THE day after the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq was released, Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, rejected the part that urged the United States to refocus on the Israeli-Arab conflict because all Middle East issues were, it said, “inextricably linked.”
Mr. Olmert responded, “The U.S.’s problems in Iraq are entirely independent of the problems between us and the Palestinians.”
Yet Mr. Olmert’s own recent statements and actions belie his argument. Partly in anticipation of an American shift in policy and partly out of longstanding and growing concern over Iran, he has been pursuing an approach to Israeli interests that involves reaching out to the Palestinians and Iraq’s neighbors. It could almost have been taken from the playbook written by James A. Baker III.
In a speech late last month at the grave of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Mr. Olmert called for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state and said he would seek the help of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries to make that a reality.
For the first time he praised elements of a 2002 Saudi-sponsored plan calling for full diplomatic relations between all Arab states and Israel in exchange for such a Palestinian state (under certain conditions). Senior Israeli officials have met in recent months not only with Jordanians and Egyptians but — most notably — with Saudis.
The Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt share Israel’s concern about Shiite Iran and worry about its eventual influence in an Iraq that is spinning out of control. So they have made modest gestures toward Israel and the United States and urged them to move ahead with a Palestinian state. Both countries are listening.“The Saudis are saying to us, ‘We are afraid of Iran and want to work with you but the Palestinian issue has to be solved,’ ” a senior Israeli official said, insisting on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “To some extent this is an excuse but to some extent it is genuine.
He added that the growing domination of Palestinian politics by Hamas, the militant Islamist group that calls for Israel’s destruction and has received Iranian aid, is a threat to secular Arab rulers just as it is to Israel. So they want to boost the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who favors negotiations with Israel — and that, too, coincides with Israel’s view.
The three current or potential civil wars in the Middle East, then — in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian areas — are therefore all interlinked in Israel’s logic, with Iran as the common denominator.