Over the past few weeks there have been a growing number of signs that relations between Washington and Jerusalem are even more strained than they’ve been over the past few years.
The US Administration has gone out of its way to make it clear to the Israeli leadership that it believes sanctions against Iran are working and need more time to evolve. The US does not want Israel to launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and there exists a certain amount of unease at Israel’s opacity when it comes to sharing its Iran plans with America.
Where do Israel and America’s interests dovetail, and where do they part?
In off-the-record conversations with top US and Israeli officials, I can report that there is, unfortunately, disagreement on a wide range of strategic issues affecting both nations. The issue that divides Washington and Jerusalem the most is where to draw the red line regarding Iran. For Israel, Iran’s ability to have all the ingredients and expertise necessary to develop nuclear weapons and fortify these ingredients in areas that are impossible for Israel to destroy is a red line, a line that seems to already have been crossed. For the US, Iran’s ability to actually produce a nuclear weapon is a red line, a line that seemingly has not been crossed yet. How the two allies resolve this issue remains to be seen. One senior Israeli official summed up Jerusalem’s position on the matter thus: ‘Good people can disagree. We reserve the right to decide how best to safeguard our security, and we reserve the right to act.’
The American position has been expounded on, most recently, by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said an attack against Iran by Israel would have devastating consequences, and that America’s red line has essentially not been reached yet.
On other issues the two allies are also working to resolve differences of opinion.
As one top official told me, at this point in history America’s power is receding around the world, and in the Middle East Islam is on the ascendancy. Israel and America cannot determine the outcome of the changes that have rocked the Arab region, but they can work to create opportunities and attempt to move, as much as possible, things that are in their power to move. Israel and America must prepare for changes in the peace agreements Israel has with both Egypt and Jordan, which are cornerstones of Israel’s security posture as well as American foreign policy in the region. Just because there are agreements, it doesn’t mean that peace will be honored, Israeli officials say. Both allies are closely watching unfolding events in Syria, mindful of that country’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons.
The US and Israel must plan to mediate the risks and look for opportunities in the new regional alignments. Officials from both countries believe that we are frankly just at the beginning of the changes in the region. Extremists could hijack the changes, as we are already seeing in several instances. In short, we don’t know where this Arab Spring/ Islamic Winter is going. Nobody does. It’s in the US’s interest that Israel remain a strong, vibrant and secure Jewish democratic state because, in the long run, the forces that initially unleashed the revolts in the Arab world, may look to Israel as a model for democracy and partnership. The transitions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other places are at a very early stage. And as in history the revolutions are being hijacked by people who didn’t set them off. The outcomes will be determined by those Arab societies themselves, but America can use its leverage to make clear to the new regimes that their relationship with Washington rests on certain principles, such as honoring past peace agreements, women’s rights, minority rights, an independent judiciary and a free press, for instance. Israel cannot afford to blunt this US leverage, and should support it as much as possible. It is difficult enough for the US to wield massive financial leverage what with the American economy as it is. But, according to one view, there are real opportunities, in the long term, for democratic states to arise in the region and Israel can ultimately benefit from that. America can try steer the changes toward this goal, and Israel should help in any way it can, obviously without compromising on its security. Israel has never had the luxury of having democratic neighbors. Democratic states rarely make war on each other. But how much will the Israeli/Palestinian issue be a rallying call for the new Muslim Brotherhood regimes in the region?
As America’s clout in the region wanes, the involvement of Turkey, Russia, China, and Iran is on the rise. The stated zeitgeist within the Israeli leadership is that, amidst all this upheaval in the Middle East, now is not the time to take risks for peace with the Palestinians. Perhaps in the next generation. The problem with this line of thinking is that Arab dictators historically had much success using the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict to divert the anger and frustration of their subjects’ living conditions and lack of rights. They did it for decades, until the conditions of their citizens deteriorated beyond repair, leading to revolution. Will the Muslim Brotherhood regimes now arising across the region also divert anger at Israel? And if these regimes suffer the same fate as their predecessors, we might be faced with a string of failed states from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. That kind of instability is not in Israel’s long-term interest.
Can Israel afford not to try to make progress on the Palestinian track? Can we wait for 5 or 10 years until the region settles down? History shows that this conflict gets harder to solve with the passage of time, not easier. As a senior Western diplomat told me this week, time is not on Israel’s side, so in an absence of a clearly articulated Israeli policy towards a two-state solution, and an equally unclear readiness by the Palestinian Authority to make significant compromises, the Israeli-Palestinian issue could fester deep into the new regional realities. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership believes that time is on its side, and is constantly avoiding direct talks with Israel. PA President Mahmoud Abbas must be made, through pressure, to realize that he has more to lose from staying away from talks than by making a deal. Only then is he likely to make an honest attempt at peace. If he does, the chances are quite good that he’ll find an Israeli partner.