Iran casts a giant shadow over the Washington peace talks

Israel will keep the chances of a deal alive, while the US tackles the nuclear threat, says Stephen Pollard.

There are any number of myths surrounding the Middle East talks currently talking place in Washington. But the issue overshadowing the entire process seems to have been missed by most observers: Iran.

The fact that proper talks have now begun is not a triumph of hope over experience; it is far more prosaic than that. It is the result of bargaining between the US, the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

There has been an implicit deal. America will take care of the Iranian nuclear threat, either through its own actions or by allowing Israel to act, and in return the Israelis will do whatever they can to keep the peace process on the road.

Ten months ago, for instance, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, agreed to a construction freeze on the West Bank as a show of good faith – even though the status of the settlements should be the subject of negotiations, not a pre-requisite to their happening.

All Israeli leaders would welcome the genuine prospect of a peace deal. Indeed, all Mr Netanyahu’s immediate predecessors have confounded the caricature of Israeli leaders’ obduracy with their willingness to gamble for peace: from Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching recent plan, to Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza and Ehud Barak’s Camp David attempt to see if Yasser Arafat’s desire for a deal was genuine.

Originally, though, Mr Netanyahu was not convinced there was any chance of a deal happening within the foreseeable future. And the open contempt with which he was initially treated by President Obama – snubbed at the White House and left without even a basic photo-call after their meetings – only made things worse.

To Israeli eyes, Obama seemed to have an entirely skewed reading of the situation, regarding them as the sole obstacle to peace, refusing to visit but keen to cosy up to as many Palestinian, Muslim and Arab leaders as possible, deaf to any arguments from Israeli diplomats and politicians about the difficulties of negotiations with the Palestinians. Obama thought he could bully Prime Minister Netanyahu into action. Under presidents Clinton and Bush, he thought, the US had been too parti pris on the Israeli side; time to redress the balance and convince the Palestinians that they could trust their future to him. All he achieved, though, was to convince many Israelis that now even America was against them. The prospect of worthwhile negotiations looked ever more remote, with the Israelis cool and the Palestinians reluctant.

But over the intervening months, wiser heads within the administration – such as Hillary Clinton – have begun to hold sway and there has been a twin-pronged strategy: a noticeably warmer stance towards the Israelis and a realpolitik discussion about objectives – such as Iran.

The myths, however, remain. The biggest is that America cannot be an honest broker, given how it stuffs Israeli mouths with dollars and treats the rest of the Middle East with disdain. The facts are rather different. US aid to Israel in 2010 is $2.7 billion, which is indeed the biggest sum given to any country. But Egypt has long been a close second, receiving an average of $2 billion a year since the 1979 peace treaty (although last year it fell to fifth behind Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq). And the Palestinian Authority has taken $2 billion from the US since 2007 to support Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s security, governance and development programmes. Israel may receive the most US aid of any individual nation, but that sum is dwarfed when the sums given to its neighbours are added together.

Then there is the myth of Mr Netanyahu’s dogmatic stance. Who froze West Bank construction purely as a show of good will? Who is in Washington this week? And who has hesitated before acting against Iran? Mr Netanyahu does not want his second term as prime minister to match his first’s failure. He has always been more pragmatic than his critics allow, but is now also conscious that this is his last shot at a legacy.

As for the myth that the more hardline parties in his coalition would prevent the acceptance of any deal: he would be glad to see the back of them. At the moment Mr Netanyahu is untouchable as prime minister, and Tzipi Livni’s opposition Kadima is drifting into irrelevance. It could suit both of them for her to enter into a national unity government to push through any settlement.

The most worrying myth, however, is that having talks must be better than not having talks. Talks are wonderful when they succeed. But when they fail, they tend to make things far worse. The collapse of Camp David in July 2000, for instance, led directly to the second intifada in September. For Mahmoud Abbas, this is the real problem. Hamas’s murder of four Israelis on Tuesday was aimed more at the PA than the Israelis – to show that Hamas’s reach extends beyond Gaza.

If this round of talks collapses, then Hamas will be even stronger. The slow, steady progress brought to the West Bank by Mr Abbas and Mr Fayyad will be seen as ineffectual. And the lure of war, war, will be for many Palestinians irresistibly superior to jaw, jaw – Telegraph