At a White House briefing the other day, one journalist asked whether the fact that the US is perceived as siding with Israel in this conflict will give an opportunity for our adversaries— China, Russia, Iran— to gain more influence in the region.
It is not surprising that this has become and will likely become even more of an issue as the conflict continues. This is so because there is a long history of people questioning whether US support for Israel is in our interest.
Indeed, during the many years of the Cold War, this was the favorite theme of critics of the American-Israeli relationship. Since the Arabs were opposed to Israel and the United States was Israel’s main supporter and provider of aid, it was argued that this left an opening for the Soviet Union to make significant inroads in the Arab world. Even if there was a moral argument for American support on the basis of common democracies and Judeo-Christian values, American interests lay in a different direction, went this reasoning.
The counter to this was best articulated by the late Henry Kissinger in his monumental memoir. He argued to the contrary that American support for Israel, particularly when it was under attack, was critical in stabilizing and enhancing American influence in the region.
The argument was that the region was divided between extremist states like Syria and Iraq in those days who drew their support and arms from the Soviets and moderate states. The moderate states, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, were constantly evaluating their posture based on their own sense of security and insecurity. If the United States, their preferred ally, was strong and victorious, they would stay close to America. If, however, America was perceived as weak and on the losing side, they would gravitate to the Soviet Union.
Israel’s conflicts during the Cold War were generally between them and clients of the Soviets. Israel’s winning those wars led the moderate states to stay and rely on the Americans. Therefore, Kissinger argued, it is critical that the US stand with Israel and do everything it can to assure Israeli victory over the radicals.
This logic extends today even in a very different geopolitical environment. There no longer is a Soviet threat, but the Islamic Republic of Iran presents a model for extremism in the region in its anti-Western, anti-democratic, anti-Israel and pro-terrorist obsessions. Even more than the Soviets, they have direct involvement in the radicalism of their clients, fueling the ideological and militaristic efforts of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis.
Meanwhile, many of the Arab states who have come a long way in their relationship with Israel, five of whom have peace treaties, are both fearful of Iran – a motivating factor in the Abraham Accords — and also wary of antagonizing Iran if there is any sign of weakness on the part of their would-be allies. The stronger the US is perceived to be in support of its allies, the more inclined these Arab states are to move closer to America and its ally Israel. If they perceive American weakness, then we may see some efforts to pacify the Iranians because the Arabs are feeling vulnerable.
And so, in the tradition of the Arab world, whenever Israel is in conflict with an Arab party, there is significant criticism of Israeli behavior but, at the same time, there is a close eye on how Israel, supported by the United States, does in its war.
More specifically, there was a lot of talk before October 7 that the Saudis were moving close to normalizing relations with Israel. Indeed, it appears (maybe instead – some argue) that Hamas’s fear that such a step would largely end their efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state was the main motivation for their attack on October 7. While it is dangerous to make predictions in the Middle East, a good case can be made that only a clear-cut Israeli victory in the war, in which Hamas is largely dismantled and the hostages brought home, will lead the Saudis to continue on the path to normalization. Anything less may lead to Saudi rethinking, wondering whether an alliance with Israel is worth the criticism it is bound to get.
The massacre on October 7 exposed a degree of Israeli vulnerability not evident until then. A victory over Hamas can remedy at least some of that.
All of which suggests that again American interests lie with a strong Israel supported steadfastly by the United States. The process of normalization is a profound American interest and the best way to stabilize and enhance it lies with Israel showing once again that it is a strong nation who can lead the way in countering the extremists in the region.