It is sometimes said that if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran did not exist, the Israelis would have to invent. him. What better proof do you need of the dire threat that the country faces than a man who says the state of Israel should be expunged from the map of the Middle East?
Iran obsesses Israel. Talk to any Israeli, listen to any speech by an Israeli politician, examine the security policy being developed by the new government of Benyamin Netanyahu and Iran is always there – a looming menace threatening the country with nuclear attack and driving on its surrogates Hamas and Hizbollah to harry the Jewish state
The reason for this obsession is obvious enough. While Iran may not threaten Israel directly with armed invasion, its development of nuclear technology poses a particular challenge to Israel's security as the sole nuclear power in the region. Add to that Iran's support of Hamas and Hizbollah and it is easy to see how it could be seen as the overriding cause of Israeli concern. However real those fears may be, it is also true that it suits Israel to build up Iran as the great danger to its existence. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, it has needed an enemy formidable enough to justify its continued retention of secret nuclear weapons and its claim that security must override all other considerations in its policy towards its neighbours, the more so now the US is moving towards direct talks with Iran, and putting pressure on the new Israeli government to enter substantive talks with the Palestinians.
Indeed, in his visit to Washington this week, the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, very specifically used Iran as the counter to those pressures. Yes, said Peres, preparing the way for the visit of Netanyahu later this month, we will talk to the Palestinians but you will have to help neutralise Iran in exchange. As a "grand bargain" it is a clever piece of politics. As an actual way forward, President Obama would be wrong even to consider it. Wrapping up Iran and Palestine in this way would only make a solution to either that much more difficult. Iran may indeed pose a problem of regional security.
Even if you do suspect Iran of the worst of intentions in developing nuclear technology – and it vehemently denies any wish to produce nuclear weapons – its motivations seem far more driven by its fear of military attack by the US and encirclement by hostile Sunni Arab nations (George Bush gave it plenty of cause to worry on both counts) than any ambition to assault Israel.
Ahmadinejad certainly finds it useful to ramp up the anti-Zionist rhetoric as a means of proclaiming Iran's Islamic credentials in the Arab street. Iran also finds it useful to help fund and arm radical movements in the region, partly for the same reason. But Israel is not its primary concern, or target, and never has been, even under Ayatollah Khomeini, while to accuse Hamas and Hizbollah of being just proxies for Tehran is completely to misunderstand the nature of these groups and create a convenient excuse for not coming to terms with them. If Obama and the West are to engage with Iran, they will have to do so on its own terms. Entangling the issue with Israel's demands will simply prove counter-productive.
Nor is the association very helpful in dealing with the Palestinian issue. At the moment, America and Israel are on a collision course. Netanyahu's government has drawn back from the concept of a two-state solution and shows no sign of changing tack on settlement building or any other of the contentious issues. Obama's administration on the other hand is insisting that Israel should stop settlement expansion and pursue talks with the aim of setting up a separate Palestinian state.
There was nothing in Shimon Peres's speech this week to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee that suggested Netanyahu's government was ready to make any great concessions to the Palestinians. But then there was nothing in Vice-President Joe Biden's address to the same assembly to indicate that the US administration is prepared to pull back on its demand for an end to settlements and the two-state solution. Throwing Iran into the mix is not going to help. It merely confuses the issue to Netanyahu's benefit.
If nuclear proliferation in the Middle East really is Israel's primary concern, perhaps it can take a leaf out of Obama's book and offer to put its own nuclear arsenal into the discussion. It would certainly put the ball back in Iran's court if it did.
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