Could a U.S. Regional -- Really Regional -- Plan Save the Arab-Israeli Peace Process?

04/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, and everyone seems to be celebrating. In my neighborhood in Los Angeles, the local bakeries are offering "Happy New Year" cakes for the local Iranian residents. President Obama and even President Peres are sending greetings of hope and future peace to the Iranians still living in the home country. Those who question the accommodative spirit are complaining, especially those who believe a new attitude of diplomatic engagement will threaten Israel's -- and America's -- security. They needn't do so. The critical message is that the US in particular is trying a new approach, and it has direct relevance for the Arab-Israeli dispute.

The Iranian issue today has become integrally related to Arab-Israeli relations because the constant threat of Iranian arms helping Israel's adversaries increases the reluctance of Israelis to make concessions, which is clear in the right-wing movement of the recent elections and in both the Lebanon and Gaza wars, especially the latter. Without Iranian interference, there would have been no Gaza war. Without Iranian obstruction, the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005 would not have resulted in the escalated instability that we have seen.

Last month a group of Israeli academics and former diplomats, brought together by the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), developed a policy paper, "Proposal for US Engagement Following Israeli Elections," (on mideastpeacepulse.com) that stressed, among other ideas, the concept of a US Regional Plan with a special focus on the security roadblock that bothers everyone, especially all Israelis: Iran.

As the authors of the IPF Israel Roundtable proposal put it: "The Israeli government is focused on Teheran. For the last three years Israel has been forced to confront Iran by proxy through Hezbollah and Hamas. Therefore, it is important for the U.S. to address this central Israeli concern in a serious and determined way within a defined time frame and within the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli contexts, as part of a broad regional plan, and as a component of an Iranian-U.S. dialogue. Relevant U.S. security arrangements that strengthen Israel vis-à-vis the Iranian threat will be viewed positively by any Israeli government and will help assuage Israeli fears."

The authors recognize and clarify to American ears more directly than the point is usually made, that you cannot, in this era, have any breakthroughs or make genuine progress on the Arab-Israeli front without progress on Iran. And that plays to the Obama administration's strength. By pursuing Palestinian-Israeli progress in conjunction with exploring new opportunities with Iran, including ways to prevent its potential nuclear force, the administration is beginning a direction that may well achieve genuine progress. The Roundtable participants have made a series of critical additions to our understanding of what is to be done next on the Arab-Israeli front.

And the Obama administration's new approach is clever because otherwise it would be time to feel sorry for its new team's chances of doing anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians are awash in internal conflict; the latest casualty is the resignation of the highly respected Salam Fayyad as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Israelis seem bound to have a nightmare right-wing government that can only please the country's worst adversaries. It appears that the new government will not even accept a two-state solution. But the Obama administration's message to Iran can change this dynamic.

In the past the timing was always terrible for U.S. plans in the Middle East..The 1982 Reagan plan for "self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan" was timed in the middle of the war in Lebanon with poor consultation with the parties, especially Israel. The latter lost an opportunity most Israelis would dearly love today. The Clinton Parameters of January 2002 were offered at the very end of the administration, and the Palestinians in particular thought they'd get a better deal from George W. Bush. How's that for a colossal miscalculation? And once these ideas were rejected, they seemed finished. In retrospect, both sides would have been far better off if they'd taken the American ideas and agreed to work with them over the long term.

But the Obama administration has the time, and the will, and the personnel to pull something off. The Israeli experts are right. An American proposal doesn't have to be the end of the conversation, but instead the beginning. It can, if done properly, set the stage, focus the recalcitrant parties, and develop a conversation where none exists.

Here's the key point: new Clinton parameters with progress on Iran that enhances Israeli security. No more weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, no more wars with them, but a connection to the new US plan. That's a recipe for making regional progress on several fronts at once.

Of course, this program is far easier prescribed than achieved, and the new Iranian government of whatever stripe that emerges from the June 12 election would have to cooperate. But since half of policy-making is having the right strategy, the Israeli experts' idea shows the way of making progress on the Palestinian-Israeli and the American-Iranian fronts at once. This is a way to square lots of circles with one approach.

Steven L. Spiegel is Director of the Center for Middle East Development and Professor of Political Science at UCLA. He blogs regularly at the Mideast Peace Pulse.