Israel’s Foreign Policy in the Shadow of Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

, December 30, 2009

Vol. 9, No. 16    December 30, 2009   

  • Israel must simultaneously pursue three interdependent tracks for advancing Israeli-Palestinian relations: capacity-building measures that foster the rule of law within the Palestinian Authority, regional economic cooperation, and meaningful political dialogue.
  • Although conducting dialogue with the Palestinians is a matter of utmost importance for Israel, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s recent plan to unilaterally declare statehood after a two-year state-building process is unrealistic. The emergence of a future Palestinian state will only be a result of consensus and successful negotiations, not an artificial timeline.
  • If we are to proceed with a viable diplomatic process with the Palestinians, it is critically important to curb malign Iranian influence in the region and its support of terror proxies like Hizbullah and Hamas.
  • Challenging the Iranian bid for hegemony, however, is not the responsibility of Israel alone, but of the larger international community, which must make it clear to the regime led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that there is a steep price to pay for its continued violations of international norms and UN resolutions.

During World War II, David Ben-Gurion famously said: “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war.” Today Israel seems determined to solve the Palestinian issue as if there were no Iranian threat, and as part of the international community it is determined to remove the Iranian threat as if there were no Palestinian issue. Yet the two problems share a common root.

Palestinian Tracks

At the moment there are three ongoing tracks for Israeli-Palestinian relations. Although they are in different stages of evolution, they should be pursued simultaneously.

First, there are capacity-building measures. The Israeli government supports the U.S.-led multinational effort to train the Palestinian Authority’s security forces in the West Bank, headed by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton. We also value the European Union’s efforts to bolster the rule of law and law enforcement norms within the Palestinian Authority. More steps should be taken to insure a transparent Palestinian culture of governance that includes the right institutions, a separation of powers, and the rule of law. We would like to see a state which can take care of itself, behaves responsibly vis-à-vis both its citizens and other nations, and abides by international norms.

The second track is that of economic development. Israel wishes to see Palestinians enjoy the same standard of living every human being deserves. Already there are positive changes in standard of living indicators in the Palestinian Authority: unemployment is down, tourism is up, and there is an 8 percent GDP growth in the West Bank. But in order to create thousands of Palestinian jobs, a goal which lies within easy reach, we need a kind of Marshall Plan to build an industrial base. Even as the Israeli government has done much in this respect by allowing access and movement of goods, Arab countries could be doing much more. Both the Americans and Europeans have called on the Arab League to pitch in. And Saudi Arabia, enriched by its trillions of dollars from oil exports, is well placed to make a significant contribution to improving the Palestinian economy.

Capacity-building and economic cooperation can usher in progress on the third track, political dialogue, which must be pursued simultaneously with the other two tracks. Whatever the date of the next Palestinian Authority elections, I believe that within a few months we could see the initiation of a meaningful dialogue. Certainly that is Israel’s intention. We want to resume a peace process with no preconditions. As we do not demand that the Palestinians agree to preconditions, we will not accept any preconditions imposed on us.

Yet, strangely, the dialogue was severed by the Palestinian side despite the fact that the same Palestinian Authority administration that conducted an intensive dialogue with the last Israeli government is still in power. Nothing has changed except the administrations in Washington and Jerusalem. Since Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister, however, Israel’s offer to meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas without preconditions was rebuffed. The same offer came from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Meanwhile, even low-level meetings have not been held with Palestinian representatives for the simple reason that the Palestinians choose not to meet with us.

The cornerstone of dialogue is already in place: it was laid out in the Bush letter of April 14, 2004, which committed the United States to defensible borders for Israel, to Israel’s retention of major settlement blocs, and on the refugee issue suggested that all Palestinian refugees return to the future Palestinian state rather than Israel. But Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s recent plan to unilaterally declare statehood after a two-year state-building process is unrealistic. The emergence of a future Palestinian state will only be a result of consensus and successful negotiations, not an artificial timeline.

Conducting dialogue with the Palestinians is a matter of utmost importance for Israel. It is in our interest as well as theirs, as it is in the interest of our neighboring Arab states and beyond. Because that dialogue must proceed as fast as possible on multiple tracks, trying to single out an issue like settlements was a misstep, not only from a moral but also from a political point of view as well. Instead, a wide array of topics ought to be discussed: territory, resources, sovereignty, independence, demilitarization, what is euphemistically called “the right of return,” Jerusalem, settlements, terror, incitement, and recognizing Israel for what it determines itself to be – a Jewish state.

The Iranian Connection

If we are to proceed with a viable diplomatic process with the Palestinians, however, Israel must remove the obstacles that arise in the form of terror organizations such as Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, and other groups that have sought to derail the process. These organizations are receiving Iranian support at ever increasing volumes. After the Gaza operation, for example, Hamas has not only been able to replenish all its losses in military equipment, but has even upgraded its rocket capabilities by obtaining missiles which have put Tel Aviv within target range. Hamas is almost exclusively supported by Iranian funds, training, and equipment. The same is true of Hizbullah and other terror organizations through which Iran is seeking to undermine Sunni governments in the region. So to achieve better prospects for dialogue with the Palestinians – without the threats of terror, extremism, and incitement – it is critically important to curb local Iranian influence.

Indeed, today all the worst threats to the Middle East originate in Iran. Lebanon is a case in point. The most urgent threat to the Lebanese people comes not from Israel or the West, but from Hizbullah – an Iranian organ which represents Iranian interests, not Lebanese ones. Other countries in the region are similarly affected. Large terror rings operated by Hizbullah have been discovered in Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Closer to home, it is clear that the main obstacle to the viability of the Palestinian Authority is Hamas, which, although it is a Sunni organization, is backed by the Iranians. Iran is also trying to recruit Israelis, and is helping Islamic Jihad and other terror organizations to perpetrate attacks in Israel.

Yet the Iranian menace is hardly limited to the Middle East alone. Iran was behind the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992, in which 30 people were killed, as well as the July 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that left some 100 people dead. General Ahmad Vahidi, today the defense minister of Iran, is wanted by Interpol for masterminding the 1994 attack. More recently, Hugo Chavez has turned Venezuela into a kind of forward base for the Iranians in South America, and Hizbullah terrorist cells now operate on the Venezuela-Colombia border.

Iran – a radical regime with an extreme ideology – remains a country with global as well as regional ambitions. The Iranians talk about hegemony, and about the return of the Twelfth Imam, also known as the Hidden Imam or the Mahdi. Claiming direct contact with Allah, the country’s clerics believe that they are ordained to rule the Middle East by Shari’a. They also believe that the glory days of Islam are still ahead. Most troublingly, their missiles can reach Europe. Iran is thus a world problem, not merely an Israeli problem. In a sense, Israel is taking a back seat, hoping that the other 192 member states of the United Nations will be able to halt further nuclear enrichment in Iran and impose an effective monitoring mechanism. After all, it is by no means preordained that Iran will attain nuclear weapons. This eventuality can still be stopped.

The good news is that the regime led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has fewer and fewer cards to play. As the post-election protests have demonstrated, Iran is vulnerable both politically and socially. It also remains economically weak, unable to withstand long-term economic sanctions that could grind its economy to a halt and further undermine the present regime. The international community must make clear to the Iranians both that there is a steep price to pay for its continued violations of UN resolutions, and also that the international community stands united in purpose and in policy.

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Danny Ayalon was appointed Ambassador to the United States in 2002. Prior to that he had served as Deputy Foreign Policy Adviser to two previous prime ministers, and as Chief Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, during which time he was a member of the Israeli delegations to the Sharm El-Sheikh (1997), Wye Plantation (1998), and Camp David (2000) summits. He also played a leading role in the negotiations for the Roadmap and the exchange of letters on April 14, 2004, between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Sharon. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on November 3, 2009.