While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid the blame for Thursday’s kidnapping of three yeshiva students on the Palestinian unity government in his press conference last night, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his officials highlighted their contacts with President Mahmoud Abbas and the continued security collaboration between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Their message was clear: With Washington overwhelmed by a potential geostrategic catastrophe in Iraq, the last thing it wants or needs is an Israeli attempt to undermine the stability of the Ramallah regime, with or without Hamas.
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Everything depends on identity of the perpetrators. If Israel can link Hamas to the kidnapping, Washington will be hard-pressed to deflect the Israeli demand to withdraw recognition from Abbas’ new government. On the other hand, if the hitherto unknown Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Palestine – West Bank group is responsible, it will be seen as part of the narrative currently dominating America: an offshoot of the jihadist forces threatening to take Baghdad and hand President Barack Obama a decisive diplomatic and political defeat.
At a time when Sen. Rand Paul, for example, is recalling the stability of Saddam Hussein’s iron hand, Washington may not be receptive to efforts to undermine the U.S-funded Palestinian Authority and its U.S.-trained security forces, which have played an important role in maintaining relative security in the West Bank.
The kidnapping of the three students, which riveted Israel over the weekend, has not, however, garnered much attention in the United States, despite the American citizenship of one of those captured. The Iraqi conquests of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the collapse of the Iraqi army and the specter of a terrorist-jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East, have combined to create Washington’s ultimate nightmare scenario. Unlike Egypt, Syria or Saudi Arabia, which interest only a select few, Iraq affects many, if not most, of an American public that lost thousands of soldiers and trillions of dollars in an investment that may now be going down the drain.
Democrats are understandably reminding Americans of George Bush’s ill-fated decision to attack Iraq, and his advisers’ shortsighted insistence on dismantling Saddam’s experienced and disciplined army. Republicans are pointing in return to Obama’s weakness, his decision to withdraw all American forces from Iraq, and his refusal to strengthen the moderate anti-Assad forces in Syria who could have checked the growth of the jihadist battalions in Syria’s north. Both are revisiting America’s Iraqi trauma, aided by the army veterans who say their own efforts and the sacrifice of their fallen comrades were in vain.
Although Obama made another ill-advised television appearance on Friday in which he said that he was “reviewing” the situation, it is clear to him and his advisers that an ISIS victory parade in the streets of Baghdad is intolerable, both for him and the United States’ global stature. Thus, despite the fact that it may appear to contradict the anti-interventionist creed that got him elected six years ago and that has guided his policy ever since, the assumption is that Obama will have no choice but to send U.S warplanes, at the very least, to try and stop the jihadists and reverse the disintegration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government and army.
Such a move could have significant ramifications for Israel. The shared objective of containing the spread of Sunni jihadism could deepen collaboration between Washington and Tehran, and thus influence progress in their nuclear talks as well. Washington might demand that Israel maintain calm in the territories to prevent another flash point that could stir regional anti-American sentiments. And if Netanyahu fails to produce a smoking gun proving that Hamas was involved in the kidnapping, Washington will point out that the reason for Maliki’s downfall was his exclusion of Iraqi Sunnis from government and their consequent rush into the arms of the murderous lunacy that is now engulfing his country. And the same could happen in the West Bank.