In the wake of the Arab Spring, instability has been a running theme in Israel’s Middle Eastern neighborhood. Nearly all of these problems have potential repercussions for the Israel. Conflict and instability continue to grow in Syria, increasing the danger of chemical weapons falling into the hands of groups who would use them against Israel. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt gradually continues to threaten the security of Israel and the West.
One issue, however, lies at the front of the minds of current Israeli policymakers: The possibility of a nuclear Iran. At AIPAC’s 2013 Policy Conference, the Iranian threat, as expected, took center stage as other issues, such as Israeli-Palestinian peace — while noted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak as of critical importance to Israel’s future — remained a secondary theme.
Throughout the day, Israeli leaders and experts noted Iran's aspirations of a nuclear program expansion and how this poses a threat not only to Israel, but to the entire Middle East. In Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s words on Sunday afternoon, “A nuclear Iran is the most imminent and acute threat to the region.”
On Monday morning, Vice President Joe Biden expanded on this theme, adding that Iran's nuclear weapons program presents a national security threat to the world. Thus, as Iran continues to enrich uranium and approach a nuclear threshold, a broad array of policymakers in Washington have expressed the belief that the Iranian issue is nearing the precipice of its resolution – either diplomatically, or if that fails, militarily. Indeed, top Middle East experts have previously expressed their belief that 2013 will be a decisive year on Iran, a sentiment that most in the AIPAC audience appeared to share.
It was made clear throughout the conference's plenary and breakout sessions, then, that a nuclear Iran is the core issue for Israelis and the West. Yet still, even in its relative absence at the conference, the Israeli-Palestinian issue looms large for all parties involved. Without a final-status accord (which, given the current leadership on both sides and Hamas’ presence in Gaza, remains a long shot), why can’t Israel simply withdraw from the West Bank tomorrow? Or, put another way: why can't Israel halt a nuclear Iran while ending the occupation in the West Bank at the same time?
To address this question requires a look back at Israel's last two major unilateral land withdrawals, namely from South Lebanon and Gaza in 2000 and 2005, respectively. These withdrawals created power vacuums that were filled by Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively- both Iranian proxies, through which Tehran has carried out innumerable attacks on Israeli civilians over the past decades. Keeping this in mind, there is an argument to be made that Israel's potential withdrawal from the West Bank could create yet another vacuum to be filled by an Iranian proxy.
If Iran was to develop nuclear weapons, Israel would not only be surrounded by enemies in all directions — it would be surrounded by enemies in all directions, under the auspices of a nuclear-armed nation that has openly claimed it seeks Israel’s extermination. This threat may be enough to keep Israel in the West Bank for as long as the looming danger of Iranian nuclear weapons exists. Thus, as long as the Iranian threat looms and Tehran retains controls of proxies on Israel’s borders, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may well remain a secondary, if still critical, issue for Israeli policymakers.
Therefore, a major takeaway from AIPAC's Policy Conference is crystal clear: For Israel to be able to end the occupation, Iran must be prevented from achieving its nuclear ambitions. If and only if this goal is realized can Israel begin to solve the longstanding and crucial issue of making peace with its Palestinian neighbors.