Iranian Protests, Israeli-Palestinian Consequences
In foreign policy everything is connected.
Every great power’s foreign policy is calculated with respect to every other big power’s foreign policy. What happens one country ripple throughout the region or even the world. Situations change, strategies are reviewed, tactics are adapted.
The growing tumult in Iran is of major significance. Not only in Iran itself —the ramifications are being felt more widely. Not the least important effect involves the strategy to move Israeli-Palestinian relations out of deadlock.
For a few months we have known that a new American-Saudi proposal for the Middle East is to be rolled out early this year, perhaps sponsored by other governments as well. Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, the young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman —known in international circles by the handle MSB — is going to be a game changer.
The loosening of the rigid rules of daily life within Saudi Arabia — allowing women to drive, opening cinemas and the like — is the opening move of MSB’s drive to liberalize the Saudi government and society in general. He wants to turn Saudi Islam — or to return it, as he insists — to a less rigid, more open and tolerant way of life.
Saudi foreign policy is also changing. Riyadh is overcoming its lethargy, taking the initiative and seeking solutions rather than seeking simply to manage instability. The strategy shared by Trump and MBS is to break through the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock by forcing it into a wider, regional plan. When a problem seems intractable, enlarging the scope of the solution sometimes offers a way forward.
Direct negotiations between the two parties — or the lack of them — will no longer determine whether there is movement or not. The two-state solution, conceived as a full Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security, will be reviewed with a critical eye even by those who have long endorsed it as the only just outcome. The question will be posed whether the Palestinians as a people would really be better off with a full state, whether they should have one, or whether, given past performance, they really deserve one. In other words the question is whether the so-called peace process in fact offers a roadmap to peace.
The regional approach implies an outside imposition of a realistic view of what is possible on Palestinian leaders who have failed for decades to develop one by themselves. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gone on too long and for too long it has damaged other causes — causes equally worthy or more so. The Palestinian cause has worn out its welcome, even among its once ardent supporters in the West.
This approach became public with U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem officially as Israel’s capital. It is now clear that this decision was not a one-off operation or some idiosyncratic gesture. It signals a new strategy, one that moves beyond the peace process concept. It is a strategy of movement, unilaterally taking contentious issues off the table, preparing a region-wide plan. Trump’s announcement that American aid to the Palestinians might be cut off if they don’t adapt is another threat to force compliance. In the flurry of current events it has passed almost without notice that the Jerusalem decision has been processed throughout the region and that the Saudis not only don’t oppose it, they are privately in favor. Trump is also endorsing Israel’s redefinition of Jerusalem’s boundaries.
The protest movement in Iran, however, has shifted the geopolitical terrain. Iranian rebellion against the theocracy in Tehran is shaking the mullah’s regime — and the effects are rippling out across the region.
With respect to resolving Israeli-Palestinian deadlock, the implication is clear.
Success for the U.S.-Saudi strategy depends on leveraging Sunni Arab government alarm over Iran’s aggressive regional policy to win support for an imposed Israeli-Palestinian deal. Tehran’s expansionism gives Sunni Arabs a common enemy, thus sufficient reason to endorse an imposed solution. Israeli destruction of Iranian military facilities being built in Syria appears as being in everyone’s interest. Weakening Tehran’s ability to bolster Hezbollah and Bashar al Assad is a shared objective.
Thus an aggressive Iran incites movement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An Iranian regime now forced by popular protests to change its ways would be good news for the Iranian people — if it does not turn into a bloodbath — but much more ambiguous is its impact on the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock.
No matter which outcome one thinks is more important, you can’t have both. What happens on the Iranian street is key to the next phase.