US policy in the Middle East has long been based on a troika of bilateral relationships with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The relationship with Saudi Arabia was based on the economics of energy, hence Riyadh’s ideological excesses were tolerated – even after 9/11. With Israel, security has always come first, and with Egypt, stability was prized above all else. Now, as Egypt evolves tumultuously and Saudi Arabia deploys its own military muscle in defense of fellow monarchies, it’s clear that Washington will no longer enjoy the same relationship with either, leaving the question of how the Washington-Tel Aviv bond will hold up in the months and years ahead.
President Barack Obama’s 19 May speech appeared – at first blush – to throw a giant monkey wrench into those works: by citing the pre-1967 war borders as the framework for a land swap deal leading to a two-state solution, the president seemed to be putting Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on notice. But subsequent backtracking by Obama in a speech to the powerful pro-Israeli lobby group AIPAC two days later indicated just how unprepared he is to significantly revise this alliance.
There is no question that America’s aid will continue flowing to Israel, or that the Obama administration will seek to thwart Palestine’s effort to win diplomatic recognition in the UN’s General Assembly next September. Rejection of Hamas’s participation in a Palestinian unity government likewise remains a point of firm agreement. Even if the president sought to recast the relationship on any such issues, it is doubtful that he could – given Republican control of the House of Representatives and Israel’s historically strong standing throughout Congress.
Nonetheless, the US-Israeli relationship will move into uncharted waters in the months ahead, as Israel’s intransigence on Palestine and America’s unwillingness to pressure its long-time ally during this period of great strategic uncertainty necessarily isolates both in the region’s unprecedented events. No, neither America nor the West can possibly be “punished” in the same manner as the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. The global economy is simply too interconnected and the energy-rich regimes are simply too addicted to their oil revenues to engage in such self-destructive symbolism. But America, no longer viewed as an impartial interlocutor on the Arab-Israeli peace process (after decades of concentrated effort to achieve that standing), now risks losing its convening authority on a wider array of regional issues – just as the Arab world undergoes numerous transformations.
Once lost, that convening authority will never be regained. Too many new players crowd the operating environment, to include rising China, India and Turkey, as well as – over time – resurgent Iraq and Egypt. Yes, the continued presence of US military power will grant a certain level of entrée, but even there, between Israel’s military might and Saudi Arabia’s defense build-up, there is good reason to believe that America’s strategic withdrawal from Iraq will represent a turning point in Mideast history. For, just as Beijing seems willing to fill any security vacuum in Af-Pak – at least via arms transfers, there’s ample reason to assume it will seek to do the same in the Persian Gulf over time, for the sheer reason that China – and not the West – grows ever more dependent on that region’s energy flow.
At the end of day, the Arab Spring will both reduce America’s self-perceived “imperial burden” and accelerate the globalization of the Mideast’s security issues. No longer simply America’s “open door” responsibility, we may well be witnessing an unsustainably rapid “rebalancing” of the global security order – one that tests the limits of Beijing’s readiness to pay its own way.
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