Israel should heed the clamour for peace
Veteran observers of Middle East politics allow their expectations to swing only between the poles of gloom and despair. History leaves little ground for optimism.
The declaration yesterday by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of his own convincing victory in Iran's presidential election confirms that view. Opposition supporters believe the poll was rigged and dispute the result.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the immediate outcome is that Mr Ahmadinejad's hold on power looks firmer, but also more brittle. The election campaign revealed a plurality of opinion in Iran and an appetite for open debate, especially among the large constituency of young Iranians who want engagement with the outside world.
They were no doubt emboldened by the prospect of rapprochement with the US. President Obama's more conciliatory tone towards the country has made it harder for Iranian conservatives to portray enthusiasm for the west as treason. Mr Ahmadinejad's hardline stance was inadvertently legitimised by George W Bush's bellicosity.
But Mr Ahmadinejad's renewed hold on power is a problem for the White House. President Obama's Middle East strategy relies on momentum - showing people in the region and at home that diplomacy works.
That is nowhere more true than in relations with another intransigent regional power - Israel. The country's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is due to give a much anticipated speech today responding to President Obama's calls for him to stop expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Mr Netanyahu is under enormous domestic pressure not to concede the point, let alone admit the need for a viable Palestinian state.
Justice demands that he do both, but so does cold strategic logic. Israel's interests are served by the increase of US influence elsewhere in the region, which means acknowledging the wisdom of Mr Obama's moderate stance towards Iran and the Arab world.
In Iran's election campaign, if not in the result, there were hints that the US strategy of intelligent diplomacy can work. Mr Netanyahu could shore up the strategy by making concessions of his own. That is the hope. But experience of the Middle East warns against indulging it.
The Observer, Sunday 14 June 2009
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