The major difference between the candidates went unaddressed at Herzliya. It concerns the future of Israeli settlements, the towns and cities built and populated by Israel in the territories it gained control over in 1967 in the Six Day War. While he almost certainly would not build new settlements, Netanyahu remains unlikely, without pressure from the United States, to freeze the natural growth of existing settlements. In contrast, both Livni and Barak would probably impose a freeze on all new building beyond the Green Line. Livni and Barak recognize, however, along with Netanyahu, that the settlements are far from the fundamental obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
Indeed, the journalists, political analysts, and current and former national security officials to whom I spoke were in striking agreement that Livni and Barak as well as Netanyahu all see that the fundamental obstacle to progress in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians is Iran. Indeed, the case for Iran’s centrality is convincing.
The case for Iran’s centrality is not, in fact, even remotely plausible. Israel’s Palestinian problem is fairly simple to define—there are millions of Palestinians living in Israeli-controlled territory. To preserve its Jewish character, Israel doesn’t want to give these Palestinians the rights of Israeli citizens. And so the Palestinians live, stateless and without rights, and they’re not happy about it. Exactly what to do about this situation is a somewhat thorny issue, but Israeli leaders have spent a distressing amount of time over the past ten years trying to convince themselves that their Palestinian problem is about something other than this. That it’s “really” about Syria or “really” about Iraq or “really” about Iran. Before the invasion of Iraq it was common to hear that the road to peace in the Middle East ran through Baghdad. That somehow if Saddam Hussein were removed from power, this would somehow so demoralize the Palestinians that they become willing to accept what Israel is prepared to offer.
Obviously, that didn’t work out. But instead of the failure of the Iraq Theory leading Israelis to get real about what’s going on, it’s led them to take refuge in the new and updated Iran Theory whereby these problems would vanish if somehow Iranian power and influence could be crushed.
In fact, this reading of the situation is likely backwards. The persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a boon to rejectionist and political movements in the Middle East. Officials from the bulk of Arab states are plainly alarmed by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon. But it’s impossible for those countries to form a united front with Israel and the United States as long as the U.S. is helping to finance an Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. And it’s impossible for Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians as long as they continue to expand settlements and refuse to even enforce Israeli law against the settlers. The settlement issue is politically difficult for Israeli politicians, which fuels desires to believe that it’s not central to the security issues in the region, but the fact is that it is central and U.S. diplomatic pressure is necessary to alter the Israeli domestic political calculus and make it possible for Israeli leaders to do the right thing.