Living in a post-American Middle East

The Netanyahu government is diversifying its foreign ties and building new independent capabilities, but critics warn that giving up on the US could leave Israel seriously weakened.

By LESLIE SUSSER
June 25, 2016 07:45
Obama Riyadh

President Barack Obama walks from the rostrum after speaking at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 21. (photo credit: REUTERS)

FOR ISRAEL, US President Barack Obama’s legacy push to drastically reduce America’s Middle Eastern footprint could have major consequences. After the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the failure of the Arab Spring, Obama has despaired of being able to help shape the region for the better. Moreover, for an America no longer dependent on foreign oil, the endemically turbulent Middle East is no longer seen as so essential a geopolitical interest. Even it were, in Obama’s view, there is not much the US could do to make it a safer and more stable place. If it were to try, it would only get sucked into wars it cannot win.

True, the US promises Israel the same diplomatic umbrella and an even higher level of military aid in the emerging post-American Middle East. And true the American 5th Fleet will remain in the Persian Gulf indefinitely to safeguard the flow of oil to US trading partners who need it – in Europe, Japan and even China. But as the region as a whole becomes less significant for the US geopolitically, the more Israel’s importance as an ally is likely to decline. And the more other less friendly players like Russia and Iran are likely to move in to fill the vacuum.

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For Israel this raises serious questions on how to create an alternative or at least a modified strategic posture to cope with the new challenges.

Obama outlined his foreign policy doctrine in a series of interviews with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg published in “The Atlantic” magazine in April. The basic principles are: Not to intervene militarily unless US interests are directly threatened; to act only where the US can make a difference; and to seek diplomatic solutions wherever possible.

In today’s Middle East, Obama sees only two cases in which US interests might be threatened – a rampant ISIS and a scenario in which Israel’s existence is at stake. On Israel, he says it would be “morally wrong” not to intervene – a moral commitment that might help deter potential aggressors, but given Obama’s narrow American interest focus, is hardly something Israeli military planners can count on.

Not intervening comes at a price. It means allowing humanitarian crises like the Syrian civil war to fester. Some US foreign policy thinkers argue that America as the world’s only super-power is duty-bound to act to prevent humanitarian disasters; Obama counters that it is not America’s mission to serve as a moral policeman and that there are limits to what it can do. It needs to choose carefully areas of action where it can be successful.

In Obama’s view, the Syrian civil war is not one of them. He insists that even had he armed Syrian rebels to the hilt, they would not have been able to prevail against the incumbent Assad-Russia-Iran-Hezbollah coalition. Victory would have necessitated huge direct US involvement in a situation in which US interests were not threatened – precisely the state of affairs the Obama doctrine is designed to avoid.

In two major cases, both involving weapons of mass destruction, Obama preferred diplomacy to military action – Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, and Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In both, he argues, he achieved far better results than any military strike could have done – the total dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and the postponement for at least 10 to 15 years of any Iranian nuclear threat.

But in both cases, his actions caused great consternation among his Middle Eastern allies. In Syria he threatened military action, but failed to follow through and the Iran deal was derided by fearful allies as full of holes. Both cases were widely seen in the region as reflections of American weakness and reluctance to project real power in the Middle Eastern theater. More importantly, the allies believed a more resolute America could have toppled Assad and crippled Iran, breaking the Shi’ite axis from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon and significantly altering the regional balance of power in their and America’s favor.

Instead, Obama allowed Assad to survive, Iran to prosper and Russia to get a large boot in the Middle Eastern door through military action in Syria. All this has left Israel and America’s moderate Sunni allies like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States feeling unsure about the degree to which they can rely on US support.

For his part Obama describes the allies as “free riders,” who expect much from America but give very little back in return. They in turn accuse him of mollifying America’s adversaries like Iran, instead of supporting its allies.

All this comes against the background of the much-touted American “pivot to Asia.” In Obama’s view, the key to international relations in the 21st Century is China. He therefore prefers shifting American assets from the Middle East to South East Asia. The goal is to foster a “Trans-Pacific Partnership” with countries that fear China, forming alliances that can exert pressure in the South China Sea, but at the same time trying to nudge China in the direction of continued peaceful cooperation and trade, rather than adversarial nationalism.

Despite the American pullback, and perhaps because of it, the Obama administration has been at pains to emphasize its moral commitment to Israel’s survival, irrespective of Israeli government policy. In early June, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice declared that, at between $37.5 billion to $40 billion, the American military aid package to Israel over the 10-year period 2018 to 2027, would be the “single largest…with any country, in American history.”

But in the same breath, Rice lashed out at Israel’s settlement policy, highlighting the fact that America’s projected regional pullback is not the only issue straining the US-Israel alliance. There are also acute policy differences – mainly over Israel’s continued settlement building in the West Bank, its use of what the Americans regard as excessive force at times to maintain the occupation, and the government’s mixed signals on the two-state solution, which the US sees as essential for Israel’s long-term future, and by association, important for America’s international standing too.

Given these differences, the new Memorandum of Understanding on military aid now being negotiated is of crucial importance. It guarantees Israel a high level of aid at least until 2027 – at a time when the US is otherwise seeking to downsize its Middle Eastern presence.

There are, however, still differences over crucial aspects of the package – Netanyahu wants between $40 and $45 billion, while the US insists that it cannot go beyond the $40 billion figure; it is not clear whether these numbers include the $500 million a year Israel receives from the US for missile defense development; it is also not clear whether Israel will again be allowed to convert 25 percent of the military aid to shekels for purchases from local manufacturers.

Former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin suggests that given the purported American pullback, Israel should seek agreement with the US on a much wider strategic package, including a common long–term response to the Iranian nuclear threat and a significant upgrade of Israel’s access to US technology and intelligence.

The specter of a “post-American Middle East” has sparked fierce ideological debate between the right and the center-left in Israel. The right is largely unfazed; the center-left sees an increasingly urgent need for action. The right-wing Israeli government, for example, believes an American withdrawal could actually help bring Israel and the moderate Sunni states together, as both confront common problems posed by a growing Iranian threat without a reliable American ally in their corner. For some time now, Israel has been working assiduously behind the scenes to cultivate ties with the Sunni states, apparently with some success. “There is lots of hot water under the ice,” Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold declared at the 16th annual Herzliya Conference in mid-June. According to Gold, dealing with the Palestinian issue is no longer a condition for relations with Arab states. They don’t care about it as much as they used to, he says.

Right-wingers both inside and outside government argue that the putative American pullback is not necessarily a bad thing for Israel. It is already forcing it to consider new options, diversify its foreign ties and build new independent capabilities. For example, Israel’s own “mini-pivot” to Asia has led to booming trade ties with China and India; through closer ties with Russia, the government hopes, perhaps a tad ambitiously, to persuade Moscow to use its influence to contain Iran and Hezbollah; and, partly with a view to votes in international forums, it is stepping up its diplomatic overtures in Africa.

The main right-wing argument, however, is that with or without the Americans, and contrary to left-wing alarmists and well-meaning western diplomats, the status quo with the Palestinians is eminently sustainable. In an article in the July-August edition of “Foreign Affairs,” Middle East scholar Martin Kramer, president of the conservative Jerusalem-based Shalem College, argues that Israel has already done pretty well sustaining it for 49 years. “More globalized, prosperous and democratic than at any time in its history,” Kramer writes, Israel is strong enough to maintain the status quo for many years to come – especially since, with the Arab world in turmoil, it faces no significant military threats, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement is proving ineffective. In this view the Palestinian conflict itself can be contained relatively easily.

In Kramer’s view, Israel can continue playing its traditional game of sustaining the status quo it has created, driving its adversaries to resignation and compromise. If the US and the rest of the Western world would only recognize and back this approach, the Arabs would finally reconcile themselves to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, and peace, or at least long-term accommodation, would become possible. In other words, to effect Arab readiness for compromise, they must be made to recognize that the status quo, that is the occupation, is sustainable for as long as takes. “As the United States steps back from the Middle East, this is the message Washington should send if it wants to assist Israel and other US allies in filling the vacuum it will leave behind,” Kramer writes.

The center-left dismisses this analysis out of hand, arguing that it is based on a simplistic linear view of historical development and fails to factor in powerful undercurrents of historic change. Center-leftists from Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni to former prime minister Ehud Barak and other ex-generals in the political wings reject most of the right-wing assumptions and what they see as dangerous wishful thinking, for which Israel may eventually be forced to pay a high price.

For example, they argue, it is naïve to think the West will back the status quo to pressure the Arab side, it won’t; it is naïve to cavalierly give up on the US and think Israel can replace it without being seriously weakened; it is naïve to believe the Sunni states will welcome Israel without a Palestinian solution; and, most of all, it is naïve to believe that the occupation can be maintained indefinitely.

On the contrary, Herzog claims he considered joining the right-wing government precisely to preempt rising Palestinian violence and mounting diplomatic pressure from the international community, including the US, which could lead to a new UN Security Council Resolution later this year, prescribing a timeline for ending the occupation.

Barak goes further: In a forceful address at the Herzliya Conference, he accused the right-wing government of blindly leading Israel to diplomatic disaster.

Indeed, the view on the center-left is that Israel cannot afford to be complacent or sure that these anti-occupation forces will not gain considerable, game-changing momentum and suddenly, imperceptibly, reach a critical mass.

Therefore, the center-left’s approach is diametrically opposed to the sit-tight, do-nothing formula on the right and in government. It proposes engaging the Sunni states and the Palestinians in a major bona fide two-state move, backed by the international community, insisting that conditions are ripe if Israel genuinely wants to proceed. It suggests going along with current international peace moves and accepting the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 as a basis for negotiation. And, it argues, that once an acceptable model for a two-state solution is agreed on, Israel will be able to diversify and improve its relations across the globe on an unprecedented scale without having to persuade or apologize. Such an outcome would also significantly improve ties with the US, even in the event of reduced American interest in the Middle East as a whole.

Indeed, in such circumstances, for Israel, the sky would be the limit. The alternative, abandoning the two-state solution as unrealistic, would inevitably lead to pressure for one-man-one-vote in a unitary state, including Israel, the West Bank and possibly Gaza, too. In refusing it, because of its potential Palestinian majority structure, Israel would become increasingly ostracized on the world stage.

And that, the center-leftists say, in a post-American Middle East, would constitute a real threat.


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