Whenever I visit my local sports club in order to get away from the Iranian crisis and the frozen peace process, someone always bothers me with questions such as: "Are we going to attack Iran?" or, "Is there going to be a war?" The manager asked me once, seriously, whether he should remove the equipment from the shelter and stock it with mineral water. I was never asked, "Is there going to be peace with the Palestinians?" or, "Are we going to freeze the settlements in the Occupied Territories?" These days, fear of another war is much stronger in Israel than hope for peace. Most people don't realize there is a linkage between their fear of the Iranian threat and the stalemate in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
My club members are in good company. At a press conference on April 3, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his position that peace with the Palestinians will not affect the Iranian ambition to develop nuclear weapons. He may be right. But I do not believe Iran will accept Israeli nuclear superiority. I cannot imagine that the day will come when the ayatollah's regime will accept the view that the Islamic Republic is not entitled to develop weapons that the Jewish state has been holding for decades (in accordance with the Israeli censor regulations, in order to maintain the ambiguity policy, I must add: "according to foreign sources"). In the Iranian view, to surrender unilaterally to Israeli-American pressure would mean accepting the argument that Iran is a pariah state. This touches the most sensitive national, religious and cultural Persian nerves.
Since the nuclear race has much to do with pride, a policy that ignores this element will not bring an end to the conflict. Sanctions have not persuaded the Iranian regime to stop the nuclear program and are not likely to produce regime change. Military attack may, in the best case, postpone for a few years the development of the bomb—while, however, arousing severe anti–American and anti–Israeli sentiments in the Muslim world. Both options will produce a severe energy crisis in the West.
The above analysis doesn't mean that we have to sit back and watch the entire Middle East go nuclear. There is another option, which is based on the premise that regional problems require regional solutions. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (or WMDs), and especially the nuclear issue, cannot be separated from other regional issues. I believe the best way to remove the Iranian nuclear threat is through a comprehensive package deal based on a regional agreement on nonproliferation of WMDs and regional peace. This has been Israel’s official policy since the 1970s, when it declared that once all its neighbors come to term with its existence and put an end to the state of war, Israel will support a regional nonproliferation treaty (NPT). This is separate and distinct from the global NPT, which Israel doesn’t trust.
The regional concept is not new to the United States. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush tried to attach this nonproliferation vision to the Middle East peace process then unfolding in Madrid. The United States and Russia cosponsored a multilateral committee on arms control (along with multilateral committees on water, refugees, environment and economic cooperation). Unfortunately, President Clinton embraced the separate bilateral negotiations in the Israel-Palestinian track and the Israeli-Syrian track. Thus, he ignored the multilateral tracks. The arms-control committee evaporated with the deterioration of the Oslo process in the aftermath of the 2000 Palestinian uprising.
The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), which offers Israel peace and normal relations with Arab countries in return for territories and a just solution to the refugee problem, represented another basis for a comprehensive solution. The API is mentioned in the Middle East Road Map that President George W. Bush presented in 2003. A few months before that, the API was endorsed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in its annual meeting, which took place in Teheran. It would be difficult for Iran to turn down an American-Israeli plan that ended forty-five years of occupation of what they perceive as Muslim land. In addition, they would be able to take credit for the establishment of a Palestinian State, ending the Jewish annexation of the holy sites in Jerusalem and finding a solution to the Palestinian problem. The plan would leave the door open for a settlement with Syria and Lebanon on the basis of territories for peace and security arrangements.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty conference, scheduled to be held in Helsinki in December, offers Israel and Iran a platform for building the pillars of proliferation of peace and nonproliferation of WMD. Two years ago, Israel voiced opposition to such a conference, but according to an April 11 report in Ha'aretz Israeli Daily , Finland's undersecretary of state for foreign affairs Jaakko Laajava visited Jerusalem recently for talks about Israel's involvement in the conference. In January, Laajava met with Iran's foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi. He also visited other regional countries and held meetings with UN officials as well as representatives of countries that have permanent membership in the UN Security Council.
Despite Israel's concern that the Arab countries will use the conference to curb its nuclear capability, Israeli officials did not refuse to participate in the disarmament talks in Finland. In its final decision, the Israeli government will have to take into consideration the American position. Washington is concerned that if Israel decides to turn down the invitation to the Helsinki meeting, the conference will fail, thus causing an erosion of the NPT mechanism.
It is not a coincidence that the conference was scheduled for the end of the year. Unfortunately, as in other global conflicts, President Obama tailors his agenda to his reelection campaign, preferring to make populist, short-term anti-Iran statements that promise a standing ovation in AIPAC's convention. But a Madrid-like international conference could pave the way to a long-term regional peace and put an end to the Middle East nuclear race.
Akiva Eldar is the chief political columnist and an editorial writer for Haaretz. His columns also appear regularly in the Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune edition.