Israel's choices in a changing Middle East

Strategic interests are diverging between the United States and Israel, recalibrating their relationship

Visiting Israeli prime ministers are usually greeted as heroes in Washington: leaders from the president down fall over themselves to provide lavish hospitality, while budding United States politicians scramble to get a photo opportunity with them.

Not this time, however.

For when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the US Congress tomorrow, scores of Democratic lawmakers will boycott the event, and President Barack Obama has let it be known that he'd be "far too busy" to even meet Mr Netanyahu.

The immediate reason for this unprecedented cold-shouldering is the fact that Mr Netanyahu is coming in response to a partisan invitation from the Republicans in Congress to deliver a speech which directly criticises President Obama's policies, a blatant interference in US domestic politics of a kind no other foreign leader would countenance.

But the sudden chill in US-Israeli relations is due to more than just a clash of personalities. It can be explained by a more fundamental shift in the strategic posture of both the US and Israel in the Middle East; the only question is how deep this downturn in relations is likely to be.

Despite what is now considered a legendary bond between the US and the Jewish state, the reality is that their friendship is not as ancient or well-established as commonly thought. President Harry Truman had to overrule his entire Cabinet when he opted to grant US recognition to the newly established Jewish state in 1948. "There are 30 million Arabs on one side and about 600,000 Jews on the other, so why don't you face up to the realities?", a furious James Forrestal, then Defence Secretary, wrote to the White House at that time.

During the first two decades of Israel's existence, the US was content to take a back seat. It was not America, but Britain and France which colluded with Israel in the Sinai War of 1956. And it was not the US, but France which provided Israel with its most potent weapon ever: the know-how and technology to produce nuclear bombs.

Still, the US-Israeli relationship flourished from the early 1970s due to a combination of factors, including the sharpening Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union - in which Israel was a crucial regional player - as well as the rise of a formidable pro-Israeli political lobby in the US.

It is a mistake to regard this pro-Israeli lobby as just composed of American Jews. For some of Israel's most ardent supporters are evangelical Christians, and the broader appeal of Israel as a Western-style democracy led by politicians who speak flawless English complete with a Brooklyn accent is undeniable: Opinion polls persistently put Israel at the top of ordinary Americans' preferences.

US-Israeli relations

SO, WHAT went wrong in this flowering relationship?

First, the fact that familiarity bred contempt: the current generation of Israeli leaders took the relationship so much for granted, they started carelessly treating the US as just an annex of Israeli domestic politics.

The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee is still the US' main pro-Israel lobby, but is increasingly just an annex of Israel's ruling Likud Party, led by Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, is an American-born, Republican political operative. And the Republican Party's greatest financial benefactor is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who is also Mr Netanyahu's greatest patron.

Affiliations with Israel are now increasingly polarised in the US: The latest polls by the Pew Research Centre, a non-partisan US think-tank, show 75 per cent of Republican supporters have a favourable opinion of Israel, but barely half of the Democrats share that view.

But a far bigger contributing factor to the estrangement of the two allies is their diverging strategic interests in the Middle East.

The US no longer imports oil or gas from the region, and is unlikely to do so again for decades, if ever. That doesn't necessarily mean the Americans are abandoning the area; paradoxically, the number of US troops stationed in the region has risen to its highest in years, as a major spring offensive is being planned against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorists.

Still, the absence of a requirement for energy supplies does mean US engagement will be selective, based much more on a strict assessment of what its core strategic interests are.

The way the US is now studiously ignoring the vicious civil wars raging in Syria or Libya would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

The days when America worked daily and actively to constrain radical elements in the Middle East are therefore over, to Israel's chagrin.

The US is also now much more interested in consolidating existing Arab states and societies in order to prevent the emergence of "ungoverned spaces" where terrorists thrive. That requires the elimination of genuine Arab grievances against the West in general and America in particular and that, in turn, cannot happen unless the plight of the Palestinians is addressed.

But in Israel, the Palestinian question is firmly a secondary issue in what for the Jewish state is a furiously changing and newly menacing Middle East.

Two-pronged threat

FOR the first five decades of its existence, Israel's national security policy concentrated on conventional warfare: how to deter and win traditional wars against enemy states. Yet now, Israel is facing a new set of challenges which Professor Itamar Rabinovich, one of the country's most distinguished academics, calls the "supra- and sub-conventional levels".

The supra-conventional threat comes from Iran's potential nuclear weapons which, if developed and deployed, will transform the security map of the Middle East.

The sub-conventional threat comes from Hamas and Hizbollah, two large militias ensconced in Gaza and Lebanon respectively. Both are non-state actors but with arsenals which will be the envy of established states, including thousands of missiles.

The snag for Israel is that it has no long-term, viable answers to either of these two-pronged threats. The opportunity to destroy Iran's nuclear programme with one or a series of air strikes has now passed, if it ever existed.

And although Hamas and Hizbollah can be hit hard, Israel's military will never be able to eradicate either organisation. Indeed, Hizbollah's threat is expanding, as the Iranian-supported organisation is not only occupying positions at Israel's borders with Lebanon, but also at the borders between Israel and Syria, now abandoned by the fractured national Syrian army.

The ultimate nightmare for Israel is that a nuclear-capable Iran could constrain the Israelis' ability to hit at Hizbollah and Hamas, since Iran could threaten nuclear retaliation if either of the organisations it sponsors faces defeat. That will blend into one or both of the supra- and sub-conventional threats to the Jewish state.

It is this sort of nightmare which the Israelis hope the US would remove from them by "defanging" Iran's nuclear aspirations, while constraining radical Islamic movements in the region and allowing Israel to do as it wished with the Palestinians in their own backyard.

The fact that President Obama has refused to see matters this way and has concentrated instead on offering Iran an integration path in the Middle East is a source of endless frustration in Israel.

However, the intensity of the rift between Israel and the US should not be exaggerated.

Although the personal rapport between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama is very poor and probably the worst between leaders of the two nations, Mr Obama is also the one US leader who has done the most for Israel's security by transferring unprecedented quantities of weapons and military technology to the Jewish state over the past few years.

There are also fair chances that Mr Netanyahu may lose Israel's general election scheduled for March 17, so the personal frisson in the relationship could disappear literally overnight; any centre-left Israeli government is bound to be more amenable to US suggestions.

Finally, it is virtually guaranteed that any president after Mr Obama will give a more assertive stance to the US' foreign policy, something bound to please Israel.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that the strategic objectives of Israel and the US are diverging in profound ways.

For the first time since its creation, Israel can no longer construct its security solely through an alliance with the US; it will also have to turn to alliances it can forge within the Middle East to secure its existence.

These alliances, with moderate powers such as the monarchies of the Gulf, are theoretically feasible but they all entail real Israeli concessions on Palestine, something which few Israeli leaders are willing to contemplate.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, most of Israel's political class would still prefer to knock at the door of the US.


The Iran factor in US-Israel relations