Reading Washington’s Linkage Map

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published June 09, 2010, issue of June 18, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

After a first year in office marked by incredible tumult in American-Israeli relations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may now feel he has reason to celebrate a general reduction in tensions with the Obama administration. After all, the administration is playing tough with Tehran, helping ready Israel militarily for any clash with Iran or its regional allies, and has undertaken a charm offensive toward Netanyahu and the American Jewish community as midterm congressional elections loom. Washington was even gentle in its handling of the flotilla issue.

But Netanyahu ignores the emerging hard realities of the American-Israel relationship at his peril. In a year and a half of the Obama administration, a firm linkage has emerged between the course of the peace process and the American-Israeli strategic relationship. Mossad chief Meir Dagan is warning the Knesset that Israel is fast becoming a burden rather than an asset for America.

The Israeli to listen to on this issue is Ehud Barak. (Full disclosure: I was a special adviser to Barak during the July 2000 Camp David summit, though I have had minimal contact with him since.) Barak’s recent public appearances have taken on a desperate tone. He has advocated a major Israeli effort for peace with the Palestinians and Syria. Once indirect talks with the Palestinians began under American auspices, Barak proclaimed that the right-wing government in which he serves could not make peace, and he called for the centrist Kadima party to be brought into the coalition. He also has warned of growing complications in Israel’s relationship with America.

Undoubtedly, domestic politics are at work here, too: Barak’s pronouncements reflect his need to rebuff challenges from Israel’s left. Still, he seems to be the only member of Netanyahu’s government reading the American security establishment’s new map of Middle East linkages.

The American military apparently has been pondering the linkages ever since it established a large military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq in the post-9/11 era. In recent months, it has gone public with its concerns: General David Petraeus declared that a stalled peace process is bad for the American force posture in the Middle East because it complicates relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. National Security Adviser James Jones expanded the linkage concept to Iran, arguing that Tehran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah exploit the absence of an Arab-Israeli peace process to enhance their influence in the Arab world.

To the extent that the Netanyahu government is held responsible for the absence of a productive peace process, Israel could soon be blamed indirectly by important elements in the American military for casualties in Afghanistan or for Iranian strategic gains. Although the logic of these linkages does not always appear to be rooted in Middle East realities, the Netanyahu government’s behavior only reinforces them. And not only with regard to the Palestinian issue or the Gaza blockade. After all, while Israel and the Palestinians have at least resumed negotiations, Israel and Syria have not. On this issue, the finger in Washington is pointed directly at the Netanyahu government’s recalcitrance.

According to senior American officials with whom I’ve spoken, both Damascus and Washington are willing to renew American-sponsored Israel-Syria peace talks. But there is no majority to support negotiations in Netanyahu’s hawkish “Cabinet of Seven,” currently Jerusalem’s key strategic decision-making body.

While Washington is unhappy with a host of provocative Syrian statements and acts in recent months, it sees Syria-Israel talks as a vehicle for leveraging improved Syrian behavior on issues like Iraq and Lebanon, reducing Iranian influence in the Levant, deflating rising Syrian-Israeli tensions and improving the American profile in the Middle East. Whatever belligerent threats President Bashar al-Assad issues in Damascus against Israel, he still wants to talk. The Israeli security establishment recommends engaging Syria. Only the Netanyahu government demurs.

Under Netanyahu’s predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, there was enough movement on the peace front to counter the negative impact of the linkages. Sharon pulled Israel out of Gaza, while Olmert held productive negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Faced with Arab or Muslim pressure, U.S. generals in the region could point to dramatic achievements in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere achieved through America’s good offices.

Of course, it’s easy to exaggerate the extent of criticism of Israel in Washington. The Obama administration’s military aid to Israel is impressive. Israel remains a close ally, and its friendship and capabilities are valued. Nor does the military ultimately determine America’s strategic policies.

Yet the long-term trend implied by the growing frustration with Israel, against the backdrop of America’s military deployment in the region, is troubling. Barak is currently seen by many in official Washington circles as the only responsible adult in this Israeli government. It is urgent to find ways to impress upon Netanyahu and the rest of his coalition the significance of the damage they are doing to American-Israeli relations and by extension to Israel’s strategic interests.

If the post-9/11 presence of hundreds of thousands of American troops in the Middle East initially seemed to Israelis to be a blessing, it has now emerged as a serious challenge for Jerusalem.

Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He co-edits the bitterlemons family of Internet publications.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.