The Year in Preview: Dates of Judgment in the Middle East

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

In front of the United States State Department, two large digital screens should be erected by New Year's, showing the countdown to the Obama administration's looming foreign-policy deadlines for 2014.

One screen would flash the days left before March 29, when the nine months allocated by Secretary of State John Kerry for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations run out. By then, the two sides have to reach agreement, or at least show enough progress to have reason to keep talking. On the other screen, we'd see the time remaining until May 24, when the six-month interim accord on Iran's nuclear program ends—with a longterm accord, or well-founded hope of one, or a return to an unpredictable confrontation.

In principle, the only thing that links success on the two tracks is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that peace with the Palestinians depends on removing the Iranian nuclear threat. But the two diplomatic challenges do share common elements. One is the role of Netanyahu himself—his opposition to the outcomes that the administration seeks, and his unusually public tiff with President Obama. In both cases, domestic politics could torpedo progress. And with both, failure could strain American relations with Europe.

Whether by design or not, American and European efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate complemented each other in 2013. Defying all predictions, Kerry succeeded in renewing negotiations. His cudgel—then and now—has been the threat of publicly labeling Netanyahu or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as bearing responsibility for failure.

Meanwhile, Europe is providing a preview of the potential cost of a breakdown. In July, just before the Israeli cabinet had to decide whether to return to talks, the European Union announced its new guidelines for its extensive economic and scientific cooperation with Israel. The directive barred the use of a single euro beyond the pre-1967 borders. In Israel, the European move was read—correctly—as signaling a fraying relationship with allies second in importance only to the United States, and as an omen of potentially much greater international isolation. Individual European countries have reinforced the message. The British government recently warned companies against making any investments in Israeli settlements. The Dutch firm Vitens, a major supplier of drinking water, has just cancelled a cooperation agreement with Mekorot, Israel's national water company, because of the latter firm's activities in the West Bank. This week Bucharest held up an arrangement enabling Israeli contractors to hire Romanian construction workers because Israel would not stipulate that none of them would work on projects in settlements. Romania is a minor matter. The trend is not.

Meanwhile, an EU official has told Israeli reporters that the European Union might stop funding the Palestinian Authority if the talks fail. That's a direct threat to Abbas—and an indirect threat to Netanyahu, since the status quo in the West Bank depends on the Palestinian Authority continuing to function.

Yet if there's a chance of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators fashioning even an outline of an agreement, it depends on Kerry presenting American proposals and pushing Netanyahu and Abbas to work from those ideas. Last week he took what could be the first step in this process, with a plan for security arrangements in the West Bank following peace. The response from both sides has been predictably chilly. If, as expected, the secretary follows up with a full American draft for a framework agreement, Netanyahu is almost sure to employ a familiar tactic: publicly criticize Obama for undermining Israel and move the dispute from the negotiating room to American domestic politics, where Republicans will parrot him and Democrats will check which way the wind is blowing. This is just one reason for Obama to take the March 29 deadline seriously: It's well before the congressional election in November.

Letting the talks end without results also has a price. At home, Obama risks opponents describing the initiative as a mistake from the start, another sign of a floundering presidency. Abroad, the Palestinian issue won't vanish. The convergence between American and European efforts is likely to give way to an open and uncomfortable dispute—potentially waged in the United Nations and elsewhere if Abbas survives and renews his quest for an internationally imposed solution.

 

At the moment, a bookmaker would give better odds on success in the negotiations between Iran and the six major powers (choose your nomenclature for the latter: E3/EU+3 or P5+1). The Geneva interim agreement already lays out the terms for a final agreement, which would defang Iran's nuclear program and end the sanctions. Difficult as it will be to turn that intent into a signed accord, both sides now behave as if they want to get to yes.

The roles of American domestic politics, Netanyahu, and Europe are also more sharply drawn. In response to the Geneva agreement, the usual unnamed sources speaking for the Israeli prime minister defined an acceptable diplomatic outcome as one that "would have dismantled Iran's nuclear capabilities." Obama, speaking at the Saban Forum last weekend, pointedly said that "the option is not available" of an agreement in which Iran "foreswore the possibility of ever having a nuclear program." The goal of diplomacy, as Obama defined it, is a deal preventing Iran from developing weapons. (A reminder: Most Israeli security experts out of government have given the agreement better marks—some of them much better marks.)

The fight in Congress over imposing new sanctions on Iran isn't only a proxy fight between Obama and Netanyahu, but it's partly that. If a new sanctions bill passes, it's not 100 percent certain that Iran would pull out of the process, but the chance of that happening is high. If talks end for that reason, America will have undercut its European partners. Trying to get international cooperation to maintain and tighten sanctions will be more difficult. If the Iran hawks in Congress succeed, they are likely to achieve the opposite of what they intend.

These aren't the only policy challenges in the Middle East. Most glaringly, the administration still needs a strategy for dealing with the Syrian civil war. What the Iranian nuclear talks and the Israeli-Palestinian track share is that the desired outcomes are clear, the obstacles are obvious, and the calendar is precisely marked. On the invisible screens outside the State Department, the number of minutes is getting smaller.

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