Some of the biggest news stories out of the Middle East during the past year will continue to dominate the headlines well into 2014.
Israel’s two most powerful neighbors, Syria and Egypt, are consumed by chaos. Syria’s civil war has claimed over 125,000 lives and sent millions fleeing their homes and their country, and President Bashar Assad’s killing machine enjoys Iranian help and Russian protection from international intervention to end the slaughter.
Egypt’s uprising is less bloody but no less critical to US and Israeli interests. The army is back in power after overthrowing the year-old elected government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The generals are consolidating their power, outlawing the Brotherhood as a terrorist group and snubbing US calls for democratic reforms and free elections.
The conflict in both countries is already spreading beyond their borders, and threatening to spread further in 2014. Islamic extremists have been filling the power vacuum in the Sinai, where the army crackdown has led to conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and attacks by some of the extremists across the Israeli border.
Jordan has escaped the political upheaval of the Arab spring but not the destabilizing threat of the enormous influx of Syrian refugees, as well as some fighters seeking sanctuary. The Syrian civil war also is bleeding Israel’s other neighbor, Lebanon, with bombings and assassinations. That deeply divided country is home to Hezbollah, the Shi’ite terror group that is fighting on Assad’s side and is more powerful than the Lebanese army.
In recent days rockets have been fired into Israel from southern Lebanon; Israel blames Hezbollah and has fired back, but the low-key tit-for-tat could explode into all-out war in the coming year.
These crises seem to be secondary on the American agenda as Secretary of State John Kerry begins the New Year with his 10th trip to the Middle East to try to keep alive the stalled peace negotiations neither side seems committed to. Kerry’s visit coincides with Israel’s announcement of new settlement construction and its release of 26 more Palestinian prisoners.
No coincidence there. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu agreed last summer to the phased release of 104 long-term prisoners rather than freeze construction. Facing American pressure to resume peace talks and Palestinian demands for a settlement freeze as the price of returning to the table, Netanyahu opted to free murderers with blood on their hands rather than offend the politically potent settler movement.
It was a no-win option for the risk-averse Israeli leader whose critics charge he’d rather build settlements than build peace. Families of terror victims have protested the release of the terrorists but they don’t have the clout of the settler movement, which not only wants to build all across the West Bank but opposes the Palestinian statehood Netanyahu claims to support.
Netanyahu’s consistent appeasement of the rejectionists tells more about his true intentions than all his speeches. The latest example centers on reports that he may try to condition acceptance of Kerry’s guidelines for a peace agreement on US release of confessed spy Jonathan Pollard – more evidence that the prime minister is simply searching for more excuses not to make peace.
Many of his cabinet ministers either dismiss the negotiations as a waste of time or are outright opposed to a two-state agreement.
Kerry may be the only one who really thinks the peace talks can succeed. The latest settlement announcement – some 1,400 new units – brought another Palestinian threat to file war crimes charges against Israel at the World Court. They won’t do it, of course, as long as the talks are going on; that’s what they promised Kerry. But it’s a sword they keep dangling over Israel’s head.
Kerry seems obsessed with this mission and almost indifferent to the enormous humanitarian disaster going on next door in Syria. Bashar Assad may have stopped gassing his people but the killing just escalates as his helicopters drop shrapnel-packed barrel bombs on crowded marketplaces to massacre innocent civilians.
The Saudis, who are accustomed to hiring others to do their work (See: Gulf War I), are mad at Washington for not doing more to intervene, but if they really want to stop those helicopter bombers they could send in some of their thousands of US-supplied shoulder-fired missiles. If they could pry their royal tushes off the bench, there’s much more they could do besides kvetch.
Saudi Arabia has become a back-door ally of Israel – the old Middle East adage: the enemy of my enemy is my friend – because of their anxiety that the Iranians are going to snooker President Barack Obama on the Iranian nuclear negotiations.
These two strange bedfellows were disappointed when Obama didn’t bomb Syria after Assad deployed poison gas against his own people, opting instead to work with the Russians to remove Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons. Israel and Saudi Arabia fear Obama’s threats to use military force if Iran builds a nuclear weapon are unreliable, but neither has offered plausible alternatives to a war America is neither prepared nor willing to fight.
That lack of confidence has led to rifts between America and both Jerusalem and Riyadh. A year that began with attempts by Obama and Netanyahu to make shalom with a presidential visit to Israel began to deteriorate as the new secretary of state pushed to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and the United States and the major powers opened nuclear negotiations with a newly-elected Iranian government.
Netanyahu’s near-hysterical and probably politically motivated reaction to the Iranian talks widened the rift with the White House and will be playing out on Capitol Hill early in the coming weeks over a move to enact stringent new sanctions on Iran despite of administration warnings that they could scuttle the sensitive negotiations in Vienna. Many here in Washington believe that is exactly what Netanyahu wants and that he is working behind the scenes with friends on the Hill to that end.
Netanyahu has linked success in the Iranian nuclear talks to progress on peace with the Palestinians. That sounds a lot like an excuse to put off the peace talks and raises questions about his commitment to making peace. He has an ally – there is scant evidence that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas takes these talks seriously, either. Both seem to be motivated more by avoiding blame for the collapse of the talks than achieving a breakthrough.
These stories will continue to capture our attention in 2014, and the rifts threaten to grow, greatly affecting the future course of the troubled US-Israel relationship.