Pressed on Palestinian state, Netanyahu changes the subject – to Iran

Ahead of his Monday meeting with Obama, who supports a two-state solution, the Israeli prime minister wants to make Iran's nuclear ambitions the focus of regional diplomacy.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In advance of his meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday, conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has engaged in a flurry of diplomacy with neighboring Arab leaders this week.

On Monday, he met with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, followed by a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II on Thursday, reportedly to express his intention to engage in talks with Palestinian leaders. Next week, he is expected to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Just six weeks into his second term, Mr. Netanyahu has so far shown little interest in making concessions, and – most troubling to Arab leaders – he has not expressed support for a Palestinian state. He has instead cast Iranian nuclear ambitions as his nation's main concern and is expected to appeal for Mr. Obama's support on this issue during their forthcoming meeting.

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The US shares Israel's concern about Iran, whose president has called for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map."

Netanyahu has envisioned "unprecedented cooperation" between Israelis and Sunni Arab states – such as Egypt and Jordan, where he visited this week – to contain that threat.

But as King Abdullah and his allies push hard for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a solution Obama supports – many Middle East analysts say Netanyahu's focus on Iran may be an attempt to divert attention from the peace process.

"What Netanyahu is attempting to do, is using Iran to change the subject," says James Gelvin, a professor of history at the University of California in Los Angeles.

During his meeting with President Mubarak on Monday, the Israeli premier expressed his intent to resume peace talks with Palestinian authorities, but also called attention to Sunni Arabs' shared concerns about Shiite Iran's nuclear program.

After meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, Netanyahu told reporters that he'd urged the Roman Catholic leader to use his position to speak out against Iran. Earlier this week, the pope called for a Palestinian homeland.

"Yes, the Arab countries are frightened of Iran's push for hegemony, which would be sealed by its nuclearization; this would spark an arms race, with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and possibly others, rushing to get their own nuclear weapons," says Walter Reich, a professor of international affairs at the George Washington University. "But the Arab countries can't be seen to be abandoning their central rhetorical position for many decades – the holiness of the Palestinian cause."

That's why some analysts say that Netanyahu's Iran tack is unlikely to fly with Arab countries, says Hani Hourani, director of the Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center in Amman, Jordan.

"Iran might be a threat to Arabs, but it is not an immediate threat," says Mr. Hourani. "Right now, we are suffering from Israel's occupation. This is the issue, and no leader can convince the people that the Iran threat is greater than Israel."

While most analysts agree that Israel must first reduce the profile of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict before it can shift the focus to Iran, Shai Feldman says that the Iran issue may significantly change the dynamics of future negotiations.

"It is going to be the rope that allows him [Netanyahu] to climb down from the tree on some of the outstanding issues," says Mr. Feldman, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "This common threat provides a potentially new context for what Israel needs to do to move forward and will make it much more appealing and sellable than before, in terms of the Israeli internal dynamics."

Whereas the Palestinians would have little to offer Israel in exchange for freezing the development of settlements, Feldman says that if the Arab states offered to support them on the Iran issue, Israelis would feel that they had something to gain in exchange for making the concession.

Abdullah takes the lead

In an interview with the Times of London this week, King Abdullah emphasized the importance of making peace with Israel as soon as possible. Without a resolution, he predicted there will be another war between Muslims and Israel within the next 12 to 18 months.

Since becoming the first Arab leader to meet with Obama after he took office, King Abdullah has been on a world tour meeting with leaders to discuss the peace process. Despite his eagerness to bring Israel to the table, however, the conditions in Israel and the occupied territories may make it difficult to achieve any resolution.

"The problem now is with Israel, on the one hand, because there is no Israeli partner in the peace process," says Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, referring to Netanyahu's hard-line stance. "On the other hand, there is a Palestinian division between Fatah and Hamas, Gaza and the West Bank."

Obama is expected to announce a new peace plan in a speech in Cairo this June. King Abdullah, who discussed the plan with the president during their meeting last month, said that it will seek to resolve Israel's dispute with the Palestinians, as well as its territorial issues with Lebanon and Syria.

A '57-state solution'

Calling for what would be the largest talks in at least a decade, the King of Jordan has been working toward a "57-state solution" that would bring together all 57 Muslim nations to reach an agreement with Israel on the Palestinian statehood in exchange for recognition.

Optimism from the US and Jordanian camps may be premature though, says Professor Reich. "I don't think that [the Arab countries], together with the Israelis and the Americans, can get their acts together to come up with a solution within the short time frame expected by the [Obama] administration," he says, adding that many Israelis still have major security concerns about the creation of a Palestinian state that must first be resolved.

Although Obama has enjoyed relative popularity in the Middle East, to maintain it he will have to begin delivering on the message of change that he campaigned on.

"When Obama came to power, he represented a new vision," Hourani says. "Now, if he wants to change the image of the US ... he must translate his policies into actions, otherwise it will be just like the same story we've witnessed for a half century or more."

In Washington, it remains unlikely that Netanyahu will find much support for a hard-line stand against Iran, says Trita Parsi, author of "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S."

"Iran has a presence in almost every conflict in the region, and it's going to be tremendously difficult to make progress in Afghanistan and withdraw from Iraq without engaging with Iran," says Mr. Parsi. "Even if it makes some of America's allies nervous, some of that nervousness is based on exaggerated fears and unrealistic perception."

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