The first round of a highly anticipated spectacle -- the foreign affairs of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government -- is already underway. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is in the midst of a European tour, and Netanyahu is due to meet President Obama in Washington in two weeks. A rising spat between Netanyahu's government and the Europeans offers a preview for the "clash" many commentators anticipate between the Israelis and the current American administration. The sticking points of a potential American-Israeli rift are well known to all parties, and reflect a substantial realignment of America's position on the Middle East.
The European Union has issued threats to freeze a planned upgrade of Israel's ties to the EU should Netanyahu refuse to endorse a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has shot back that if the EU maintains its critical stance, it will be excluded from the peace process, and its terms rendered irrelevant -- an ironic threat for the Netanyahu government.
It is understandable that the Israelis have strong memories of a critical Europe and a supportive America that does not care what Europe -- or anyone else -- thinks. Israelis are familiar with public opinion in Europe, which in certain polls has rated their country the greatest threat to world peace. There is no equivalent domestic opposition to Israeli policies in the U.S. While most nations found themselves on a collision course with America during the Bush era, Israel was held up as a paragon of democracy, embodying the ideal of America's fantasies for other Middle Eastern governments. Israeli hawks internalized this dualistic world order.
Now the U.S., the Europeans and other international players have returned to getting along. In place of a "new Middle East," there is a new unity of purpose for how to deal with the smoldering ruins of America's previous vision for the region.
The Bush administration pushed for regime change and free elections, with the notion that these would lead to more stable, favorable governments. In Iraq, the only thing that ultimately slowed the bleeding was to go around the central government the U.S. had helped set up, and make one separate peace after another with tribal chiefs and warlords. It appears a similar strategy will be deployed in Afghanistan to circumvent the ineffectual leadership of Hamid Karzai. In Egypt, only the sure hand of an autocrat who has ruled the country for a quarter century helps to advance America's diplomatic priorities. (If only there were such a strongman in Pakistan, many no doubt whisper). The West also views a thaw with Syria as essential to its larger strategy with Iran. In practical terms, this will mean giving a dictator -- Bashar Assad -- a pass for assassinating the prime minister of Lebanon, among others, in a bid to crush Lebanon's popular democratic movement. Thus Lebanon will be sacrificed back to Syria. When this leads to a Hezbullah victory in Lebanese polls, the U.S. and E.U. will face a familiar choice: should they deal with a functional, elected Arab government despite its militant antagonism toward Israel?
American favorites at the ballot boxes are not setting the course in the Middle East. This chaos was largely the creation of George W. Bush, but it is now the problem of Barack Obama. In addressing these unwelcome realities, President Obama will proceed together with the Europeans to keep things as steady as possible on all fronts: Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. This change in America's relationship to the Middle East is no less radical than that brought about during the neo-conservative era.
A fatal flaw with the neo-con's grand plan was that it was packaged and sold in an entirely American context. It offered a simple and easy message around which to rally a nation rattled by 9/11. It operated on ideological feelings deeply embedded in America's conception of itself and its global role. It helped George W. Bush win a second term, and proved remarkably hard to challenge at home until the scale of its failure was enormous. At no point, however, did the ideal address itself to the history, culture or politics of the nations in its sights. It thus found no legs as a workable policy.
Barring another terror attack, the domestic climate in the U.S. is clearly of another sort today. Pragmatism has replaced idealism. But our charismatic president should be prudent not to let his foreign policy become too caught up in its appeal to popular moods and insecurities, while losing sight of the facts on the ground abroad. This applies to the Europeans, as well.
As for Israel, their most recent election is a case study in the hazards of democracy. Looking around the region, Netanyahu and his team should realize that elections alone no longer provide a sacrosanct mandate (particularly elections in which the leading party is sent to the opposition). There is a willingness to work around Middle Eastern governments that either cannot or will not take steps to cool the flames of intractable war and conflict. In fact, that is precisely what Israel demands of the world with respect to Hamas. But Israel's government is not exempt from the international consensus to which it appeals.