international analysis and commentary

The US-Israeli alliance in a shifting region


The popular uprisings that have been sweeping the Arab world in recent weeks are not only reshaping the politics of the region, but are also testing some of the United States’ most fundamental alliances, particularly the tight but often difficult relationship with Israel.

US-Israel relations have been fraught with a degree of mutual distrust ever since the elections of President Barack Obama in 2008 and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s in 2009. On issues ranging from regional stability to the peace process, the current US and Israeli governments rarely see eye to eye and both have, often publicly, made their disagreements clear.

The ongoing wave of unrest in the Middle East and North Africa – jeopardizing the network of pro-Western authoritarian governments on which regional security arrangements have been based for decades – appears to be driving yet another wedge between the two allies. However, in the long run, some Israeli observers believe that the same political developments that are now pulling Israel and the United States apart may very well end up bringing them closer together.

Today, many Israelis view the American reaction to the quickly unfolding events in the Arab world as naïve, rushed and merely reactive. Both the government and the opposition appear increasingly skeptical of Washington’s ability to fulfill its security pledges to Israel and to guarantee stability in the region.

“Americans put their money on the democratic horse in the Middle East,” says Shlomo Slonim, Professor Emeritus of American History at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Obama thinks Cairo is Boston in 1776. It ain’t.”

The Obama administration’s decision not to stand by former President Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian uprising represented a devastating blow for the Israelis, who saw him as a solid anchor in the region (Israel’s entire security arrangement is dependent on the 1979 treaty with Egypt, of which Mubarak was the gate keeper, and whose future is now thought to be at risk). “Mubarak was the rock of Gibraltar in the Arab world,” says Professor Slonim, “and the US just turned around and tossed him to the lions.”

Israel had counted on the fact that Washington would put its weight behind Mubarak, to allow him to stay in power at least for another few months, oversee a gradual transition and slowly prepare the groundwork for democratic elections. Instead, many Israelis fear, the Americans’ absolute faith in democratic rebellions now risks leading the region not toward democracy but toward anarchy and the emergence of violent Islamist movements.

Historical comparisons abound in the minds of people in Israel. “They forget (those who defend the Arab revolts) the Carter administration’s support for the “people’s revolution” in Tehran, which gave us the ayatollahs,” wrote David Weinberg, of Bar-Ilan University, in the Jerusalem Post on February 22nd. “They forget the much-hailed Lebanese “cedar revolution” of just a few years ago, which has quickly given way to Hezbollahstan. They forget US insistence on Palestinian elections in 2006, which gave us Hamastan in Gaza.”

These beliefs are not exclusive property of the Israeli right. “In the case of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon,” wrote Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition Kadima party, in an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, “The international community limited its conception of democracy to the technical process of voting.” For Livni, this misplaced policy granted undeserved legitimacy and power to armed radical movements not committed to democratic principles.

The bottom line is that in Israel, President Obama is now very unpopular across the board. “From the center to the right, he is seen as a hopeless pro-Arab and anti-Israeli president,” says Aluf Benn, opinion editor for the daily newspaper Haaretz. “From the left, he is seen as totally incompetent. They expected him to bring peace and force the Israelis out of the settlements and he didn’t.”

For Benn, the Obama administration’s response to the turmoil in the Middle East can also be interpreted as a sign of waning American influence in the region. “We see the weakness, we feel the weakness,” he says. “Americans are constantly behind, they react to events that have taken place already, instead of trying to lead.”

Overall, the situation appears to have convinced the Israelis not to trust the ability of the US to manage this complicated political transition in the Middle East, to lead Arab countries toward democracy while delivering on its security pledges to Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated as much in his latest speech to the Knesset, “This reality requires of us to accept the fact that we are in a volatile region, and all we can rely on is our own strength, our unity and our resolve to protect ourselves.”

Ironically, however, the relationship between Israel and the United States may be forced to improve in the long-term, especially if Israel’s worst fears of continued instability in the Middle East come true. It is hard to anticipate what the future holds for countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In fact, it may very well be some time before the ongoing political earthquake gives birth to a new, stable regional order. If that is the case, the US may come to see Israel as the only steady, reliable ally left in the region. And Israel may realize that the shifted power dynamics among its neighbors make it even more dependent on the US. This scenario would help close the gap between Washington and Jerusalem.

Unless, of course, popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa turn out for the best and true democracy slowly begins to flourish across the region. But this is an eventuality that not many people in Israel appear to be preparing for.