Roie Yellinek

Is the US leaving the ME? If so, what we should do?

Ever since the Roman days and up until the Cold War, the Middle East has been a scene of disputes between powerful countries. The political reasons for this are prestige and international influence and the main practical reasons are a large amount of natural resources and trade routes. With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the US remained the only functioning superpower. As a derivative of this status and because of its interests, especially in the field of energy and trade routes, the US serves in the role of the global policeman, including in the Middle Eastern arena. However, various developments have led to a change in the status of the US in the region, such as the US lack of success in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and its laxity over the challenges of Iran.

It must be also noted the Russian presence in the region under the leadership of the president Vladimir Putin, especially concerning the rolling events in Syria, and the failure of the “Arab-Spring” events to turn the countries into functioning democracies, as the US would like to see and even supported in this step. Alongside with that, the rise of China, which in 2011 became the second-largest economy in the world, should be noted and highlighted as a major and important development. According to the forecast, in the current year, China expects to import 9.1 million barrels of oil per day, with about 3.5 million barrels, representing 38% of the total, will arrive from the Middle East, while the US is getting closer to energy independence, and currently, the Coronavirus crisis does not change the situation.

In addition to the international players’ increase (and especially China and Russia) in the Middle Eastern arena, the US had to invest great resources in dealing with those same players in additional arenas as well. For example, the disputes in the South China Sea and the Russian conquest of the island of Crimea. Despite this, the US remains the most significant player in the Middle Eastern arena. Evidence for this is the fact that it maintains close relations with most countries and holds the largest number of soldiers, which has only recently increased to about 14,000. Unlike the US, China is still in the process of building its military force and it will take many years for its military power to approach that of the American. The Russians, however, lack the economic power that China and the US possess, but it has military power and a network of alliances in the region that challenges but does not threaten American interests.

In conclusion, while the US position in the region today may have changed due to the changing American interests and increasing challenges as a result of the strengthening of other players in the arena, they remain firm and the other players in the arena are unable to challenge American centrality. Continued building of China’s military force and Russia’s exit from the prolonged economic crisis that it faces may intensify the struggle against the US presence. On the other hand, according to the existing situation, it seems that the US does not intend to relinquish its status in the region, and either a change in the identity of the next US president is unlikely to change this approach. However, despite this, Israel must be prepared for a change in US policy, and learn what the risks and possibilities of this change are and act in the background for it.

Israel’s Opportunities and Risks due to the US Leaving the Region

Given that the US policy will change significantly and it will decide to leave the region, the state of Israel will have to reshape its strategic alliances’ system. As stated above, if efforts by China and Russia will mature, their presence in the region could be extended, and Israel’s status and strength in the region could be adversely affected. This is because, throughout history, the Chinese and Russians have tended to favor significantly the Arab and Iranian sides and to oppose Israel and its activities. The latest proof of this is the joint maritime maneuver the two had with Iran in early February 2020.

Therefore, the state of Israel must work to expand the existing cooperation mechanisms against and with China and Russia and to establish additional mechanisms, in a way that will enable them, in the time of need, to have meaningful security and political dialogue with them as the US changes its policy toward the region. Also, it will be appropriate that Israel will continue to tighten its relations with Jordan and Egypt, as it was recently done with the natural gas from the reservoirs found in the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, Israel must deepen its channels of communication with the gulf states, as the parties have already begun to do, for example, visits of high-ranking officials, from the Prime Minister in Amman to several ministers in the UAE (SRRs) in the last year. The dialogue between Israel and the Arab states is mostly mediated and out of American interest, and since the Chinese and Russian interests are different and Israel’s current influence on the policy of the two is much less, it is necessary to establish direct and independent contact with the Arab states.

About the Author
Researcher and PhD student at the Middle Eastern studies department, Bar-Ilan University.
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