Village councils in the West Bank, and Sharon's alliance with the Christians of Lebanon represented Israeli efforts to play in the politics of neighbors. One was a failure, and the other a disaster.

Israel sought to create village councils in the West Bank during the 1970s and 1980s as its counter to the PLO, which it viewed as terrorist. The councils were given limited authority, and were seen as Arabs who would accept limited autonomy. However, other Palestinians saw them as the French saw the Vichy lackeys of the Nazis.

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The greater disaster was Ariel Sharon's creation of an alliance with Lebanese Christians in anticipation of problems with Palestinians in Lebanon. Not only did his allies failure to cooperate militarily when the war came in 1982. They wrote an end to Sharon's career as Defense Minister and soiled Israel's image with Sabra and Shatilla.


Israel is still at it, perhaps having learned something. So far it is short of disaster, but with no breakthrough worthy of praise in international media. It is siding with Mahmoud Abbas and Fattah against Hamas in the West Bank, with both using their security personnel to arrest Hamas activists.

Israel is also cooperating with Hamas in Gaza against Fatah. It provides a stream of consumer goods and construction material without bothering with Fatah's claim of having authority to control the border crossings. It is clear that some of the construction material will go to rebuild tunnels and other fortifications, and that Hamas cannot or chooses not to stop all the firings of missiles into Israel. Israel attacks in response to those missiles, but in a way that takes care not to cause casualties that will produce an escalation. Israel's ultimate leverage comes not only from occasional pauses in the supplies going into Gaza, but the realization that it can add substantially to Gaza's rubble and casualties.

It's risky to play in someone else's politics. Outsiders are viewed as such, and generate suspicion and opposition. It's especially delicate across the borders between sharply different cultures. The outsider flounders with limited knowledge of who is related to who, who supports who, and who can't get along with who.

America's records in South Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan demonstrate the problems, and provide yet another warning with respect to Iran.

Israel is currently facing two especially delicate issues.

We're hearing about a New Middle East. This is not the one that Barack Obama and his supporters saw coming out of his Cairo speech and Arab Spring, but a post-Arab Spring alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

It looks promising in terms of mutual antagonism to Iran and its clients, and joint opposition to the American-brokered deal with Iran.

One suspects that there is already considerable cooperation between the three, in terms of high level meetings between security professionals and politicians, shared intelligence, and their being on the same page with respect to Iran.

Israel has allowed Egypt to use troops and heavy military weapons in the Sinai against radical Islamists, despite the Camp David treaty meant to demilitarize the peninsula. Israel is not repeating its usual opposition to the flow of western military supplies to Saudi Arabia.

Yet the "alliance," to use a term likely to be several magnitudes too strong, must be managed with great delicacy. It has not replaced the use of Israel as the boogeyperson of the Middle East, or led any Arab government to say that Palestinians will have to wait in order to achieve what they want.

An especially sensitive subset of this New Middle East is already occurring, and is likely to escalate surrounding attacks from the Sinai against Israel, and especially against Eilat. Egyptian sensitivities will prevent Israel from overt attacks against Islamists on Egyptian territory who succeed in evading Egyptian efforts and fire missiles into Israel. The prospect of joint Israel-Egyptian military activity is a theoretical possibility, but seems beyond the capacity of Egyptian officials to bring themselves or their population to what Israelis may be dreaming of as a New Middle East.

We don't know what has been discussed or decided, either in joint Israeli-Egyptian forums, or among Israelis having to decided what to do if missiles fall on Israelis from the Sinai.

Israel remains a pariah. Given the history of the Jews, the role is not all that strange. Those who suffer are the Jews who think of themselves as part of the mainstream. We ain't there. We have to manage what exists of the New Middle East with our fingertips. While there is something to the notion of a alliance between Israel and its former enemies, the people in those countries aren't ready for it. Those in charge aren't ready to admit having conversations with Israel. They are still talking against Israel, and those with money (i.e., Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States) are protecting themselves by financing fighters who live by their animosity to Israel.

The US experience with Iran is not encouraging to any Israelis hoping for a real alliance with Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

Iranian leaders have responded to the nuclear agreement with assertions that are something other than warm and cuddly. They describe the Iranian people as continuing to chant "Death to America" and "Death to Israel," and they express no opposition to those chants.

If that is the nature of what Americans see as a new opening to Iran, Israelis must be careful about playing in their view of a New Middle East.

This is not a game for amateurs, or those or pride themselves with great vision and thinking outside of the box. It's dangerous out there, beyond what can be seen from here and now.
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