Israel’s New Frenemies

Israeli and Egyptian generals meet. Sinai, October 1973.

Chemi Shalev is one of Ha’aretz‘ best reporters, and his commentary Strange Bedfellows makes for valuable reading. It describes how the diminished role the US is playing in the Middle East is being interpreted, not without merit, as US weakness, and that is causing so-called “moderate Arab states” (which is a euphemism for those states which are willing, however clandestinely, to work with Israel) to increase their cooperation with Israel.

Shalev is right, and it’s a trend that is likely to grow, even if Barack Obama’s eventual successor talks more about reinvigorating America’s presence in the region. The simple fact is that, while the massive oil deposits in the region still make it important, the availability of alternatives are going to be increasing in coming years (including oil from other parts of the world, growing Western reserves and alternative energy sources) and the importance of the region is not what it once was.

Israel’s future is not a bright one in this scenario. It will become even more embattled, as it will be the regional spearhead militarily for opposing both the growing Shi’ite movement led by Iran and the Sunni political Islam movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has recently suffered a major setback. That setback has been gravely misunderstood in the West, though certainly not by the Mideast power brokers in the Gulf. Until recently, any potential Arab democracy had leaned heavily toward political Islam, as evidenced in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan and other places as well as in non-Arab countries like Turkey. But the failure of the Brotherhood in Egypt could have led to a new path of democracy. Instead, the West has shown only that it is indifferent to the rights of Arabs, and what could have been a much better future, one where the West and the Arab world could have had much deeper and friendlier ties, has likely been lost.

Instead, Israel, which is currently working on a major upgrade of its military aid from the US (which will also mean upgraded aid to friendly Arab countries, all of which will feed into Israel’s own defense) will become much more clearly the US surrogate, the “cop on the beat,” to borrow Noam Chomsky’s phrase. That will not endear it to the people on the street, even in the “moderate” countries, and it is likely to mean a new generation of interstate warfare that Israel has managed to avoid since 1973.

It’s hard to see an alternative to this grim future for Israel, especially given the scant chances of a resolution to the Palestinian issue. Even in the event of peace with the Palestinians, this position for Israel will squander the massive shift in its perception in the region such an agreement could bring. But the United States is almost certain to continue the “pivot to Asia,” whether Obama’s successor is a Democrat or a Republican. Moreover, increased military action in the region is unlikely to be well-received in the US, given the massive failure in Iraq, the huge cost of that folly, and the still-staggering American economy which is unlikely to substantially change in the next decade.

The pivot will continue and Israel will move toward the regional cop position. Indeed, peace with the Palestinians might even accelerate that process, one which will eventually lead to a new Jewish exodus from the country, at least among the secular, Tel Aviv types, as is already occurring. War against real armies rather than ragtag militias like Hezbollah and Hamas will return as the order of the day for Israel, a country that is no longer prepared for such circumstances as it was for its first twenty-five years of existence. And Israel, as it voices its clear support for the military regime that is now ruling Egypt and killing its own citizens (which it, as well as the Saudis and the Arab League, rightly condemns,  Bashar al-Assad for, showing a hypocrisy and cold self-interest that won’t be forgotten) seems to be embracing that future.


Photograph courtesy of the  Israel Defense Forces. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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