Stephen M. Walt

A consensus on Israel and Iran?

One apparent area of agreement among virtually all public participants in the recent debate over U.S.-Israeli relations is the importance of confronting Iran. Secretary of State Clinton made it a theme of her remarks to the AIPAC policy conference, as did PM Netanyahu, and interestingly enough, it’s implicit in General David Petraeus’s comment to the ...

Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images

One apparent area of agreement among virtually all public participants in the recent debate over U.S.-Israeli relations is the importance of confronting Iran. Secretary of State Clinton made it a theme of her remarks to the AIPAC policy conference, as did PM Netanyahu, and interestingly enough, it’s implicit in General David Petraeus’s comment to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict complicates U.S. efforts to forge effective alliances with other Middle East states.

Add to that a recent column by Michael Hirsh of Newsweek, who quotes an unnamed U.S. official saying that the real reason Obama went ballistic over the continued Israeli intransigence regarding settlement building is that this policy is undermining U.S. efforts to deal with Iran.  

In short, what you see here is an emerging consensus that Iran is the problem, and we’ve got to address Israel-Palestine in order to focus everyone’s attention on that. For the record, some of the things  I’ve written are consistent with that view too.

But one word of caution, courtesy of Trita Parsi. Trying to push Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to then go after Iran has one obvious downside: it gives Tehran an enormous incentive to do whatever it can to derail the admittedly fragile peace process. As Parsi shows in his prize-winning book Treacherous Alliance, this is what happened during the 1990s, after the Bush administration excluded Iran from the Madrid Conference and after the Clinton administration had adopted the policy of "dual containment." Iran had never paid that much attention to the Palestinian issue before then, but it started ramping up support for Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups as a way to pay the United States back and to undermine U.S. efforts to isolate them.

So instead of announcing (or hinting) that we are interested in Israeli-Palestinian peace primarily so we can go after Iran, we ought to emphasize that we are interested in peace there because it’s the right thing to do (i.e., better for us, better for Israel, and obviously better for the Palestinians). At the same time, we should continue patient, realistic (and maybe even more imaginative) efforts to improve relations with Iran, so that they don’t have greater incentives to play the spoiler. Ditto Syria.

If we play our cards right, we might even generate something of a virtuous circle; where various parties with whom we now have disagreements begin to realize that they ought to deal now, lest we mend fences elsewhere and leave them with a weaker bargaining position down the road. But notice that will require a far-sighted, patient, and coherent approach to the region, and not just a single-minded focus on one particular problem.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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