Israel worries that America has lost its way on Middle East understanding
It is no mystery that U.S. President, Barack Obama, and the serving Israeli Prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, are not each other’s first choices for their respective jobs. Washington and Jerusalem have spent almost four years seeking to dismiss recurring news’ stories about constant friction between these two men and, more importantly, their policies. Whether these differences are media-hyped, they exist, and are bound to become wider, as Middle East’s regional turmoil continues to challenge U.S. strategic interests and Israel’s security.
First, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process impasse—under the current administration, initial emphasis was put on added pressure on Israel about its settlement policy, including in Jerusalem. The president sought to jumpstart the process at a time when it was dead in the water by conceding to the Palestinian narrative that the main obstacle to peace was Israel’s construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
His initial resolve to embrace this position may have pleased European official views but failed to yield any result—especially because it came with a refusal to reaffirm commitments that former President George W. Bush had made to Israel in April 2004 about a future territorial settlement America would support. That commitment appears to have now been repudiated.
While substantively this administration’s view over settlements differs little from previous administrations, emphasis has shifted with predictable consequences—Israel has not budged, the Palestinian position has hardened and the president has embarrassingly had to abandon his bid for Middle East peace by his third year in office.
Second, how to counter Iran’s nuclear program. For Israel, this is an existential question—for America, one of profound strategic concern. To his credit, President Obama has relentlessly expanded international and Western sanctions. His rhetoric on prevention has also been in sync with Jerusalem’s views. But frequent public utterances by administration officials, both civil and military, created the impression that, ultimately, U.S. prevention is geared toward stopping an Israeli preventive strike just as much as, if not more than, preventing a nuclear Iran.
Out of sync on timing
Despite harmony on the big picture, the two capitals are out of sync on timing—a crucial concern for Jerusalem, because Israeli leaders are not willing to leave Israel’s deterrence in U.S. hands. Israel will act before it feels it is too late unless it has ironclad guarantees from America that America will eventually act—and President Obama has balked at this request.
As if rhetoric were not enough, U.S. support for an international conference promoting a Middle East nuclear free zone—an initiative that emerged from the much touted non-proliferation summit President Obama hosted in Washington, D.C. in April 2010—is seen in Jerusalem with alarm, as the conference is shaping up to be another international Israel hatefest where focus will be less on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and more on Israel’s nuclear capabilities. It is as if this Administration thinks the best way to coalesce the international community against Iran is by distancing itself from Israel—a step that has not helped soothe anxieties over U.S. commitments to Israel’s deterrence in Jerusalem.
Then there is the matter of U.S. hesitancy toward Iran’s beleaguered opposition. Ultimately, the best solution to Iran’s policy conundrum remains the collapse of the Islamic regime in Tehran. This is not something that can be concocted from the outside, but there is no reason why Western leaders, first and foremost a U.S. president, should not align themselves with freedom and against dictatorship, at least rhetorically.
President Obama’s reluctance to side with protesters in the aftermath of Iran’s fraudulent presidential elections of June 2009 was not just prudence but a fundamental desire not to close the door to a negotiated settlement. Three years later, America’s backing for democratic change inside Iran remains hesitant, which is a perplexing fact, considering how easily America sided with democracy when protesters in the region undermined America’s friendly regimes.
Third—how to manage the so-called Arab Spring. Jerusalem views the collapse of the regional order with understandable alarm—the Arab Spring has not ushered in democracy for the time being, but it has either swept away moderately secular, pro-Western regimes that kept the peace with Israel or opened the door for radical Islamic forces.
America’s stance—both the president’s rhetoric in his 2009 Cairo speech and his swift decision to let regional allies like Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak fall has left Jerusalem worried that America has lost the plot. U.S. openness to dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood is only reinforcing this concern.
Under the current administration, America has sought to recalibrate its foreign policy in the region. This is understandable—but the outcome leaves much to be desired. The U.S.-Israel relation is still strong, but as America’s ability to confront, let alone understand, regional changes diminishes, Jerusalem might conclude—as other U.S. allies in the region seem to have already done—that hedging its bets, in policy terms, might better preserve its long-term interests.
For Israel, it is a matter of survival. For the United States this might mean a decline of influence, and an inability, ultimately, to shape the course of events.