Carrots and Sticks

Israel would lose a lot in a peace deal with Palestine. If Obama really wants a new settlement, he needs to reward the Israelis for cooperating—and punish them if they don’t.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported a Palestinian state in a speech earlier this week. But that support depends on the meaning of the word "state." The premier included so many caveats to some future Palestinian homeland that the details may have negated the central premise. Still, he did say state. In doing so, he may have gotten President Obama off his back-for the time being.

Most observers would agree that Netanyahu uttered the five-letter "s" word to oblige, or at least divert, Obama, who has clearly supported the emergence of a Palestinian state. And so Israeli and U.S. policy were, and technically still are, as divergent as they have been in recent history. This consolidates the idea that the United States and Israel maintain binary interests, with a vigorous Israeli lobby pushing for its own priorities at America's self-inflicted expense.

The Israeli lobby is indeed vigorous and has surely contributed to U.S. policy that, over the long-term, serves neither American nor Israeli interests. But that is precisely because Israeli and U.S. interests converge decisively. The problem has mainly been unequal cost/benefit ratios for each country, rather than varying interests. This may seem like a quibbling difference, but the distinction addresses the main reason for the U.S.-Israel divide.

It is in both Israeli and American interests for Mid-East peace and security to prevail. Both the United States and Israel do not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Both countries share those broad interests, but the policies of each nation have been somewhat contradictory in these areas.

Putting aside any moral questions about land and occupation, on each of these important issues the stakes are quite different for each country. The failure of a new land-for-peace initiative between Israel, the Palestinians and their neighbors would be a sizeable problem for the United States, since it could reignite hostilities toward the West and leave behind a festering conflict in a strategic and economically important area. But the United States would not surrender land that is currently under its control in such a deal. In contrast, Israel risks losing land and water resources under its dominion (if not its outright possession), and all the demographic implications that go with it.

In regards to Iran, the most obvious difference in the risk/benefit ratio between America and Israel is the latter's proximity to the Islamic Republic. Still, neither the United States nor Israel seems to be primarily concerned with nuclear conflagration. Rather, both fear the ascendance of an Iran that would be almost impossible to intimidate. For the United States, the threat remains somewhat abstract. A nuclear-armed Iran would gain greater credibility, bravado and leadership in a region that produces America's most dangerous enemies and the world's most coveted resources. For Israel, a nuclear Iran could become more emboldened in launching offensive or retaliatory proxy attacks, via Hezbollah and Hamas.

The United States and the international community should not spare efforts in preventing or cajoling Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And yet even without such weapons, Iran is fulfilling some dreaded expectations. It is apparently continuing its proxy battles with Israel, in the understanding that Israeli retaliation could maim and enrage Iran, but not decisively cripple it. And Tehran is gaining sway even in the Sunni world and has become a formidable contender in the vital war of ideas, despite its ongoing domestic political and economic troubles.

Israel could also suffer in equal proportion to the United States in the aftermath of a war with Iran. In the wake of such a war, Iran would certainly mobilize every form of economic and asymmetrical retaliation at its disposal. And in such a case, Israel's proximity to Iran would be a special liability.

In regards to peace and war with its neighbors, the individuals and groups that challenge Israel through terrorism and other tactics are not only reckoning with a disparity of capabilities, they are also vying to change the risk/benefit ratio for Israel by making war more costly. Through the years, the Palestinians have been unsuccessful in shifting that ratio to their advantage. America's unconditional financial support of Israel is a factor that bears upon that country's risk/benefit calculus. Since the United States delivers aid even in the face of Israeli military operations that have been condemned by countries around the world, U.S. governments do not use the one policy tool that could shift Israel's risk/benefit calculus in favor of peace. Indeed, most of the Israelis that have long been laboring to push a deal forward have not called for a halt to U.S. aid. Such a stance may seem antithetical to an Israeli patriot, but it could also be the only move to make a difference.

If Obama were to attempt such a policy-and there is no sign that he is even contemplating it-the U.S. Congress would surely veto the measure. The White House has few levers, therefore, with which to influence an Israeli government. And since the current Israeli prime minister seems focused on the risks of acquiescing to a peace process, while the American president seems to be singularly highlighting the benefits, a deal seems nowhere in sight.

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