There’s a showdown coming, and the outcome may determine how the US runs its foreign policy in the Middle East, at least for the next three years and perhaps much longer.
The issues at hand are both immediate and long-term, and both involve an awful lot of “daylight” between the positions of the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government in Israel. The very top of the Israeli government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and far-right “kingmaker,” Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Naftali Bennett, has launched a full-scale attack on the policies of Barack Obama. They have dispensed with the fiction that Israel is not a domestic US issue and have brought into the light of day the enormous influence they have in Congress.
Bennett came to Washington to meet with members of Congress to directly lobby them to oppose the policies of the President of the United States, particularly with regard to a potential agreement with Iran that would forestall any possibility of a military strike. If Bennett was from any other country, no matter how close an ally, a foreign leader lobbying Congress to oppose the plans of a President whose agenda is backed by a majority of US citizens and who is trying to avoid a conflict whose repercussions could be dire would be outrageous. But with Israel, such niceties are ignored because, whether it’s Bennett or the U.S. members of AIPAC, lobbying and winning for Israeli interests over those of the United States or the rest of the world is routine.
But the issue is not limited to Iran by a long shot. Differences at least as profound have appeared in the context of the failing new round of peace talks that Secretary of State John Kerry worked so hard to put together. Kerry has had some unusually strong words for Israel in this regard, and the response from Netanyahu has been nothing short of hysterical. And while Kerry flatly denied the rumors that he would table Washington’s own plan in January if the two sides cannot make progress, a bridging proposal certainly seems like a very real possibility, and one that Israel would almost certainly resist.
As I explained elsewhere in some depth, both of these issues are consequential, but they also point to an even larger and more fundamental concern. That concern is not held exclusively by Israel, but is very much shared by Saudi Arabia and other countries throughout the region: the trajectory of U.S. policies and presence in the Middle East.
The United States has been the key external power in the region for decades, and it is not about to abandon its allies or, more importantly, its interests. But since 9/11, and especially since the invasion of Iraq, the US has extended its military in the region to no good effect. While both the US public and its president have made it clear in recent years that they wish to substantially diminish Washington’s military “footprint” in the region, Washington has come perilously close to war with Iran and to military intervention in Syria, due to its tangled alliances. Similar issues could well arise in Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain, while the US continues a drone war in Yemen that could also escalate at any time.
What it seems Obama is trying to do is back the US away from war and limit Washington’s susceptibility to pressure from its closest allies in the region. In short, he is trying to base US regional policy on US interests, not on Saudi or Israeli ones. While US interests do indeed include supporting its allies, Obama wants to ensure that decisions on engaging in conflict are based on much broader range of U.S. interests in the region.
But Israel has come to expect a US policy based on its purported “security” needs, and Saudi Arabia has come to expect US policy to support the kingdom’s own regional ambitions. The fury of the Saudis was not hidden when the US decided not to attack Syria, nor has their irritation with Obama been difficult to detect over his lack of support for greater Saudi intervention in Bahrain and their enthusiastic backing for the military coup in Egypt. The language we have seen emanating from Israel and directed against Obama and John Kerry has been unprecedented.
Congress is where the key battles will be fought, but it’s not the only battleground. Both Israel and the Saudis have strong connections to American elites and have never had a problem getting their views aired in the White House and State and Defense Departments. But Congress is where the notion that the Saudis and especially the Israelis are the main barometers for US policy truly holds sway.
The talks between Israel and the Palestinians seem more and more like a bargaining chip for Obama with each passing day. The talks were doomed to begin with, and there seems to be little point in their further pursuit. Might Kerry be pressing forward with them so that he can present the rumored US bridging proposal, only to withdraw it in exchange for Israel’s acquiescence to an agreement with Iran? This seems like a pretty plausible scenario.
There is another aspect to both the Israel-Palestine talks and the Iran debate. In both cases, the Obama Administration is being much more forthright than any administration in decades that Israel’s view, while respected, is not shared by the administration. Congress is already stirring around this, but is treading carefully. If it appears too much like Congress is bowing to Israel against the president’s wishes, particularly at a moment when the U.S. public’s views about military intervention in the Middle East, in particular, are clearly more in line with the White House, the political risks become all the greater, especially with congressional campaigns just starting up. It is certain that such a perception is not something AIPAC relishes.
If Congress can thwart Obama’s and Kerry’s efforts regarding both Iran and the Israel-Palestine talks, US foreign policy will be entrenched on a track controlled by domestic lobbies representing Israel and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia. In other words, the status quo will hold, likely for quite some time. If Obama loses this battle, the likelihood that a successor would willingly take it on is substantially diminished.
But this is as good an opportunity for a shift away from domestic lobbying forces in foreign policy making as we have seen in a very long time. It’s a battle Obama can win, if he is willing to see it through. No, he may not be able to win on both the Israeli occupation and Iran, but winning on Iran alone would be enough to bring about a profound shift in US Mideast policy. Israel knows that, and so does Saudi Arabia. The battle lines are thus drawn, and it’s a fight of profound importance, even beyond that of the two specific issues that have brought the battle to a head.
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry at the US embassy in Tel Aviv, April 2013. (Photo courtesy of US Embassy)