With recent events in the larger Middle East—the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Iran—this seemed like an opportune time to reconsider Israel’s place in the region. This week I argue that Israel is in big trouble—indeed that it is in danger of being swallowed up by its neighbors. Next week I’ll make the opposite case: that Israel’s power and influence in the Middle East will only grow.
Things have been trending badly for Israel for some time now, but Hosni Mubarak losing control of Egypt makes the Jewish state untenable. That’s right: Israel is no longer feasible. I don’t mean that in the manner the international left usually does—that nationalism is passé and we must move on to higher forms of communal existence. I mean it in the old-fashioned way of nations and peoples who are vanquished when the balance of power tips against them. And I mean it strategically—a tiny country with a Jewish majority of 6 million can’t survive surrounded by enemies and forsaken by its superpower ally.
For several decades American policymakers from both sides of the aisle traveled to the Middle East to explain how much peace there meant to Washington. During the October 1973 war, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon’s airlifts showed the Arabs that it was futile to make war on Israel while they were backed by an awesome superpower. The Arabs could not hope to beat Israel in war so they would have to petition the Israelis’ U.S. patron if they wanted any concessions. Besides, there were great rewards, such as American military aid, to be had for anyone who would sign a deal—which essentially amounted to a bribe.
Coming to power in Egypt after Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated for signing a treaty with Israel, Mubarak kept the peace and thereby underwrote the integrity of the peace process. Egypt was the trophy that Washington kept on display to show all the other Arab states what they, too, might have should they come to their senses and just sign a deal. But as it turns out, the peace treaty must not have been that important because the man who preserved it for some 30 years in the face of domestic as well as regional opposition—enduring several attempts on his life—was tossed aside by the Obama Administration. In doing so, the United States showed that everything it had ever said about the peace process was total nonsense.
America’s Arab allies were astonished that the White House would treat a close ally like Mubarak as it did; but they were also dumbstruck that the Americans could undermine their own position in the region without a second thought. If binding the region together in a peace process is no longer the cornerstone of U.S. Middle East strategy, what do the Americans have up their sleeve? Washington only has one move, which is to throw Israel under the bus.
Sure, things were bad for Israel even before Yussuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based radical cleric who is the spiritual voice of the Muslim Brotherhood reappeared last week in Cairo to call for the liberation of Jerusalem. But consider the most optimistic scenario for Egypt, in which it follows the Turkish model, once a strategic ally that in the space of just a few years has become moderately hostile. Ankara’s involvement with the Mavi Marmara incident made Turkey part of an international delegitimization campaign against Israel, waged largely in Europe but making inroads now in the United States.
For instance, consider the administration’s bizarre mishandling last week of the Palestinians’ proposed Security Council measure denouncing Israeli settlements. Not only did Washington delay in vetoing a proposed resolution that in the past it would’ve batted down immediately, but the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, felt compelled to make a statement covering the administration’s flank. The veto, she explained, should “not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity.”
Washington, it seems, is tired of having to stick up for Jerusalem. It’s bad enough that having Israel’s back always sets the United States against the rest of the international community, but in the wake of the Arab uprisings, defending Israel also means that Obama has to cross the Muslim and Arab masses he’s courted ever since his 2009 Cairo speech. But nothing Washington is able to wring out of Israel never seems to satisfy anyone. Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 bought it tens of thousands of Hezbollah rockets, while its 2006 war there bought it international opprobrium. The 2005 withdrawal from Gaza that was supposed to burnish Israel’s bona fides with the international community only won it more rockets. And after the war with Hamas in the winter of 2008, Israel got the Goldstone Report.
Now, with the end of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, Washington will have no choice but to move further away from Israel. It’s an understandable move from a superpower whose prestige is waning in the Middle East.
So what of the near future? There will still be a peace process, but it will be rather like a living will, in which the party with power of attorney, Washington, decides when to pull the plug on Israel—and how to dispose of the corpse. Indeed, the Obama Administration still wants talks between Israel and Syria—even though Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has said that a peace deal would cost his regime its life. It is Assad’s resistance to Israel, through his support of Hezbollah and Hamas and Syria’s alliance with Iran, that has endeared him to the Syrian masses. Syria is stable, said Assad, because “you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence … you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances.”
In other words, the peace treaty with Israel that Egypt signed has now been exposed as a suicide pact. In Assad’s view, the former Egyptian president’s great misstep was diverging from the beliefs of his people, who are anti-Israel. Or, as Syria’s foreign minister put it, “the leaders of regional countries should befriend their peoples. That’s the best choice.”
The notion that the Arab masses hate Israel is difficult for Washington policymakers to swallow. Their working assumption for the last several decades is that Arab rulers were responsible for anti-Israel sentiment by redirecting popular anger at their own regimes onto the tiny Jewish state. But as we’re seeing, the Arab public is more than able to voice its discontent with their rulers while also hating Israel. Whether Washington grasps the fact that Arabs hate Israel is immaterial, for Arab rulers cannot afford to forget it without losing their grip. And the United States will have no choice but to make those rulers happy if it is to pursue its interests in the region. Unfortunately, this means that Israel is no longer viable. By which I don’t mean that 6 million Jews are going to be killed, only that if they want to survive they can’t stay in Israel.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).