There is a dispute between the Israeli government and the Obama administration over whether to deal with the Palestinian question or the emerging nuclear threat in Iran first. While both are serious threats, I believe the Obama administration is correct in focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first.
That conflict is the longest-standing, most important issue in the region. The Palestinians remain a rallying cry for Arabs throughout the area. As long as the Palestinians don’t have their own state and so many of them live in wretched conditions, Arabs will focus on Israel as a villain, and not Iran. To be sure, many of the problems afflicting the Palestinians are self inflicted. But that does not change their martyr status in the eyes of so many.
If Israel and the US can show improvements in Palestinian living conditions as well as plausible hopes for a Palestinian state it would do a lot of good for relations with Arab countries. Israel and the US would then have more goodwill from Arab countries, which it could leverage against Iran. Many Sunni rulers would certainly love to keep Shiite, Persian Iran from acquiring outsized influence in the region. The US and Israel just need to give them cover to join a coalition against Iran.
Moreover, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could reduce Iranian-sponsored terrorism against Israel. A Palestine with its own state and security forces, which offers economic hopes for its inhabitants, might well be less of a breeding ground for extremist groups of the sort that Iran funds. Perhaps fewer people in the Arab world would be drawn to terrorism because they won’t perceive Israel as an oppressor anymore.
A nuclear Iran is a real threat. It could cause other countries to go nuclear and add to the instability in an already unstable region. And the mere threat of a nuclear holocaust could be enough to cause many Jews to emigrate from Israel. In the face of these frightening facts, there are many Israelis, and some Americans, who believe military action will be necessary in the next few months.
And there may come a point in time when there is no choice but to use military force to stop a belligerent Iran. But military action taken after we’ve made progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be much better for all involved. If Israel attacks Iran right now, Iran will be a victim in the eyes of Muslims in the region. People across the Middle East will clamor for an even harder line against Israel.
Even worse, air strikes will only do so much damage to Iranian nuclear capabilities. Most estimates have such a strike setting back Iran’s nuclear program a few years at most, if at all. So when Iran continues its program, it can claim to be doing so to serve as a counter-weight to Israeli aggression in the region. It will work to persuade Muslims everywhere that a nuclear Iran is needed to protect Muslim countries from Israel.
But if Israel can achieve some measure of support from Arab neighbors because of its efforts to build a Palestinian state and improve life for Palestinians, everything becomes easier. If it has to launch a military strike, it can do so with the tacit approval of Arab rulers. And it can do so from the moral high ground, as a country that has tried to make peace with its neighbors. That will count for something in the international community.
The US and Israel could also obtain more support from Arab countries for meaningful sanctions on Iran to keep it from developing weapons in the first place. Indeed it would be preferable if Iran can be kept in check without military force.