Any prediction about the prospects for a nuclear agreement with Iran or a breakthrough in the talks between Israel and the Palestine Authority should be measured against the erratic record of predictions to date for the region as a whole.
Who would have thought that the Arab Spring, notably in Libya and Egypt, would rapidly unravel into Winter, that Mubarak would be ousted with tacit if not explicit U.S. approval or that the democratically elected Morsi and the Moslem Brotherhood would then be overthrown by similar street demonstrations and the same military commanders that helped bring him to power. Who would have thought, too that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria would have prompted nimble diplomatic footwork by Russia leading possibly to the elimination of one of the world’s largest stockpiles of such weapons while simultaneously reinforcing Assad’s grip on power. Or, more dramatically, that all of these events and the virtual absence of U.S. influence on each would have prompted Saudi Arabia to reject a seat on the Security Council and declare openly that it will shift its ties away from the decades long close relations with the U.S.
The power vacuum from Libya through Egypt, to Syria and Lebanon has opened the door to several viral streams of extremist Islam, not just Al Qaeda, which some suggest will eventually pose a threat to Turkey as well.
The ultimate irony, however, is that Israel’s profound concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions now seems to be shared more with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States (and possibly Turkey) than with any other country. Strange bedfellows indeed.
The Mid East is a region of unrelenting turbulence. Prescriptions and initiatives for reconciliation or resolution are often compelling but face heavy odds against any real prospect for success.
The current Israel-Palestine talks are the only ones on which the U.S. has any real effect and yet even that rests almost exclusively with Secretary of State John Kerry. The chances of meaningful progress are slim. If anything, differences on fundamentals like the status of Jerusalem, refugee and settlement concerns, “land for security” swaps, water, etc. are widening not narrowing. The appetite for concessions by either side is not readily apparent.
The Palestinians complain that Israel is raising new demands beyond those previously negotiated. The Israelis voice little confidence in the Palestine Authority’s ability to deliver on any agreement. That is why they insist on a continuing security presence on the West Bank stressing that Israel will never subcontract its security to any third party, least of all to a hesitant U.S. The Palestinians will accept any independent security force within its borders except one that includes Israelis. Prime Minister Netanyahu supports the process but is in a minority within his own Government.
Hamas’s exclusion from the talks adds another, significant obstacle to progress. The Israelis have almost complete control in the West Bank and their settlements continue to grow. The Palestinians meanwhile have strong international support but very little direct leverage on the ground. All these contributing factors are not conducive to a comprehensive agreement
Both sides are waiting for the U.S. to propose “guidelines” early next year in an effort to inject some momentum into the nine month deadline initially set for the talks. That may well be why the period of “discovery” shows little inclination for compromise. An extension of the deadline is possible but a prolonged deadlock if not complete collapse is more likely and, by next summer, U.S. Congressional elections will take center stage.
Iran is an even tougher and potentially much more lethal issue to resolve. The “charm offensive” from Tehran has changed the stakes somewhat even though most would agree that it simply underscores the fact that sanctions are working and not that Iran’s nuclear ambitions have changed. Verifiable and significant constraints on enrichment and on the development of centrifuges are essential first steps that must precede any easing of sanctions. But, even if some agreement is reached, there is genuine concern, and not just in Israel, that it may simply postpone rather than prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The spectre of North Korea and agreements violated in the past loom large in the debate.
Israel is a bystander in the P5+1 discussions with Iran albeit the one with the most vital stake in the outcome. This was undoubtedly the dominant topic when Netanyahu met Secretary Kerry for seven hours in Rome last week. The Israelis are understandably wary of U.S. assurances, especially in the wake of events in Egypt and Syria. They will never give up the option of taking matters into their own hands. “Never Again” sentiments have deep and rigid roots for Jews and not just for those in Israel.
Israel is approaching a fork in the road if the newest round of diplomacy does not produce a real agreement within one year after which the only option for stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be military.
Israel risks becoming more isolated on the two initiatives underway and are wary for good reason as they are also the most vulnerable. But, given their remarkable economic achievements, they also have the most to gain from any semblance of stability in the region.
Trust is the most elusive commodity. Without a modicum of trust, the leadership needed to forge solutions will always be handicapped. That is why predictions are easier to articulate than to bear fruit and why a continuing quagmire of turbulence and uncertainty in the Middle East is the most likely scenario of all.