Will Netanyahu Give Up Settlements to Gain Support Against Iran?

JERUSALEM – The tremors of Monday’s North Korean nuclear test have been felt all around the world, no more so in a country seemingly not directly affected by whether or not North Korea is a full-fledged nuclear power. In Israel, there is deep concern, an existential fear even – over the implications that Iran will be next in the nuclear line.

"There are similarities between the Iranian and North Korean nuclear crises, but the difference is more acute," says Yossi Melman, one of Israel’s top strategic affairs analysts. "In the case of the North Koreans, nuclear capability is a way of ensuring preservation of the regime, U.S. recognition of its sovereignty, and a way to gain economic aid. If it secures these, Pyongyang may agree to disarm. Iran, however, sees nuclear capability as a goal in and of itself, and will not give up on it."

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, say his political allies and opponents alike, is totally immersed in the "specter of an Iran with a bomb." His view is apocalyptic, they say, fear that the Jewish people in their state would face the possibility of no less than a "second Holocaust." Netanyahu sees it as his mission, they add, to prevent that at all costs.

The very day of the North Korean challenge, the Israeli leader faced stormy opposition within his own Likud Party over his promise to U.S. President Barack Obama to evacuate mini-settlement outposts and to refrain from building new settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu told them bluntly: "Coordination with the U.S. over the Iranian threat is more important than keeping illegal outposts."

"These are not normal times," he added. "Danger is galloping at us. There are reasons to preserve our good relationship with the U.S. My job, first and foremost, is to remove the Iranian danger. We need to tailor our order of priorities in order to repel the danger."

He continued, "Who will remove this danger? Either we will, or no one will. If we do not mobilize the U.S. and the nations of the world for this purpose, no one will."

Skeptical whether Obama will actually act on North Korea, Israeli analysts insist that the nuclear blast is not only "Obama’s first challenge," it is Netanyahu’s as well. If there is a moment of truth with regard to Iran too, they say, no one knows how Obama will behave.

That has led the Israeli leader to signal a new approach, says Ha’aretz diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn: "Netanyahu has put to rest the doctrine of [former prime minister] Ariel Sharon that Iran is not just Israel’s problem, but the problem of the entire world, and that Israel must not be at the forefront of the struggle. Now, Israel is at the forefront."

Benn quotes a senior source close to the Obama administration that the President’s dialogue initiative vis-à-vis Iran will eventually come to nothing, but that the U.S. will not itself strike at Iran unless something unusual and unexpected happens. If that turns out to be the case, Netanyahu will then have to decide whether Israel would be obliged to attack Iran’s nuclear installations on its own.

Before striking, however, he would have to confront four major challenges, say strategic analysts. The first is basic: for all its vaunted might, can the Israeli military in fact neutralize Iran’s nuclear program in-the-making?

The second and third issues involve securing legitimacy for unilateral military action, gaining tacit backing or even some kind of quiet support from the U.S. on one hand, but equally from moderate Arab states and Turkey also worried about Iran gaining hegemony in the region. CIA chief Leon Panetta has warned against any operation that would not be coordinated with the U.S.

In a recent Newsweek interview, President Obama said, "They are right there in range and I don’t think it’s my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are." Netanyahu is reliably reported to have "liked reading that very much."

For now, the Israeli prime minister says he is ready to go along with Obama’s approach to "talk Iran out of its nuclear program," but that doesn’t mask growing consternation within the Israeli government that were Israel finally compelled to go it alone against Iran, Netanyahu would still need to find a way not to antagonize the U.S.

That is the glaring hitch in the Israeli leader’s strategy – his refusal to accept Obama’s strictures on settlements in order not to impede progress toward creation of a Palestinian state. The president makes no bones about the fact that he believes Israeli concessions on the West Bank would make it easier for him to induce Iran to stop its nuclear program

The fourth issue Netanyahu has to take into account should he decide on a go-it-alone military action against Iran is to get the Israeli public on board. Israeli experts believe a war with Iran is still not inevitable. But Netanyahu took another step this week toward preparing the general public for the possibility that it might break out.

The key, however, is whether he also wants to prepare them for a radical shift in Israel’s long-standing settlement policy. To avoid a showdown with the U.S., but more importantly to gain legitimacy for his view on what needs to be done on Iran, Netanyahu needs to realize the importance of seeing eye-to-eye with Obama on settlements. To a degree, he has recognized the need to make some move. But does he have the guts to go as far as deconstructing his own settlement ideology?

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.