Benjamin Netanyahu's address to a prominent Washington think tank yesterday was initially billed as a conversation with PBS host Charlie Rose. But the Israeli Prime Minster's office said that plan was never cleared with them, and instead Netanyahu appeared in a video address to Brookings's Saban forum. Netanyahu avoided tough questions—should Rose have asked, which has been a problem at these things—but even in an unchallenged address, he struck what has become Israel's softer tone on the U.S.'s diplomacy with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That doesn't mean he addressed Israel's recent campaign against Iran diplomacy—its apocalyptic language, its "information war" against U.S. analysis of a blooming deal, and Israeli officials' callous warnings of bombs exploding in New York—nor did he make mention of his own cabinet members pouring cold water on a potential deal with the Palestinians. But he did acknowledge that the U.S. and Israel can have "different perspectives" on Iran, and that peace with the Palestinians was "vital—first and foremost for Israel and the Palestinians."
And yet the policy he laid out did something strange: Netanyahu disavowed any link between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional problems—the notion of "linkage," something many U.S. officials do believe, in a measured way—but went on to then link progress on Israeli-Palestinian talks to Iranian nuclear crisis. Netanyahu told the Saban crowd:
Our best efforts to reach Palestinian-Israeli peace will come to nothing if Iran succeeds in building atomic bombs. A nuclear-armed Iran would give even greater backing to the radical and terrorist elements in the region. It would undermine the chances of arriving at a negotiated peace. I would say it would undermine those peace agreements that we have already reached with two of our neighbors.
U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro quickly disavowed this other linkage in an interview this morning: "These two issues concern both Israel's security and our security and the interests of all the Middle East, that it be a more quiet and stable region," he said. "But we do not see any linkage in which we seek to give on one issue and receive on the other." And rightly so: this version of linkage—let's call it "reverse linkage," a term coined by my friend and colleague Eli Clifton—is not a matter of observations about trends in the region, but rather a policy prescription. And it's one we've seen before, to disastrous ends.
This dangerous notion has long been bandied about American neoconservative circles, especially as it applied in the run up to the Iraq war. The target that time around, obviously, was Saddam Hussein's regime. One neocon put it most succinctly: "I believe that the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad." Other supporters of the Bush administration's hawkish policies in the Middle East saw it the same way: Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan referred in April 2002 to "the road that leads to real security and peace—the road that runs through Baghdad." When Netanyahu testified to Congress in the fall of 2002 pressing the U.S. to undertake military regime change in Iraq (an event that, given present circumstances, deserves to be reviewed in full), he said: "The United States must destroy [Iraq's] regime because a nuclear-armed Saddam will place the security of our entire world at risk." (Netanyahu had no doubts at all that Huseein was "feverishly working to develop nuclear weapons, as we speak": “There’s no question that [Saddam] had not given upon on his nuclear program, not [sic] whatsoever.")
How'd that turn out? We plunged the U.S. into a ten-year war with incredible costs in blood and treasure, and yet peace between the Israelis and Palestinian appeared no closer at hand. As Clifton has pointed out, this didn't stop right-wing American pundits from seizing on the 'road to Mideast peace' meme and substituting Iran for Iraq. Neither did it stop Netanyahu from echoing his rhetoric of 11 years ago: "For the peace and security of the world, Iran must not be allowed to maintain the capability to produce nuclear weapons—not today and not tomorrow," he said in his speech to Brookings. If Israeli-Palestinian peace is indeed vital to Israelis and Palestinians, Netanyahu ought to be pursuing it no matter what goes on in Iran; perhaps he ought to be pursuing it especially because of what's going on there.