Last week, at a think-tank conference in Washington, D.C., Martin Indyk recounted his most recent adventures in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in which he served as a special envoy for Secretary of State John Kerry. “For the time being the talks have been suspended,” Indyk, who served as the American ambassador to Jerusalem under President Bill Clinton, told the audience. “Some have said this process is over. But that is not correct. … As you all know well, in the Middle East it’s never over.”
That last observation is unquestionably true. Nothing is ever over in the Middle East, which is perhaps why the peace process has always been a pipe dream. The problem isn’t that successive generations of Palestinian and Israeli leaders haven’t had the guts or the will to make peace. The problem is that the core issues are essentially irreconcilable. It’s not just the big ones—what the rights of refugees should be, who gets what piece of land, whether Jerusalem is split, or shared, and so on. Even the seemingly straightforward demand from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state opens up into the abyss of capital-H History: Abbas fears that if he accedes, he’ll be remembered among his people not as a peacemaker but as the man who betrayed Palestinian claims to the land the Zionists took. The same will hold for every Palestinian leader to follow him until … who knows? So, the likelihood is that the conflict will never be over.
That’s not, of course, what Indyk meant. But what he and Kerry—like his predecessor Condoleezza Rice, who made her own all-out push for peace in the waning days of George W. Bush’s administration—refuse to accept is that what seems bad to most of the Washington establishment is actually OK for Jerusalem and Ramallah, which can now get back to their real business.
For Abbas, participating in the peace process was a way to buy credibility with the West and to look like a statesman on the international stage. The truth is, to him, the status quo is in many ways preferable to a Potemkin state and lasting personal infamy. But he has bigger problems now, chiefly internal challenges to his rule, most notably, as I’ve written, from his own intra-Fatah rival Mohamed Dahlan. It’s why he made the unity deal with Hamas last month. From Abbas’ perspective, it doesn’t matter that it’s likely to crash—at least he outflanked Dahlan, for a while anyway. And surely Netanyahu is relieved that the time and energy that American envoys like Indyk compelled Jerusalem to waste on the peace process can now be invested where it really matters—Iran.
Ironically, that is one of the few issues in the Middle East that may in fact get wrapped up soon, at least on paper. When it comes time to renew the P5+1’s interim agreement with Iran in July, it looks like the White House will go for a permanent deal. Sure, there are a number of sticking points, but both sides are eager to move on: Iran wants more sanctions relief, and President Barack Obama needs a major foreign-policy victory—especially before the November elections, when the Republicans might re-take the Senate and with it acquire the power to crash a final deal. Unlike Kerry, Obama already has a Nobel Peace Prize; all he needed out of the winter’s diplomatic efforts on the peace process was nine months of keeping the Israelis occupied so he could angle for a grand bargain with the regime in Tehran. Now he needs a little more time, and, accordingly, Kerry is heading to London right now to meet with Abbas about re-re-starting the negotiations that collapsed so spectacularly last month.
But as the Washington Free Beacon recently reported, a series of speeches by Netanyahu, as well as public comments from well-respected figures in Israel’s national security establishment suggest that a bad deal could, finally, prompt Israel to strike Iranian nuclear facilities—because the view from Jerusalem is that in spite of the White House’s impending deal with Tehran, the war with Iran isn’t going to be over anytime soon. As Netanyahu said after meeting with Susan Rice last week, during her first trip to Israel as Obama’s national security adviser, “It’s better to have no deal than a bad deal.”
“Netanyahu is genuinely concerned about Iran because he believes himself to be responsible for the fate of the Jewish people,” Einat Wilf, a onetime member of the Knesset with the Labor/Independence party told me last week in Washington. Since she is a politician from the left-wing of Israel’s political spectrum, it’s hardly natural that she’d come to the defense of an ideological rival, whose critics often paint him as a warmonger—but she does. “Netanyahu is an extremely prudent politician,” said Wilf, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Members of the right and security hawks initially criticized him for how he handled Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, that he didn’t send in ground troops and root out Hamas once and for all. But that’s not his style. He massed thousands of troops on the borders and showed he was willing to use them. But then he got the ceasefire he wanted and pulled back.”
However, some in Israel do think that Netanyahu and his allies have blown the Iran issue out of proportion. The former head of Israel’s Atomic Energy commission Uzi Eilam said last week that it will take Iran another decade to produce an operational nuclear weapon—and warned that, in the meantime, bombing Iran will only lead to an “all-out war.” Eilam also opposed bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007, both strikes that turned out to be the right decision; now, Eilam insists, Netanyahu is following his predecessors in trying to terrify Israelis about Iran because it’s politically expedient.
With Iran, says Eilam, Netanyahu is too riled up—but with the Palestinians, says Indyk, he’s too blasé. Jerusalem seems to believe the status quo with the former is tolerable, but with the latter, it’s unacceptable. The Americans can make their deal with Tehran on nukes, but that will do nothing to solve what, for Israel, is arguably the much more important issue. Between the thousands of Iranian assets and allies—from IRGC-Quds Force troops to Iraqi militants—now in Syria, the Islamic Republic is now on two of Israel’s borders.
Still, Eilam has a point as the survival of Israel—and by extension, the survival of the Jewish people—does not hang in the balance as it did in 1948, or 1967, or 1973. Otherwise, Netanyahu would have already launched strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities—for he knows as well as anyone that there is virtually no chance that Obama will take military action to stop Tehran’s inexorable march toward the bomb.
But there will almost surely not be an Israeli strike. Instead, as I’ve argued here before, Jerusalem may have already moved to an active campaign of deterrence, which means giving neither Iran nor its allies any quarter. Covert warfare, assassinations, targeting convoys carrying strategic weapons to Hezbollah across the Syrian border, interdicting arms shipments at sea—all these tactics are about drawing clear red lines to show Tehran that any misstep will result in much worse for Iran.
This is a non-heroic moment in Israeli history—which is, in fact, a good thing for Israel. Many in the American pro-Israel community believe that Netanyahu has inherited a Churchillian mantle as defender of Western liberal democracy in the Middle East. But that’s not his job. It’s his job to protect Israeli citizens, which means trying his utmost to keep the country out of conflict while also enhancing its prosperity. This is the Bibi that Israelis like—not a white knight brandishing a bright sword, but a cautious and conflict-averse leader who can promise some modicum of Western-style stability and normalcy in a region where nothing is ever over.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).