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The Grand Bargain

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Barely a week goes past without an article being published discussing the feasibility and likelihood of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran - a matter receiving further prominence as in Baghdad this week, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (plus Germany) will meet with Iran to discuss its nuclear ambitions. Speculation typically focuses on whether Israel can successfully neuter Iran's nuclear infrastructure unilaterally.

Most seasoned observers conclude this as being improbable, and it is therefore likely that Israel will turn to its principal ally, the United States, for assistance. No doubt the Americans are reluctant to involve themselves in yet another Middle Eastern adventure. However, perhaps the strongest case for their intervention is a connection that may not seem obvious to many - that by attacking Iran, a solution to the seemingly intractable issue of the Israeli Palestinian conflict may be unlocked.

This supposition is not as fanciful as one might think. Since Barack Obama took office almost four years ago, a two state solution between Israel and the Palestinians looks as unachievable as ever. This is partly due to Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government has demonstrated a consistent lack of flexibility towards the Palestinians. Matters are not helped by the Palestinian Authority's unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations last year, and the continuing success of Hamas (still eternally sworn to the destruction of Israel), who rule with an iron fist in Gaza, and who continually strive to expand their power base in the West Bank.

Yet a great opportunity presents itself to end the current gridlock: in short, Mr Obama offers the following proposition to the Israelis - we will assist you in any future attack against Iran, but, in return, you must agree to the immediate cessation of settlement expansion in the West Bank, and commit to the future dismantling of various settlements in this troubled part of the world.

Now, the standard Israeli objection to such an undertaking is that without an adequate Palestinian partner for peace, their hands are tied. However, unlike many of the other contentious issues that separate these sides (such as the future of Jerusalem), both of the actions described above can be implemented unilaterally - a settlement freeze is the prerogative of the Israeli government alone, and, although perhaps not the best example, Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005 shows that it can dismantle settlements without coordinating with the Palestinians. Also, Israel has previously identified (during the Camp David talks in 2000 and in successive negotiations with the Palestinians) which West Bank settlements it would keep, and those which it would be willing to abandon to facilitate the emergence of a future Palestinian state. Such a manoeuvre by Israel may reignite the moribund peace negotiations - for the Palestinians, the continual growth of the settlements unquestionably presents one of the greatest obstacles to the success of such future talks.

Although such measures place a burden on Israel to make substantial concessions (without potentially receiving anything in return from the Palestinians), these should be presented as the necessary sacrifice it must make in return for US military help on Iran. This proposition benefits Mr Obama too - not only would a nuclear Iran diminish American power in the Middle East, but it also sends shivers down the spines of many actors in the region, least of all in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, who could well be panicked into beginning their own nuclear arms race. More optimistically, any moves towards a peaceful resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict would, at the very least, diminish a perpetual source of Arab anger towards the West. If he could pull this off, Mr. Obama would glow in the prestige of having come closer than any of his predecessors in achieving peace between these warring sides, in perfect time for his re-election campaign, which is already underway.

Regardless of this hypothesis, matters are intensifying - a further display of recalcitrance by Iran at the Baghdad summit will stoke the flames of those who do not believe that its nuclear objectives are honourable. Two other recent events also suggest that now would be a propitious time to strike - for the first since in almost a decade there are now no US troops in Iraq (who previously would have been at risk from any potential Iranian retaliation). Also Syria's President Bashar Assad is currently preoccupied with consolidating his grip on power, therefore his ability to coordinate a military response against Israel following an attack on Iran is somewhat inhibited.

The time of reckoning is getting closer. It may be that Israel can successfully deal with the existential threat posed by Iran on its own. However, if it cannot, and needs to call upon the help of its closest ally, this could be a rare opportunity for the United States to tie up two increasingly toxic loose ends, thereby making the Middle East both a safer, and more just place.

Around the Web

Iran attack decision nears, Israeli elite locks down | Reuters

Iran–Israel relations - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Iran, Israel attend secret nuclear meet in Cairo - Haaretz Daily ...

Israel-Loves-Iran | Facebook