Obama’s Reverse Linkage on Iran-Palestine

Hours before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his turn addressing the UN General Assembly, Iran’s Foreign Minister called him a liar. “We have seen nothing from Netanyahu but lies and actions to deceive and scare, and international public opinion will not let these lies go unanswered,” Mohammad Javad Zarif said while being interviewed by Iranian television. Zarif is referring to a familiar refrain—which has become Netanyahu’s prized hobby horse–from two decades of Israeli leaders warning that Iran stands poised to build a nuclear bomb in six months only to have the weapon never materialize. Charges of dissimulation aren’t new for Netanyahu, who was memorably called a liar by former French President Nicholas Sarkozy in a private conversation with President Obama caught by a microphone that was left on by mistake.

Politicians are adept at deception and lie as a matter of course so for Netanyahu to have this reputation among his international counterparts speaks volumes. Even compared to his fellow politicos, Netanyahu must be a virtuoso at telling whoppers and having them become accepted as common knowledge. Why else do most people still believe Iran has a nuclear weapons program if not for Netanyahu peddling this fiction? But the world witnessed his crowning achievement in making outrageously false statements when, during his UNGA speech, he said “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.” Israel has no valid military option and if Iran ever felt too hard-pressed and decided to dash for a bomb, just standing around is literally all Netanyahu would be able to do; anything more and Israel, in the judgment of former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, “will find itself at the centre of a regional war that would endanger the state’s existence.”

Netanyahu isn’t about to commit national suicide so his talk of standing alone against Iran if diplomacy fails and the world neglects to retaliate isn’t so much an outright lie as a half-truth. Netanyahu is here relying on ambiguity—another hallmark of politicians. Since he didn’t explicitly threaten Israeli military action in his speech–and never has in the past–standing alone can alternatively be interpreted as measures short of war like cyber warfare sabotage and containment. At all events, Israel won’t be dropping bombs and therefore a U.S.-Iran deal is as good as done. To cope with this inevitability, he’s using such mendacious language to slow down the pace of the deal-making to see if he can win any consolatory concessions from Washington. Whenever Israel has threatened Iran, it has been to get U.S. goodies and it’s the same in this case. Israel won’t get everything it wants this time but there’s no harm in trying.

The primary thing Netanyahu is shooting for is to maintain a linkage between Iran and Palestine. Obama seemed to be doing this already when he spoke of those two issues in close proximity in his UN address and made resolving them the near term priorities of his foreign policy. Some in Israel took this as Obama signaling to Netanyahu that he wants an Iran for Palestine exchange. For Raphael Ahren, “the linkage offered the interpretation that Obama remained determined to thwart Iran’s nuclear quest, but also to ensure that Jerusalem show itself increasingly forthcoming on the Palestinian quest for statehood.” That is one interpretation of Obama’s intent but I disagree. Note the order of this formula–Iran comes before Palestine—which implies that Netanyahu won’t budge on Palestine until Iran is taken care of to Israel’s liking. Obama isn’t obtuse enough to be duped by that so what he’s really suggesting is the reverse—Palestine first, then Iran.

This is in fact exactly what Obama is doing, as David Bromwich pointed out back in May 2009 when he was reporting on a press availability following Obama’s first meeting with Netanyahu:

“And when Netanyahu said the Israeli attitude toward Palestine would completely depend on the details of progress toward securing Iran against the acquisition of a single nuclear weapon, Obama replied that his view was almost the reverse… how far, a reporter asked Obama, did he assent to the Netanyahu concept of “linkage”–the idea that first the U.S. must deal with Iran, and a more obliging Israeli approach to Palestine will surely follow. Obama answered: “if there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians–between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”

So it appears I was right on target when I speculated that ending the Iran nuclear stand-off is why the Obama administration sought the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks but erred in thinking that Iran-Palestine linkage was a brand-new strategy for Obama and Netanyahu. Each has been trying to push their conception of linkage on the other since they entered office, with Obama recently winning the struggle by getting the Israelis back to the negotiating table. But does Obama’s reverse linkage mean that Washington can’t make any progress with Iran until there’s a two state solution? Of course not—an agreement would be reached on Iran’s nuclear program regardless of the I-P situation. Iran has never demanded I-P peace be a condition for a deal and the U.S. could leave the Palestinians in temporary limbo if the Pacific Pivot could begin to get underway.

If that happened it wouldn’t be a completely sneaky cop-out because reverse linkage would still apply after Iran and the West settle their differences. A successful deal will permit Iran domestic uranium enrichment which means the “potential Iranian threat” remains because nobody has a military option. An Iran that feels backed into a corner could dash for nukes with impunity. Détente with Iran is the only absolute guarantee this doesn’t occur and this is where I-P becomes vital. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who also subscribes to reverse linkage, observed that resolving I-P “will be a thunderbolt for peace” and it undoubtedly would be if, by healing the Middle East’s sorest spot, the resultant goodwill from regional neighbors helps start to rebuild the bridges for Iran-U.S. detente.