Requiem for a Process

Another round of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, another predictable failure–Israel has suspended talks in response to Fatah and Hamas reconciling and preparing plans to forge an interim “national consensus” government whose ministers will be independent of either faction. It’s an undeniable sign that Israel isn’t interested in peace since the Israeli government before insisted that no agreement was possible while the Palestinians were divided. This breakdown is so negative that now President Obama is talking of a pause in the U.S.-led effort where Washington will step back and let both parties find their own way forward. Obama hasn’t given up entirely and America’s peace team will continue to offer proposals to get them to “walk through the door.” Taking this hands-off approach, however, comes across as the Obama administration getting walloped once again by this obdurate conflict. It will surely be spun that way in the analyses of the commentariat but what they don’t know is the White House took a dive.

The conflict was never meant to be solved this time around and Kerry’s crusade was a ruse for an elaborate trap. The administration failed on purpose because Israel has upheld their end of the bargain and sufficiently backed off on Iran. It was no coincidence that when Israel-Palestinian talks were on the brink of collapse earlier this month, there simultaneously sprouted up encouraging news on the Iran front. At the end of his visit to Israel, Bloomberg reported General Martin Dempsey as saying that “Israel’s view of how soon Iran will gain a nuclear-weapon capability has become much closer to that of officials in Washington.” The news kept getting better when it was announced that Iran and the P5+1 were to start drafting the final deal in May and that concerns about the Arak plant were settled. In return for not raising hell over these developments, the U.S. is rewarding Israel by laying off I-P and will scuttle these talks in such a way that no side faces blame and some slight progress is made for a future, serious international effort.

A comprehensive nuclear accord with Iran is in the bag. The hawks are well aware that they will go down in defeat and have begun looking beyond the final deal. James Jeffrey and David Pollock of WINEP wrote about ways to handle Iran post-agreement. Former General David Petraeus envisions a “day after” scenario where the U.S. clamps down in the Middle East to counter a re-charged Iran. This forward thinking is why those who are worried about Congress not lifting the nuclear-related sanctions shouldn’t be. This battle has already been won. But what swayed the legislators? I think the administration convinced anti-deal hawks behind-the-scenes that becoming friendly rivals with Iran is best for the faltering American empire. Further, the U.S.’s global influence is on the wane and if jittery hawks wish to shore up Washington as the world’s leader they would do well to ensure our diplomatic reputation doesn’t take a nosedive because an intransigent Congress torpedoes a deal that everyone else wants.

The administration has won on Iran and consequently has left I-P adrift in the wind. What should be done if the Israelis and Palestinians fail to walk through Obama’s door? The New York Times Editorial board thinks the U.S. should wash its hands of I-P, writing “It is time for the administration to lay down the principles it believes must undergird a two-state solution” and move on. This is the requiem for the U.S. led peace process but its passing will go unlamented by the world as the U.S.’s monopolization of the process is what has lead to decades of deadlock. Indeed, doing nothing might be for the best since a neutral US would not interfere with the avalanche of international pressure on Israel to choose between two states or one.

And don’t think Washington will be able to come to the rescue even if it doesn’t become neutral. Should the two state solution be seen to have irremediably collapsed there would be much support for a democratic one state solution amongst the US public. President Harry Truman once wrote to Bartley Crum that a bi-national state “was the correct solution, and, I think, eventually we are going to get it worked out just that way.” Well, it has taken nearly seventy years but I daresay Truman will be proven right.

Putting the Nuclear Genie Back in the Bottle

For Iran, negotiating over its nuclear program is an indirect method of accomplishing détente with the West. The United States could also be moving towards this end by using the specter of a nuclear Iran as a danger so great (even after a final accord) that the only way to forestall it will be to completely reconcile with the Islamic Republic. Patching things up with Tehran is very much in Washington’s interests. Working together with Iran to put a damper on Sunni-Shiite sectarianism would keep regional tensions to a minimum, freeing up the U.S. to begin its high priority pivot to the Pacific. In addition to aiding its long-awaited disengagement from the Middle East, I think the U.S. has yet another hidden aim in playing up the Iranian nuclear threat. I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that an agreement with Iran is the first step to stripping Israel of its nuclear arsenal through the creation of a Mideast Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.

But how can this be, one might ask, when the U.S. has backed Israel in its policy of nuclear ambiguity for decades? Well, it’s not so much a sign of hearty support as it is Washington making the best of a bad situation. Joseph Cirincione told Max Fisher that “We are not okay with Israel having nuclear weapons, but Washington policymakers realize there is nothing they can do about it in the short term.” Cirincione goes on to explain that “Israel will only give up its nuclear weapons in the context of a regional peace settlement.” Naturally, this would include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and so puts the Obama administration’s determination to find a resolution to it in a more understandable light. As of now, that outcome looks as elusive as ever but that’s only if the U.S. is set on a two state solution. Ending the occupation and granting Palestinians autonomy would serve just as well and the U.S. could use the calm from that move to convince Israel that peace has finally arrived and they can safely join a nuke-free zone.

Aside from its non-proliferation agenda and ultimate goal of a nuke-free world, why does Washington disapprove of allied Israel’s not-so-secret stash? It’s a liability for U.S. designs in the region, as Jonathan Cook explains:

“Francis Perrin, the head of the French Atomic Agency in the 1950s and 60s, when France was helping Israel develop a nuclear weapon against the wishes of the US, once observed that the Israeli bomb was really “aimed against the Americans”. Not because Israel wanted to attack the US, but because it realized that—once it possessed the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East—the US would rarely risk standing in its way, however much its policies ran counter to US interests.”

Working to create a nuke-free zone is the perfect, round-about way to ensure we are no longer “targeted” by the Israeli bomb. The U.S. can’t reasonably expect a polite request that Israel sign the NPT and hand over its nukes to be met with anything other than scoffing guffaws from Tel Aviv. Washington cannot confront Israel head-on about this pillar of their security and knows it has to exert pressure from the shadows. Daoud Kuttab was once told by an American bureau chief in Israel who “prided himself in with knowing the key to getting Israel to politically move in the peace process” that “You must use invisible hands to hurt them… The Israelis must feel the pain without being able to clearly identify or expose the source of the pain.” The U.S. putting on a theatrical production about Iran’s nuclear program is a deft application of this lesson.

Both the U.S. and Israel wouldn’t be threatened by an Iranian bomb and I’ve written before that all the hysteria is really about kindling a non-nuclear cold war with Iran as part of our larger confrontation with China. Now, I’m convinced that it’s also Washington using its “invisible hands” to have Israel’s strident warnings about Iran’s nuclear capabilities unwittingly train the spotlight on its own arsenal. “The world won’t let you have nuclear ambiguity if you act crazy,” Former Israeli Intelligence Chief Ami Ayalon said in an interview with Harvey Morris, meaning that “Israel will face mounting pressure to acknowledge the existence of its nuclear weapons arsenal as an unintended consequence of its government’s belligerent stance towards Iran.” So why else would the Israelis be feverishly leading the charge against Iran if the world ends up questioning whether Israel can even be trusted with nukes? It’s because the U.S has been goading them into it.

Back in 2005 Uri Avnery wrote about how the Bush administration was flaunting Israel “like a Rottweiler on a leash, whose master threatens to let him loose on his enemies.” President George W. Bush sent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a signal when he proclaimed that if he were Israel’s leader, Iran would be causing him to sweat. Bush wanted Sharon to crank Israel’s anti-Iran rhetoric up a couple notches. Sharon likely thought a hypothetical nuclear Iran to be troubling but not an apocalyptic threat that needed to be met with shrill belligerence and threats of bombing. Nevertheless, Sharon got the message and responded by replacing his Chief-of-Staff with an Air Force General. Sharon was prepared to play the Rottweiler and would have attacked when the U.S. bid, Avnery thought, “in return for an American agreement to allow him to gobble up some more pieces of the Palestinian territories.”

Sharon was never given the green-light because, then as now, the military option against Iran was a bluff. That the U.S. initiated this bluff and drew a reluctant (at first) Israel into it is evidence enough to me that Washington deputized Tel Aviv as the bad cop to eventually bring Israel’s nukes into the discussion as part of the settlement with Iran. Iran doesn’t have to strike any deal so in exchange for being a good sport by participating in the U.S.’s drawn-out drama Tehran will certainly request that Washington stop ignoring Israel’s stockpile and lend all its weight to finally establishing a regional nuke-free zone. A giddy D.C. will be quick to reciprocate.