Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may suffer collateral damage from the accord world powers reached with Iran if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu persists in linking his two biggest diplomatic challenges.
Netanyahu, who called the Iran deal a “historic mistake,” often cites the Islamic republic’s repeated talk of Israel’s destruction as a reason to be more cautious in peacemaking with the Palestinians. “Our aspiration for peace is liable to be severely affected if Iran succeeds” in winning a relaxation of penalties that have devastated its economy, he said in an Oct. 23 Twitter message.
The U.S.-led peace effort “was facing long odds to begin with,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator. “The problem is now, if, in the wake of this agreement you have an angry, aggrieved Israeli prime minister, then that is going to only increase those odds” against reaching an accord.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev had no comment when asked if the prime minister stands by his October statement about peacemaking.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brought Israelis and Palestinians together for talks in July after a three-year deadlock and mapped out a nine-month framework to reach a peace agreement that has eluded them since they began negotiating more than 20 years ago. Throughout his tenure, President Barack Obama has wrestled with Netanyahu over Israel’s push to take tougher action -- and perhaps use military force -- against Iran and Netanyahu’s resistance to U.S. pressure to stop settlement construction on land Palestinians claim for a state.
The accord reached in Geneva broke a decade-long diplomatic stalemate, setting limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for about $7 billion in relief from sanctions over six months. Netanyahu maintains the deal will embolden Iran to pursue nuclear weapons work, rather than encourage it to halt it. Iran denies it aims to build bombs.
The six-month accord is designed to give negotiators time to reach a final accord that would ensure Iran doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons. Miller, the former negotiator, said the similar timelines for reaching final deals with both Iran and the Palestinians will mean “tremendous angst and anxiety on the Israeli side.”
Obama called Netanyahu on Nov. 24 in a bid to reassure him of the administration’s “firm commitment” to Israel, “which has good reason to be skeptical about Iran’s intentions,” Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters traveling with Obama to the West Coast.
Amid snags in the talks, Palestinians articulated their own linkage of the Iranian deal, saying it should reinforce the need to reach an agreement with Israel.
“What was achieved in Geneva is an important message to Israel that peace is the only option for the Middle East,” said Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Kerry, who has made eight visits to the region since taking office in February, expressed frustration with Netanyahu in a Nov. 7 television interview after Israeli plans to build thousands of apartments in settlements were publicized.
“How can you say we’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine?” Kerry said. “It sends a message that somehow, perhaps you’re not really serious.”
Other peace process veterans predict renewed efforts to break the stalemate between Netanyahu and Abbas as Kerry expands his mediation team led by Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
“I don’t think there’s any quid pro quo, but now that Iran has been put aside to some extent, America can concentrate more on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Gilad Sher, who led negotiations in the late 1990s under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, turning them into bargaining chips for Palestinian aspirations to statehood. Since then, more than 350,000 Israelis have moved to the West Bank, populating settlements most countries consider to be illegal under international law. Israel considers the area to be disputed territory whose final disposition should be decided in peace talks.
Israel left Gaza to Abbas’ control when it pulled out all settlers and soldiers there in 2005. The territory has since been taken over by the Islamist Hamas movement, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union.
Both Abbas and Netanyahu have pledged their commitment to carrying through with the current round of peace talks even while jousting over who deserves blame for the lack of progress. Netanyahu called on the Palestinian leader last week to address the Knesset in Jerusalem and recognize the “historic truth” of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
“If he wants me to come and say the things I want to say,” Abbas responded, “then I am ready to do it.”