JERUSALEM (JTA) -- Israel and the United States seem closer than
they have been for months on two key issues: peacemaking with the
Palestinians and Iranian nuclear ambitions.
The point was hammered home with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's
announcement of a 10-month freeze on building in West Bank settlements
and strong White House censure of Iran's plans to build 10 new uranium
But important differences of nuance remain on both fronts. Israel
would like to see more robust action on Iran without delay, and the
United States wants Israel to make further substantial peace overtures
to the Palestinians.
The latest escalation in tension between Iran and the international
community came after the International Atomic Energy Agency demanded
that the Islamic Republic immediately halt enrichment at a previously
secret site near the holy city of Qom, and outgoing IAEA director
Mohammed ElBaradei declared that he could not confirm that Iran did not
have a nuclear weapons program.
The strongly worded IAEA motion of censure was endorsed by Russia
and China, two powers that in the past have tended to steer clear of
tough measures against Iran.
Iran responded with contempt. Rather than close down the facility at
Qom, it would start building five new ones over the next few months,
and accelerate plans for another five in their wake. The Iranian
parliament urged reduced cooperation with IAEA inspectors, and there
was even talk of Iran withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty -- moves that would give it a free hand to pursue a nuclear
weapons program without international scrutiny.
Israeli pundits say the Iranian threats are intended to test
international resolve in the hope of getting an improved offer from the
United States and other major powers: permission to enrich uranium to
industrial grade on Iranian soil rather than in France and Russia.
But this time, the pundits say, the Iranians may have miscalculated,
and the clear White House warning that "time is running out for Iran to
address the international community's growing concerns about its
nuclear program" could presage the end of President Obama's attempt to
engage Iran and the beginning of the harsh sanctions regime Netanyahu
has long advocated -- with Russia and China aboard.
Indeed, when he first met Obama in 2007, before either man was in
high office, Netanyahu pressed the case for strong economic sanctions
against Iran. Obama, then a junior senator, picked up on this and soon
afterward sponsored the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act.
During their latest meeting in Washington just over three weeks ago,
Iran again was high on the agenda. Netanyahu told journalists that time
would show the meeting to have been very significant -- he strongly
emphasized the word very -- language some pundits took to imply that
major understandings on the Iranian nuclear issue had been reached.
For now, the signs are that Obama and Netanyahu are very much on the
same sanctions page, with slightly different views on the timing. The
big question is what happens if sanctions fail.
Israeli pundits argue that Obama, embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan,
will not want to open a third front against Iran, whereas Netanyahu is
not ready to take any option, including the military one, off the table.
What is clear to both leaders is that if either decides to attack
Iran, Israel will become a target for Iranian retaliation. Hence the
huge joint military exercise in the Negev in late October, testing
Israeli and American anti-missile defense systems.
On the Palestinian front, the Americans welcomed Netanyahu's
building freeze as going beyond anything previous Israeli governments
had done. But at the same time the Americans made it clear that they
would have liked to have seen more -- for example, a freeze that did
not exclude East Jerusalem, public buildings and housing units already
started -- because the object of the exercise was to get the
Palestinians on board for peace talks, and only a full freeze might
have achieved that aim.
The Americans also are pressing Netanyahu to free hundreds of
Palestinian prisoners outside the framework of the impending deal for
the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal held by Hamas for
more than three years, because of the bitter rivalry between the
secular Fatah organization and the more militant Hamas. The thinking is
that the standing of the U.S.-backed Fatah leader, Palestinian
Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, could be weakened by the planned
release of about 1,000 prisoners to Hamas in return for Shalit.
Releasing large numbers of Fatah prisoners to Abbas would help prevent
him from losing face.
The main U.S. goal, though, is to revive the stalled
Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and here they believe Netanyahu
could have done more -- for example, by agreeing to resume talks where
his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, left off, or giving the Palestinians a
clearer idea of the contours of a final peace deal.
The way forward now could be new U.S. bridging proposals which do
exactly that. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says Netanyahu's
settlement freeze has made this possible, and the United States will
soon present the parties with something along these lines.
The Americans, however, are well aware that with Hamas in control of
Gaza, and with conflicting Israeli and Palestinian bottom lines on all
the core issues, the chances of success are not high. On the other
hand, the prize to be won is huge. Success would mean a pacified Middle
East with enhanced American influence and prestige.
The question is, will Obama be prepared to take the risk of likely
failure, with the attendant consequences for his and America's