviors out there that are deeply troubling. We would be doing that regardless of other issues. By the same token, the Palestinian issue is an issue that obviously evokes a great deal in the region."

The official argued that the Obama administration has already demonstrated it is committed to dealing with both issues at the same time by appointing high-profile officials -- former senator George J. Mitchell on the Palestinians, former peace negotiator Dennis Ross on Iran -- to craft and implement the administration's policies.

While Israeli officials have long expressed concern about Iran, Netanyahu views the threat from Tehran as so acute that he is shaping Israel's policy toward the Palestinians around that issue -- a shift in approach that effectively puts Palestinian statehood after resolution of a complicated regional and international issue.

Netanyahu has compared Iran's regional ambitions to Germany's in 1938 and has assembled a government that shares his view. Netanyahu's national security adviser, Uzi Arad, has publicly urged the United States to take stronger action against the Islamic state and has equated diplomatic engagement with Iran to "appeasement."

Obama and Netanyahu are expected to meet in Washington next month. In the intervening weeks, the Israeli prime minister, who took office late last month, is developing his proposals for how to proceed and appears to be bracing for a tough discussion with the president.

"Netanyahu is expecting that when he says, 'Iran, Iran, Iran,' Obama will say, 'Palestine, Palestine, Palestine' back," said Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former peace negotiator who keeps in close contact with U.S. and Israeli officials. "Netanyahu expects Obama to say that in order to be effective with Iran, we need to manage the Palestinian track as well."

With the Palestinian leadership split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition generally opposed to negotiating a peace deal that would result in a Palestinian state, the Israeli government is expected to offer few, if any, concessions to the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Netanyahu's aides argue, Iran poses a much more immediate threat.

"Realistically, we need to keep Iran at bay," Ayalon said, and until that happens, the Israeli government will largely limit itself to matters such as trying to improve the Palestinian economy and strengthen its civil institutions. "The Iranian clock should be measured in months," he said in reference to Israel's view that the Islamic republic is approaching the ability to make a nuclear weapon. By contrast, the timetable on Palestinian statehood "is open-ended."

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