There is much that separates the Obama Administration and the new Netenyahu-led government in Israel, and initial contacts between representatives of the two governments point to a collision between them. Aside from the friction caused by their different views concerning a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, other considerations may drive a wedge between them. Specifically, these pertain to the foreign policy goals of the Obama Administration, and the changing world to which it must respond.
The Obama Administration’s foreign policy will be guided by new realities: that we no longer live in a uni-polar world, and that the United States can no longer make unilateral foreign policy decisions. As was made abundantly clear at the recent NATO summit, this administration understands the necessity to consult its traditional allies, countries such as Great Britain, France and Germany. However, it is also indisputable that there are new players on the world stage. These are the rising powers, China, India, Brazil, and a resurgent Russia. The Obama Administration understands the need for the US, not only to share power with traditional allies, but also to take into account the needs and objectives of the rising powers, in order to accomplish its own policy goals.
Irrespective of this recognition for a change in its approach to foreign policy, the US will be constrained by these countries, and will have to respond to the critical challenges that they present. It is reasonable to think that these changes in America’s relationship with both allies and others will have serious consequences for Israel.
Because of its periodic need to accommodate other countries, the US will find itself in disagreement with Israel, not because these countries will necessarily be unfriendly to Israel and its interests, but because they have their own interests that don’t always match those of the US or of Israel.
Two of these rising powers, China and India, have a voracious appetite for oil and gas. Despite US opposition, these countries have turned to Iran as a means of meeting their energy needs. That creates a potential for conflict with the US if it continues to support Israel’s view of Iran as a threat to Israel’s existence. As an energy supplier to these giant countries, Iran has great leverage from a geopolitical point of view, even discounting the possibility of an exchange of weapons for oil. Indeed, in recent talks between Iranian and Chinese officials, the Chinese representative voiced concern about Israel’s actions in Gaza. It is not inconceivable that, should Iran seek help from them, the Chinese begin to express such views more vigorously than heretofore in their dealings with the US.
Another crisis that may impact the relationship between Israel and the US is to be found in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama Administration has adopted a regional approach to the thorny problems that these countries present. Help from Iran may be part of the answer, and there is precedent for such help in the past, as when it cooperated with the US in its fight against the Taliban right after September 11, 2001. The interests of Iran align with those of the US when it comes to checking the growth of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism. The new administration has already extended a hand to Tehran, and it would certainly seem that a continuation along this path could be helpful in assisting the US to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan, and perhaps even with regard to dealing a blow to al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Turkey and the Arab Gulf states could become helpful players with regard to the Afghan and Pakistan crises. If such help were to be forthcoming from these Muslim countries, it is certainly reasonable to think that it will come at a price: a demand for a more even-handed US policy vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians. And to put Israel’s concerns in a wider context, many observers believe that Pakistan presents a much greater threat as a breeding ground for both global terrorism and nuclear proliferation than does Iran. The day may soon come when the US will officially subscribe to this view and adjust its policy priorities accordingly. Thus, the potential exists for another discordant note in the US-Israel relationship.
American foreign policy perspectives are also changing with regard to how to handle the threat of terrorism. Israel has portrayed itself as in the vanguard in the fight against Islamic militancy and has depended on military answers to the threat presented by it. This portrayal of itself and the fight it was undertaking was greeted more positively in an atmosphere in which the US was fighting a “war on terrorism” and pressuring others, particularly Muslim and Arab countries, to choose sides. That policy seems to be changing; the US is now fighting a “war on terrorists,” and sees the need for using other weapons besides military ones. In general, the US is putting more faith in the use of “soft power” to fight Islamic militancy.
At the same time, Israel continues to take a hard line in its dealings with a Hamas-run entity in the Gaza Strip. Its policy of closing Gaza off to a lifeline from the rest of the world seems to have as its aim the turning of Gazans, out of misery, against the Hamas-run government under which they are living. In addition, Israel has not tried to cultivate any sort of relationship with more moderate elements within Hamas. Thus, American and Israeli responses to the threat presented by terrorism seem to be diverging.
The US is involved in a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of the Arab world. To win that battle, it needs to be seen as more even-handed in its dealings with Israel and the Palestinians. Sunni Arab leaders, trying to fend off a challenge from Shia-led Iran for dominance in the Muslim Middle East, want Washington to do just that. Because Iran has become the standard bearer in its opposition to Israel, these leaders fear the reaction of their citizens, who see them as ineffective in protecting their Muslim brothers, the Palestinians, or —even worse—as complicit in their oppression by Israel.
To diminish the pressure of the “Arab street” on the Sunni leaders, US policy needs to adjust. It has to make it possible for these Arab leaders to finally come to an accommodation with the reality of Israel, with the aim of removing the issue of the Jewish state as a tool by which the Iranians can drive a wedge between them and their people. In order to do so, there needs to be a solution in the making to the on-going conflict, in the form of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.
Finally, recognition of new realities may have occurred among Israel’s leaders themselves. They may have come to realize that the potential of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is moving ever closer, and that this is a problem that Israel cannot solve alone. It will need the help of the US to blunt this Iranian objective. The US government may well see in this need for help an opportunity to pressure Israel to make some accommodations that it heretofore has not been willing to make. The asking price for such help may well be a change in Israel’s settlements policy. If a future Israeli government refuses to demonstrate flexibility on settlements and make territorial concessions to move the peace process in a positive direction, it will have strained relations with a United States government led by President Obama.
Both the entry of the Obama Administration onto the world stage, and the changing nature of the world to which it will have to react, should signal a corresponding need for a reappraisal of policy on the part of the leaders of Israel. It should also make clear the necessity of a sober reassessment by American Jews of the kind of support they should extend to Israel’s policies in the future.
(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and are solely the opinions of the author.)