Many readers might find this hard to believe, but for the first time in two decades there’s a decent chance for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. This isn’t because of the will of each side's leaders, but because of their weakness, the U.S. government’s unprecedented determination and Iran's nuclear program.
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Since the beginning of the talks in Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been dutifully conveying utter disdain, and the Palestinians have been projecting pessimism. No, Netanyahu hasn’t changed, and despite the forecasts he hasn’t been talking to the heralds of history in light of what appears to be his last term in office.
But Benjamin "no preconditions" Netanyahu has agreed, under American pressure, to enter negotiations under the precondition of releasing 104 prisoners, including the worst murderers, without any promise of compensation. This was the direct result of an American secretary of state determined to stay off the prestigious list of predecessors who failed in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, backed by an American president in his second term who is no less committed.
The American message to Netanyahu, even if not stated quite so starkly, is this: Sometime in the summer of 2014, Iran will activate its heavy-water reactor in Arak, which can provide it with plutonium for a nuclear bomb. From that moment, the plant cannot be attacked without risking a Chernobyl-like environmental disaster. If the Israelis want backing for an attack on Iran in the summer of 2014, they have to clear the table of the Palestinian issue.
There is a famous Hebrew proverb on delaying tactics; a Jew agrees to teach his landlord’s dog to speak within a year, hoping that within that time "either the landlord will die or the dog will." (In the Arabic version it’s teaching a sheikh's camel to read.) But in this case there’s no time to wait for the landlord or dog to die. The landlord still has three years in office, while the dog is very close to achieving a nuclear capability that no one will be able to turn back. Activating the Arak reactor, which will probably be postponed by a few months after the planned deadline of March 2014, will create the irreversible situation of a nuclear Iran.
Netanyahu, who considers removing the Iranian nuclear threat his historic mission, is swiftly nearing his own slaughterhouse pen, as Ariel Sharon used to call such irreversible situations. At the entry to the pen stand the U.S. president and secretary of state, who are much more sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative than to the Israeli position. But Barack Obama and John Kerry won’t hesitate to wave the cattle prod at Mahmoud Abbas either; the Palestinian president finds himself isolated in the Arab world now more than ever.
It’s unclear whether by that time Abbas will be ripe for signing his name to end the conflict. It’s certain that Netanyahu won’t be ripe for the concessions needed to secure that signature. But the choice for Netanyahu will be cruel: Either give up precious parts of the Land of Israel or remain alone against what he sees as a threat of destruction.
The reactor in Arak, like the uranium enrichment plants in Natanz and Qom, remind him of the furnaces at Auschwitz. He has asked more than one person, "Can you imagine us seeing the Auschwitz furnaces being built and then waiting until people are put in them before we attack?" The Americans will force him to face the moment of truth: No more talk – either attack or don’t.
The military's senior officers will be of no help in this case. Netanyahu will have a hard time urging them to mount a unilateral attack against Iran without American support or international legitimacy – for a country that will be seen as rejecting peace. For many Israelis this might sound like the deal of the century: an agreement with the Palestinians and the removal of the Iranian threat, all in one. For Netanyahu it will be no easier than Sophie's choice – nearly impossible. He will balk and resist, but in his case, he who shouts last, laughs best.