Political Islam is dividing the Middle East like never before. This we already knew. What has become apparent in the last few weeks is that it also could add greater distance to the U.S.–Israel relationship.
A divide has formed in the region among American allies over whether political Islam, broadly construed, could have a constructive—or at least tolerated—future as part of the “new Middle East.” Can Islamist movements serve such a purpose? Turkey and Qatar say, “Yes—as long as they will act to improve the prestige and prosperity of Turkey/Qatar.” For the United States, it seems to be “Yes—as long as the movements respect basic international norms, such as fighting terrorism.”
For Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, the answer is, “Under no circumstances.” For these countries, the Muslim Brotherhood and related movements, like Hamas, are inherently a destabilizing force. They are not interested in seeing what kind of role these movements, which have been given new life in the Arab Spring, could play in the new Middle East.
Indeed, it could be said that Egypt and Saudi Arabia represent one pole of the Middle East’s new power dynamic, while Qatar represents the other. The conflict between the Saudis and Qataris has been intense, with the former temporarily withdrawing its ambassador earlier this year. Although the stated reason for the move was Qatari interference in Saudi affairs, the real meaning behind it was Saudi objection to Doha’s support of Islamist movements in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. Riyadh’s Al-Arabiya network is a competitor to Qatar’s al-Jazeera, which has been hassled lately by both the Saudis and Israel.
The poles of Middle East proxy warfare before the Arab Spring, the U.S. and Iran, are now in very odd positions. The U.S. still supports Israel diplomatically and militarily, but the Israeli government seems less interested than ever in maintaining the relationship. Iran and Hamas, meanwhile, have only partially repaired their old symbiosis. In the background of all of this is unprecedented negotiations between the U.S. and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program—which is continuing despite the war between Israel and Hamas. The U.S. is now caught between new and old regional allies, all while it negotiates with its biggest regional foe.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken a maximalist position in response to the Arab Spring—namely, it means the State of Palestine cannot be born:
[Netanyahu] made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. And he more than intimated that he considers the current American, John Kerry-led diplomatic team to be, let’s be polite, naive.
American policy toward Israel has been, essentially since the beginning of the security relationship in 1968, that the U.S. would ensure Israel’s qualitative military advantage over its neighbors to ensure it had the ability to confidently take risks for peace. Netanyahu apparently senses, dangerously, that the U.S. is not truly interested in Israeli security. He thinks America is reneging on its end of the bargain, so Israel is under no obligation to fulfill its end.
On the contrary, Netanyahu is excited to shift alliances:
At his press conference Saturday night, Netanyahu said one of Israel’s achievements in Operation Protective Edge was the support of moderate elements in the region, which he said would surprise many, and which would be expanded after the campaign ends.
Though he did not mention any countries by name, this is believed to be in reference to cooperation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan – all of which have an interest, as does Israel, in dealing a severe blow to Hamas.
Netanyahu said this regional cooperation is a “very important asset” for Israel.
“At the end of the battle and the operation, it will open many new possibilities for us,” he said.
New possibilities! As I have written here before, the idea of Israel and Saudi Arabia being close allies is fantastic—especially if Netanyahu thinks he can create that alliance as a way of preventing Palestinian independence. The Saudis and Emiratis can do very, very little to ensure Israeli security—especially publicly. Does he think these countries have better intelligence about the locations of underground Hamas tunnels than the U.S. does? If so, he is mistaken.
The U.S.–Israel relationship does not have to be under such strain. Netanyahu is intent that it is, though, as long as Washington expects movement towards a two-state solution. Bibi would rather rely on ad hoc, strictly behind-the-scenes cooperation from “moderate” Arab states who have no power projection and no ability to support Israel publicly. This is his vision of Israeli security.
I doubt that the leadership of the IDF and Mossad agree.