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.