Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Israel's defence should respond to the wider Middle East environment, not just the "Palestinians"

From BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 141, May 23, 2011 by Dr. Jonathan Rynhold*:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Following US President Barack Obama's May 19 speech, the focus of debate has been on his endorsement of the 1967 borders. Yet, the overwhelming bulk of his speech focused on the so-called 'Arab Spring', not on the terms for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. By effectively ignoring most of the speech, the media has missed its most significant element: the enunciation of a new US foreign policy doctrine for the Middle East – the Obama doctrine. It is the strategic implications of this doctrine for the Arab-Israeli arena that are the primary cause of concern in Israel – not the territorial specifics of Obama's speech.

The Obama Doctrine

First and foremost, the Obama doctrine for the Middle East prioritizes the engagement of the public in the Middle East, rather than the engagement of the states in the region. America's strategic credibility is based, then, on being seen to support populist calls for reform, rather than on supporting its long-time strategic allies...

...One might have thought (correctly) that recent events demonstrate that America's only reliable ally in the Middle East is Israel. However, the Obama administration does not see it this way. Rather, it believes that in order to obtain the support of the Muslim-Arab public, the US must be perceived as not only supporting the demonstrators' domestic agenda, but also supporting legitimate Palestinian aspirations...

...The problem lies in Obama's grossly over-optimistic assessment of regional realities, which could have dangerous unintended consequences. ...For Obama, the 'Arab Spring' recalls the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution, Rosa Parks and the struggle for civil rights, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Eastern European transition to democracy.

Unfortunately, these metaphors tell us more about the admirable side of the American political imagination than they do about the current political struggles in the Middle East.

In 1989, the transition to democracy was successful in countries with a significant liberal tradition grounded in a functioning civil society. ...In the Middle East of 2011, although many of the demonstrators are driven by the demand for reform, they lack the deep and widespread ideological and civil society institutional foundations that undergirded success in 1989. Reformers do not live in a neighborhood populated by robust and generous democracies but rather in a region where leading powers view reform as an existential threat and where the helping hand of the West remains relatively weak and distant.

Islamism represents the most popular alternative ideology to the status quo and the Islamists are inestimably better organized than the democratic reformers.

Thus, in Egypt, it looks like elections will result in a government with much greater Islamist influence, led by former Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa, a Nasserite Arab nationalist ...Moussa is likely to pull his country away from the US and closer to Iran, just as Turkey has already done.

... what is strategically important is not so much who is demonstrating, but who is likely to politically benefit from these demonstrations. There is good reason to fear that the benefactors will not be the reformers but groups with varying degrees of hostility to the US and its liberal agenda.

Meanwhile, in the country most hostile to that agenda, Iran, the regime looks likely to survive and improve its regional standing. Furthermore, all of this is unfolding against a background of the rising power of Hamas and Hizballah, and the shift of Lebanon and Turkey away from the American orbit while moving closer to Tehran.

Assessing the Obama Doctrine: Implications for Israel

The deepest level of Israeli concern over the May 19 speech is not what Obama said about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Indeed, much of the specifics were good for Israel. He called for the international community to endorse a peace based on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the creation of a non-militarized Palestinian state. He opposed the Palestinians' UN initiative to unilaterally establish a Palestinian state.

Rather, Israel's main worry stems from the US administration's apparent failure ... to appreciate both the depth of the strategic dangers in the region as a whole, and the implications of these dangers for the peace process.

To begin with, the Iranian threat was only a very minor element of the speech. Yet Iran and its allies pose a major strategic threat to Israel, to core American interests and, indeed, to any chance of peace.
...In contrast to the Israeli position, and despite the current regional turmoil, the Obama administration conceptualizes Israeli security vis-à-vis the West Bank in terms of the Palestinians alone. Obama's speech was good in that it referred to Israel's right to defend itself and made any Israeli military withdrawal phased and dependent on the actual performance of the Palestinians, rather than being based simply on a timetable.

However, by making a complete military withdrawal dependent on only the Palestinian situation, and not the wider Middle East environment, Obama's vision poses a serious danger to Israel's security, especially in the uncertain and deeply problematic regional environment we see before us right now.

For Netanyahu, it would then seem, an Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan River would only be possible once the regional situation in the Middle East comes to resemble that of Obama's metaphor – Europe post-1989.

*Jonathan Rynhold is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a senior lecturer in political science at Bar-Ilan University.
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