The United States is detaching from the Middle East and working to shed its role as the policeman of the world, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Tuesday.
Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) annual conference in Tel Aviv, Ya’alon pointed at the Iranian takeover of Iraq following the US military withdrawal from the country as an example of the US policy of separating itself from conflict areas.
He also rejected the doctrine that peace with the Palestinians would help Israel enlist the help of Arab states in thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in an apparent critique of US President Barack Obama, who made the same suggestion at his first White House meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in May 2009.
Ya’alon also rejected the notion that the current peace talks being led by US Secretary of State John Kerry could yield a sustainable peace deal with the Palestinians. He said that, until the Palestinians recognize the legitimate right for Israel to be a Jewish state and give up the “right of return,” there could be no peace agreement.
Ya’alon caused controversy earlier this month when he was quoted as saying that Kerry was “naive and messianic” in his handling of the peace talks.
Ya’alon said that 2013 had a been a relatively quiet year for Israel in regard to security, despite the turmoil in the region.
The defense minister said that the deterioration of states in the Middle East is causing chronic instability in the region, but is also creating opportunities for Israel. He said that the Sunni axis of states – which includes Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain – has common enemies and common interests with Israel.
He said that, like Israel, the Sunni states also see the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and al-Qaida as threats.
In addition to the Sunni axis, the Middle East is now broken up into the Shi’ite axis, led by Iran, which includes Assad and Hezbollah; as well as a third axis consisting of Turkey and Qatar, which are the only states which still support Hamas rule in Gaza, Ya’alon said.
Ya’alon expressed pessimism about the possibility of the interim agreement with Iran stopping the Islamic Republic’s drive for nuclear weapons.
He said that the Iranians would take advantage of the nuclear deal to establish themselves on the nuclear threshold.
He called the West’s deal with Iran an “historic missed opportunity,” which wastes the momentum gained by international sanctions that had Iran on its knees.
Ya’alon said Iran is the No. 1 threat to stability in the world and there is not a single conflict in the Middle East that it is not playing a role in.
“Let us not be confused. Iran wants regional and international hegemony. They want to obtain a nuclear umbrella for their activities and perhaps over time will use force as well,” he said.
Responding to Ya’alon’s comments, the White House said the Obama administration has addressed the theme of disengagement from the region “extensively,” most recently through remarks delivered by Kerry.
“The most bewildering version of this disengagement myth is about a supposed retreat by the United States from the Middle East,” Kerry charged in his speech to the World Economic Forum last week. “Now, my response to that suggestion is simple: You cannot find another country – not one country – that is as proactively engaged, that is partnering with so many Middle Eastern countries, as constructively as we are on so many high-stake fronts.”
US President Barack Obama has addressed the notion directly himself. “I believe such disengagement would be a mistake,” he said in his address to the United Nations General Assembly last September. “I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. But I also believe the world is better for it.”
Michael Wilner contributed to this report.