Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have resumed under U.S. auspices, but they are a long way from achieving a comprehensive settlement of the conflict. If they progress to real, detailed discussions of Israeli security needs, the participants will have to take stock of the profound changes that have taken place in the region.
The possible survival of the Assad regime in Syria cannot be entirely discounted. In this scenario, both Assad and his supporters, such as Hezbollah, will recover and become emboldened in pursuing their traditional policies under Iranian guidance. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan seems to be withstanding current pressures, but the presence of nearly a million refugees has a destabilizing potential, especially if any terror cells have escaped the security services’ scrutiny. As for Egypt, the domestic conflict is far from settled. Even a partial victory for the Muslim Brotherhood could enhance the movement’s standing in Jordan, and add to Israel’s concerns when analyzing its eastern and southern fronts.
If negotiations with the Palestinians progress to the point that Israel has to make decisions on final borders, long-term direct security, and security-related arrangements, these decisions will be made against the backdrop of a volatile region. Some of the risks Israel will be required to take could be covered and compensated for by a third party, most prominently the United States.
However, the overall posture of the United States in the region and recent statements by high-ranking U.S. generals could create serious doubts in the minds of Israeli leaders regarding the extent to which they can rely on the United States for a long-term commitment on security issues that goes beyond the mere supply of weapons.
Former CENTCOM commander General James Mattis stated at the Aspen Security Forum on July 20 that:
I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians. So [Kerry’s] right on target with what he’s doing. I just hope the protagonists want peace and a two-state solution as much as he does.
Mattis’s statement almost echoed his predecessor, General David Petraeus, word for word. In a statement he submitted before the Senate Committee on Armed Services on March 16 2010, he stated:
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scaled armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of modern regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.
While General Petraeus made his statement several months before the Arab uprisings began, Mattis was speaking with more than 2.5 years of knowledge that the events had almost no connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The end of the conflict, of claims and counterclaims, and of enmity, to the extent that these are attainable, will have a marginal impact on trends and developments in the wider region.
Furthermore, support for Israel has been valuable in the U.S. strategic concept and as a tool in U.S. policy for the Middle East. It is the perception and reality of U.S.-Israel relations that drives the “moderate” Arab states to call upon the United States to mediate bilateral issues relating to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mattis added further damage during the same interview in his comments on the Iranian nuclear project. He said, “Certainly, it can be delayed a month, six months, eighteen months. What do you do with the delay is the question. The military can buy our diplomats some time, but it cannot solve this problem straight up.”
No serious argument has been made for a military operation based on the assumption that it would forever eliminate the Iranian nuclear program, nor has the added time for diplomacy such an operation would grant been put forward as a major justification for carrying out an attack. Rather, the military option is about deterrence, maintaining the NPT regime, and the regional and international consequences of a nuclear Iran. The way the former CENTCOM commander presented the military option could be interpreted by Tehran as another sign of the reluctance of U.S. military leaders to resort to the military option.
That reading, whether in Tehran or in Jerusalem, could also be made based on the unclassified letter submitted July 19 by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Committee on Armed Services, outlining U.S. options for using military force in the domestic Syrian conflict. General Dempsey made a strong case against U.S. intervention beyond supplying the Syrian opposition with training, logistics, intelligence and certain weapons. In presenting these options, which included limited stand-off strikes or establishing a no-fly zone, he emphasized the risks, the costs, and the limited prospects for success, leaving no doubt as to the reluctance to engage in even a limited military operation.
Israel and the Palestinians need to make progress towards solving their conflict. In order to do so, they need a strong, determined United States that is willing to face, with military might if necessary, forces in the region that are determined to prevent real progress towards democracy based on the values of racial, religious and gender equality, and that will resort to weapons of mass destruction in pursuit of their political goals.
The message U.S. generals are sending, however, is contradictory and confused—we could do more in the Middle East if only Israel and the Palestinians agreed to solve their conflict, we could do more in the Middle East if we did not appear to be so supportive of Israel, but we could not really do more because it’s risky, it’s costly and ten years in Afghanistan and Iraq have taught us our lesson.
Oded Eran is the former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and the European Union and currently a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies.