Since the end of the war in Lebanon, regional diplomacy has been conducted along two ostensibly unrelated tracks. One is focused on stopping the Iranian nuclear program, and the other on renewing Israeli-Arab talks about "land for peace."
The first process is being conducted between the major powers and Iran, which refuses to halt uranium enrichment and is ignoring a UN Security Council resolution on the subject. Israel is keeping its distance: Its leaders occasionally mention the existential threat from Iran, but since they are busy with political survival, they are devoting little time to it. A forum of past and present prime ministers, which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert established with great fanfare to underscore the seriousness and importance of this issue, met once and fell silent.
The chances of renewing the diplomatic process, which have sparked discussions in Cairo, Damascus and Gaza, have ignited an internal debate in Israel. There are those who want to talk with the Palestinians (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni), with the Syrians (Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter), with the Lebanese (Olmert), with everyone (Meretz Chair Yossi Beilin) and with no one (opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu). As in the past, the discussion is being conducted as though we held the cards. One of the reasons for this is the feeling that the war in Lebanon and the battles in Gaza have put an end to withdrawals from the territories - at least as long as "there is nobody to talk to" and there is no security substitute for control over the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
But the regional situation is more complex, and the farther the United States slides down the slope toward confrontation with Iran, the stronger the demand will be for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories. Although Israel claims that Iran is "the world's problem, not only ours," experience shows that there are no free lunches. Every time America has operated in this region and needed legitimacy from the Arabs, it has demanded something from Israel in exchange.
In 1991, the Americans attacked Iraq in order to liberate Kuwait. The reason for the war was not connected to Israel, although Israel profited from the destruction of Saddam Hussein's army, missiles and chemical weapons. The administration of then president George Bush Sr. exacted its price in the form of the Madrid summit, which led to the Oslo Accords, to peace with Jordan and to negotiations with Syria.
Twelve years later, American planes returned to the skies of Baghdad, this time sent by George Bush Jr. This time, too, the reason was global, and Israel remained on the sidelines, but once again, it was required to pay - by accepting the road map peace plan, by freezing construction in settlements beyond the fence, and later also by withdrawing from Gaza and the northern West Bank.
We can assume that this time as well, the global problem and the local one will be linked. In exchange for a military or political solution to Iran's nuclear program, Israel will be required to evacuate additional settlements in the West Bank, and perhaps settlements in the Golan as well. As in the earlier Gulf wars, this time, too, Israel will be told that it must pay a territorial price in exchange for the removal of the threat.
The main difference between the situations then and now is Israel's leadership. Instead of prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, who tended to oppose withdrawals and evacuations, today, the prime minister is Olmert, who proposed evacuating 90 percent of the West Bank without any compensation. Why should he oppose evacuating the settlement of Itamar in exchange for halting the centrifuges in Natanz? And even if Olmert is no longer in power, his replacement will encounter the same demands. Netanyahu is calling for dropping the idea of evacuating settlers and concentrating on Iran instead, but he will also discover that these issues are interrelated.
Two days from now, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will arrive in Jerusalem. Blair is President George W. Bush's scout, and the person who linked the invasion of Iraq to the publication of the road map for a Palestinian state. After he exchanges stories of political woe with Olmert, it will be interesting to see what he has to say about the delicate connection between dismantling Iran's nuclear program and ending Israeli control over the territories.
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