The Axis of Politeness

he problem will begin when Israel is so successful that it is shifted from the axis of politeness to the axis of indifference. From there it's a short hop to the axis of punishment.

The United States has a new president. Maybe an old one. Israel now also has a new president, who happens to be sitting in the White House. And once again the race will begin convincing the U.S. president that Israel is America's strategic asset in the Middle East.

True, it's an occupying country, adorned with symbols of racism, and like its neighbors it doesn't separate religion from state. But still, it holds free elections, like Egypt, and encourages high tech, like India. It's an ally that anxiously wants to find out whether the next U.S. president will guard the inheritance he received from his predecessor or from himself, or whether it has to take its diplomatic sword out of its sheath.

Like every U.S. president, the president-elect will have to explain his geopolitical views. He'll have to present his solutions for the war in Afghanistan, express his displeasure with the slaughter in Syria, embrace the Saudi king, reprimand China for its disdain for human rights, threaten Iran and promise Israel an eternal alliance. That's how it's always been.

And as a matter of routine, many naive people in Israel will hope the U.S. administration will "do something" with the peace process, a process that in Israel has long been a marginal foreign-policy issue. Once again we'll call on the United States to intervene, to show determination, to convene the sides, and once again Washington will withdraw and become the observer who can't intervene in another democracy's internal affairs.

This definition underlies the failure of U.S. policy, which in other parts of the world has not hesitated to intervene, even by force, to topple regimes as in Iraq and Afghanistan, to withhold assistance due to the undermining of religious freedom as in Egypt, to cut assistance to the Palestinian because they dared to defy America, and to seek help from the United Nations to impose sanctions on loathsome countries like Sudan. Justifiably, Israel doesn't belong to that group - not only because they're undemocratic, but also because they're defined as anti-Western.

For Washington, democracy is a marginal issue, not a reason for friendship and a special relationship. Washington divides the world into four axes: "members of the club," which includes European countries and permanent members of the UN Security Council; the "axis of indifference," which includes most African countries, which can destroy one another as far as the United States is concerned; the "axis of punishment," countries where the United States can do as it pleases; and the "axis of politeness," a third world that includes countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan, and to which Turkey and Israel can be added. Interfering in those countries' "internal affairs" isn't allowed, but asking favors of them is.

This division is far more sophisticated than the Americans' traditional stance, which divided the world into the good guys and the bad guys, those with us and those against us. It's also a convenient division for certain developing countries, which can rank themselves as better or worse according to the axis in which the U.S. administration has pigeonholed them. India is "better" than Afghanistan, Turkey is "nicer" than Tunisia, Kenya is "more worthy" than Nigeria.

And Israel. Here lies a worrisome optical illusion. Thanks to American Jews and their electoral power, Israel is considered part of the axis of politeness, which must not be insulted. And certainly there can be no intervention in its affairs. Without the Jewish vote, Israel might long have been put on the list of countries that interfere with American interests in the Middle East.

Israel, which has made the administration tailor its regional policy to its desires and whims, is convinced that the trick will continue to work under the new U.S. administration. Israel is probably right, because it has done a good job of convincing various U.S. administrations that the Palestinian problem is an internal Israeli matter where no one should interfere, as befits its position in the axis of politeness. The problem will begin when Israel is so successful that it is shifted from the axis of politeness to the axis of indifference. From there it's a short hop to the axis of punishment.