A report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth is getting a lot of play today. It says the Obama administration is dead serious about a two-state solution, and that it is "sharpening its tone" in addressing the Netanyahu government. In particular, the United States has reportedly told Israel that "any treatment of the Iranian nuclear problem will be contingent upon progress in the negotiations and an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory." The Netanyahu government is said to have "agreed to show a united front that the route to reaching a solution would be the road map, and would clarify that Israeli flexibility on the Palestinian issue would be contingent upon the American approach toward resolving the Iranian threat, as well as its attitude towards Hamas and Hizbullah."
It goes on:
Senior US administration officials are fully aware of the linkage that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have created between Israeli willingness to make advances on the Palestinian track and their expectations of the Americans to address the Iranian threat, and senior American officials have begun to talk about "Bushehr for Yitzhar." Namely, if you want us to help you defuse the Iranian threat, including the nuclear reactor in Bushehr, get ready to evacuate settlements in the West Bank, with Yitzhar [note: a West Bank settlement-SW] considered to be a token of an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory."
This report has been hailed by a number of bloggers--including M. J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum and Matt Yglesias at the Center for American Progress--as an encouraging sign that the Obama administration intends to achieve a two-state solution in Obama's first term, as the President indicated he would during the campaign.
Assuming the report is true, it is encouraging news, as it suggests that the Obama administration is not going to put up with Israeli foot-dragging and will actually use American leverage on both sides to move toward a two-state solution. But linking this so emphatically to the Iranian issue strikes me as a mistake, because it could give Tehran a de facto veto over the peace process. If Israeli compliance becomes directly tied to a resolution of Iran's nuclear program on terms acceptable to Israel, and if Iran decides to stonewall, then the Netanyahu government will have an excuse to dig in its own heels. Ironically, that outcome might not trouble the Iranian government, which exploits the Israeli-Palestine conflict to enhance its own influence, to put more pressure on the United States, and to keep Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia off-balance by emphasizing their failure to do anything tangible to help the Palestinians.
The key point to grasp is that a two-state solution would be good for the United States and Israel whatever the state of U.S-Iranian relations or the state of Iran's nuclear program. Israeli control of the West Bank offers no defense against Iranian missiles, and peace between Israel and the Palestinians would remove one of Iran's main points of leverage and make it easier for the United States, Israel, and the Arab world to join forces against Iran should it actively threaten the balance of power in the Gulf. The issues are connected in strategic terms, but linking them in the manner suggested by the article could make it harder to make progress on either one.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.