Tuesday’s elections across the United States will set the stage for the President Barack Obama’s final two years. Obama’s ability to maneuver on the international stage, no less than his power to implement the Democrats' domestic agenda, will be influenced by the outcome of congressional races across the country.
The embarrassingly public catfight in recent days between Washington and Israel makes for titillating reading. Last week, in an article titled “The crisis in U.S.-Israel relations is officially here,” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg led with a comment by an unnamed senior official in the White House that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a “chickenshit.” The remark reflected the Obama administration’s frustration with Netanyahu’s leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Iran nuclear negotiations and other matters.
The entertainment value provided by unvarnished remarks, however wickedly satisfying, risks obscuring the deep and growing divisions between Washington and Israel on fundamental questions relating to the future of the region — divisions that photo ops, memorized attestations of eternal friendship and even welcome purchases of F-35s do little to dispel. These disputes promise an even rockier future in relations between Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel’s Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon was recently in Washington. He is no stranger to pointedly undiplomatic criticism of the president’s policies, and once again he didn’t disappoint. This time his remarks were more subtle in their assessment of Obama’s shortcomings but no less challenging.
“We have to distinguish between countries like Egypt, with their history. Egypt will stay Egypt," Ya’alon told NPR. In contrast, he continued, “Libya was a new creation, a Western creation as a result of World War I. Syria, Iraq, the same — artificial nation-states — and what we see now is a collapse of this Western idea.”
Israel, of course, belongs at the top of Ya’alon’s list of states that were created in the era of Sykes-Picot, the World War I agreement between the United Kingdom and France that planned the colonial division of the Middle East after the anticipated defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish state is arguably the most significant consequence of imperial nation-building during the last century. But it was absent altogether from Ya’alon’s inventory.
He was interested in making a more important point. Since its inception, Israel has always been a state in the making. Like many of its neighbors today, its borders are still in the process of being determined by a combination of diplomacy, blood and fire.
The ongoing decades-long battle over Israel's borders has signified the shortcomings of the West’s 20th century border-drawing effort that is now imploding across the region.
Ya’alon’s comments contained a rough guide to how Israel will deal with and profit from the opportunities the region’s crises offer. More specifically, his remarks contain three related messages meant for the Obama White House.
First, the unprecedented collapse of Arab states and the internal challenges faced by those spared the worst excesses of the Arab Spring prove yet again that Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians, let alone the Arabs generally, is at the heart of the region’s instability. When was the last time anyone called for a rethink of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights? Ya’alon’s message to Washington: End your messianic fixation with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and leave Israel to sort it out in line with its interests.
Netanyahu is one of only two leaders – the other being Caliph Ibrahim, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – on record to support the breakup of Iraq.
Second, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is recast as simply one of the many border disputes convulsing the region — and one that is far from the most virulent or in need of fixing. In this new world, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its control over Gaza is redefined as a relatively benign feature of a tumultuous regional mosaic. Occupation is perhaps not as generous as Western critics demand but not as urgently in need of a solution as the unprecedented afflictions being suffered elsewhere.
Third and perhaps most important, Ya’alon is declaring Israel’s principled opposition to and adamant rejection of the broad policy initiatives adopted by the Obama administration for the Palestinian territories and the region as a whole.
Netanyahu the revolutionary
Ya’alon is not the first or the most important Israeli leader to voice Israel’s rejection of policies at the heart of Obama’s agenda to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma and to address the fatal weakness of many Arab regimes. Netanyahu has declared his rejection of those policies, on issues from Iran to the Arab Spring.
In his most important policy speech since becoming prime minister, Netanyahu threw down a gauntlet for Obama in a manner that Ya’alon only hinted at last week in Washington. In June 29, 2014, in remarks before Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, Netanyahu declared Israel’s revolutionary break with the map created by Sykes-Picot.
“The Sykes-Picot agreement which, almost a century ago, defined the borders in our region, has come to an end,” he said.
This arrangement was maintained during the first half of the 20th century by colonial powers and later by secular Arab dictatorships. When these regimes collapsed during the Arab revolution, all the demons in the Middle Eastern bottle were uncorked — Sunnis versus Shias, tribe against tribe, sect against sect, movement against movement. The hope that moderate liberal movements will take the reins in Arab states quickly evaporated, and we are now looking at many years of conflict and instability.
To deal with this new reality and to benefit from it, Netanyahu offered a menu of policies, most notably support for an independent Kurdistan and the all but permanent occupation of the West Bank.
Netanyahu is one of only two leaders (the other being Caliph Ibrahim, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) on record to support the breakup of Iraq. But Netanyahu is no jihadi with outsize pretentions. He is the first leader of a nation in the Middle East — and by many measures its strongest power — to declare the region’s 100-year-old system of nation-states dead.
Baghdadi’s interest is clear. He is a revolutionary out to rejuvenate a Sunni polity and redraw the borders of the region. His support for an independent Kurdistan is derivative — a function not of support for a Kurdish state but rather a consequence of his self-declared mission to usher in an era of Sunni revival — starting with Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
Netanyahu’s cautious welcome of the destruction of the old order is not as grandiose, but his vision is no less revolutionary.
The Israeli leader is determined to protect the territorial conquests of June 1967 and enhance Israel’s regional power. The destruction of the system of strong states established in the aftermath of World War I and the creation of a series of relatively weak, destabilized and competing statelets — symbolized by an independent Kurdistan, a disappearing Libya and a dismembered Syrian state — appears now as Netanyahu’s preferred outcome. A mélange of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states would vindicate Israel’s sectarian nature, and the instability that is already present throughout the region creates a strategic environment that amplifies Israel’s already formidable power.
The revolutionary approach championed by Netanyahu and Ya’alon and Israel’s benign view of the dissolution of weak Arab states represent yet another challenge to the Obama administration’s commitment to preserve or to restore the sovereignty of Arab nations from Iraq to Libya. Name calling promises to be the least concern of those worried about the state of Israel-U.S. relations.