Washington misreads Israel’s regional approach I just returned from 10 days in Washington where I encountered administration officials, think tank analysts, and Jewish community lobbyists who are profoundly misreading Israel and the changed Middle East.
Most of them think that Prime Minister Netanyahu is just playing petty politics in order to survive, without a grand plan. I tried to explain to them how wrong they were, and to articulate a coherent Israeli strategic worldview.
To begin with, I found senior Obama administration defense officials who have convinced themselves that the Israeli security establishment has come around to a benign view of the Western nuclear accord with Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an outlier in his continued negativity toward the JCPOA, they told me; and he is isolated from his own military-intelligence establishment in this regard, they asserted with self-congratulatory smirks on their faces.
To prove their claim, American officials pointed to a series of anti-Netanyahu speeches given at the recent Herzliya Conference, by Ehud Barak, Bogie Ya’alon and others.
Responding to this nonsense, I explained to my American interlocutors that they were deluding themselves. With one year on the record since the deal was signed, anybody serious in Israel is certain that the deal was a mistake.
True, some Israeli analysts are now emphasizing the JCPOA positives – Iran’s nuclear program has been mothballed for a bit – in order to repair ties with the US.
But that’s like telling the boss a few nice things that you know he wants to hear.
That doesn’t mean you think he is a good boss and is taking the company where you think it should go. It simply means that you want to maintain good relations with him.
In concrete terms, everybody in Israel sees that President Obama’s capitulation to Iran has strengthened Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions and its troublemaking in this region, with tens of billions of dollars in blocked earnings released to boot. Tehran also got to keep its nuclear enrichment program without confessing to its weaponization efforts, and all restrictions will anyway sunset. Obama has blown massive wind into Iran’s sails, with no pushback as the ayatollahs march across multiple theaters.
Don’t be fooled by the left-of-center echo chamber in Herzliya, I warned my Washington colleagues. What was heard there was the usual, cut-throat, internal Israeli political game being played out in one-sided fashion. Personal attacks on Netanyahu by aggrieved politicians do not represent the sober professional analysis of Israelis who do defense and intelligence policy earnestly. And in this regard, Netanyahu is well within the Israeli consensus: The JCPOA was and remains a wreck.
I ALSO FOUND a great deal of angst and misapprehension in Washington about Israel’s new regional diplomatic maneuvering.
What the heck is Netanyahu doing by powwowing with Russian President Vladimir Putin four times this year, they demanded to know. And what’s with all the talk about tacit Israeli alliances with leading Sunni states? Does Israel really think it can replace the US as its diplomatic and security anchor with Egyptian dictators or Saudi sheikhs? Here too I was forced to explain to my American interlocutors that they were out of sync with Middle East realities, and failing to appreciate Israel’s strategic worldview.
Israel has no intention of shifting away from alliance with the US, I told them. In fact, it needs and wants more US engagement.
Alas, Israel sees the US withdrawing from commitments to its allies in the region, and greasing the path to dominance of Israel’s biggest adversary. Israel recognizes that Washington is extraordinarily hesitant about investing more assets in the region, even when it comes to backing up Israel.
So Israel is bandwagoning with those who share a common cause: preventing Iranian hegemony and tamping down Islamist insurgencies. This includes Russia, which is flying its air force along our borders. While Putin is partnered with Iran in Syria for the moment, he respects Israel’s role as a regional stabilizer, and understands Israel’s security redlines. Sometimes, that’s more than can be said for Obama.
IN FACT, there is an Israeli security oeuvre, and it goes something like this: Many Arab states are melting down, with the region in the throes of civilizational chaos. The security environment is unstable and the future truly unknown. This situation could continue for decades or even 100 years. Stepping into the vacuum are truly bad actors: radical non-state actors such as al-Qaida and ISIS, and wannabe regional hegemons like Iran.
The Palestinians, too, have been radicalized, and they suffer from a chronic acute leadership deficit. Their cloying victimhood clogs their ability to think straight.
Moreover, Gaza seems permanently locked in the jaws of Hamas. This makes neat territorial deals with the Palestinians nearly impossible, and adds to the long-term fragility of Israel’s frontiers.
In this time of extreme uncertainty, Israel’s approach can be termed: caution with creativity.
Navigate warily: Ride out the Mideast storms by strictly securing Israel’s borders.
Avoid grandiose and dicey diplomatic experiments, and refrain as much as possible from bloody wars. Ensure domestic government stability, grow Israel’s economy, and manage frictions with the Palestinians.
At the same time, keep all options open.
Maneuver innovatively: Share intelligence capabilities to help secure others, and develop new regional alliances. And yes, Israel would be thrilled to intensify and routinize security ties with the US defense establishment for the long term, irrespective of the political winds in Washington, if possible.
The point missed in Washington is that the main game in the region is no longer Israel versus the Palestinians or versus the Arabs. It’s Israel and most of the Arabs together versus the Iranians and jihadis.
The “Palestinian problem” has been marginalized as a priority issue for Arabs in the Middle East. And in relative terms, viewed in broader context, Palestinian nationalism is one of the more controllable problems that Israel faces. The frictions can be managed.
And by the way: Israelis overwhelmingly think that Benjamin Netanyahu is (still) the best man to manage all this. He may not be loved by the Israeli electorate, but his prudence and professionalism meet Israel’s current needs.
So there is an Israeli “grand strategy” of sorts that Washington is missing, perhaps because Jerusalem is reticent about clearly articulating this – for fear of violating the codes of political-diplomatic correctness.
This is an ongoing Israeli mistake. Israel should be expounding its worldview forthrightly. Its strategic posture makes a lot of sense in the transformed regional landscape.