Argument

For Better or for Worse

The Arab Spring has brought a lot of uncertainty to Washington's dealings in the Middle East. But if anyone thinks that means breaking up with Israel, or abandoning other Arab autocrats, they've surely jumped the gun.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Israelis, like most Jews, worry for a living. The dark side of Jewish history and the security challenges of their national life compel them to. And these days there’s plenty to worry about. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and turbulent changes in the Arab world unleashed by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are shifting the power balance against Israel. Indeed, its position in the neighborhood — in part as a consequence of its own policies — is growing increasingly precarious.

But Israel, and particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is also worried about something else: How will their close ally in Washington, particularly President Barack Obama, react to this tumultuous Arab Spring. Will he race to coddle and court the new Arab democrats, doing so at Israel’s expense? Is a big American peace initiative coming, one designed to pre-empt further radicalization in the region that will require big concessions from Israel?

In short, will spring for the Arabs turn into winter for the Israelis? Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Olmert used to say, sleep with one eye open. And yes, there’s plenty for Netanyahu to worry about. But the United States and Obama shouldn’t be at the top of the list. Here’s why.

Obama may not be Israel’s best friend, but he’s not self-destructive. Unlike Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who were in love with the idea of Israel, Obama is not. He’s too cool, detached, and analytical. He sees Israel primarily in the context of U.S. interests — and less so in the context of its values. As the stronger party, he believes Israel should be much more magnanimous when it comes to the Palestinians. Moreover, he looks at Israel’s current prime minister as a kind of smooth-talking con man. Clinton and Bush were truly impressed by Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon; Obama doesn’t think much of Netanyahu, and it shows. If the president could find a painless way to squeeze the prime minister, he’d do it.

But there are just too many obstacles that stand in Obama’s way. Yes, he is concerned about domestic politics and giving the Republicans a ready-made issue with which to hammer him on foreign policy. But far more importantly, he has learned that fighting with Israel without a good reason (for example, a breakthrough on the peace process) is a sure path to a room full of trouble.

He knows that though he can always give a speech or craft an initiative laying out a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, actually producing one requires working closely with an Israeli prime minister. There will be no immaculate conception for the two-state solution that doesn’t involve negotiations and a big role for Netanyahu. And because he can’t find a way to do regime change in Israel, he’s stuck with the current prime minister. His Jiminy Cricket is probably telling him, "2011 isn’t the year to push the Israelis; be patient and wait for a second term that might offer you a better chance for peacemaking." There’s a good chance Obama will listen to that advice.

U.S.-Israel relations may actually get closer. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there was a growing chorus arguing that the United States would now see that its interests compelled it to immediately seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem and, in doing so, distance itself from Israel. The exact opposite occurred. The war against terror brought Washington and Jerusalem closer together. The Arab Spring may also have that potential. It’s true that neither the United States nor Israel has been on the radar screen of reformist opposition forces, but just wait. As these systems open up and politics finds the new normal, criticism of U.S. policy, including support for Israel, will grow without the authoritarians’ hands keeping it under control. U.S. policies in this region — from containment of Iran to isolating Hamas to counterterrorism to near-unconditional support for Israel — are very unpopular. Indeed, in a new and more open democratic Arab world, there will be more voices from across the political spectrum expressing opposition and demanding accountability.

Moreover, as criticism of Israel grows on the part of Islamists, liberal democrats, and secular nationalists, Washington will have to push back. Based on past behavior, its inclination under these circumstances will not be to pile on the Israelis, but to try to reassure them in matters relating to their security and relations with their Arab neighbors.

All this will tend to drive the United States and Israel closer, not further apart. It stretches the bounds of credulity to the breaking point to believe that Obama will somehow hammer the Israelis in response to criticism from the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, weakening the U.S.-Israel relationship to simply curry favor with the Arabs. For this to happen, you’d need a Sadat-like Arab leader to emerge who’d steal the president’s heart and Congress’s. That’s not likely to happen.

The uncertainty principle. The long arc of history may well smile favorably on Arab democracy. Over the short term, however, the U.S. role in this region will grow increasingly complex and bumpy. As Libya demonstrates, political change can be violent. In other places, such as Yemen and Bahrain, dislocation may prove severe as well. Even in Egypt and Tunisia, it will be a while until new leaders emerge who will have the confidence and power to make bold decisions on peacemaking or on core aspects of their relationship with the United States.

In Palestine, President Mahmoud Abbas — now deprived of Hosni Mubarak as his key Arab patron — may be even more cautious when it comes to peacemaking. And Abbas will have troubles of his own. Palestinians emboldened by opposition movements elsewhere in the Arab world may challenge Abbas’s own party’s dominance and control of the security services. If conflict spreads to the Persian Gulf and seriously impeded oil flow, all bets are off. Under these circumstances, Washington will not want to push its allies; rather, it will try to shore up old friends — even authoritarian ones.

Dorothy was right. When it comes to the Arab Spring and the transformative changes it has wrought, the United States isn’t in Kansas anymore. But as far as the U.S.-Israel relationship is concerned, at least for the foreseeable future, we are still very much hanging around Topeka — with all the messy consequences that carries.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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