Keeping America Interested

An American presence in the region is an Israeli interest of the first degree, and we must do everything in our power to maintain it.

Despite the dramatic developments in the Middle East, from the civil war in Syria to the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas, President Barack Obama's first visit outside the United States, after his re-election, took place this week in East Asia. This trip served to inject content into the "shift eastward" the American administration announced last year, which is taking the form of a series of military, economic, commercial and diplomatic initiatives aimed at contending with the rising power of China. At the same time, the global energy map is changing because of the swell in oil and natural gas production in the United States, which is no longer dependent on imports of either of those fossil fuels. Just last week, the International Energy Agency announced that the U.S. is expected to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer by the middle of the next decade.

These developments could have a substantial impact on the Middle East, where America's standing is being tested. Continued Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapon, erosion of American influence in Iraq, the difficulty of influencing the events in Syria, doubts among the monarchical regimes concerning American credibility, questions over the future of its relations with Cairo, as well as the chillier relationship with Jerusalem -- all signify a growing difficulty to advance American policy goals in the region, and may be marks of a superpower in regression.

Directing its gaze away from the Middle East would represent a significant deviation from American policy throughout the years. Some maintain that this process has already begun. The Obama administration reduced its efforts to advance the peace process in the Middle East; it is having difficulty stopping Iran's march to nuclear capability; Iraq is establishing itself increasingly outside the American sphere of influence; and in Afghanistan, where local security forces are not yet standing on their own feet, the administration is seeking an expedited exit.

Furthermore, the Obama administration "led from behind" in Libya, and has hesitated to push more actively for the ouster of Syria's Bashar Assad, something that may have contributed to the extension of civil war there. The upshot: Allies and enemies alike are preparing, maybe already behaving, as though it were a post-American Middle East.

Between placing more emphasis than in the past on the Pacific basin and "disengaging" from the Middle East, however, there is still a great distance. This need not be a zero-sum game - the United States can be involved in both these arenas at once. It still has a number of central interests throughout the Middle East as a whole, each of which affects American considerations and requires constant monitoring and American willingness to intervene when necessary. Moreover, as this visit also attested, long-term considerations are frequently put off in practice, when short-term crises erupt in regions such as ours. Indeed, Obama had to dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region from Cambodia, in order to press the sides to come up with an agreement to end violence.

Therefore it seems that, at least as far as the short term goes, the administration's policy of pivoting toward East Asia will not necessarily take the form of reduced American military involvement in the Middle East. The need to stabilize weak countries and contend with radical Islam and global terror - and first and foremost the need to prevent regional nuclear proliferation - remain essential interests that require constant attention, if not continuous American presence.

Even though this is not necessarily America's intention, there is no doubt that its enemies and friends in the Middle East will interpret the strategic change of focus that President Obama announced as another withdrawal from U.S. centers of influence in the region, and specifically, a devaluing of the military option against Iran and lack of support for the pro-Western regimes that remain in place.

We are talking about a highly dramatic change that could have long-term implications also for Israel, for which the United States is a mainstay. A genuine decline of American interest in maintaining significant involvement in the least stable region in the world will certainly will not help to make that region more stable.

On the other hand, though it is still far from clear to what extent it will have the attention span, energy and political power to invest in an attempt to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, there is a possibility that the new administration, freed of electoral considerations, will direct more effort toward a Middle East peace process. And that is something that need not bode ill for Israel. On the contrary: Israel, which emerges from the operation in Gaza with not insubstantial achievements, must act to repair its image, and despite the gaps that exist with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, prove that it remains a partner for peace. For this alone, American presence in the region is an Israeli interest of the first degree and we must do everything in our power to maintain it.

Relations with the United States constitute a central pillar of Israeli national security, and they will continue to do so. There is no substitute for these relations and Israel must toil to preserve and nurture them, despite the differences of opinion, some of these on matters cardinal to Israel's security.

Yoel Guzansky is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.