Obama’s message to Netanyahu: Palestine for Iran

Obama’s message to Netanyahu: Palestine for Iran

President’s persistent juxtaposition of nuclear issue and peace process shows he’s willing to be tough on Tehran — but insists, too, on progress with the Palestinians

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference, March 20, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference, March 20, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Iran for Palestine — those three words sum up the key message Barack Obama directed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his speech Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly.

The American president’s 42-minute address provided analysts and pundits with plenty of fodder for dissection: He discussed at length the civil war in Syria, the nuclear standoff with Iran, and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. (He also took a swipe or two at Russia, but made no mention of Japan, India, the Koreas or Myanmar, while citing Israel 15 times, Palestine 11 times, and Iran 25 times.)

There was nothing deeply surprising for Israeli ears in what the president said. He had made his position on Syria abundantly clear in recent weeks, and it was expected that he would cautiously embrace Iran’s current charm offensive. Even the stark assertion that Israelis increasingly recognize that “the occupation of the West Bank is tearing at the democratic fabric of the Jewish state” was familiar; he had said much the same during his visit here in March.

But what might have raised eyebrows in Jerusalem was Obama’s not-so subtle linkage of the Iranian nuclear threat with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“In the near term, America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Obama said, opening the central, major section of his speech. “While these issues are not the cause of all the region’s problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace.”

The president went on to talk about the mistrust that exists between Tehran and Washington, and while acknowledging that he doesn’t believe “this difficult history can be overcome overnight,” stressed an emphatic preference for solving the nuclear standoff through diplomacy.

US President Barack Obama speaks during the 68th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
US President Barack Obama speaks during the 68th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Obama warmly welcomed the “more moderate course” Iran’s new president Hasan Rouhani wants to pursue, mentioning that the new, friendlier face of the Islamic Republic recently endorsed a longstanding fatwa against nuclear arms. While reiterating that the US is “determined to prevent” Tehran from acquiring such weapons, he refrained from issuing an explicit direct threat of military force. Only in an earlier, more general of his speech, did he say that “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force,” to secure its “core interests in the region.”

In the Iranian context, the president eschewed the usual “all options are on the table,” and also abstained from warning of further sanctions. Rather, Obama emphasized “mutual interests and mutual respect” and highlighted Iranians’ right “to access peaceful nuclear energy.”

For diplomacy to succeed, he said, Iran’s “conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.” He did not say what would happen if this did not transpire.

And then, immediately after talking about Tehran’s nuclear program, the leader of the free world turned to “a conflict that goes back even further than our differences with Iran: the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.”

The obvious juxtaposition of the two, not directly related issues, suggested that Obama seeks to revive a venerable formula known in Hebrew as “Gar’in tmurat Falestin” — the nuclear issue in exchange for Palestine.

Knowing that Netanyahu sees the prevention of a nuclear armed Iran as an absolute imperative — it’s his life’s mission, one that he’s absolutely obsessed with, people close to the prime minister intimate — the linkage offered the interpretation that Obama remained determined to thwart Iran’s nuclear quest, but also to ensure that Jerusalem show itself increasingly forthcoming on the Palestinian quest for statehood.

While both the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office categorically deny any such connection between the two issues, analysts have long assumed that Obama has in the past suggested just such an equation.

In a recent interview with Haaretz’s Ari Shavit, outgoing Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren implicitly confirmed that the “Gar’in tmurat Falestin” had been tried, unsuccessfully.

“Would you agree that the right deal was an obvious deal: Palestine for Iran. But this deal was not brought to fruition. Obama did not stop Iran and Netanyahu did not take historic action on Palestine,” Shavit asked Oren.

“That’s correct,” Oren replied. “And it is disappointing. But we haven’t reached the end of the story yet. Look where we were in the spring of 2009 and look where we are now. Today there’s no talk of containment of a nuclear Iran and they’re not demanding a settlement freeze from us. There’s been a dynamic in US policy and the dynamic was in our direction.”

With Obama having specified Tuesday that the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the two current key focuses of his foreign policy, Netanyahu will likely hear from the president, at their meeting in the White House scheduled for next Monday, the promise of a firm American stance on the nuclear issue and the expectation of a generous Israeli position regarding Palestinian peace negotiations.

“Real breakthroughs on these two issues — Iran’s nuclear program, and Israeli-Palestinian peace — would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa,” Obama promised on Tuesday, linking the two again.

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