Against the backdrop of new sanctions on Iran and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upbeat Oval Office visit in July, neither Washington nor Jerusalem can be eager to add another war to the long list of hot and warm conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Korea, and Gaza. But with the American intelligence community judging Iran to be on track to have nuclear weapons within two years, a clash with Tehran may soon be deemed unavoidable – in Jerusalem, if not in Washington.
Even if undertaken solely by Israel, a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities poses considerable risks to American interests. That's why the White House should insist that an Israeli strike – if it happens – doesn't merely weaken Tehran's capabilities, but also entails a decisive breaking of the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
While the Obama administration hasn't ruled out direct US military action against Iran, the United States would rather focus its energies on the overflowing plate of challenges it already faces, at home and abroad. And the American electorate has little enthusiasm for another war after almost nine years in Afghanistan and more than seven years in Iraq.
A threat deemed unacceptable
But it's almost impossible to imagine Jerusalem accepting a nuclear-armed Iran.
If tougher economic sanctions aren't seen very soon to be doing the job, then military force seems likely. Israel's Likud government, with support from other political parties, has publicly declared a nuclear Iran to be an intolerable existential threat.
And since its creation, Israel has demonstrated an inclination to follow up on its warnings to its enemies even if its own collateral costs are severe.
The gravity of the threat that the Israelis perceive in a nuclear Iran – particularly one with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president – means that simply forbidding a military strike is not one of the Obama administration's options.
Washington may have had the power to dictate to Israel (as well as Britain and France) to end the Suez crisis some five decades ago, but the evolution of domestic politics since Eisenhower's days has diminished US leverage over Israel. And Israel in 1956 was a poor third-world country, whereas today it is a self-confident, wealthy, high-tech economy.
Even if it can't forbid an Israeli strike, the US could publicly dissent. But if the Israelis were to attack Iran despite Washington's express objection, the closeness of the bilateral relationship would render the US vulnerable to the same blowback as if it had been an enthusiastic backer.
A grand bargain
Thus, if military conflict with Iran is where the region is headed, it's essential that the Obama administration craft a strategy promising much more than the destruction of (probably some but not all) Iranian nuclear assets.
The US should insist that a military strike by its close ally be part of a broader "grand bargain" that also finally resolves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While this continuing conflict is not the only source of violence in the region, ending it is a strategic imperative that will do much for US and allied interests in Southwest Asia and beyond. The essence of this "grand bargain" is that the US would greenlight an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities designed to remove the single threat the Israelis most fear.
But Washington's price for this would be the Netanyahu government's ironclad commitment to a peace deal with the Arabs on US-endorsed terms: not the continued freezing of settlement activity, not the resumption of direct talks; rather, a substantive deal (contingent only on the acceptance of these terms by the Palestinians and the other Arab governments).
We don't presume to specify here every material term of that deal. But it would undoubtedly include a return to the pre-1967 boundaries and the creation of a Palestinian state, with mutually accepted alterations. Other likely terms would include an international security guarantee and peacekeeping presence, as well as Israel's return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
And the US and its allies – primarily the European Union, Japan, and the oil-rich Arab monarchies – would provide tens of billions of dollars to both sides to lubricate the deal; these contributions would finance the relocation of Jewish settlers, provide generous compensation for Palestinian refugees, finance border security, and pay off Syria and Palestinian groups for the loss of their Iranian funding.
Israel and the Palestinians would be offered preferential trade deals with the US and the EU. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states would establish relations with Israel, open their markets to Israeli goods and services, and end anti-Israeli propaganda.
Not an easy deal
Orchestrating a deal this complex and multifaceted would be challenging, to say the least. It would entail a very tough negotiation, in an already strained relationship, with an Israeli government strongly preferring to keep the Iranian problem unlinked to the Palestinian problem. And, of course, it would be predicated on the viability of a military operation whose success is far from assured but which the US may be unable to stop.
It may turn out that the Iranian nuclear crisis gets resolved peacefully, perhaps as a result of sanctions; or the Netanyahu government may conclude that containing a nuclear Iran is preferable to attacking to prevent it. But with no choice but to prepare for the very real possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran, the White House must insist that any such action, if taken, be embedded in a broader strategy promising dramatic benefits commensurate with the sizable risks.