Iran trumps Palestinians as top US-Israel issue

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Peace talks with the Palestinians dominated President Obama's meeting last year with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but will barely warrant a mention at their White House session Monday or in speeches to a powerful pro-Israeli lobby. Iran is now the issue commanding urgent attention.

The United States, Israel and much of the world are trying to figure out how to deal with Iran and its nuclear program. While all sides insist a resolution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict is critical to Israel's security, the Israelis have come to believe that Iran may be on the threshold of developing atomic weapons and is the primary existential threat to the Jewish state.

The Palestinians probably will not get much more than a passing reference by the U.S. and Israeli officials, lawmakers, Republican presidential hopefuls and others at the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference, where Obama was scheduled to speak Sunday, a day before Netanyahu.

Nor is the peace process at the top of the agenda for Netanyahu's meeting with Obama at the White House on Monday and his talks with congressional leaders on Tuesday.

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "is not going to just go away," said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian envoy in Washington. He said Netanyahu "can focus on Iran, but he can only bring peace to his country by making peace with the Palestinians and his Arab neighbors."

Shifting focus from the seemingly intractable Mideast conflict has political advantages for both Obama and Netanyahu, even if they also don't see eye to eye on the preferred tactics to prevent Iran from being a nuclear-armed state.

For one, no politician in an election year has ever suffered from being tough on Iran. Pressing Israel on the need to make concessions to the Palestinians can be a political minefield.

That is what happened last year when Obama declared that the need for a two-state solution was "more urgent than ever." He challenged Israel to make concessions on borders and security that have hindered an agreement for six decades.

The immediate result was public confrontation with Netanyahu, and fodder for a Republican Party eager to cast Obama as a weak partner to Israel.

Israel is an ally whose wishes are key to the Democratic-leaning Jewish vote and to the evangelical Christians who make up a large chunk of the Republican base. A year of balky peace negotiations, an acrimonious Palestinian campaign to win U.N. recognition and continued Israeli settlement construction in disputed territories have hardly validated Obama's public call for a speedy resolution.

But as America's pro-Israel advocates gather again, the call for peace with the Palestinians has succumbed to fever-pitched talk of military action against Iran. Tehran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

The U.S. and Israeli leaders' differences on Iran are significantly narrower, but no less tense.
Israel believes the time to strike is before Iran has a nuclear weapon. The U.S. position is to wait until it is certain Iran has one, and allow more time for sanctions to succeed in pressuring Iran back into negotiations.

"Putting the peace process on the back burner has not solved any of the underlying tension and mistrust between the Obama administration and Netanyahu government," said Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If anything, tension over the Palestinian issue has been eclipsed by bilateral tension over how to address Iran's nuclear program."

In his most expansive remarks on Iran, Obama on Friday appeared to address Netanyahu' concern that Iran's uranium enrichment activity be presented as the world's problem, not just Israel's, and that U.S. military options are expressly on the table. In an interview with The Atlantic magazine, the president said he is not bluffing about attacking Iran if it builds a nuclear weapon, while cautioning Israel against a premature attack.

Netanyahu, too, seems to have little to gain from an open clash with Obama now.

Should Israel attack Iran, it will count on the United States to offer maximum diplomatic cover.

Israel also will need the U.S. for a coordinated strategy in the event of retaliation by Iran or its proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Relegating the peace process to the background is a coup for Netanyahu. His government has brushed aside American criticism of Jewish settlement expansion in lands the Palestinians want for their future state, and has insisted on Palestinian concessions, notably their endorsement of Israel's Jewish character, before any talk of granting Palestinian independence.