For some in Israel, the issues of Jewish settlements and Iran's nuclear program are not connected. But for the United States, they are becoming more and more intertwined.
The factor that links them together is American concerns about casualties in the region.
According to Mark Perry writing in Foreign Policy, one of the main parties in Washington calling for Barack Obama to put his foot down against Israel's settlement expansion, even before vice-president Joe Biden's recent call, has been General David Petraeus. In the Pentagon's view, the Obama administration's inability to stop the expansion of settlements is eroding America's military posture in the Middle East. Such erosion could embolden Muslim extremists to increase their attacks on US forces in the region.
Petraeus wanted to confront the settlements by getting the US government to include the Palestinian issue under his command in Centcom. This was denied. Obama preferred to let George Mitchell and Biden handle it.
But when Biden heard Israel's recent announcement of plans to expand housing in East Jerusalem, he decided to be frank. He openly told Israel's prime minister: "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan."
American concern about the settlements issue having an impact on the security of its forces could have two major impacts on Israel's Iran policy.
One is that due to this increasing concern for the security of its soldiers, and the need to increase its credibility in the region, the US may place the settlement issue as part of its strategy to isolate Iran.
Such a move would not be without its own logic. The US needs to build a regional coalition against Iran. Regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE are not going to take America's promises to stand up to Iran seriously when Obama cannot even convince his best friend in the region to assist him. In order to have the credibility to persuade such countries to isolate Iran both politically and economically, the US could be pressured to bring Binyamin Netanyahu's settlement policies into line.
The same goes for plans to attack Iran's nuclear installations. Any such attack runs the risk of Iranian retaliation, through its proxies or even directly against US forces in the region. In order to reduce Iran's influence prior to such an attack, the US may again need to improve its position by asking Israel and the Palestinians to push forward with the peace process.
As time goes by, failure to do so will become less and less of an option for Washington. Or put another way, it is unlikely that the US will risk the lives of its troops even before an attack, through Israel's provocative gestures against Palestinians, and then to endanger them even more, by allowing an Israeli attack against Iran.
For now, the recent developments have shown that it will almost be impossible for Israel to go it alone against Iran, without American permission or participation. In fact, the recent US reaction to the settlements may have been designed to send this very message to Jerusalem: don't take any unilateral action that could harm us.
This will place Netanyahu in a bind. On the one hand, he will have his coalition partners to deal with. On the other, he can't ignore the Iranian nuclear threat. Far-right parties such as Yisrael Beitenu will be wanting Israel to build more in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, simply because they don't see such areas as occupied lands. As Israel's deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon (who belongs to Yisrael Beitenu) put it: "There is this perception that Israel is occupying stolen land and that the Palestinians are the only party with national, legal and historic rights to it. Not only is this morally and factually incorrect, but the more this narrative is being accepted, the less likely the Palestinians feel the need to come to the negotiating table."
In other words, the way he sees it, in order to encourage Palestinians to return to the negotiation table, they have to be persuaded that the land occupied by Israel after 1967 is, in fact, not entirely theirs. Therefore by convincing them that they are entitled to less, they could actually be encouraged more to come forward and negotiate.
This warped sense of reality is a strong indication of the task ahead for Netanyahu.
The recent report in the Washington Post that Iran tried to buy nuclear bombs from Pakistan in the late 1980s is another reminder of the urgency and danger posed by the Iranian nuclear program. Israel needs to help Obama put a stop to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's nuclear dreams. Putting an end to the construction of settlements is a fair and powerful way to help Obama help Israel.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.
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