By Ethan Bronner
New York Times
December 10, 2006
THE day after the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq was released, Israeli leaders,
including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, rejected the part that urged the United
States to refocus on the Israeli-Arab conflict because all Middle East issues
were, it said, "inextricably linked."
Mr. Olmert responded, "The U.S.'s problems in Iraq are entirely independent of
the problems between us and the Palestinians."
Yet Mr. Olmert's own recent statements and actions belie his argument. Partly
in anticipation of an American shift in policy and partly out of longstanding
and growing concern over Iran, he has been pursuing an approach to Israeli
interests that involves reaching out to the Palestinians and Iraq's neighbors.
It could almost have been taken from the playbook written by James A. Baker
In a speech late last month at the grave of Israel's founding prime minister,
David Ben-Gurion, Mr. Olmert called for the establishment of a sovereign
Palestinian state and said he would seek the help of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi
Arabia and other gulf countries to make that a reality.
For the first time he praised elements of a 2002 Saudi-sponsored plan calling
for full diplomatic relations between all Arab states and Israel in exchange
for such a Palestinian state (under certain conditions). Senior Israeli
officials have met in recent months not only with Jordanians and Egyptians
but - most notably - with Saudis.
The reason: Israel's overriding concern is the rise of Iran and its nuclear
program, especially because Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called
often for Israel to be wiped off the map and has dismissed the Holocaust as a
The Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt share Israel's concern
about Shiite Iran and worry about its eventual influence in an Iraq that is
spinning out of control. So they have made modest gestures toward Israel and
the United States and urged them to move ahead with a Palestinian state. Both
countries are listening.
"The Saudis are saying to us, 'We are afraid of Iran and want to work with you
but the Palestinian issue has to be solved,' " a senior Israeli official said,
insisting on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "To
some extent this is an excuse but to some extent it is genuine. This is partly
what motivated Olmert's speech."
He added that the growing domination of Palestinian politics by Hamas, the
militant Islamist group that calls for Israel's destruction and has received
Iranian aid, is a threat to secular Arab rulers just as it is to Israel. So
they want to boost the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who favors
negotiations with Israel - and that, too, coincides with Israel's view.
The war last summer between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah
falls into a similar category. Hezbollah, which is sponsored and armed by
Iran, is seeking to take over the Lebanese government.
The three current or potential civil wars in the Middle East, then - in
Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian areas - are therefore all interlinked in
Israel's logic, with Iran as the common denominator.
The result is that Israeli leaders, while publicly complaining about Mr. Baker's
linkage of all Middle Eastern problems, are acting as if there is a
connection, and seeking common cause with Arab states over Iran and the
In fact, this is not new. Michael B. Oren, an Israeli historian with a book
coming out next month on American involvement in the Middle East, said he was
at a meeting with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 as peace talks with the
Palestinians under Yasir Arafat were starting.
"He said to the group, 'Why am I embarking on this, taking a risk of talking
to Arafat?' " Mr. Oren recalled. " 'The answer is Iran. We have to stabilize
our relations with the Arab world in order to deal with the real threat, which
is Iran.' So already then, Israel understood that the peace process with the
Palestinians begins with Iran."
There are two other reasons Mr. Olmert and other Israelis spoke out against
the report's call for linkage: They don't want others to define linkage for
them; they want any linkage to be on their terms, out of their own mouths. And
they never liked Mr. Baker, whom they considered hostile when he was secretary
of state in the early 1990's.
That said, most Israelis and many independent analysts see a straight linkage
between the Palestinian question and Iraq as something of a mirage. As Daniel
Kurtzer, the former American ambassador to Israel and now a professor at
Princeton, put it: "If the United States brokered peace talks between Israel
and the Palestinians, do you think a single Iraqi gunman would put down his
weapon? Not a chance."
And a senior Israeli official made another point. "Why would we want to link
our own problem to a nightmare like Iraq? It's a terrible mess there. We don't
want it to be thought that until it is solved we can't solve our problem."
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