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Smoke Signals

Lee Smith

Last week, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was overrun by an angry mob. Next week, after the Obama Administration vetoes a U.N. resolution declaring a Palestinian state, it may well be the U.S. Embassy that feels the wrath of the Egyptian masses.

Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal’s New York Times editorial earlier this week, warning the White House that such a veto would mean losing Saudi Arabia as an ally, is only one part of the Middle Eastern campaign against the Americans. Even when Israel is the ostensible target of the region’s ire, it is the Obama Administration that led the Palestinians up a tree and kicked away the ladder, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas put it.

Obama’s supporters in the pro-Israel camp are eager to jump on any evidence that the president is a great friend of Jerusalem, even if he doesn’t afford the same love to the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would to one headed by Netanyahu’s left-leaning rival, Tzipi Livni. Thus, those supporters have made much of Obama’s assistance in securing the safe escape of the Israeli Embassy’s staff from Cairo, assistance for which Netanyahu was rightly grateful.

But it’s worth noting that when Turkey sent an angry mob after Israeli security personnel, the White House took a very different approach. After Israeli forces boarded the Turkish-sponsored Mavi Marmara in May 2010 to prevent it from running the maritime blockade of Gaza, the commandos found themselves faced with armed passengers and killed nine on board. The United Nations‘ Palmer Report recently cleared Israel of any illegality in the incident. But the White House still wanted Israel to apologize to Turkey for killing the terrorists on the ship.

The administration was apparently looking to give the Turks something in exchange for agreeing to host an early-warning radar system. Moreover, Obama is eager to make Turkey happy because in his strategic view, Ankara is a key player capable of exercising influence across the Middle East. It’s a skewed perspective that the Turks share.

The fact that Israel will be the only regional actor left standing by the administration after this upcoming diplomatic storm is, paradoxically, the result of how badly Obama has mishandled the Jewish State. Creating daylight between the United States and its only loyal regional ally has been an invitation to regional governments in trouble to distance themselves even further from Israeland, therefore, from the United States. Since every government in the region is in trouble, the Obama Adminstration’s policy of “even-handedness” is not likely to result in peace but rather in turmoil, bloodshed, and a further reduction in American influence.

The Turks are making noise not just because of their genuinely anti-Israel disposition but because they want to position themselves as powerful advocates of the Palestinians. That’s why they expelled the Israeli ambassador to Turkey earlier this month instead of a year and a half ago. The issue, then, is not Israeli action on the high seas but U.S. diplomacy in overcompensation mode. Ankara doesn’t deserve a tit-for-tat from Washington for hosting a radar system: It’s part of the NATO membership fee. But instead of reining in the Turks, the White House turned on Jerusalem last week when it leaked a story claiming that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates thinks that Netanyahu is “ungrateful.” Some in official Israeli circles believe that the Gates story is payback to Netanyahu for not apologizing to Turkey. In any case, it sends a strange message on the eve of the U.N. vote: The Americans are backing Israel, but they’re holding their noses as they do so.

And so the pre-veto campaign against Israel has already begun. Saudi papers criticized the Israelis, as did Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Israel, said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “is the West’s spoiled child.” In Cairo, Erdogan explained how “a Palestinian child’s pain hurts the heart of mothers in Ankara.” The hurt of those Turkish hearts is hardly going to be salved if Washington’s U.N. Ambassador, Susan Rice, votes against a Palestinian state.

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For almost 40 years the U.S. order for the region has been built on the back of its Israeli ally, whose wars, especially in 1967 and 1973, effectively secured American hegemony in the Middle East. With Israel positioned as the region’s reigning military power, the United States could accommodate its other regional clients by compelling Israel to sit with its adversaries and, from time to time, give up land in exchange for an uncertain peace. Meantime, its enemies were rewarded with advanced weapons systems. In other words, for the United States the peace process was important not because it necessarily brought about peace, but because it showed Washington to be a cunning grandmaster, able to control the movements of all the pieces on the chessboard.

From an American perspective, the problem with the Obama Administration is not that it lacks the natural warmth for the Jewish state that Bill Clinton and the second Bush White Houses radiated. Rather, it is that it does not understand the rules of the game it is playing—chess—and so is incapable of assessing the value of the queen, Israel.

Obama came to office with the idea that what mattered was not the game but real movement on the peace process, resulting in the establishment of a Palestinian state. He believed the experts when they said that he had to go hard on the Israelis. In reality, the sticking point for Netanyahu and the right was never really, or not only, that they couldn’t stop settlement construction, but rather that the Israeli electorate had lost patience with phony talk about peace and was no longer willing to indulge the fantasies of American politicians at the price of their own lives. The sentiments of Israeli voters may change in the short term, or it may take much longer. But right now their memories are still bright with the images of rockets being shot from the lands they voluntarily gave up in the vain hope of peace. Any Israeli leader who tried to give up the West Bank after the experiences with Lebanon and Gaza would be committing political suicide.

That doesn’t mean there’s no game. It just means that the chessboard looks entirely different now that it did five or 10 years ago. Once the White House cornered both Abbas and Netanyahu, leaving neither man any room to maneuver, the result was not a swift march toward peace. Rather, the Americans lost control of the board: Netanyahu balked. The Palestinians decided to go to the United Nations to declare their state. Post-Mubarak Egypt brokered a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah. Turkey moved against Israel to advance its own position. And Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which had been quietly praying that the storms of the Arab Spring might pass them over, came out to sound off against the Israelis.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, including the testimony of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and other regional leaders who wanted Obama to focus on Iran, the White House believed that the region’s central issue was the Arab-Israeli crisis and the obstacle was Israeli intransigence. With the arrival of the Arab Spring, Washington’s experts were proven decisively wrong. As the Arab Spring turns into a long, hot summer, shaken rulers like Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the mullahs in Iran, and their clients in Lebanon will also look to stir up trouble for Israel in the hopes of distracting their people from the problems at home.

The shakiness of these regimes suggests that a shooting war is in no one’s interest right now. At the same time, the larger political instability of the region may also encourage these countries to act in ways that might ordinarily seem reckless. The vacuum created by U.S. abandonment of the old order has encouraged an intense competition for influence and power that has fueled the most recent upsurge of provocations and violence against the Israelisa pattern that is likely to grow more intense after the statehood vote and can easily spiral out of control. If that happens, the Israelis will either acquit themselves well or else they won’t. Either way, America’s remaining prestige in the region will go up in smoke.

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