Thursday, March 19, 2015

As Netanyahu wins, the U.S. disengages

Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in Israel’s general elections means that any hope of serious negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians – never particularly high in the first place – is now virtually nil.

But more uncertain, and interesting, is what it will do to relations between the United States and Israel.

Under Barack Obama, the United States has adopted a radically new vision for the Middle East and Israel’s status in it. Obama seeks to put in place a regional balance of power, one in which Iran would play a major role. A nuclear deal with Tehran is the cornerstone of that effort. It would allow the Americans to disengage from a region that has been a drain on their limited resources; a region that, to Obama, offers few long-term advantages.

This American attitude has helped Netanyahu, but it also contains many risks for Israel. The Israeli prime minister can delight in the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is today of little concern to Obama, who regards American mediation as a thankless, unending task destined to fail. That allows the Israelis to pursue their occupation of Palestinian land at will and ensure that no peace deal ever becomes possible.

But there is also a downside. Obama’s implicit message is that in a new Middle East Israel will more or less be on its own, having to invent a new purpose for itself in the emerging regional realignment, across from Iran. And as a more unpredictable region takes form, Israel’s power will be eroded by its inability to reach a settlement with the nearly 4 million Palestinians in and around the territories it controls.

America will not abandon Israel, any more than it will Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But nor will it expend valuable political capital to save Israel from itself. Especially when Israelis seem unwilling to understand the urgency of a peace settlement with the Palestinians. The reality is that Israel has no solution to the demographic time bomb in its midst.

In the looming Middle East this time bomb will be turned against Israel in a new regional struggle for power. Looking around at other regional powerhouses, Israel knows that not one of them – Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran – has any sympathy for Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Not one would fail to use the Palestinians against Israel if that ever became necessary, and in all cases this is virtually inevitable.

One might argue that Obama has two years left in office, therefore that his sharp reorientation in the region is a momentary lapse. Perhaps, but the president is hardly an anomaly. Many American officials are increasingly tired of a Middle East that has sapped their country’s energies in the past decade and a half, while offering no compensations. Israel has many friends in the U.S. Congress, but that’s primarily for domestic electoral reasons. No one in his right mind would seriously wager on Israel or the Arabs advancing a successful project of regional reconciliation and betterment.

In other words it would be a mistake to assume that Obama is a fleeting phenomenon. The idea of a regional balance of power, if it is seen as ultimately creating stability, may be embraced by many future American leaders. The strategic importance of the Middle East to the United States is no longer what it was, with America now a major oil producer. If anyone suffers it will be the Chinese, who rely on the Middle East for more than 50 percent of their oil. Let the region become China’s headache then, would be the resentful rationale in Washington.

In his speech before the U.S. Congress, Netanyahu clearly had more than an inkling of this. His speech was focused on a nuclear deal with Iran, but the broader message was that Iran was moving ahead with a project of regional hegemony, and that the Obama administration was implicitly favoring this.

As Netanyahu put it, “Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its Revolutionary Guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Backed by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke point on the world’s oil supply.”

Netanyahu is a disgraceful figure, and if he forms a government he will only push the region into new catastrophes. But he is right in seeing a fundamental change in the American approach. Yet his victory may only serve to accelerate Obama’s shift, reinforcing the president’s conviction that Israelis are incapable of making difficult choices with the Palestinians. Let them pay the price for their stubbornness, he may be thinking; but there is no reason for the United States to do so as well.

Those who will welcome Netanyahu’s win are the Iranians. An Israeli villain allows them to advance their agenda more easily. Tehran grasped Obama’s intentions early on, and now they are preparing to square off against an Israel stuck in its ways, surrounded by countries disgusted with its policies. And this time the Americans may simply stand by, allowing things happen.

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