Roger Cohen wrote today in the NY Times about an ordinary Israel, as opposed to an exceptional Israel.

I found this column significant in many ways. It captured something that had been the subtext of almost every international discussion of Israel and its actions beyond its legal borders in the last few years.

 As human beings, we usually have clearly defined perceptions of ourselves. In most cases, we are unaware or choose to be unaware of how we are perceived by the world around us. So unfortunately, we end up interacting with the world on the basis of how we see ourselves or how we wish to be seen. Nations do the same. They have national narratives that are sometimes manufactured for social cohesion, sometimes over-idealized versions of real events, sometimes just plain bogus. And unfortunately any external messages directed at them have to get through the thick fabricated glass windows.

Israel, Roger Cohen says in his piece “does not see itself as normal. Rather it lives in a perpetual state of exceptionalism”. So it can have nuclear weapons while demanding that the US help prevent Iran from getting them. It can refrain from signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while demanding that NPT signatories like Iran live up to their obligations. Basic notions such as fairness do not factor in these types of talks because there is the view of “we are rational, THEY are not!” and therefore it follows that “we can be allowed to do things THEY can never be forgiven for doing.”  Now, Israel unlike many other nations on this earth was born out of a tragedy. A great tragedy. But as Cohen rightfully observes, that does not mean it should refrain from  ”deal[ing] with the world as it is, however discomfiting, not the world of yesterday.”

As Cohen quotes in the piece, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has often said that the only way to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons is “for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened .” So what if the US as part of its Iran Strategy tried to convince Israel to go the way of South Africa and get rid of its nuclear weapons as a way of persuading the iranians that their security will not be compromised by not developing a bomb?

The Israelis would never agree to it, of course, but let’s imagine that they did for a second.
Because one important way and I believe the most important way to look at this Iran Nukes conundrum is through the lens of regional control and regional security. Israel has been the “Big Boy” of the Middle-East for the past forty years or so. Egypt reared its head for a bit in the days of Nasser and Sadat. But they were quickly smacked in the Six-Day War and in the Yom Kippur War. They then decided it was best to sign a peace treaty, get a Nobel Peace Prize for Sadat in the bargain and move on. Then Iraq rose slightly with a little help from the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations. They quickly lost their power when Saddam picked a fight with the Ayatollas to start the 8-year long Iran-Iraq war that drained them financially and otherwise. The American invasion of 2003 took care of whatever power was not erased by the UN sanctions that preceded it. The Gulf states (Bahrain, Koweit, Qatar, UAE, Oman) have as much military strength as five African bees.  Yet Israel with a lot of US financial and military help has remained strong.

So now the Iranians look to be on the rise again, paranoid and fearful. They do have valid reasons to be fearful. From Tehran, the Mullahs look to the east and they see NATO troops in Afghanistan (including nuclear armed nations like the US and the UK) and further east, they see Pakistanis with nukes. Indians with nukes. Further west, they see Israelis with nukes. In addition to being in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has a presence in the Gulf States. If you couple this with the constant threats of bombardments as enunciated by both US and Israeli officials, it is no wonder the Iranians want to get nuclear weapons as a way of preventing an externally-imposed regime change.

Some will argue that Iran is not governed by “rational leaders” and therefore cannot be held to the same standard as other nations. I disagree. And I am not alone in this view. Many decades of Iranian peaceful co-existence with its neighbours back me up on this. So does the NY Times’ Roger Cohen in the piece I quoted at the start of this post. “Iran makes rational decisions,” he writes. “Rather than invoking the Holocaust — a distraction — Israel should view Iran coolly [and] understand the hesitancy of Tehran’s nuclear brinksmanship.”

So in many ways, the road towards Obama’s nuclear-free world and therefrore a nuclear-free Middle-East, goes through Tehran as much as it goes through Tel Aviv.

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Many news outlets including ABC and CNN are reporting that Obama sat for an interview with the Arab channel Al Arabiya earlier today. His Middle-East Special Envoy George Mitchell is also heading to the region to begin talk with the Israelis and Palestinians.

This is good politics for Obama. I think this is part of his charm offensive that started last Tuesday to show a clear break from the Bush administration that essentially gave carte blanche to Israel and did not engage the so-called “Arab or Muslim Street” at all. Whether this translates into anything  substantial in the short term is anybody’s guess.  As CBS’s 60 Minutes reported last night, both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict are working hard to establish what George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon once called “facts on the ground” that would essentially kill the two-state solution. For Israelis, that means VIP roads, settlements, more settlements and the separation wall in the West Bank (called a “fence” by some political-correctness advocates). For Palestinians, that means procreation. Because having more children per family would generate what has been dubbed the “demographic advantage”, essentially destroying the notion of a Jewish State. Even Lybia’s Muammar Qaddafi was proposing a one-state solution in an op-ed in the NY Times on the week-end albeit with a complete right of return for the Palestinian refugees.

Some have wondered why Obama would want to meddle in this conflict right now when he has the US economy on the ropes and he needs some victories in congress  for some of his proposals. I say if there is a chance of a solution at all, it better be proposed now or the parties have to start working on it now. Any solution will be a difficult one, full of compromises on both sides. In addition, it will take time to be accepted and local leaders, Israelis and Palestinians will have to sell it to their constituencies and eventually implement it. So it is better to start now when Obama’s approval rating is high across the globe.

In addition to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is the matter of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; there is the Mubarak dictatorhip in Egypt that lingers and fails to provide any support in any of the issues of the region when it could do so much; there is Iran flexing its muscles. And there is Syria, always an unavoidable piece because of its control of Lebanon and its support for other groups including Hamas.

Obama has his hands full. But goodwill, the kind Obama enjoys at the moment can go a long way towards opening even the most stubborn of hearts.