Commentary: Iran, not Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is real Middle East threat

E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

Last week, the Obama administration trumpeted the imminent resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks, set to begin Thursday. This is good news, we're told. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says a deal could be completed within a year.

Translation: Close your eyes and click your heels. Let loose your inhibitions. Use the force. Open your mind and believe.

Unfortunately, in the real world the chances of the two antagonists settling generations of grievances in a few months is roughly nil.

The two sides are being dragged to the table by the Obama administration, which continues to think that the key to regional peace in the Middle East is an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. As President Obama put it earlier this year, ending the conflict is "a vital national security interest of the United States."

No it isn't. If Israel didn't exist, the Middle East would still be roiled with chronic feuds, both serious and petty.

The paramount security threat in the region is Iran's regional ambitions and its drive to acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran supplies arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. If we deal successfully with Iran, settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just might be a bit easier.

Instead, Washington has decided to focus much of its diplomatic energy, and what's left of its diplomatic capital, on what amounts to a sideshow.

As Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute observed, the belief that a Palestinian-Israeli solution will bring peace to the Middle East "is like thinking a sore throat lozenge will cure throat cancer."

The two sides aren't seeking these talks. They're being dragged to the table by Washington. A senior Israeli minister told The Wall Street Journal, "No one really thinks the peace talks will succeed. But this is how the world judges us, and so we have no choice but to go through with the dance."

For their part, the Palestinians are demanding that the Israelis first agree to extend a settlement freeze set to expire Sept. 26. Lacking that, they won't talk. The State Department says the issue should be part of the negotiations.

Diplomatic breakthroughs tend to be made by statesmen who feel secure in their position and power, a description that applies to neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu leads a rickety coalition that could split if he concedes too much. Abbas' position is even shakier. His faction has lost control of Gaza, and competes for leadership of the Palestinian movement with the terrorist organization Hamas, sworn to Israel's destruction.

The Israelis are unlikely to sign any agreement that leaves the threat posed by Gaza unsettled. Nor are they likely to agree to an immediate withdrawal from the West Bank. They already tried that in Gaza. It was taken over by Hamas, which soon began lobbing rockets into Israeli neighborhoods. The Israelis and Palestinians have intractable conflicts over Jerusalem.

In addition, no Israeli government can agree to a Palestinian "right of return," a prime demand of the Palestinians, because it points demographically to the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Abbas is even more constrained than Netanyahu. Any accord he signs that recognizes Israel's right to exist would be denounced by Hamas. Abbas' mere consent to participate in negotiations with Israel led Hamas to scuttle reconciliation talks with Abbas' Fatah faction.

"Ultimately, peace talks only succeed when the people engaged have given up on war," Rubin said. "The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have not given up on war. … The problem is diplomats who argue you should just have negotiations. They don't recognize there can be a cost to engagement if it is not done sincerely."

The talks set to begin this week could indeed be costly. A failure would further undermine the United States' already-diminished prestige. Worse, failure would further weaken the position of Abbas and empower radicals within his movement.

But why worry about all that? Just close your eyes and click your heels, and believe.