If you were an alien landing in the Middle East today and demanded, "Take me to your leader," you'd have to think you'd be taken to Vladimir Putin.
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Russia has been taking center stage in the fighting in Syria. Now under the ceasefire agreement that went into effect this week, Russia looks like the senior partner to America in the fight against Islamic State.
Then there is Putin’s invitation to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to come to Moscow. That shows Russia wants not only to be a military player, but a superpower, that doesn’t just pursue its own interests but tries to bring order and stability. That kind of super-diplomacy is supposed be a U.S. monopoly, with occasional attempts by France and its pretensions of being one of the world’s great powers.
While he has merrily ignored Obama and Kerry’s calls to restart Palestinian talks, for years, Netanyahu RSVPed a yes to Putin’s invitation.
Even if his natural tendency is to drag his feet, and even though his fundamental opposition to talks means no date has been set, it was an offer Bibi couldn't refuse. Putin is a man of power, who acts decisively and has boots on the ground in the region. On the other hand, in the Bibi worldview, Obama and Kerry are nafs with no understanding of the rough and tumble of Middle East politics.
The U.S. isn't a has-been power like Europe, but it’s no longer willing to play the superpower role in the Middle East.
as for the Russian superpower act, it's all smoke and mirrors, but Bibi seems to be as awestruck as a nine-year-old at his first magic show.
Forking over is believing
Russia is economically weak and politically isolated, a third world country dressed up in a superpower costume. The U.S. is still the only one that can deliver the goods to Israel in terms of security and diplomacy.
The evidence for that is the new military-aid package Israel and the U.S. agreed to this week: $3.8 billion a year over the decade starting in 2018.
There is much to fault about the agreement. Israel could have gotten more money if Netanyahu hadn’t insisted on repeatedly dissing Obama over the last year over the Iranian nuclear accord. Or, alternatively, you could say Israel doesn’t need the money, which is a holdover from another era when the country was impoverished and facing existential threats.
But for our purposes, the bottom line is that Israel wanted the aid and that the U.S. was capable and willing to give it.
Pretenders to the superpower throne like Russia, China and the European Union wouldn’t and couldn’t ever fork over a sum like that, Russia because it doesn’t have the money, China because it doesn’t want to and anyhow would demand a very steep price in return, and Europe because it would be politically unpalatable.
But it’s more than just the money. The U.S. provides Israel with diplomatic cover. It’s the only major power to conduct joint military-technology projects with Israel. Even if China is a comer, America is still the place where Israel does its key business: Silicon Valley is still the epicenter of the high-tech world, Wall Street is where you float shares and Israel’s venture capital is American. Its soft power is unrivaled.
More than that, as frustrating as it is to Israel’s critics, the bilateral relationship runs far beyond the corridors of the White House, State Department and AIPAC.It is because grassroots support is so strong that Israel and America can overcome deep disagreements over Iran and the Palestinians, or the lousy personal chemistry of the countries’ two leaders. About the only country that can match Israel on that account is Britain.
America may be withdrawing from the Middle East, its democratic politics are unpredictable and its place in the world economy is less central than it was in the past, but it remains unrivaled for the foreseeable future. Bibi would do well to remember that and follow the rules that will keep the relationship going: Treat the White House with respect, no matter who’s occupying it, keep out of America’s partisan politics, and make sure back at home that our own democracy lives up to Western standards.