Obama and NetanyahuNearly lost in the furor over the Israeli attack on the Turkish civilian aid flotilla is an incredible assessment delivered to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “Israel is turning from an asset to the United States to a burden,” testified Meir Dagan, the director of Mossad, on June 1.

The entente between the U.S. and Israel has been so close for so long that it has become axiomatic. However, as the prominent political analyst Eqbal Ahmad correctly pointed out as early as the 1970s, American support for Israel stems not from historical guilt, well-heeled lobbies or other (often anti-Semitic) conspiracies, but from a fundamental alignment of interests. Such an alignment existed since the 1960s to the end of the Cold War. But U.S. and Israeli interests no longer coincide. Dagan’s statement demonstrates that Israel has begun to recognize that the strategic framework of American dominance in the Middle East is changing.

Many of the recent events in the region, from the “peace process” and “proximity talks” to the spat between the United States and Israel and reactions around the Turkish flotilla incident, are encoded into American grand strategy in the region. Deciphering these historical interests sheds light on the direction of U.S.-Israeli relations and its consequences for the Middle East.

Israel: From Dagger to Tip of the Spear

Contrary to popular perception, particularly in Muslim countries, the United States had little strategic interest in Israel for the first two decades of its existence. The United States was more interested in maintaining its oil-for-protection arrangement, struck in the immediate aftermath of World War II between U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abd Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia.

Israel’s earliest patron was not the United States but the Soviet Union, which believed it could influence Labor Zionists to gain a toehold in the Levant. However, it soon switched its support to the newly decolonized Arab states. France took over the Soviets’ mantle. As France got increasingly bogged down in its brutal colonial suppression of Algeria, Israel — locked in its own mortal combat with the Arabs — became a natural ally.

The United States was, at best, ambivalent toward Israel. This was evident during the so-called Suez Crisis in 1956 when Israel, Britain, and France attacked Egypt, allegedly in response to the nationalization of the Suez Canal. In one of those rare moments of history when the levers of global power are laid completely bare, both the United States and the Soviet Union forced the invaders to withdraw. Both coveted influence in the Mediterranean region, and neither wished for the return of the former colonial powers.

Cold War competition in the Middle East intensified in the 1960s. Ba’athist parties staged leftist coups in Syria and Iraq in 1963 and allied closely with the Soviet Union. Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s towering Arab-nationalist president, steered his country – then the economic and cultural center of the Arab world – into the Soviet camp. The balance of power in the Middle East was tilting toward the Soviet Union. Then came the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

The Arabs and much of the world were stunned when Israel attacked and occupied parts of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Israel defeated the combined armies of the three nations within six days, despite assistance by other Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The “dagger in the heart of the Middle East,” as many Arab nationalists refer to Israel, had proven itself capable of being the tip of a Spartan spear.

The war immediately brought strategic realignments. France made an historic break with Israel. French President General Charles de Gaulle made the announcement at a press conference, presciently stating:

Israel attacked, and in six days of combat reached the objectives it sought. Now, it is organizing an occupation that cannot fail to be accompanied by oppression, repression, and expulsion on the territories it seized; there, a resistance has arisen that, in turn, Israel describes as terrorism. It is quite clear that the conflict is merely suspended. It can only be resolved by international means.

Though history has validated de Gaulle’s assessment, France’s decision to switch horses equally had to do with seeking better relations with the Arab world once its colonial adventures had been turned back.

The United States immediately seized the opportunity to displace France as a hardy Israeli patron. Through the looking-glass of the Cold War, Israel had just inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Soviet Union’s primary Middle Eastern allies. Thus, the United States fashioned Israel into a bulwark against socialism and as its long arm in the Middle East. In return, it provided Israel with vital strategic and diplomatic cover, including economic aid (up to 25 percent of Israel’s GDP at the time), advanced weaponry, and a ready veto in the United Nations Security Council. In line with many Arab countries of the region, Israel mortgaged its sovereignty in return for American security guarantees.

The Arab-Israeli war of 1973, which registered some initial gains for the Arabs, ironically cemented Israel’s unrivalled military superiority in the region. Egypt used its stronger position to bargain for choice terms. In 1974 it crossed over to the American side of the Cold War divide, in return becoming one of the largest recipients of American largesse in the world — now second only to Israel. Egypt also broke ranks with other Arab countries to negotiate a separate peace treaty with Israel in 1979, following the American-mediated Camp David Accords.

American Ascendance in the Middle East

Without Egypt, Israel faced no credible conventional military threat in its immediate vicinity. Syria was too weak to menace Israel on its own, and Iraq was locked in a bloody and all-consuming conflict with Iran. Thus, Israel took to wiping out sub-critical threats by invading Lebanon to destroy the Soviet-backed Palestinian Liberation Organization. In this context, American dominance of the Middle East was already assured. This became particularly evident as the Soviet Union got bogged down in Afghanistan and its empire eventually crumbled.

The Gulf War in 1990 — which even obtained Russia’s Security Council vote, signalling the true end of the Cold War — and the subsequent “internationalization” of Arab oil was the culmination of America’s grand Middle East strategy. Any residual Syrian threat to Israel was hollowed out as the Soviet arms spigot trickled shut, and Iran was too far away and too exhausted by revolution and nearly a decade of war. The Gulf War allowed the United States to destroy Iraq’s offensive military capability. This eliminated the final serious threat to Israel, silencing Saddam Hussein’s delusional pretensions to be a modern-day Saladin, the Kurdish warrior-king who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 12th century.

There was no denying Arab military weakness, as well as structural economic and social backwardness. American strategic architecture in the region now made a move toward an Arab-Israeli peace process inevitable.

In the early 1990s, the United States was in a position to reconcile its twin policies of balancing Israeli security with its energy security and oil economics, represented by favorable relations with the Arab regimes. The Cold War’s end and the presence of American troops in the Middle East had in any case devalued the alliance with Israel, particularly when it came at the expense of straining ties with the stupendously wealthy Arab petro-regimes.

In this context, the United States pushed Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, brushing aside Israel’s strenuous objections and forcing both sides to negotiate directly. The United States had prevented Israel from marching on Cairo in 1973, and from responding to Iraq’s Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv during the Gulf War, even though both moves diminished Israeli power. It was again able to bend Israel to its will. The First Intifada and Palestinian missteps in supporting the “new Saladin” during the Gulf War also contributed to creating a domestic environment favorable to such arm twisting. Thus the Madrid Conference was formed in 1991, cosponsored by a newly agreeable Soviet Union. It also included delegations from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

The Madrid Conference began the peace process that eventually led to the Palestinian capitulation in the Oslo Accords and, punctuated by the second intifada and the Global War on Terror, today’s “proximity talks.”

The Madrid Conference resulted in Israel inching into the mainstream of the international community. It eased Israel’s boycott by the Arab world, earned it diplomatic recognition by a number of Arab and other countries, including India and China, and eventually led to a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. It also bizarrely elevated the status of the United States — Israel’s principal ally — into an “honest broker” in the Arab world. This secured for a time the maintenance of both tracks – oil and Israel – of American hegemony in the region.

However, Madrid also marked the beginning of the slow decline in Israel’s value as an ally. Israel was able to rehabilitate its fortunes somewhat during George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, a bulwark this time against radical Islamic groups and regimes. But this threat has proven to be overblown. Israel’s status has again been on the wane since it offers limited value in the most important U.S. foreign policy agenda: stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of America’s failed occupations.

Strategic Divergence

The accuracy of Mossad Chief Mier Dagan’s assessment of the growing rift between Israel and the United States is increasingly evident. In response to Israel’s attack on the Turkish civilian aid flotilla, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the U.S. supports “the Security Council’s call for a prompt, impartial, credible, and transparent investigation.” Though tepid compared to the nearly universal criticism of Israel over the incident, the United States did not wield its veto. U.S. acknowledgment of a version of the truth other than Israel’s is in itself a major shift.

The United States has also supported — rather than shielding Israel from — a resolution at the recent UN non-proliferation conference that specifically calls on Israel to open up its nuclear facilities and to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Further, American allies such as Britain have begun to call on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza, and there are leaks to the press that the United States may do the same. U.S. General David Petraeus signalled an American shift in March when he said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.”

This distancing from Israel is part of America’s new strategic architecture. The United States is crafting a fine balance in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. It is conducting two vastly complicated military withdrawals, from Iraq and, further down the road, from Afghanistan. Both require careful consideration of refilling the resultant power vacuum to preserve a strategic balance and American dominance. The United States can brook few distractions in this complex process, much less get further mired in current conflicts or get drawn into fresh ones.

At the heart of these considerations is the failed occupation of Iraq. The neo-con vision of Iraq as an imperial outpost has exploded on the streets of Baghdad, Basra, and Fallujah. Consequently, the United States must come to terms with a reality it finds unpalatable. The United States simply cannot keep Iranian influence out of Iraq, particularly as it draws down its occupation army. Tehran, meanwhile, has called Washington’s bluff on both war and the ability to impose truly crippling sanctions. Further, knocking down Iraq has removed the traditional barrier to Iran projecting its power westward into the Arab world. As a Shia coalition coalesces in Baghdad, the potential contiguity of Shia-dominated polities from Iran to Lebanon will also strengthen Iran’s position in the region. Thus, Iran cannot presently be pushed back; it can only be managed.

Chastening Israel

Israel has differing regional designs. Its military dominance over its neighbors is absolute and its continued survival is assured, guaranteed by a powerful nuclear arsenal. Even the turmoil emanating from the Occupied Territories has become the new normal, easily managed and ignored by most Israelis.

On the homefront, Israel is gradually absorbing East Jerusalem and other Palestinian territories, while displaying an increasingly belligerent posture abroad. It has threatened to unilaterally strike nuclear facilities in Iran and to go to war with Syria. There is a growing chorus from its defense establishment for a pre-emptive air-and-ground assault against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Moreover, Israel’s powerhouse economy and massive high-tech and weapons industries have made it less dependent than ever on any external patron. Israel today is looking to flex its muscles more broadly and act with relative autonomy from U.S. designs in the Middle East. It is pursuing independent relationships with other regional powers China and India, while challenging the United States on Iran, the peace process, and Turkey.

Thus, Israel’s aggressive attack on the Turkish civilian aid flotilla is unsurprising. Israel is signaling that it is not ready to roll over on its security concerns, and that it is willing to hold on to its dominant position in the region even in the face of opposition from allies.

Israel’s “strategic defiance” is troubling for the United States for two primary reasons. First, any one of Israel’s threatened military actions against Iran, Syria, or Hezbollah has the potential to seriously disrupt the matrix of American interests. Such conflict will certainly bleed over into Iraq and Afghanistan — countries that Iran deeply influences — as well as other parts of the Middle East. Moreover, a potentially contiguous war-front stretching from Iraq to Afghanistan, or perhaps even from Lebanon to Pakistan, isn’t a battle in which the U.S. military would wish to bog down. Moreover, a broad conflict in the region could have unpredictable consequences within Egypt, where political change is likely in next year’s election after nearly three decades of one-man rule under President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is a valuable U.S. ally, and it will want to avoid any conflict that could ignite uncontrollable passion and turmoil during the country’s political transition.

The second reason for American concern is Israel’s development of relative autonomy itself. This goes against both American grand strategy in the Middle East as well as its fundamental security doctrines of maintaining hegemony. Israel’s emergence as a regional hegemon acting outside of an American framework is completely unacceptable.

Course Correction in the Middle East

In this context, the United States is trying to figure out how to salvage what is left of Iraq and maintain American preeminence in the Middle East. Effectively dealing with Iran is a vital component of such a policy. Given the ongoing expansion of Iran’s influence in the Middle East, inaction is now corrosive to American power. Thus, the United States is engaged in an elaborate diplomatic dance with Iran, with the bargaining positions revolving around sanctions, Iraq, and nuclear fuel deals. Iran has responded to U.S.-sponsored UN sanctions with a buildup of troops on Iraq’s northern border, a clear display of power by both sides. Their respective allies have also entered the fray. The European Union followed the United States in imposing further unilateral sanctions. Russia, which voted for the UN sanctions, has strongly criticized their unilateral aspect.

Yet both the United States and Iran have declared a continuing willingness to talk. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Phillip Crowley stated on June 15 that America is “prepared to have a discussion if Iran is prepared to have it.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retorted on June 16 that the Americans “have no alternative but to cooperate and talk with the Iranian nation.” In fact, back-channel talks may already be underway.

A potential détente between Washington and Tehran is the only real option left that will not threaten American preeminence. It will likely include an understanding to delimit Iranian influence in Iraq, in return for eliminating American interference in Iran’s domestic affairs. The recognition of an Iranian sphere of influence and guarantees for its ruling establishment should convince Iran’s pragmatic mullahs to slow down their nuclear weapons program and reach an understanding with their “Great Satan.”

A similar settlement with Syria, possibly sweetened by Saudi petrodollars to distance it from Iran, will not be far behind. The previous Bush administration characterized Syria as “low hanging fruit”, ripe for the picking once Iraq turned into an American outpost. It was the target of frequent cross-border raids by U.S. troops based in Iraq. Now, however, the United States is engaged in re-establishing full diplomatic relations with Syria. By reinserting itself into the heart of regional diplomacy, Syria has regained the influence it lost in Lebanon following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri. Syria has also forged closer ties with Europe and maintains leverage in Iraq where it is widely believed to have supported the insurgency. As it begins to withdraw from Iraq, the United States hopes that Syria will assist in stabilizing the country rather than fuelling the chaos. Syria also forms a vital supply route from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. An American understanding with Syria has the potential to diminish Hezbollah’s military capabilities. In return, the United States can offer Syria an end to sanctions and a potential agreement with Israel for the return of the occupied Golan Heights, thus removing another tripwire for a regional conflagration.

Additionally, a vital component of American strategy involves balancing Shiite Iran by introducing Sunni Turkey into the regional equation. There is increasing symmetry between Turkish and American interests in the Middle East, as Turkey muscles back into the region after a nearly 100-year hiatus since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey’s dependence on the United States has also lessened since Soviet pressure to its north peeled away. As a result, Turkey has made waves by moving closer to Iran and Syria, and co-sponsoring (with Brazil) a recent nuclear deal with Iran. Clearly, Turkey sees itself in the mold of other rising powers and is taking advantage of its usefulness to the United States to expand its freedom of action.

However, Turkey is still an important member of NATO with close ties to the United States. This is set to continue. As early as his visit to Ankara in Aril, 2009, Obama called the U.S.-Turkish relationship a “model partnership,” adding that the two countries could “create a modern international community that is respectful, secure and prosperous. This is extremely important.” As the world’s 17th-largest economy and the second-largest military power in NATO, Turkey possesses the geostrategic location and economic and military might to spread its influence over a vast area. Thus, Turkey will assist the United States in stabilizing a “post-occupation” Iraq while balancing Iran’s inevitable influence amongst the country’s Shiite majority. Turkey has already been active in forging alliances between Shia and Sunni factions in Iraq and is also courting its former enemies, the Iraqi Kurds. This will allow Turkey to gain influence in Iraq — undoubtedly an important part of the Arab world — and will keep the country’s separatist-minded Kurds at bay. Turkey is playing a similar balancing role in Afghanistan where it has strong ties to the country’s substantial Turkic minorities, as well as to both Iran and Pakistan.

Turkey’s gambit to seize a regional leadership role involves a calculated repudiation of Israel to gain legitimacy in the Arab world. This process began last year, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly castigated Israel for its brutal attack on Gaza. His stance made him a hero back home and across the Arab world. Similar diplomatic slights have flown both ways since.

Thus, the flotilla incident isn’t the trigger, but rather the climax of Turkey’s shifting policy in the Middle East. Turkey has reacted strongly to Israel’s assault. Erdogan has even threatened to break ties, raging that “Turkey’s friendship is as strong as its animosity.” This is music to the ears of those on the Arab street who have become accustomed to toothless declarations by their leaders.

In addition, Turkey’s strongly pro-Palestinian position will also cut into the rising popularity of Iran and Syria as the leading critics of Israel. U.S. strategic planners will not likely appreciate the irony of a major American and NATO ally spearheading the Palestinian resistance.

The Future of U.S. – Israeli Ties

Israel views Turkey’s new policy toward the Middle East as a grave threat, and their fracturing alliance will profoundly change Israel’s strategic calculus. In short, with Turkey as a wildcard, the edifice of Israel’s military superiority in the region crumbles. Thus, Israel will be forced on the defensive in terms of the expansion and projection of its power.

The United States will maintain close relations with Israel, though these will have to be balanced against the more instrumental Turkey. The United States will likely remain neutral in any future Israeli-Turkish disputes, and will gradually tilt toward supporting the peace process between Israel on the one hand and the Palestinians and Syria on the other. Turkey has twice attempted to sponsor peace talks in the region. But given the growing rancor with Israel, Turkey is not about to try again. Wary of Turkey’s interest in the region, Israel has already once pushed it out of playing any meaningful role in talks with Palestinians. It also humiliated Turkey by attacking Gaza on the eve of a potential breakthrough in the Turkish-sponsored Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Thus the United States will remain the primary sponsor of the peace process, particularly given its relations with all the involved parties as well as the prestige that accrues to any broker of peace in the Middle East. However, still looking to increase its clout, Turkey will remain visible throughout the process, possibly wielding carrot-and-stick incentives over Israel in the form of defense and intelligence cooperation arrangements.

This will restrict Israel’s potential to embroil the region in a conflict. It will also make it easier for the United States to secure concessions from Iran and Syria. With a peace process in the offing both countries will find it easier to sell a cooperative relationship with the United States as furthering their “resistance” to Israel and as advancing the cause of Palestinian rights. It will also restore some credibility to the United States while shoring up the pro-American autocracies in the region by placating their Islamist and nationalist oppositions.

Israel will slowly lose its carte blanche to act as it pleases under an American umbrella. It will still remain a useful counterpoint to the Arabs and to Turkey, a hedge against any single power dominating a region as vital as the Middle East. But if Israel values American strategic and diplomatic cover — and it does — it will have to toe the American line, from Iran to the peace process, or risk being further isolated. Israeli dependence on the United States may have ebbed. But U.S. support is still strategically vital to Israel, particularly on the diplomatic front. A thin U.S. thread separates Israel from strong international censure and even sanctions, and this will continue to form the basis of U.S. leverage over Israel.

Pax Americana in the Middle East

Those who have suffered as a result of Israeli belligerence will certainly celebrate the end of the American-Israeli entente. However, this will not translate into either peace in the region or justice for the Palestinians.

Israel will likely have to halt its expansion on Palestinian territories. For now a symbolic “process” will remain more important than a concrete “peace.” But in the medium term, if the new American strategic architecture in the Middle East is not to have foundations of clay, there will need to be an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But such a settlement will likely not go beyond a moth-eaten vassal state, entirely dependent on Israel and the United States.

Palestinian statehood faces opposition not only from Israel, but also many neighboring Arab despots. Israel doesn’t want any future Palestinian state to have a military or even full control of its airspace and waterways. Having already fought a brutal war in 1970 with the Palestinians, who form a majority of its population, Jordan will remain wary of the potential influence of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Egypt, whose closing of the Rafah Crossing has helped tighten Israel’s siege, is a strong opponent of the Islamist Hamas movement democratically elected by the Palestinians in 2006. Hamas is inspired by and maintains close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is also the largest opposition movement in Egypt.

Thus, Israel and its neighbors will ensure that any future Palestinian state consists of powerless Bantustans who have little chance of improving the lot of its long-suffering people. But the creation of even such a powerless state will be enough for the United States to claim a great moral victory in bringing about “peace” in the region while expiating the consciences of the Israeli and Arab governments. As with occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will use notional sovereignty to deflect all other structural problems onto the locals.

Under such a strategic architecture, the United States will have to negotiate more nodes of power in the Middle East, with a more diffuse balance held by Turkey, Iran, Israel, and the Arabs. But for the time being, the United States will remain at the head of the imperial dining table. Not only will Turkey emerge as the champion of the Arab peoples, an American détente with Iran and Syria will not leave a single Middle Eastern country expressing any resistance to the framework of American hegemony.

This will disappoint those that mistook these opportunistic regimes as representing a kind of anti-imperialism. American dominance in the Middle East could thus grow more stable. Barring a major war in the region that could shift strategic calculations, the whole region may soon enter a new era of Pax Americana.

Shibil Siddiqi is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and a fellow with the Center for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University. He can be reached at shibil [dot] siddiqi [at] gmail [dot] com.

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