Dangerous Brinkmanship

05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Haim Malka Senior Fellow, Middle East Program, CSIS

Last week's clash between the Obama Administration and Netanyahu government should have come as little surprise. The two governments have differed fundamentally on settlements and Jerusalem since each entered office last year. What was less predictable, though, was that U.S.-Israeli differences would cast a shadow over U.S. power and security in the Middle East. For this reason, Israel's moves in recent weeks are self-defeating. Challenging the United States on settlements and East Jerusalem construction may provide short-term political benefits for the Netanyahu government, but Israel's long-term security relies on a powerful United States and close U.S.-Israeli ties. In yielding to near-term politics, the Netanyahu government put both at risk.

Trust between Binyamin Netanyahu and Barak Obama was tenuous from the start. The Obama Administration came into office skeptical that a right wing Israeli government would advance political negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and Netanyahu's track record when he was prime minister more than a decade ago fueled those doubts. Israelis had their own concerns, questioning Obama's commitment to Israel's security. There were steady complaints in Israel that President Obama wanted to repair America's image in the Arab and Muslim world at Israel's expense.

But the tension runs much deeper. While the Obama Administration seeks to manage multiple crises and challenges in the Middle East from Iraq to Afghanistan, it has come to see Netanyahu and his coalition as a wild card rather than a source of stability. The Israeli government's surprise announcement of plans for new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden's visit was a prime example. While it was intended for domestic political effect, it resonated even more loudly diplomatically.

Israeli actions both reflect and further a belief that the United States is distracted, overburdened, and declining. The Israeli government sees an administration grappling with massive domestic hurdles as Russia, China, Iran and others challenge U.S. global influence, and it questions both U.S. resolve and strategy to confront a host of regional issues, most importantly Iran's nuclear weapons program. Israel is not alone in this regard, but its lack of confidence is perhaps the most troubling because of the depth and breadth of the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship. Turkey has also been challenging U.S. efforts to enlist international support for strong UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. Gulf Arab states are reluctant to commit to the international effort against Iran, despite the threats they face from a weakened United States and nuclear Iran. Many of these doubts started in the Bush Administration, but they have made the Obama Administration a target for regional allies and foes alike.

Netanyahu's short-term political victories in this regard come with a price. Publicly undermining the Obama Administration weakens the United State's ability to effectively manage regional challenges. A diplomatically weaker America has less influence to protect its own interests as well as those of its allies.

And of all the times, to stir things up, this was an odd one. First, Vice President Biden was on a trip explicitly intended to improve relations. A long-time friend of Israel, he was not only rebuffed, but insulted.

Second, the seriousness and complexity of shared security problems in the Middle East necessitates closer U.S.-Israeli cooperation, not less. If the United States and Israel cannot coordinate on tactical diplomatic issues, how can they effectively coordinate on more pressing strategic challenges?

Third, prospects for the U.S.-brokered proximity talks' success were low to start with. The larger goal was to create a small amount of positive momentum between Israelis and Palestinians, and to demonstrate United States engagement on an issue of importance to many allies in the efforts to contain extremism in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. No one was about to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the lack of any movement was making it more difficult for the United States to manage a wide range of security operations throughout the Middle East. All of those security operations are to Israel's benefit, and all are beyond Israel's capacity to manage by itself.

Whatever Israel's unease about U.S. strategy, there are few alternatives to it. For Israel, and the rest of the region, there is simply no substitute to U.S. leadership managing the Middle East in the foreseeable future. In order to do so, there must be at least some semblance of a political negotiating process between Israelis and Palestinians. Every United States president in the last three decades has agreed on that fact, whether or not he believed negotiations would lead to a resolution of the conflict. The Israeli move, whether intentional or not, attempted to change that consensus.

The Middle East is on the verge of changing in a fundamental way. United States forces will withdraw from Iraq later this year. The war in Afghanistan is intensifying, and Iran could be on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power. Looking forward, managing the region is likely to become more difficult. In all of this the United States will need to coordinate closely with a wide range of actors in order to secure U.S. interests, and the interest of allies as well. Coordination with Israel just became harder, as the Netanyahu government seems intent on putting domestic political interests above long-term strategic interests.

Israel may assert a right to build anywhere in Jerusalem that it chooses. But, those political choices have implications that extend far beyond real estate. An assertion of Israeli power does not always strengthen Israel, especially when it comes at the expense of the United States and U.S.-Israel ties. The stakes are too high to lose sight of common strategic priorities at such a critical juncture.

Haim Malka is Deputy Director and Senior Fellow with the Middle East Program at CSIS.

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