A View from Israel: Stay the Course

Why is Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East and America’s strongest ally in the region, being attacked by senior US government officials?

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah (photo credit: Associated Press)
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The Obama administration appears to have a case of “groupthink.” Last week, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta blamed Israel for its own “growing isolation” and insisted it must “get to the damn table” as if Israel is the one reluctant to pull up a chair.
Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attacked legislation in the Knesset that she considers to be anti-democratic – even though the US has similar, even stricter, laws already in place.
With election year looming, it would appear that the White House is using diversionary foreign policy tactics to distract voters from domestic troubles such as the economy and low unemployment and foreign troubles such as the ongoing simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just two weeks ago, NATO forces mistakenly killed at least 25 Pakistani troops, which resulted in a furious Pakistan closing some of its border crossings, placing coalition soldiers there at huge risk.
So why is Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East and America’s strongest ally in the region, being attacked by senior US government officials?
It is likely that ahead of elections, President Barack Obama wants to demonstrate that he is not a warmonger and by focusing on the one issue that much of the rest of the world seems to be disproportionately concerned with – Israel – he can divert attention away from his other problems both at home and abroad.
Karl DeRouen, a well-known political scientist, professor and director of the International Studies Program at the University of Alabama, has shown through research that military force abroad diverts public attention away from a weak economy.
While this may be true to a certain extent, the American public is tired of war and wants its troops back home, so military force abroad is not really the best option for Obama. This is where Israel enters the picture.
If Obama can focus the public’s attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict, he may lend himself a better chance at reelection.
But if he really wants to make the Arab-Israeli conflict his main focus, Obama would be wise to make his first trip to Israel as president. This would balance, to some extent, his 2009 trip to Cairo from where he made his naïve Carteresque speech about change.
He would also strengthen his image at home if he could demonstrate improved leadership and better relations with Israel, specifically with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
But Netanyahu may also have some plans up his sleeve. If he can solidify his support within the Likud and strengthen his already bolstered position at its helm, he may be able to ward off a second-term Obama who would have no political compunctions in facing off against Netanyahu to achieve a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
UNTIL NOW, the current US administration has shown that it sorely lacks a deeper understanding in statecraft. It has embraced the idea of coercive diplomacy in lieu of force, thinking that countries like Syria and Libya could be easily bought.
Unfortunately, this naïve approach gets in Israel’s way as it tries to deal with global threats in a realistic manner.
At the moment, Israel needs to avoid war. But it must also maintain as high a level of deterrence as possible.
And there’s something to be said for Israel’s deterrence on the northern front. On Tuesday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah made his first public appearance since 2008, appearing before a loud and supportive crowd on the occasion of the Shi’ite commemoration of Ashura.
But he only spoke briefly for “security reasons.” Here’s a man who declares that his men are prepared to sacrifice themselves as shahids but he himself seeks to escape the danger of potential assassination.
In an address apparently aimed at Israel, Nasrallah said, “This resistance in Lebanon will survive and you will not be able to defeat it through your psychological, media, political and intelligence wars.”
An Iranian proxy, Hezbollah has clearly refrained from attacking Israel in full force since 2006 – hopefully thanks to Israel’s deterrence.
Regardless of domestic politics, and as much as they play a part in numerous levels of decision- making and statecraft, Israel must continue to maintain a high level of deterrence on all its borders, as well as – and especially – against Iran.
Israel may be faced with a naïve group of world leaders who may be using its troubles to divert attention from their own, but it must lead by example and not be led by folly.
At a time when the US is being led by a president who is perceived by many as naïve, Israel needs to tread carefully so as not to deepen the ever-widening diplomatic schism between the two countries but must also demonstrate resolve and steadfastness in its attempt to thwart Iran’s efforts to destroy it.
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