Does Israel Have a Strategic Vision?

The American Jewish community supports the Iran nuclear deal by a margin of nearly two to one. In Israel, the ratio is nearly five to one against. In other words, on an issue so vital to Israel’s very existence, the Netanyahu government and its opposition alike have lost their key strategic partner.

American Jews within the liberal Democratic Party camp have abandoned the Israeli consensus and have chosen the dovish-non-interventionist path of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Israel’s long-time strategic relationship with the US has turned from bi-partisanship to a foundation of solid support within only one political party, the Republicans. So the key question arises: Does Israel have an alternative strategy to capture the imagination of the entire American political spectrum? Or is Israel counting on the defeat of the Democratic Party in the next election to reestablish friendly relations with the White House come January 2017?

The Republican Party candidates for President are nearly all running as war-hawks and neo-conservatives (Rand Paul is the one exception). But Hillary Clinton has the advantage because overseas adventurism without global coordination has a very small constituency within the American political consensus, even among many Republicans. Once the two finalists are chosen, the peace policies of Barack Obama will most likely become a central issue within the 2016 campaign. In the US, non-interventionism is an economic issue. America’s last two wars in the Middle East, along with the vast amount of money spent to bail out Wall Street, have left the US voting public in a mood of deep financial retrenchment.

The price tag on foreign military “nation-building” is perceived to be far too high for the average American voter. Hence the Iran nuclear deal can best be explained as a domestic political capitulation to dovish-non-interventionism because of the politics of pure economic fear. It’s nation-building at home which generates votes, not saber-rattling against the ayatollahs in Tehran.

In the US, most Reform Jews are Democrats, and Reform Jews are in the vast majority among the Jewish population. Their politics and religious outlook are distinctly geared toward the social democratic-liberal perspective. Israel has become a vast embarrassment to their dovish, politically-correct agenda. Even the dire warnings of the Zionist Union on the current Iran nuclear deal have failed to persuade this large Diaspora community that Israel faces real danger within the next decade. In Israel, very few on the Left feel that Iran will alter its regional behavior anytime soon. But the Obama-Clinton arguments have triumphed within the American Jewish community — first, that there is no alternative to this deal other than war, and second, that the lifting of sanctions and economic advancement will gradually alter the Islamic regime’s regional drive toward hegemony.

But Obama and his Democratic Party are light-years away from the reality of today’s Middle East. The Sunni Arab states of the Gulf, along with Jordan and Egypt, are competing with Iran and its non-state proxies for regional geo-political supremacy. Israel, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Turkey and a vast Sunni jihadist network are also players who are potentially engaged in a search for either strategic domination or some kind of balance. So far, the war in the Middle East has been a zero-sum game without any clear victor, and the prospect of its diminution appears very low. Sooner rather than later, the economic normalization of Iran, as formulated under the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, will be used to further escalate Tehran’s involvement in this regional war. This is especially true in Syria, where Assad’s army has suffered erosion of its manpower due to disloyalty within its Sunni ranks.

As the opposition to Assad grows stronger and more religiously extreme, the necessity for a semblance of some kind of political solution grows within the international community. But the P5+1 is hardly united on Syria or anything else (other than its spurious nuclear deal, which lacks any regional component). However, to create a definitive balance of power within the Middle East will require great power coordination and real power projection to defeat ISIS and establish regional order. The major powers are far too divided on the geopolitics of Asia and Europe to have a plan for the Middle East. This leaves the region in a kind of superpower limbo without any kind of blueprint for its future. The US is not fully trusted by any of its traditional allies. Russia swings between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and China tilts toward Iran but has many business relations with the Gulf and even Israel.

Meanwhile the region deteriorates quickly without leadership, as its vast vacuum can only lead to miscalculation and further military escalation. The Obama doctrine of economic liberalism and negotiations through non-interventionism might have appeal within the insulated community of American Reform Jewry, but in the Middle East it gives off the distinct appearance of weakness. And in the Middle East, weakness breeds contempt. Iran will no doubt use the easy escape clauses within the nuclear deal to obfuscate its vagaries and test the Democratic Party’s regional deterrent capacities. But Tehran will be hamstrung by its desire to see a Democratic Party victory in the November 2016 elections and its need to stop Assad’s continual fall. If Iran ups the ante in Syria, it risks not only an Israeli response but also a Republican Party reaction that could resonate with the growing multitude of potentially uncertain independent voters who don’t trust Iran. No doubt Iran would choose to save Assad. But direct and expanded Iranian involvement in the Syrian civil war would have serious repercussions in all directions.

So the nuclear deal has been signed by the UN Security Council, now what? Where is the strategic vision to alter the chaos in the Middle East? The P5+1 have backed their bags and have all gone home. Obama and Kerry have tarnished their domestic and international opponents as war mongers. It’s either the current nuclear deal or war, the administration argues. Putin and his team in the Kremlin vacillate wildly toward wherever or whoever has the most money to offer them. However, they most likely seek to establish themselves in the Middle East as an opposition force to the Americans. In other words, Russian policy is intended to keep US focus away from the Ukraine and NATO dominance in Europe. The same is true for China. They also seek mischief in the Middle East as a way to prevent a complete American pivot to Asia. Meanwhile the French signed business deals with Saudi Arabia, and the UK stands ready to establish itself as America’s detente watchdog with an embassy in Tehran.

Of course Israel lacks strategic vision. How could it be otherwise? Its American partner, the liberal Jewish community, has abandoned her for a policy that gambles the future on liberal capitalism and its social democratic wing. Given the state of the world economy over the last eight years, this is hardly a strong bet. The Middle East is a mess, and the US bears a whole lot of the blame. But the withdrawal of American leadership is not leadership. The P5+1 only came together to adjust the Iranian nuclear program. Obama and Kerry were its water carriers. But the P5+1 has no other agenda in the Middle East. The world is currently without a leader or a collective leadership. On the contrary, Cold War situations in Asia and Europe have deflected effort away from coordinated approaches toward Syria and the greater Middle East.

It is hard for a little country like Israel to have vision in such an indeterminate climate. Yet, in such times, Israel must have a vision. Within ten years the Middle East could be awash with nuclear facilities. Saudi Arabia and Russia just signed a nuclear deal. Without a new paradigm involving the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Israel will be forced into a situation of complete uncertainty with regard to international strategic relations and the future of nuclear proliferation. Israel can no longer count on the American Jewish diaspora. Israel can only count on itself. But without a strategic vision other than nuclear war fighting capability, the future for all concerned looks bleak.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).
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