President Barack Obama's campaign of wooing Israel reflects a fundamental about-face in U.S. policy in the Middle East. U.S. priorities have changed: At the top are the intensifying problem of Iran and concerns about the change of leadership in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Under such circumstances, Israel is perceived as a "vital ally," in the words of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro, and not an obstacle to warmer ties between the United States and the Muslim world, as was the view at the start of Obama's tenure.
The Americans have a supreme interest in the Middle East; it's an available and inexpensive supply of oil that powers the economies of the United States and its allies. Protecting it depends on preserving "stability," which relies on totalitarian regimes whose survival depends on the United States. In turn, defending these regimes provides important markets for the U.S. defense industry.
Since taking responsibility for the defense of the Middle East from Britain, and with the announcement of the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957 following the Suez Crisis, the United States has fought off every element that sought to undermine regional order and threatened the oil supply - from Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Soviet patrons to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
Israel has played a varying role in American strategy. Sometimes it was seen as an asset, other times as a burden. During the best of times the Americans highlighted the "special relationship" and the "shared values." In bad times they picked on Israel over its Dimona nuclear reactor, and later over the settlements. This approach is commonplace for them: When the Americans needed China against the Soviet Union, they ignored both Mao's human rights violations and Taiwan. When China was perceived as an economic threat, the United States announced that it was selling arms to Taiwan, officially hosted the Dalai Lama, and acknowledged that there was censorship in Beijing and opponents of the regime were being persecuted.
In relations with Israel, the settlements play the role that Taiwan and Tibet play in relations with China - a permanent problem that is emphasized or ignored depending on need. Are they angry with the prime minister? They remember Sheikh Jarrah and Yitzhar. Do they need Israel, or do they want to caress it because of yet another bit of pseudo-progress in the peace process? They back off the Judea and Samaria planning committee.
When Obama came into office he assessed that the United States had been weakened in the Middle East and hoped to reach an agreement on sharing influence with the regional power, Iran. So he cooled toward Israel and pulled out of the closet the well-worn club called settlements. But that didn't work. The Iranians waved off Obama's goodwill gesture, and the Arab states ignored the Palestinian issue and made it clear that blocking Iran was more important. As the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Washington said at a conference last week: "A military attack on Iran by whomever would be a disaster, but Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a bigger disaster."
This is the reason for the turnabout in Obama's approach. Instead of "beat on Israel and gain the applause of the Muslims," the stance on Iran is toughening. Sanctions on Tehran have become tougher, and the rhetoric has become more blunt. Israel has moved from being a burden to a welcome partner, perhaps because there is no choice in view of the expected instability in Cairo and Riyadh with the changes at the top.
Cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces has become closer and the Americans have opted to emphasize it, unlike their tendency in the past of playing it down. Israel has become a hit in Washington to the point where Shapiro, who praised the defense relationship, went as far as to mention two presidents, John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, for supporting a Jewish homeland decades before Herzl. Zionism was born at the White House, and we had no idea.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has scored a diplomatic achievement. During his first meeting with Obama he tried to convince him that the Iranian threat was paramount, and Obama demanded that he not build in East Jerusalem. Now the president declares that Iran's nuclear program "has been my number one foreign policy priority over the course of the last 18 months," and made no mention of the settlements as he sat next to Netanyahu.
This did not happen for nothing: Netanyahu promised in return that within a year he will have a permanent settlement, and is signaling that the weight of the blow on Iran will be reflected in the extent of the concessions Israel makes. And if this belated love also helps Obama and his party in the upcoming congressional elections, the deal will be worthwhile in his view.
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