The Obama administration’s point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, traveled to the Middle East this week to reassure Arab states concerned about U.S. overtures to Tehran and to stress America’s commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“Israel understands what [President Barack] Obama is saying about the need to do something for the Arabs [to win their support in this new approach to Iran],” said Eran Lerman, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East office in Jerusalem. “But Israel is saying we cannot take any risks in the future if Iran dominates the area.”
Earlier this month, Egypt arrested on its soil 50 members of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist group who had left their base in Lebanon to try to undermine the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while transferring arms to Hamas, another Iran-backed terrorist group in Gaza.
“These are dangerous people,” Lerman said of the Iranians.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the U.S. “has to be skeptical” about Arab support for the U.S. in its handling of Iran because “many have accepted the fact that it is going to be a nuclear power, and so better accommodate it.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that should America fail in its attempt to engage Iran on regional security issues and to make concessions on its quest for nuclear weapons, “crippling sanctions” might be necessary.
The U.S. is attempting to convince moderate Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to support its actions should such sanctions be necessary. But Erman said that in order to put together such an Arab coalition, “the Israeli-Palestinian situation has to be seen as evolving towards something the U.S. can point to and say something is going on there.”
Obama is expected to reiterate that position when he meets May 18 with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Lerman said he believes such peace initiatives are bound to fail, however, if Iran continues to “undermine whatever agreement is made with the Palestinians, and if whatever concessions Israel offers are seen as a sign of weakness.”
Talks between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian party that controls the West Bank, resumed this week in Cairo in an effort to form a unity government. Several prior attempts have failed.
Moshe Elad, a researcher at the Shmuel Neaman Institute at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, said the new talks would also fail because their differences are too great to close.
“I foresee more clashes and more violence between them,” he said.
The conflict would spill into the West Bank were it not for Israeli troops keeping the peace there, Elad said. Should those troops withdraw, Hamas would quickly seize control, he predicted. He added that he would not be surprised to learn that the Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and his followers have already bought property elsewhere in the event they are overthrown by Hamas.
“They are very much afraid,” he said.
Noting that Abbas this week said he and the Palestinians do not accept the notion of Israel as a Jewish state, Steinberg said he sees little point in negotiating with them.
“The issues of apartheid and racism go back to the right of Israel to be a Jewish state,” he said. “It’s the heart of the conflict. There is no sense of a peace treaty or even negotiating with the Palestinians and the Arab world if at the end of the day they see Israel as illegitimate.”
Elad said that when he heard Abbas’ statement – which made the front pages of the Israeli newspapers – “I asked myself, `If this is the most moderate Palestinian leader, what do we expect from the others? He is saying what Khalid Meshal [Hamas’ leader in exile] is saying from Damascus. The only difference is that Abbas was meeting with [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert in his office.”
Elad pointed out that the last poll taken of Israelis found that a growing number “don’t believe this feud [with the Palestinians] is solvable.”
Nevertheless, the Obama administration is looking for progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and Steinberg said Netanyahu is trying to “come up with a new formula that will satisfy the Obama administration and not give away too much.”