Home inFocus Unsettled U.S.-Israel Relations in an Unsettled Middle East

Unsettled U.S.-Israel Relations in an Unsettled Middle East

Richard Baehr Winter 2010

The United States and Israel are facing some very troubling and unsettling developments in the three largest Muslim countries in the Middle East. In Turkey, the power and influence of Islamists opposed to the very existence of Israel is on the rise, and the historic alliance of the United States with this “moderate” Muslim nation is at risk of fraying. Similarly, Egypt’s recent uprising brought down President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year regime, and there is reason to believe the next government will be far less friendly toward both the United States and Israel. Moreover, Iran, an unremittingly hostile nation since the triumph of the mullahs in 1979, is poised to become a new member of the nuclear weapons club, despite the passage of last year’s sanctions and various acts of sabotage directed at its nuclear program, such as the Stuxnet virus. All this is occurring as Israel faces the prospect of much more serious military threats and pressure from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip—two of Iran’s proxy militaries.

These new challenges to Israel occur at a time when its relationship with the United States, its principal ally for over 40 years, is perhaps at its lowest point, in large part due to President Obama’s singular, if not obsessive, focus on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank throughout his two years in office. Though on the mend thanks to the 2010 mid-term election results and the president’s upcoming 2012 campaign, in which he hopes to secure a high percentage of the Jewish vote as well as raise campaign cash from the community, U.S.-Israeli relations remain strained under a president more interested in outreach to America’s enemies than her longtime friends.

Strained Relations

President Obama came into office on January 20, 2009 set on turning back the policies adopted by his predecessor. On June 4 of that year, the president conducted his highly anticipated Muslim outreach speech from Cairo, Egypt, titled, “A New Beginning.” In that speech, the president outlined his plans to improve America’s relations with the Muslim world with a policy of outreach and dialogue toward countries historically hostile to the U.S. He also stepped back from the Bush doctrine of advancing a democracy agenda in the Arab world, telling his audience in Cairo that the path to greater freedom was not a straight line, and in no case would be achieved with American military operations.

The American relationship with Israel, generally warm since the latter’s creation in 1948 and strengthened under President Bush, was another arena President Obama planned to alter upon entering office. His logic appeared to follow that of Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s in their book The Israel Lobby, which argues that the U.S. must distance itself from Israel in order to improve its strategic partnership with the growing Muslim world.

Obama sought to create that space between Israel and the U.S. by placing American pressure on Israel to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem, including natural growth expansion. Did the administration believe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would quickly succumb to the American pressure and its logic—that such a freeze was necessary to get Palestinians back to peace talks with Israel, from which a peace deal, ever elusive despite many good intentions for 60 years, was supposedly imminent? Or was the administration’s pressure more cynical—designed to weaken Netanyahu’s coalition, potentially forcing the government to either expand, or collapse, in order to produce a more malleable negotiating partner for the Palestinians and the Americans who were doing much of their bidding?

Whatever the goal, a total settlement freeze had never previously been a U.S. precondition for Israeli-Palestinian talks. But when it became one, the Palestinians, unwilling to appear more pro-Israel than the American president, quickly became obstinate about returning to peace talks unless a freeze was secured. It is no wonder that few Israelis, as public surveys illustrate, believe the president is sympathetic to Israel and a much greater number believe he favors the Palestinians. Lending credence to their theory, the president has visited over 30 countries in two years, several in the Middle East, none of them Israel.

Policy Priorities

As administration officials chastised Israel publicly over settlement activity, the large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate were almost uniformly quiet, choosing not to pick a fight with a president of their own party over his policy towards Israel when a higher priority item—the passage of health care reform—demanded party unity. In general, the administration and its allies in Congress placed a laser-like focus on the liberal domestic agenda, rather than on foreign affairs.

Once the health care reform bill passed, a few prominent Democrats, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, were free to condemn the one-sided pressure from the White House on Israel. In the first days of the 112th Congress, a bipartisan letter was sent to the president calling for his use of a Security Council veto if UN members sought to pass a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity as illegal under international law. Fortunately, this is a sign that a renewed dynamic is at work in Congress—the return of the traditionally strong bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The unwillingness of the Democratic members in Congress to take on the president in his first two years in office was also seen when it came to Iran and its nuclear program. Democrats bottled up a sanctions bill in a House Committee run by California Congressman Howard Berman for the better part of a year in order to allow the president and his administration to engage the Iranian regime—of course, to no avail. The passivity in the face of the Iranian threat—an urgent threat given the thousands of spinning centrifuges in Iran—was most evident during the weeks of street protests that followed the almost certainly stolen presidential election in Iran in June 2009. The administration stayed on the sidelines, offering no moral or other support to the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who took to the street to challenge the regime. This timidity appeared to be a case of not seeking to offend the regime, with which the administration was still supposedly “engaging.” While the failed engagement with Iran was underway, the administration also tried a soft touch approach with Syria, attempting to wean it away from Iran’s orbit. The two efforts, neither of which had any real prospects for success, undoubtedly undercut each other and strengthened the perspective in both countries that the U.S. would not seriously challenge their regimes.

When the popular uprising in the streets of Tunisia in January 2011 spread to Egypt, the administration seemed more eager to get on the side of the protestors, while not immediately abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government, given the risks associated with what could follow if his government fell. The American reaction to the events in Egypt mirrored its actions with the Shah of Iran in 1978-1979, when the Western-backed leader faced a serious challenge to his regime. In that case, President Carter was seen as having assisted, probably unwittingly, in undermining the Shah. The half-hearted support for dictators friendly to the United States and at peace with Israel (Iran in 1979, Egypt in 2011), contrasts with America’s standoffish approach to the events in Iran in 2009, when regime change would have been in America’s interest, and greatly reduced the threat of an Iranian nuclear program for Israel other American allies in the Middle East, and even countries in Western Europe.

Increased Regional Hostilities

With Hosni Mubarak out of the picture the new government in Egypt will have a choice of maintaining or abrogating the peace treaty with Israel signed in 1979. Egypt, under Mubarak, has put a lid on the political involvement of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and has tightly controlled the border with Gaza—a territory run by Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot, since 2007. With the Mubarak regime’s demise, the Muslim Brotherhood may be the most organized political group to fill a leadership role in the political vacuum that will follow.

A reversion to the pre-1979 relationship between Egypt and Israel would have enormous consequences for the Jewish state. Between 1948 and 1979, Israel fought four wars with Egypt. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his dramatic flight to Israel, beginning a process that would lead to a peace agreement sealed 16 months later at Camp David, Egypt was removed as a front line nation from land wars with Israel. With Egypt, the Arab world’s largest nation with its most well equipped army, off the battlefield, the prospect of a multi-front war between Israel and its Arab neighbors ended. Since the peace agreement, Egypt’s army has been strengthened enormously from America’s yearly gift of nearly $1.3 billion to be used for military purposes—Egypt’s reward for making peace. That the Muslim Brotherhood may come to control this military might is a frightening prospect for both the U.S. and Israel.

Putting aside Egypt’s potential threat, Israel today faces the threat of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles that Iran has smuggled into the hands of its client terror army, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. The insertion of a multi-national United Nations force into south Lebanon following the end of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah has had no effect in interdicting the re-supply of Iranian weaponry shipped through Syria into Lebanon. Three years after hostilities ended, Israeli, UN, and Hezbollah officials agree that the terrorist group is now better equipped than before the war. According to the most recent estimates, Hezbollah has 40,000 rockets and is training its forces to use anti-aircraft missiles and ground-to-ground missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv. Moreover, with the recent collapse of the Western-backed Hariri government in Beirut and its replacement by a Hezbollah selected puppet as prime minister, Hezbollah’s role has shifted from “resistance army” in the south, to the de facto leadership with power over the country.

A similar situation has played out in Gaza, run by Iranian ally Hamas since it seized power from the Palestinian Authority in a one-week military coup in 2007. Since the takeover, Hamas has been stockpiling weaponry smuggled into Gaza from tunnels dug under the border between Egypt and the Strip. Rocket firing by Hamas and its even more radical allies into Israeli towns both near Gaza and further removed finally forced Israel’s hand and led to an Israeli military intervention into Gaza in December 2008. While Israel’s operation improved the situation, it did not solve it. Since the end of Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, more than 275 rockets and 178 mortar shells have been fired into Israel.

Meanwhile, Turkey, led by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002, has attempted to become an international power by siding itself with Iran and Syria in recent years. The government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led and encouraged unrestrained Israel bashing by government officials, the media, and religious leaders over the last year or two, especially after the face-off between IDF forces and radicals aboard the Turkish Mavi Marmara “freedom” flotilla headed with supplies for Gaza on May 31, 2010. The fighting aboard the ship left nine Turks dead after Israel Defense Forces (IDF) personnel who boarded the ship were first attacked by knives, guns, and iron bars. With Prime Minister Erdogan, to this day, demanding an apology for the events that transpired on May 31, tensions between the two countries, once close military allies, remain alarmingly high.

The Next Two Years

How the Obama administration will react to these heightened tensions in the region remains unclear. One would hope that the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the failed effort to engage Iran and change its policies, the weakening ties with Turkey, the loss of Lebanon, and the risk of losing Egypt along with the Israeli-Egyptian peace would refocus American efforts towards broader strategic goals. In doing so, America should work closely with Israel, the only country in the region that shares the American values of liberty and democracy.

Is it a coincidence that a much stronger anti-Israel hysteria, and a comprehensive BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign have exploded in the Middle East and in Western countries under President Obama’s watch? Maybe. But it just goes to show that a U.S. president’s outstretched hand toward countries and groups historically hostile to the United States, and weak support for historic allies, will not do much in the way of settling the unsettled Middle East. Perhaps it is time for a new plan.

Richard Baehr is a fellow at the Jewish Policy Center and political director of The American Thinker.