Strange Bedfellows |

Arab Perceptions of U.S. Weakness May Lead to Unlikely New Alliances With Israel

Israel agrees with many Sunni Arab countries about Iran, the Arab Spring and the dangerous vacuum created by perceptions of U.S. indecisiveness in the Middle East.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Israeli generals and politicians lament the increasingly widespread perception in the Arab Middle East of a weak and vacillating United States that is losing much of its influence and sway. For Israel, they say, a diminished America is very bad news.

At the same time, however, the perceived power vacuum left by Washington has created new opportunities for Israel in the Middle East. The turmoil in Egypt has added another significant point of converging interests to the common ground that already existed between Israel and several Arab countries regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the upheaval in Syria.

In recent days, for example, it would appear that Israel and Saudi Arabia have been making the exact same case to the exact same people in Washington about the need to prop up the new military regime in Cairo, warts and all, just as they have been pleading for many months for a more muscular U.S. policy toward Tehran.

“The principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend is at work here, big time” one senior official told Haaretz. “Many so-called ‘moderate’ Sunni Arab states are panicking at what they perceive as U.S. indecisiveness and even isolationism. In their distress, they are reassessing Israel’s importance as a strategic linchpin in maintaining stability and preventing an Iranian-led Shia triumph.”

Officials maintain that discontent with U.S. policies is deep and widespread - from Bahrain, which is still upset with U.S. condemnations of its campaign to quell Shi’ite unrest, all the way to Morocco, which was taken aback by a surprise U.S. move in April at the UN Security Council, since abandoned, to press for outside supervision of human rights violations in the Western Sahara.

Gulf states are increasingly concerned about America’s diminishing power of deterrence toward Iran, discouraged about the prospects of U.S. military action against Tehran’s nuclear facilities, and worried about a U.S. deal with the new Iranian President Hassan Rohani that would allow Washington to declare victory and disengage from the issue.

These countries increasingly view credible Israeli threats of military action – which may drag Washington to war against its will – as the last bulwark against an inevitable Tehran triumph.

And while Jordan has recently been mollified by enhanced U.S. support and the presence of U.S. troops on the ground, informed sources say, until recently King Abdullah made no secret of his anger and frustration with what he described as U.S. inaction, especially in Syria.

Given the decades of enmity between them, it is ironic how much Israel’s basic view of developments in the region is in line with those of its supposed rivals and enemies: they all dismiss talk of democratization and a civil society; view the Arab Spring as cover for an Islamist takeover; perceive the use of force as a necessary evil; and believe that the main objective of the Sunnis and the West at this point should be to stop Iran and to prevent its attempt to establish a “Shi’ite crescent” from Beirut to Tehran.

They thus agree now that a victory by President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war is more dangerous to their common interests than the possibility that Al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists would be strengthened as a result of his defeat.

And their favorite adjective in describing President Barack Obama is “naive.” They agree that the Obama administration has been wavering on its policies in Iran, Syria, Egypt and other Middle East flash points. And they concur that Washington has been consistently outmaneuvered by the cynicism and ruthlessness of both Russia and China, unburdened as they are by any commitment to democracy and human rights.

But while they are doing their best to expand and exploit the new opportunities created by the widespread disaffection with Washington, Israeli officials are under no illusions about where the country’s best interests lie. “These are all fringe benefits,” one official said, “but there is no alternative to a realistic and assertive U.S. presence in the area, which most Middle East countries, unfortunately, currently view as sorely lacking.”

Opponents of Egypt's deposed President Mohammed Morsi hold up pictures of United States President Barack Obama during a rally outside the Presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, July 7, 2013.Credit: AP

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