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A Growing Divergence between Jerusalem and Washington?

May 15, 2009
by Efraim Inbar 
BESA Center

Despite the reassurances of Shimon Peres and of foreign ministry officials, American Middle Eastern policy under Obama may lead to US-Israeli tensions. However, the policy directions adopted by Washington have significance for American national interests and the defense of the free world that go far beyond the Washington-Jerusalem bilateral relationship. While as a superpower the US has large margins of error, we have to pray that its learning curve regarding international realities will be short.

Obama's intention to "engage" countries like Iran and Syria in order to start a "new page" in bilateral relations strike most Israelis and Mideast Arabs as naïve; as if nice words can change established national interests. Arabs, as well, as Israel, want to see Iran and its proxies rolled-back, not appeased, by Washington.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent statement to the effect that Arab support for Israel's bid to prevent the nuclearization of Iran requires Israeli flexibility on the Palestinian issue - is similarly worrisome. It is hard to believe that the State Department does not understand that the moderate Arab states will cooperate to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb regardless of the Palestinian issue. The Iranian threat dwarfs any potential repercussions of an impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian track. Above all, preventing a nuclear Iran is a paramount American interest. If Washington's current prism on world affairs obfuscates its strategic judgment, the West is in trouble.

Recently, we also learned that the White House is trying to make kosher the transfer of funds to a Palestinian government that includes the radical Islamist Hamas. This is another sign of strategic folly. Hamas, a recognized terrorist organization, is an Iranian proxy, with a clear Jihadist agenda. Hamas has strong ties to the Islamic opposition in Egypt that wants to replace the pro-Western Mubarak regime. Arab moderate states are alarmed by the resilience of Hamas' rule in Gaza and the last thing they want is to aid this radical organization. The struggle against Hamas, just as the quest to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, serves American interests and those of its allies in the Middle East. It is only marginally related to Israel. Unfortunately, Obama's Washington does not get it yet.

Leaders in the moderate Arab states view Obama's early initiatives with great apprehension. Israelis are similarly skeptical. According to a poll commissioned last month by the ADL and the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, only 37 percent of Israelis trust Obama to make the right decisions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and 63 percent believe that his rapprochement with the Arab and Moslem world will come at Israel's expense. Japanese citizens expressed similar critical attitudes towards Obama after the timid American response to the North Korean long range missile launch and Pyonyang's decision to restart its nuclear reactor.

The reason for the skepticism is clear. US attempts to endear itself to the Muslim world have failed in the past, such as when the US sided with Muslims in Pakistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. Likewise, attempts to appease Muslim actors such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hamas and Hizballah, project American weakness and are unlikely to be reciprocated with conciliatory policies. American gestures only reinforce the belief that the decadent West will eventually succumb to Muslim determination and cultural superiority.

Furthermore, the chances for progress toward a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, which the US favors, are dismal. The two national movements cannot reach a compromise, particularly as long as the Palestinians refuse to accept the Jewish right to self-determination. Furthermore, the Palestinians have failed to establish a functioning centralized state, and the centrifugal tendencies will intensify with Hamas ruling Gaza. The growing influence of Hamas in Palestinian politics radicalizes Palestinian society and weakens its ability to reach and implement a settlement with Israel.

Similarly, negotiations with Syria are not likely to end in a peace treaty. Damascus is not ready to pay the price: disconnecting from Iran and losing Israel as a convenient enemy with which to prop-up the Alawite regime. Damascus sees a weak America on its way out from Iraq and has no reason to distance itself from Iran, the rising power in the Middle East. Since 1976, all American attempts to put a wedge between Damascus and Tehran have failed. It is not clear if Obama can offer Bashar Assad more than his predecessors.

In the Middle East, misguided American policies, particularly regarding Iran, may have disastrous consequences such as the fall of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey into Islamist hands. Under such a scenario, Israel would remain the only country where an American airplane could land safely in the Middle East; this is not a thought that Jerusalem relishes. Israel would much prefer that President Obama get up to speed on Mideast realities as quickly as possible.

Efraim Inbar is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. An earlier version of this article was published as an op-ed on May 11, 2009, in the Jerusalem Post.

BESA Perspectives is published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation.

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