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Israel's Growing Isolation——and America’s Decreasing Regional Power

Lee Smith

The Israeli press is still trying to figure out what to make of Robert Gates’s parting shot at Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Jeffrey Goldberg’s column earlier this the week, Gates thinks that Netanyahu is “ungrateful.”

Gates is upset because, while the White House has provided the Israelis with “access to top-quality weapons, assistance developing missile-defense systems, high-level intelligence sharing,” the administration hasn’t gotten what it really wants in exchange—movement on the peace process, according to Goldberg. Of course, the Israelis haven’t gotten what they really want either—action on Iran—and the Pentagon’s munificence is partly intended to deter the Israelis from taking matters into their own hands.

Yedioth Ahronoth adds some more details to the story behind the rift, suggesting that Gates’s animosity was first stoked last summer when U.S. officials were briefing Netanyahu on the $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Apparently, Netanyahu came to the meeting unprepared and started lecturing Gates and others on the dangers facing the Jewish state, a performance that left Gates outraged.

However, it appears that Gates’s anger was growing even before that meeting last summer. According to Goldberg’s sources, Gates was flummoxed when new housing units in Jerusalem were announced during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel last March. Had he been in Biden’s shoes, “he would have returned to Washington immediately and”—said Gates, rehashing former Secretary of State Jim Baker’s famous quip—“told the prime minister to call Obama when he was serious about negotiations.”

Of course, the Obama administration has had little sympathy for Netanyahu. But Gates, who regularly met with delegations of Israeli military and security officials, was seen as something of an exception, or at least as the point man for what has become the strongest aspect of the alliance, a security relationship “unprecedented in scope and depth.” Thus, according to the Jerusalem Post, Gates was perfectly suited to deliver the anti-Bibi message—he’s a Bush appointee, and he’s left government service. That is, the Obama administration gets to take a shot at Netanyahu that won’t be tallied up on a scorecard that may be starting to alienate some Jewish support.

Moreover, the White House wants credit for its willingness to go to bat for Israel when it vetoes the proposed U.N. resolution this month declaring Palestinian statehood. The administration will oppose the resolution, as Goldberg helpfully spells out, “in spite of Netanyahu, not to help him.” The fact is, a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state is as much of a problem for Washington as it is for Netanyahu and Israel—and it is not Bibi who is to blame for the predicament that the White House finds itself in, but Obama himself.

A unilateral declaration by the Palestinians is anathema to the longstanding American policy of brokering a negotiated settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. For U.S. policymakers, the significance of the peace process is not only in getting treaties signed—like the deals with Egypt and Jordan—but it is also the power and prestige that come as a consequence of presiding over negotiations. If the Arabs can get what they want without Washington exercising its leverage on Israel, then the U.S. loses its role as regional power broker. The Obama administration has to veto the resolution not because of Israel, or because of Jewish voters, but because it is an assault on American regional strategy.

Perhaps Obama can lay the blame for the current crisis at the feet of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was the first U.S. president to call explicitly for the creation of a Palestinian state. It seems that, for some policymakers and analysts, this suggested that achieving a Palestinian state was a key U.S. policy goal. However, the mere fact of a Palestinian state as such is not an American interest, unless it is the result of a negotiated settlement.

Nonetheless, Obama came to office girded with the advice of regional experts who contended that the way to breaking the impasse and winning the Palestinians a state was to strong-arm the Israelis. While Netanyahu would likely prove less malleable than other potential Israeli leaders, few in the administration had any qualms about pushing around a right wing prime minister who’d given the last Democratic president a hard time. The Obama White House beat him up over settlement construction, hoping that this would weaken his position as head of a coalition government while also earning the American president bona fides from the Muslim masses.

The administration then made two miscalculations. First, given the nature of his coalition, Netanyahu could only be brought down from the right: He could only lose power by committing suicide and succumbing to all of Obama’s demands. Second, since the White House had against all precedence premised negotiations on the basis of a full cessation of settlement construction, the Palestinian Authority could not possibly entertain talks without Israel meeting those conditions.

Thus, it was Obama who cashiered the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Without any negotiations, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas had nothing to show his own constituency, and beat back the increasing influence of Hamas and other hard-line rivals. With his hands otherwise empty, what forced Abbas to take his case to the U.N. is not Israeli intransigence, but American incompetence.

It seems that the administration sees Israel’s value now largely as a scapegoat. According to Goldberg, Gates believes that Netanyahu is “endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel’s growing isolation.” But the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and upset Egyptian-Israeli relations was not engineered in Jerusalem. Nor was the Mavi Marmara incident in which Turkey dispatched a flotilla loaded with terrorists to break the maritime blockade of Gaza. Even after a U.N. report effectively cleared Israel, the Obama administration still wanted Jerusalem to apologize to the Turks and now despairs of a breakdown in relations between its two allies.

However, the White House must shoulder some of the responsibility for Turkey’s actions since it encouraged the Turks to use their influence, especially in Syria, where the administration essentially tasked out its policy to Ankara. When Turkey’s “soft power” regarding Damascus was revealed to be limited, it had to find another way to project power in the region. Accordingly, as Tony Badran writes: ”[W]henever the region’s populist leaders, nationalist or Islamist, wish to make a bid for regional leadership, they reliably use Israel as a proxy theater.” Turkey is free to pursue a scorched earth policy with Israel because instead of balancing an uncertain ally like Ankara, the White House has instead empowered it.

As one columnist at Maariv noted, “When quotes are leaked by former American secretary of defense . . . telling President Obama that Binyamin Netanyahu is ungrateful . . . this signal is picked up in our dangerous neighborhood.” But thanks partly to Gates’s leak, we know where the administration presently stands on Israel. But who knows its position on a post-Mubarak Egypt, a frothing Turkey, and an Iran marching toward a nuclear weapon? The fact is, Israel’s growing isolation is a function of America’s decreasing regional power.

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