There were two interesting developments regarding the United States' Middle East diplomacy last week. The first, of course, was Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement of a tentative agreement to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I've already noted my skepticism about that initiative here, but feel free to look at Bernard Avishai or Ben Birnbaum if you'd like to read a more optimistic take. The second development was the surprising level of bipartisan congressional support for the Dent-Price letter endorsing renewed diplomacy with Iran. Given that Congress normally votes hawkish AIPAC-sponsored resolutions on Iran without a semblance of thought, the fact that 131 representatives from both parties backed this Dent-Price letter constitutes a rare moment of sanity on Capitol Hill.
I just hope that these two initiatives don't find out about each other. There are a lot of ways that diplomacy on both issues could fail, but one good way to raise the odds of failure would be to link the two. For instance, the United States could try to get Israel to be more forthcoming in its talks with the Palestinians by promising to take a tougher line toward Iran, based on the familiar theory that a more secure Israel will be more willing to make concessions.
Bad idea. For starters, this approach has been tried before, most notably in the policy of "dual containment" that Martin Indyk formulated during his first stint in government back in 1993. "Dual containment," in case you've forgotten, committed the United States to containing both Iraq and Iran, even though these two regimes were deeply hostile to one another and it would have made a lot more sense to play one off against the other. But as Trita Parsi and Kenneth Pollack have shown, the United States pledged to contain both states in part to reassure Israel, in the hope that it would then be more forthcoming in the Oslo peace process. This approach didn't work, of course, and keeping lots of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia (as dual containment required) was one reason Osama bin Laden decided to attack the United States on 9/11.
Furthermore, explicitly linking these two issues merely increases the number of players with a potential veto over any possible agreement. If progress on Israel-Palestine is tied to an agreement with Iran, then Tehran could in theory scuttle an Israeli-Palestinian deal by digging in its heels. Similarly, linking a deal with the Palestinians to a resolution of the various disputes with Iran would give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a perfect reason to either raise the ante or simply walk away from a deal that he doesn't like. Linkage would in effect force U.S. negotiators on both issues to look over their shoulders constantly to see what was happening in the other arena, thereby impairing their ability to craft a workable deal on the issue at hand.
Most importantly, this approach is neither necessary nor in the U.S. interest. On Israel-Palestine, U.S. leaders have correctly seen a two-state solution as the best outcome. As President Barack Obama put in his Cairo speech, it is in "Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest." Retired Centcom commander James Mattis underscored that point in his remarks at the Aspen Security Forum last week, telling his audience, "I paid a military security price every day as a commander of Centcom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel." I have my doubts about whether "two states for two peoples" is possible at this point, but achieving that goal would clearly remove one potent source of anti-Americanism in the region.
In short, the United States has a profound interest in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal no matter what its relationship with Iran is like and no matter what Tehran is up to. And despite its occasional bluster, Iran is far less of an existential threat to Israel than continuing the occupation, because trying to maintain a "Greater Israel" is leading Jerusalem toward permanent apartheid and growing international isolation. Moreover, achieving a just peace with the Palestinians would deprive Iran of the one issue that gives it some modest street cred within the Arab and Islamic world and would make it easier for the United States to organize a regional coalition against Iran should that ever become necessary.
By the same token, a deal that reliably capped Iran's nuclear program and began a process of reconciliation with that country would be very much in America's (and the world's) interest, irrespective of the state of play on Israel-Palestine. Indeed, a good case can be made that Iranian meddling on that issue -- including its support for radical Palestinian groups -- is largely a tactical maneuver designed to ensure they are not marginalized within the broader region. Once a deal was reached, however, both Iran's incentive and its ability to make trouble on Palestine would decline. But even if Kerry's efforts fail and there is no two-state solution, resolving the dispute on Iran's nuclear program would still be highly desirable.
For these reasons, therefore, the United States should reject any attempt to link these two already difficult diplomatic projects. The key thing to remember is that progress on either one would be a good thing, even if there were little or no progress on the other. Indeed, progress on either one would probably facilitate progress on the other, but only if said progress were not contingent on movement on the other. It will be tough enough to overcome the many obstacles to agreement in either case, and linking the two is a blueprint for failure on both.