With Obama’s Israel Visit, an Opportunity: Ehud Barak Op-Ed

WSJ Opinion

With Obama’s Israel Visit, an Opportunity

Forming a ‘strategic triangle’ to ensure Middle East security.

March 20, 2013

By Ehud Barak. Mr. Barak was Israel’s minister of defense from 2007 until this week.

President Obama’s visit to Israel comes at a decisive juncture for the Middle East and offers the opportunity for new strategic thinking. Over the past two years, a geopolitical earthquake has shattered a generations-old regional order. What is replacing that order are unstable, transformational regimes or, even worse, failed states.

These dramatic changes offer some important lessons. For instance: Be modest when it comes to predictions. Who predicted the revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere? Who could have predicted them?

Another lesson: It is unwise to rely on “the world” to act when a man-made disaster is unfolding. Consider Syria. President Bashar Assad’s jet fighters, tanks and artillery have been slaughtering Syrian people for two years. More than 70,000 have been killed. Yet the international community has shown neither unity of purpose nor the political will to act.

Many in the world would do well to learn the lesson that the root cause of the problems in the Middle East is not the oft-cited failure to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. Even if a peace agreement with the Palestinians had been signed and sealed a long time ago, the Muslim Brotherhood would still have come to power in Egypt, Syria would still be mired in a bloody civil war, and Iran would still be pursuing nuclear capabilities and hegemony in the Persian Gulf.

The major challenges in the Middle East today are failed or failing states armed with thousands of rockets and missiles, the presence of global terror groups such as al Qaeda, and, of course, Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

In the face of these serious challenges, I see an opportunity for the United States, moderate Arab regimes and Israel to tackle these challenges together.

First, these countries should build a Regional Security Framework that will focus on fighting terror, protecting border security and maintaining a missile defense.

Second, Israel, backed by the U.S. and moderate Arab regimes, should launch a daring peace initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians. A two-state arrangement is the only viable solution. While its absence is not the fountainhead of all regional troubles, its achievement would help secure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. The status quo offers only a slippery slope toward a binational state that would endanger Israel’s future.

If a final-status agreement for a two-state solution is not feasible at this time—and I suspect it is not—Israel and the Palestinians should try to reach interim agreements. Start with security and borders, for example. But if interim agreements also prove impossible to achieve, unilateral steps that move both Israelis and Palestinians closer to their legitimate goals in a final peace agreement should be taken. Such steps might include an Israeli decision to build solely within the widely accepted settlement blocks, or programs that would reduce Palestinian dependence on the Israeli economy.

Third, Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, which is the paramount challenge facing Israel, the region and the world today, must be eliminated. An Iranian regime with hegemonic ambitions and armed with nuclear weapons would spell the end of any conceivable nonproliferation regime.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and later Egypt would soon follow suit. The danger of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terror groups would increase exponentially. Iran’s Gulf neighbors would be intimidated and Iran’s terror proxies would be emboldened—operating under the umbrella of a nuclear Iran—to spread death and destruction throughout the world.

Preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons now is no simple task, and it is not without significant risks. But dealing with a nuclear Iran a few years down the road will be far more complicated, much more costly, and it could produce horrific consequences.

Diplomats are still working to find a solution to the Iranian nuclear threat. Tough sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy. As a long-time observer of Iranian machinations, though, I do not believe that diplomacy and sanctions alone will lead to a moment of truth when the ayatollahs will decide to give up their nuclear program. Thus all options, including the military one, must remain squarely on the table. And when we say that all options are on the table, we must truly be prepared to use them.

The strategic triangle of a Regional Security Framework, a reinvigorated peace process with the Palestinians, and an effective halt of the Iranian nuclear program is the most effective approach to deal with the dynamic challenges on our horizon.

But this strategic triangle will not emerge on its own. It demands U.S. leadership, and it demands an even stronger U.S.-Israel alliance. President Obama’s visit to Israel could not be more timely because it offers an opportunity to kick-start an effort to accomplish just that.

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