“Don’t Panic” – Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Israel’s policy and priorities be during President Barack Obama’s second term?
There will be two key themes: minimize antagonism and cope with the negative
consequences of US regional policy.
Protect bilateral relations
government must ensure continued US aid, intelligence-sharing, and other forms
of cooperation. Obama will almost certainly maintain these programs. This
status quo is protected by support for Israel in Congress and the Defense
Department. Whatever verbal friction or temporary tempests taking place –
including signs of Obama’s personal dislike for Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu – should not change this.
Keep Obama from damaging Israel’s
situation in regard to the Palestinians
Obama must decide whether to put a
priority on the Israel-Palestinian “peace process,” meaning pressure on Israel
to make concessions while the Palestinian Authority doesn’t keep its commitments
and makes no compromises.
Obama probably won’t behave this way. His
botched attempt at Israel- Palestinian peacemaking during the first term is the
only such failure he has ever acknowledged. Obama knows success is unlikely and
that neither the PA nor Arab states will help him.
There are many more
pressing issues for the US. Dramatic changes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria,
among other places, take center stage. When Obama wants to show the United
States isn’t too close to Israel, thinking that will make Muslims like him, he
can do so with relatively symbolic, minor measures.
At any rate, the
Israeli government is quite capable of offering cooperation, making concessions
on relatively unimportant issues, stalling for time, and essentially calling the
PA’s bluff. It should be added that by creating a far more dangerous regional
situation, Obama has made major Israeli concessions on territory unthinkable. In
the end, though, nothing will happen on the peace process front.
Obama handle a regional situation increasingly characterized by revolutionary
Islamist movements in power or battling for it?
Radical regimes now exist in
Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Tunisia and Turkey, though Obama doesn’t see
this. Obama is going to be supportive of these governments, excepting Hamas in
the Gaza Strip. Even there, Hamas benefits from US help and tolerance for its
allied regime in Egypt.
Given Obama’s policy, the Islamists are likely to
become stronger. Aside from consolidation and increasing confidence for those
five governments, the most likely Islamist advance is the seizure of power in
And since these same people are dedicated to Israel’s destruction
and often speak openly about committing genocide against Jews generally, a US
policy that is simultaneously weak and friendly toward its most fanatical
enemies is a huge strategic problem for Israel.
During Obama’s second
term, Israel is likely to face sporadic attacks from the Gaza Strip against
which it will periodically have to retaliate. Obama will remain aloof, issuing
statements but giving no real support. This isn’t a good situation, but it is a
The real difficulty would come if Hamas launches an
all-out attack on Israel as it did in late 2008. But this time there would be a
Hamas can expect some level of Egyptian support.
That could take many forms: Hamas headquarters, weapon storehouses and other
facilities being moved onto Egyptian territory so that Israel cannot touch them;
a massive flow of arms, weapons and money across the border financed in part by
the ruling Muslim Brotherhood; an influx of Egyptian volunteers to fight
alongside Hamas, whose death would lead to howls of revenge in Egypt and other
Beyond this, Egypt could escalate into allowing – it is
already doing little to prevent them – cross-border terrorist attacks on Israel.
It is conceivable that demands from Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood cadre, the
regime’s own revolutionary enthusiasm, the need to distract popular attention
from domestic failures, and ideological hysteria, could cause Egypt to end up in
a war-like situation or even an open war with Israel.
That would be more
likely if Israel had to send military forces into the Gaza Strip as happened in
The Egyptian military, the only bulwark against such an adventurous
Egyptian policy, has already been tamed by the Muslim Brotherhood regime and
Israel cannot depend on the United States to press sufficiently hard for
enforcement of the treaty or to deter Egypt.
As a result, Israel will
have to be ready to fight such a smaller or bigger war by itself. If a Muslim
Brotherhood- dominated regime were to be in power in Syria, it could join
In fact, for the first time in almost 40 years, under Obama, Israel
cannot depend on real US support or protection against any Arab threat or
aggression. And so Israel, while striving to get Obama to do as much as
possible, will just have to take care of itself. It is capable of doing
Although it is possible to pretend differently, the reality is
that Obama will never attack Iranian nuclear installations or support an Israeli
attack. This situation, among other factors, makes an Israeli attack on Iran
extremely unlikely. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem
is that Obama will not launch a credible and systematic effort to contain Iran’s
aggressive policy, as opposed to putting in place early-warning stations and
defensive missiles in the Gulf and making verbal threats of
Ironically, the solution – aside from Israel’s own defensive
efforts – is the very Sunni Islamist power that also threatens Israel. Given the
rise of Sunni Islamism and the Syrian civil war, Iran’s influence is going to be
largely restricted to Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Iraq.
But what if
Israel perceives a credible threat from a nuclear-armed Iran? How much help can
it expect from Obama? Of course, he will say the right things. Yet the US
judgment on what constitutes a real threat which must be countered even by
military force is going to differ sharply from that of Israel. As long as it is
just a question of Iran getting nuclear weapons, that disagreement matters less.
If it comes to a possibility of Iran using nuclear weapons that gap will be a
matter of life and death.
So Obama’s reelection is a serious problem for
Israel, albeit not a catastrophe or a threat to the state’s
For the first time in more than four decades, Israeli leaders
– and not just Netanyahu – understand that the country cannot depend on the
United States as a protector.
The writer is director of the Global
Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center
Herzliya, and editor of The Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA)
journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long
War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and
The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). GLORIA Center is at