Hard Choices for the US and Israel Loom In A New Middle East

All of us writers, analysts, bloggers and Mideast observers, across the political spectrum are in agreement about one thing: the recent upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, and the smaller ones in other Arab countries mean that there is going to a new Middle East soon.

The shape of that new Mideast is open to prediction, which is also going to give all of us a lot to write and talk about for a long while to come. But one thing we can look at today is how other actors are preparing for what we know will be new, but in an unknown form. In particular, what seems to be a massive rise in demands toward democracy in the Arab world presents unprecedented challenges to the regional policies of the United States and Israel, jointly and in ways that threaten to drive those

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a relaxed conversation with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

policies in separate directions for the first time in decades.

Like much of the rest of the world, the statements that have come from the US and Israel have been oddly divided between the support they must show for people fighting to free themselves from a dictator and a more coldly pragmatic concern for whether Egypt will maintain its role in working with the West in Middle East with a new government.

Former Israeli Defense Minister and Likud stalwart Moshe Arens laid out one prominent Israeli view in stark terms: “Israeli governments have never insisted that they would negotiate only with a democratically elected Arab government. The implicit assumption probably was that it would be easier for a dictatorship to meet Israel’s fundamental conditions, but this would be a near-impossible task for a democratically elected Arab government.”

Why would it be “near-impossible?” Arens is referring to the fact that Arab citizens, on the whole, are opposed to cooperation with Israel. Much of the rhetoric, especially that which is often selectively reported in the US and Israel, speaks in fiery words about confronting the “Zionist regime” and toppling it. The opposing contention, which I make as well, is that an end to the occupation and freedom for the Palestinians will blunt a great deal of the popular rage on this issue and people will focus elsewhere and accept the potential benefits of dealing with Israel.

While alarmists more extreme than Arens, particularly in the USA, are raising fears of a new Egypt abrogating the peace treaty with Israel, most serious observers do not believe a new Egyptian government would do that. There is a spectrum of views on Israel in Egypt and while the vast majority of them are extremely opposed and angry about Israel’s ongoing occupation, relatively few wish to risk war with Israel or simply give away the economic benefits that Egypt has seen through its peace treaty with Israel.

At the same time, the level of cooperation Egypt has given Israel with regard to the siege of Gaza and other aspects of its occupation is almost certain to disappear, even if the outcome of the current unrest is a government led by Mubarak cronies like Omar Suleiman (which I don’t think is likely, but it is possible).

This needs to be understood in the context of an attitude among some Israelis and Americans where the so-called “cold peace” with Israel, even now, is suspicious, and who do not see an Egypt cooperating with the siege of Gaza, but see instead an Egypt that they believe tolerates weapons smuggling through Sinai tunnels into Gaza.

So, an Egypt that keeps its peace treaty with Israel but opens its border with Gaza is going to elicit a lot of worry from Israelis, and they are going to want the United States to advocate for its view that not only should the treaty be maintained, but that Egypt should maintain its current level of cooperation.

But the Americans are going to have a lot more concerns, as will the Israelis, though for Israel Egypt has so much immediacy that it will narrow its focus more at the outset. But the US is seeing the same sorts of dynamics that have erupted in Tunisia and Egypt starting to simmer in Jordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. The Palestinian Authority and Syria, as well as Jordan, are all trying to take steps (small and largely meaningless ones for now, but as the fear grows in those regimes, they’re likely to go further) to mollify the masses before uprisings begin.

These steps are likely to be very welcome in Washington, which would prefer to see reform before more Arab states explode under the mounting pressure of decades of repression. But of course, there remains a need in Washington to see a gradual process of reform, one which does not allow the ill will that American support for decades of tyrannical Arab regimes as well as Israel’s occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians manifest in new Arab foreign relations.

These will be risky times, and it remains to be seen how much risk the United States will take. The greater the risk, the greater the reward, though, and if the US is prepared to really support emerging democracy in the Arab world, they could very well find that it has restored a lot of the positive feelings toward the US that once existed in the Arab world.

But that’s not a sure thing in any case, and the likelihood gets much lower if the US stands in opposition to a popular Arab push for a free Palestine.

Israel, of course, can short-circuit this whole question by negotiating an acceptable peace agreement with the Palestinians, but even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to do that, it seems pretty clear that the current government wouldn’t allow him to. The idea of bringing the center-right Kadima into the government is always discussed, but it’s unclear if that would really help, as Netanyahu’s own Likud party might well fracture over a peace deal and the other two large parties, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, can’t be counted on for support.

As Arab states are forced to reflect the popular will to a greater degree, they will increasingly demand that the US stop supporting Israeli intransigence on the Palestinian question. If Israel fails to respond to this reality with substantial progress on the Palestinian track, it will be forcing a difficult choice on the United States.

It is not war on Israel that is the prospect, but rather an Arab world which, on the Palestinian issues, will likely come to follow the “Turkey model.” Turkey still works hard to maintain a strong relationship with the US. It has even dealt with insults and back-stabbing from Israel that could easily be expected to permanently shatter relations (see MJ Rosenberg’s review of how Ehud Olmert initiated the pattern). But it has taken a much bolder stance on the Palestine question.

The US does not want to have to choose between its relationships with Turkey and the Arab states and its special relationship with Israel. This is especially true since, if this sort of pressure starts to build, it is precisely the sort of thing that can bring Saudi Arabia to the tipping point, and that is the country the US is most concerned with.

It behooves Israel not to force this choice on Washington. It may not like the choice DC makes, even in a post-Obama future.