When George W. Bush entered office, Israel was in the throes of the Second Intifada, but its strategic position within the Middle East was as strong as it has ever been. Israel was at peace with Egypt and Jordan. Its northern borders with Lebanon and Syria were relatively quiet, and more distant foes in Iraq and Iran did not pose an imminent threat.
Eight years later, the region’s stability has been shredded by the botched invasion of Iraq. Iran, Israel’s most dangerous enemy, is now ascendant, a power to reckon with from its border with Afghanistan to Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast. The region’s moderate Sunni regimes, lacking confidence in American power, are closer to pursuing their own nuclear options.
Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon, is now a more menacing player. Iran’s client in the Palestinian territories, Hamas, rules in Gaza — in part because the Bush administration disregarded Israeli warnings about letting the group run in an election, while doing nothing to shore up moderates. Much of this owes to our failure in Iraq and the Bush administration’s neglect of the Middle East peace process, which enabled Iran to extend its reach and gave radicals a powerful boost.
Today, there are two candidates for president who support a strong Israeli military. But John McCain has consistently backed the Bush administration policies that created the current disastrous situation. In contrast, Barack Obama seeks not only to buttress Israel’s military strength but to reduce the threats to the Jewish state and the likelihood that Israeli soldiers will again go into battle.
Most importantly, Obama supports the only sensible option for containing the Iranian threat today: talking directly to the regime in Tehran. Only through wide-ranging talks with Iran can we ascertain whether co-existence is possible — whether a set of regional security arrangements can meet Iran’s security needs without threatening Israel or the United States.
We should no have no illusions that pursuing such talks will turn Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust denier who has spoken of Israel as a “stinking corpse,” into a less odious character, or Iran itself into a less implacable foe. But it will either clarify the conditions under which Iran ceases nuclear enrichment or demonstrate to all that Iran is committed to obtaining a nuclear capability.
Equally important, if Iran refuses to bend, then the military option — which Obama has left on the table — becomes viable. The United States may need to use force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and Obama has pledged he would not allow Iran to possess the most dangerous weapons. But tougher sanctions and, ultimately, the use of force only become credible options if serious diplomacy fails. After the disaster of Iraq, unilateral American action against Iran, in the absence of such a diplomatic push, would have dire consequences for American leadership and stability in the region.
Thus far, the Bush administration and McCain have shown no serious interest in probing Iran’s intentions, insisting, instead, that Tehran capitulate on the enrichment issue as a condition for talks intended to bring about an end to enrichment. This cart-before-horse approach shows why Bush never got anywhere with Iran.
Meanwhile, Israel and Syria now appear to be on the verge of direct negotiations after months of indirect talks mediated by Turkey, which got involved because the Bush administration refused to deal with Damascus. No one can say whether Syria’s Bashar al-Assad sincerely wants to end the 60 years of hostility. But we can’t know until the United States becomes involved, because what Syria wants — better ties with the West, a security relationship, economic assistance — only Washington can deliver.
Obama has made clear that he will pursue an active diplomacy in the region. But McCain takes the same approach to Syria that he does to Iran, demanding more international pressure before talking. Evidently, it is irrelevant to him that no one else in the international community wants to follow his lead, or that there is a chance for a breakthrough between Damascus and Jerusalem.
Obama has also declared that he will revitalize America’s engagement with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Under President Bush, the United States essentially withdrew from Middle East peacemaking for more than six years. Only in 2007 did the administration reverse course by convening the Annapolis conference. But Bush then proceeded to step back, leaving the new initiative to founder.
Obama has underscored repeatedly that his administration would work energetically to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process and achieve the two-state solution that most Israelis want. McCain, however, has shown no special interest in advancing the cause of peace.
Israel will also pay a price if the United States continues to fight terrorism as it has during the Bush years. Islamist extremism, stoked by the American occupation of Iraq, is on the rise. Our overuse of military force has played into Al Qaeda’s narrative about America’s desire to subjugate the Muslim world. To continue to use the military as our main means of projecting American influence in the region will only enhance Al Qaeda’s ability to recruit and raise funds, at a time when, according to Israeli intelligence, it is stepping up its efforts to strike in Israel.
Nevertheless, McCain believes we should stay in Iraq for years to come. Obama has recognized the damage this is doing to the security of the United States, to our position in the region and to the global fight against terror.
President Bush’s political allies have propagated the myth that he has been the best friend Israel ever had in the White House. Israel, however, does not need another four or eight years of that kind of friendship. It needs a leader in the Oval Office who will use all the instruments of American power to advance our national interests in peace and regional security — which is the best way to safeguard Israel today and in the future.
Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon served on the staff of the National Security Council from 1994 to 1999. They are the co-authors of “The Age of Sacred Terror” (Random House, 2002) and “The Next Attack” (Times Books, 2005).