Land or a Nuclear Umbrella?

The right way to cope with the Iranian threat is by boosting regional peace, in combination with an American assurance of a nuclear umbrella and an improvement in Israeli deterrence.

On September 13, 1993, my throat was choked with tears at the sight of Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, as Bill Clinton's optimistic look encompassed both of them. When the children who were in Tel Aviv day care centers at the time are standing at roadblocks degrading 17-year-old Palestinians with no firsthand experience of the Oslo Accords, it's no wonder that such ceremonies have no chance of getting anywhere near the viewer ratings of "Kochav Nolad," (A Star is Born), Israel's version of "American Idol."

We have learned that itchy trigger fingers can easily succeed handshakes and that new declarations of peace do not necessarily mean new worldviews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must move a great deal closer to the Palestinian position to reach the point that his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, did with Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian Authority president will have to take off the gloves in dealing with his Palestinian rivals in order to wean the Israeli public from its addiction to the idea that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. President Barack Obama must spend his remaining political capital so that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can submit to Netanyahu and Abbas a document resembling the one her husband presented to Arafat and Ehud Barak a decade ago.

Netanyahu and Obama in Washington, September 1, 2010. Reuters

It appears we'll have to wait until after our fall holidays, and probably until after the Americans recover from their year-end holiday season, to judge whether the latest initiative has brought the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any closer. It's clear already that the renewal of negotiations has intensified the conflict between Iran and centrist Arab leaders. The verbal blows that Tehran and its allies in Beirut and Gaza are trading with Cairo and Ramallah emphasize the link between the peace process and the Iranian front.

Hamas' latest terror attacks illustrate the panic that has gripped the rejectionists in light of the "danger" that Netanyahu isn't who they thought he was. This is his chance to bring Iran into his equation: land for security. Netanyahu constantly declares that it is Iran that poses an existential threat to Israel. If he is willing to concede part of the homeland at the risk of his father's reproach, why not go for broke? Why settle for security arrangements with a nascent demilitarized Palestinian state when you could wrest concessions to protect Israel from Iran?

Despite the arrogant comments of diplomats and the harsh ones of military figures, Israel can't really stop Iran's nuclear program on its own. An attack on Iran (if it is even possible from the operational standpoint) is expected to cost thousands of Israeli lives, as well as cause a regional conflict in the shadow of a crisis of confidence with the United States. The right way to cope with the Iranian threat is by boosting regional peace, in combination with an American assurance of a nuclear umbrella and an improvement in Israeli deterrence.

The idea of a mutual defense treaty that would grant Israel security guarantees vis-a-vis Iran was first raised by Barak, in a conversation with president Clinton at the 2000 Camp David summit. Bruce Riedel, then a U.S. National Security Council official, wrote recently in the foreign policy journal The National Interest that although Clinton responded favorably to the nuclear umbrella idea, it went nowhere once the peace process hit a dead end. At the summit, Barak also proposed that the United States supply Israel with F-22 jet fighters in order to improve Israel's second-strike capability. That idea, too, died with the peace talks.

Riedel recommends that the Obama administration reexamine these ideas and consider providing Israel with cruise missile and nuclear submarine technology. For that to happen, there must be real progress toward an agreement with the Palestinians, preferably accompanied by progress toward regional peace in accordance with the principles of the Arab League peace initiative.

The man in the White House today is desperate for an accomplishment. In order to succeed where Bill Clinton didn't Obama is prepared to give generously, but even he doesn't hand out umbrellas for free. Land or a nuclear umbrella - that's the choice Israel has to make.