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Mideast Peace Key to Countering Iran, Arabs Told U.S. Diplomats

by Eli Clifton and Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Gleeful Israeli leaders and their neo-conservative supporters here have spent much of the past week insisting that the State Department cables published by Wikileaks prove that Sunni Arab leaders in the Middle East are far more preoccupied with the threat posed by an ascendant and possibly nuclear Iran than with a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But a closer look at the relevant cables shows a far more consistent message to Washington coming from its Arab allies: that curbing Iran and resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict are inextricably linked and that the most effective way of achieving the former is make tangible progress on the latter.

Indeed endorsements of "linkage" - the notion, accepted at the highest levels of the U.S. military, that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help promote U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East - emerges as a recurring theme in previously confidential discussions with Arab leaders and U.S. diplomats on how best to counter Iran's growing regional power and deter Tehran's nuclear program.

That's not the message, of course, that Israel and its backers have been touting since the first batch of 220 documents was released Nov. 29 by Wikileaks.

Indeed, none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately seized on purported anti-Iranian comments by the Arab leaders quoted prominently in the New York Times as vindication of Israel's position.

"[T]here is a gap between what is said by leaders in private and what they say in public, especially in our region, because our region is hostage to a narrative, and that narrative is the result of nearly 60 years of propaganda," he told a media conference in Tel Aviv immediately after the initial Wikileaks release. "In this narrative, the single greatest threat to regional peace and to the region's future is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel's alleged aggression."

"However, the reality is that leaders understand that this narrative is bankrupt. The reality is that there is a new understanding that there is a new threat here," he declared, suggesting the existence of a de facto consensus between Israel and Sunni Arab states that Tehran must be prevented from achieving a nuclear-weapons capacity by any means necessary.

That message was immediately echoed by neo-conservative backers of Netanyahu's Likud Party here for much of the past week.

"Obama has taken his eye off the real ball, placed friendly Arab states in a precarious situation, and misrepresented to the American people and the world that the non-peace talks are necessary to curb the Iranian threat," asserted Jennifer Rubin in Commentary magazine's Contentions blog.

"Governments in the region do not in fact care very much about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. They are transfixed by Iran." wrote David Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter on his FrumForum blog and in Canada's National Post. "If the Palestinian issue is so unimportant to the Middle East, why is it so important to us?"

While that line has since been repeated continuously by neo- conservative bloggers, columnists, and publications, they find little echo in the cables themselves.

"[T]he key to containing Iran revolves around progress in the Israel/Palestine issue," Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan told visiting U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner during a Jul. 15, 2009 meeting, according to one cable dated five days later.

"To win [over Arab public opinion], the U.S. should quickly bring about a two-state solution over the objections of the Netanyahu government," added bin Nayef, whose bristling hostility toward Iran was made plain by his comparison - highlighted by the Times - of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler.

Five months later, in a Dec. 9, 2009 meeting with Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, bin Zayed returned to that theme. He "emphasized the strategic importance of creating a Palestinian State (i.e., resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict) as the way to create genuine Middle Eastern unity on the question of Iran's nuclear program and regional ambitions," the cable's author reported.

A May 27, 2008 cable describes a conversation between Rep. Jeff Fortenberry with Gamal Mubarak, son and heir apparent of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Asked by the congressman how best to counter Iran's nuclear program, Mubarak replied, "Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Jordan, are the 'heavyweights' that can counter Iran."

The cable goes on to describe Mubarak as "advocat[ing] movement on the Israeli/Palestinian track to remove a prime issue that Iran can use as a pretext."

"Speaking to PolOffs [political officers] in early February 2009, immediately after the Gaza War, Director of the Jordanian Prime Minister's Political Office Khaled Al-Qadi noted that the Gaza crisis had allowed Iranian interference in inter-Arab relations to reach unprecedented levels," according to a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Amman shortly after the three-week Gaza War between Israel and Hamas ended in January 2009.

Jordan's government also depicted the ongoing Israeli- Palestinian conflict as a key factor in the expansion of Iran's regional influence, according to the Apr. 2, 2009 cable.

"Jordanian leaders have argued that the only way to pull the rug out from under Hizballah - and by extension their Iranian patrons - would be for Israel to hand over the disputed Sheba'a Farms to Lebanon," it went on. "With Hizballah lacking the 'resistance to occupation' rationale for continued confrontation with Israel, it would lose its raison d'etre and probably domestic support."

During a Feb. 14, 2010 meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Qatar Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani suggested that Israel's efforts to rally U.S. and Arab support for a more confrontational policy toward Iran was really related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. "[T]he Israelis," he is reported as telling his guest, are "&using Iran's quest for nuclear weapons as a diversion from settling matters with the Palestinians."

Three days later, according to a cable sent Feb. 22, 2010, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nayan warned another Congressional delegation led by Nita Lowey, a strong Israel supporter in the House of Representatives, against a military attack on Iran. According to the cable, the minister ended the meeting with a "soliloquy on the importance of a successful peace process between Israel and its neighbors as perhaps the best way of reducing Iran's regional influence."

The fact that the Arab leaders placed so much emphasis on the importance of making progress in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute clearly did not come as any surprise to U.S. regional experts; nor would it be surprising to them if Israeli leaders and their neo- conservative backers have worked hard - as they have for the past week -- to ignore or obscure that message.

Already in a January 2007 cable released by Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv was warning Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the Israeli government was "deeply concerned that Israeli-Palestinian issues not become linked in American minds to creating a more propitious regional environment for whatever steps we decide to take to address the deteriorating situation in Iraq" which at the time appeared to be disintegrating into sectarian civil war.

That concern was prompted by the publication the previous November of a report by the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton which, among other findings, bluntly concluded that "the United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict."

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