WASHINGTON – A few months ago, an Arab state in the Persian Gulf received intelligence about an arms ship that was scheduled to leave Iran on its way to Yemen to arm rebel Houthi forces.
The Gulf state decided to pass the intelligence on to the Americans and give them everything they knew – the ship details, the weapons and the timetable.
As the days passed though, nothing seemed to be happening. The ship was still on schedule, set to leave soon for the short trip from Iran to Yemen.
So the Gulf state decided to go with an alternative plan and reportedly passed the information about the ship to the Mossad, Israel’s vaunted foreign intelligence service. Israel reportedly took the tip seriously and delivered a stern warning to Iran that if the ship set sail it would be stopped before reaching the shores of Yemen.
As a result, the ship never left Iran.
This story is making the rounds in Washington where I heard it this week from a former top US official who recently visited the Persian Gulf. I don’t know if it is true, and it doesn’t really matter since it accurately reflects the sentiment of frustration with the US throughout the Middle East, a feeling shared by Israel, Egypt, Jordan and most of the Arab countries in the Gulf.
The explanation for the frustration varies by who you ask. If you speak with Egyptians, they are upset with President Barack Obama’s call for Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011, and his subsequent hesitant support for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s 2013 coup d’etat and ousting of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi.
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The Gulf states are disappointed with the Iran nuclear deal, which might have been successful in delaying Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon but failed to address the Islamic Republic’s continued support of terrorism throughout the region, as well as its advanced ballistic missile program. These countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and others – face an empowered Iran that hasn’t stopped its efforts to undermine their regimes.
Israel’s frustration is multi-faceted.
Jerusalem is certainly disappointed by the Iran deal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fought tooth and nail to prevent. In recent months though, Jerusalem is more upset with the vacuum the US created in Syria that enabled Russia to sweep inside. While Israel has wisely established ties with Moscow, it would have preferred a more engaged US in the Middle East, one that is feared and respected by all.
US Secretary of State John Kerry conceded, a tad too late, that the US had made some mistakes when it came to Syria, noting at the Saban Forum on Sunday that failure to enforce the redlines Obama set in Syria “cost us significantly” by leading the world to view America as weak.
But that is not the end to Israel’s frustration.
In his remarks, which took on a somber tone, Kerry listed how many times he met and spoke to Netanyahu throughout his tenure as America’s top diplomat: 375 conversations, 130 hours on the phone, and more than 40 trips to Israel.
Many in the audience were left (sarcastically) to wonder what Netanyahu and Kerry could have spoken about so often, and why it took the secretary of state so long to realize that Netanyahu wasn’t really going to make the concessions needed for a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Either way, this herculean effort by Kerry created huge expectations on the Palestinian side, which contributed to the current impasse Israel, the PA and the US have been stuck in for the last two years.
This is important to note because when Donald Trump takes office on January 20, he will have his work set out for him in trying to rebuild order and trust in the region – assuming he even wants to.
While still highly skeptical of Trump, Israelis have taken some comfort in the announcement that Gen. (ret.) James Mattis will be the president’s candidate for secretary of defense.
As commander of CENTCOM between 2010 and 2013, he visited Jerusalem a number of times even though Israel was not under his jurisdiction and fell under EUCOM. During those visits he got to know Gabi Ashkenazi, who served at the time as IDF chief of staff, and Amos Yadlin, who was then head of Military Intelligence.
During one of their conversations with Mattis, Ashkenazi asked what his three biggest challenges as head of CENTCOM were. The Israelis expected to hear about Iraq and Afghanistan, but Mattis surprised them: “Iran, Iran and Iran,” was his reply.
What this means practically is still unclear, but the consensus in Israeli defense circles is that Mattis and Trump are unlikely to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, which, while problematic, does have an upside as long as it is kept by Tehran.
What it probably means is that Mattis and Trump will support taking a tougher stance when it comes to Iran’s other activities in the region. Some Republican senators are already working on new legislation that would impose sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program and ongoing support of terrorism.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has also voiced support for such sanctions.
When it comes to the Palestinians though, there is even less clarity on what will be Trump’s vision for a resolution to the conflict. Does he believe in a twostate solution? Seemingly yes, based on the enthusiasm with which he recently declared his desire to make the “ultimate deal.”
On the other hand, the Israel advisers that surrounded him throughout the campaign have given a completely different message: that settlements are not an obstacle to peace, that Israel can build wherever it wants, and that peace does not necessarily mean the establishment of a Palestinian state.
What is important is what Liberman said during his address last Friday. Israel’s first and foremost objective, the defense minister said, needs to be the creation of a “common policy” with the new administration.
After eight years of a roller coaster relationship between Washington and Jerusalem, that is a good place to start.
I know that for some people this will be difficult to read, but President Barack Obama has stood strongly by Israel at the United Nations throughout his eight years in office.
While previous presidents allowed the UN Security Council to pass resolutions that took Israel to task for its actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians – and occasionally even had their ambassadors vote for them – Obama has not allowed one anti-Israel resolution come out of Turtle Bay during his presidency.
In 2011, he vetoed an anti-settlement resolution - the only time he used his UN veto throughout two terms in office - later explaining that his administration believed in negotiations, not unilateral measures.
This is true until today. There are however still six weeks left to his term, and a lot can happen in six weeks.
While the chances of the US bringing its own resolution to the UN are slim, Obama could instruct Ambassador Samantha Power to simply let the next one that comes up – brought, for example, by the French – to pass without an American veto.
This is important to keep in mind as the Knesset continues to advance the controversial settlement bill that is meant to legalize homes built on private Palestinian land. While the bill does not save the outpost of Amona, which will be evacuated by December 25, it does help hundreds of other homes throughout the West Bank.
The fear within the American-Jewish community – on the Left and Right – is that Israel would be making a strategic mistake if it passes the bill before Obama leaves office on January 20.
While it has passed a preliminary and first reading, there is still a second and third to come – usually voted on together – before the bill becomes a law.
“This bill will be like taking the settlements and putting them smack in front of Obama’s face and asking him to do something,” one former administration official told me. “Why give him such an excuse?” Tactically, it makes sense for Israel to wait on finalizing legislation, but there is a bigger strategic question that needs to be answered regarding this whole Amona-settlement bill issue: What does Israel ultimately want? What is Israel’s long-term strategy? I’m not sure anyone has a clear answer, but it was interesting to see the results of John Kerry’s impromptu survey during his address before the Saban Forum in Washington on Sunday.
At one point, Kerry turned to the audience and asked people to raise their hands if they support a two-state solution. A vast majority of the mostly Democratic and left-leaning audience did. He then asked people to raise their hands if they oppose two states. Two people did.
“All right,” Kerry continued. “So the question for all of us is not the road we’ve traveled for the last 100 years. The question is what are the next 100 years going to look like. Where are we going?” Now that is a great question.
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