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Leon Panetta says Israel is increasingly isolated. But the big problem is that Washington is running away from its influence in the Middle East.

Lee Smith
October 05, 2011
Leon Panetta preparing to depart from Tel Aviv yesterday.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Leon Panetta preparing to depart from Tel Aviv yesterday.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is only the latest American to join the chorus of government officials and opinion-makers suggesting that the Arab Spring has left Israel more isolated than ever. “It’s pretty clear, at this dramatic time in the Middle East when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated,” Panetta said Sunday on his way to Israel. “And that is what has happened.” In fact, it’s the United States—not Israel—that’s losing power in the region.

Since its founding 63 years ago, the Jewish state has been relatively isolated from much of the international community. The United States has typically used the diplomatic and political clout befitting its superpower status—including its veto at the U.N. Security Council—to shelter Israel from the slings and arrows of its adversaries. So, why is the Obama Administration jumping on the bandwagon of those who peck away at Israel’s legitimacy?

When Panetta and others talk about Israel’s increasing isolation, they are essentially referring to Israel’s faltering relationships with Egypt and Turkey and the absence of a peace process with the Palestinians. As to the first, Egyptian and Israeli officials insist that while former President Hosni Mubarak is gone, relations between the two governments remain unchanged. Egyptian officials have repeatedly stated that they have no desire to break the peace treaty and forfeit $2 billion a year in U.S. aid. Of course, the Egyptian masses that toppled Mubarak have a rather different attitude toward the Jewish state, which is why they painted swastikas on the battering rams they used to storm the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last month. It would be useful to know what sort of policies Panetta thinks Jerusalem might pursue to earn the friendship of such mobs.

Many observers argue that Israel’s strategic relationship with Turkey began to deteriorate in May 2010, when Israeli commandos killed nine armed activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship that Ankara dispatched as part of an unlawful effort to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza. Angry that Israel did not apologize to Turkey, the White House now peddles this narrative for reasons of its own. Washington sees the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt, Syria, and the Palestinian territories, and it believes that the Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be able to influence regional actors.

Unfortunately for Washington, any influence that Turkey exercises will be on behalf of its own interests—not American ones. And even then, Ankara’s ability to project power is much more limited than Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman rhetoric would let on. As Israel’s ties with Turkey have withered, Turkish rivals Greece and Bulgaria, two historical enemies of the Ottomans, have jumped at the chance to establish ties with Israel. By losing one ally and gaining two, Israel is plus one in the strategic relationship column.

Consider the current scorecard in the rest of the region. Of the two terrorist entities on Israel’s borders, Hamas had to put some distance between itself and Syria when the Alawite minority regime there started slaughtering its majority Sunni population. Syria is also Hezbollah’s customary supply line to Iranian arms, but with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fighting for his life, that’s now been cut off. Hezbollah is isolated domestically as well: Shiites’ fear of another war with Israel has isolated Hezbollah from large parts of its own Shia constituency.

Israel’s more conventional adversaries are in equally bad shape. The nascent civil war in Syria shows that no matter how long Assad survives, his regime will be prevented from projecting power in its typical fashion: by supporting terrorism abroad. An economic meltdown in Egypt has turned its army inward to deal with domestic problems.

What does Israel’s strategic position actually look like? Hamas, Hezbollah, Egypt, and Syria are isolated. It’s true that the Iranians are still marching toward a nuclear bomb, but the possibility of losing Hezbollah and Syria along the way would represent a net loss. The fact is that only Qatar has had a more successful Arab Spring than Israel.

Contrary to Panetta’s warnings, the picture has never looked rosier for the Jewish state. What’s worrying, then, is not Israeli isolation but rather the isolation of Israel’s superpower patron: the United States. The real strategic danger to Israel is that America is losing its place as the region’s great power. Egypt, the cornerstone of the Pax Americana in the Eastern Mediterranean since the 1978 signing of the Camp David Accords, looks like an increasingly shaky ally. Half a year after the fall of Mubarak, the Egyptian military is incapable of controlling Cairo—never mind the Sinai.

In Syria, the Obama Administration has disdained to play any hand at all. The administration has hesitated to throw its weight behind the opposition movement, and U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford has warned that if Assad’s opponents take up arms they will lose whatever international support they have. In other words, as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia all make contingency plans for Syria, the White House announces it is out of the picture. Net American gain: zero.

By withdrawing from Iraq, the White House has effectively abandoned a vital U.S. interest to Iran. President Barack Obama sought meaningful engagement with the Iranians, but Tehran rebuffed even the administration’s offer to establish a hotline to prevent some minor event from turning into a major conflagration. The Iranian message is clear: There is no reason to talk, since our intent to drive you from the region couldn’t be clearer. Another zero.

The White House has shown it will not take the Iranian nuclear issue seriously. Clandestine operations and cyber-warfare are not serious actions taken by a superpower against a state threatening a nuclear breakout: They are sideshows meant to assuage Israel and distract our Arab allies in the Gulf. Accordingly, the Saudis have warned they will go their own way by building their own coalitions against Iran. Even the Palestinian Authority, which exists solely at the pleasure of the U.S. government, and thanks to the munificence of American taxpayers, has decided to strike out on its own at the United Nations.

Can Jerusalem survive Washington’s self-imposed isolation? Of course it will. Israel is a part of the Middle East—the region from which the United States, purposefully or not, is now extricating itself.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.