Whatever the reasons for what the Jewish leaders who met with Obama on Monday are doing, they could hardly be doing it at a worse time. Jennifer’s insightful post is on target with this warning: “If you think this administration is going to provide Israel with a reasonable comfort level or depart from its stance of moral equivalency, think again.”
On the one hand, we have Obama on Monday, advising and urging the Jewish leaders thus:
…Obama argued that he is the right man, at the right time, to press for a lasting Middle East peace agreement.
“He was very humble about it, not bragging, not talking himself up, but just being clear that there’s a set of assets that he brings,” [J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami] said. “That somebody with his ability to speak to the Muslim world, the political capital that he brings internationally as well as domestically — that isn’t going to come around all that often, and we have a narrow window before time runs out. He was very clear that this is a moment that has to be seized and he intends to seize it.”
On the other hand, we have actual developments relating to the two major strategic issues for Israel: the peace process with the Palestinian Arabs, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
On July 12, Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, made headlines with his proposal, in a London speech, for preemptive recognition of a Palestinian state by the UN. After invoking the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as “key,” Solana continued as follows (emphasis added):
The next ingredient for success is a real mediation. The parameters are defined. The mediator has to set the timetable too. If the parties are not able to stick to it, then a solution backed by the international community should be put on the table.
After a fixed deadline, a UN Security Council resolution should proclaim the adoption of the two-state solution. This should include all the parameters of borders, refugees, Jerusalem and security arrangements. It would accept the Palestinian state as a full member of the UN, and set a calendar for implementation. It would mandate the resolution of other remaining territorial disputes and legitimize the end of claims.
Avigdor Lieberman promptly pointed out that Solana is about to retire, and suggested that he is seeking to ensure a personal legacy, and therefore should not be taken too seriously. We may hope that Lieberman has received back-channel assurances from his counterparts in the EU member states. But we must also note that Israel and the Palestinians are increasingly the subjects of concerted, self-consciously “European” diplomacy.
The EU, as one of the Quartet in the peace process mediation, has heretofore mostly waited on the U.S. lead. However, a regional mechanism instituted last year affords European leaders an unprecedented pretext for independent intervention and negotiation. The EU-backed Mediterranean Union, which became the first such body to include both Israel and the Palestinians, was inaugurated in July 2008 at the joint behest of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. To date, its touted promise of bringing Israel and the Palestinians (as well as Syria and Lebanon) closer to peaceful accord has not seen fruition. But the mechanism it represents, for addressing Israel and the Palestinians directly at the level of Union partnership, is an opportunity waiting to happen, for European leaders emboldened by Solana’s July 12 move.
A genie has left the bottle here. Solana’s speech caps a period since March 2008 that has seen visits to Ramallah by Gordon Brown, Solana, Merkel, and Sarkozy; intensive diplomatic involvement by Sarkozy in the Gaza conflict in January 2009 (featuring the invocation of France’s renewed ties with Syria); and meetings by EU delegations with representatives of Hamas, in March and June 2009. The EU also retains, of course, its enduring status as the largest aid donor to the Palestinians.
Any policy-void left by American inactivity — such as that induced by Obama’s recalcitrance on the West Bank settlements — is more likely than ever to be filled by other actors. Europeans may not quite agree among themselves yet, but with the Mediterranean Union mechanism in place, they have a fresh incentive to.
Meanwhile, the G-8 agreement on a September deadline for Iran could not have selected the month more favorably for Iran’s schedule if it’d had that explicit intention. According to the IAEA’s June 5 report, Iran intends to fuel the light-water reactor at Bushehr in September-October 2009. Procrastination and diplomatic delays are likely to ensure that a window remains open long enough for Tehran, with Russia’s ongoing help, to get enriched uranium into the reactor’s fuel rods.
The significance of the light-water reactor to a nuclear-weapons program should not be overstated. There are more efficient ways to produce weapons-grade uranium (centrifuge enrichment, the plutonium reactor being built at Arak), and Iran is pursuing those in parallel with bringing the Bushehr reactor online.
But a fueled reactor is a substantially more difficult targeting problem than an empty one, portending at least some radioactive fallout if not disabled very precisely. This consideration drove the timing of Operation Opera in 1981. The political momentum Iran would gain from fueling the reactor and taking it critical would, moreover, be very difficult to reverse by diplomatic means. Iran’s “nuclearization” would be a fait accompli, and bargaining traction on weaponization concerns would be weakened and obfuscated — as experience with North Korea has demonstrated.
Perhaps Obama is the right man, at the right time, to deal with all this. The signs from the real world are not so promising, however, as to explain the American Jewish leaders’ uncritical acceptance of this peculiarly formulated assurance. They, and perhaps Israel’s own leadership, should take Rick Richman’s advice and polish up their talking points on the last decade of Israeli concessions and good faith. They may well have to make this pitch to a wider and more diffuse audience than just the man in the Oval Office.