The tumult in the Middle East is leading to a surprising turnabout for many powers, both inside and outside of the region.
Consider America. The United States, a longtime superpower in the region since the British withdrawal in the 1950s and 1960s, has found itself surprisingly powerless to deal with either the “Arab Spring” or ongoing Islamist upheaval.
In Libya, the decision to let the British and French lead the charge in ousting the el-Qaddafi clan translated into weakness and powerless.
Once the powerful benefactor of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and its main military supplier ($40 billion of U.S. equipment) since Camp David in 1978, Washington finds itself sidelined in the current Egyptian showdown. Its support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi alienated its natural base (Christians, secularists, liberals and the old "deep Egypt") while underwhelming the Brotherhood when it failed to prevent the military, once a close American ally, from ousting it from power last week.
And in Syria the United States has led far from behind, thereby alienating many of its natural secular-rebel allies by failing to provide them with badly needed antitank and antiaircraft weapons and a no-fly zone, while further infuriating its natural enemies, Al Nusra and Al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, its other natural allies, the Saudis and Gulf states, have been backing anti-American Islamist rebels in Syria.
In all of this turmoil, only one state has remained staunchly pro-American. That would, of course, be Israel. Whatever tensions may exist between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they pale when contrasted with the common interests of the two nations, which can do a lot for each other.
For one thing, Israel, apart from the looming Iranian threat, enjoys an improved strategic situation. Israel in its first twenty-five years fought four major wars against enemies threatening its existence (the 1948 War of Independence, the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War). Now Jordan has been at peace with Israel since the 1994 treaty, and both Egypt and Syria are seriously weakened by the uprisings in their countries. The Egyptian military, which is cooperating against terrorism in the Sinai and totally dependent on a wavering America for $1.3 billion of military aid, will be absorbed in the chaotic business of trying to govern a fractious populace, either directly or indirectly, for the next thirty-five years. It not only will have to deal with a sinking economy, but also a lack of tourism and foreign direct investment. Under these conditions whatever threat it might pose to Israel (already low) will sink to nearly zero in the next few years. That’s good news for Israel.
But there’s more. Syria, which has not launched a war against Israel since October 1973, has deployed its military capabilities to battle the rebels, secularists and Islamists. Having already killed close to one hundred thousand civilians, it has lost the “mandate of heaven.” With Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah assistance, the regime will likely totter along, retaining control over Damascus and a central and western part of Syria. Its inability to prevent or respond to Israeli air strikes—going back to the destruction of its nuclear plant in September 2007 to the recent attack on a Syrian military depot—suggest that Bashar al-Assad has neither the will nor the capability to take on a far more powerful Israeli military while fighting for his very survival.
Israel’s main nonstate enemies are also in decline. Hamas, which already was ousted from Damascus for supporting Assad’s opponents and lost Iranian support for its impudent behavior, has antagonized the Egyptian military though its active support of its ancestor organization, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel has suffered grievously from the thousands of rockets Hamas fired from Gaza into Israel, as well as two short wars. Now, thanks to the second Egyptian revolution, Hamas finds itself in dire straits. Its support of the rebels trying to overthrow Bashar Assad led to its being ousted from Damascus (where its Politburo was located), and alienated Syria's major patron, Iran. With the military overthrow of Morsi, the new Egyptian leadership is openly hostile to Hamas, which, as the offspring of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was hostile to the military and deep Egypt.
This means that its three major patrons are now hostile—and that only leaves Qatar as a potential funder. Hamas, moreover, is surrounded by hostile states—namely Egypt and Israel—and facing a desperate future given its overall poverty. This relieves pressure on Israel from the southern direction.
Israel's other non-state enemy, Hezbollah, is also in deep trouble. Having spent over twenty-five years championing the anti-Israeli cause in Lebanon, it has been unmasked as a radical Shiite organization, one founded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and directed in good part by its minders in Tehran. Today thousands of its fighters are in Syria supporting the Shiites and angering Lebanon’s non-Shiite majority. It is losing dozens and even hundreds of fighters by spearheading the war for Assad, endangering its own military capacity.
Finally, the Palestinians, who have long seen themselves and are seen by many Arabs as the defining cause for Arabs, are once more being punished by other Arabs, in this case Syria, which has chased tens of thousands of them into Lebanon. There they live in wretched refugee camps and can't buy property. As in the 1970s in Jordan, 1980s in Iraq and Lebanon and 1990s in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, it is other Arabs who have expelled them from their homes.
And yet, despite all this potentially good news for Israel, it might well turn south very quickly. Hezbollah could turn the tide for Assad. Rebel groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda might capture some of Syria’s nearly three dozen chemical-weapons sites. This might present a significant danger to Israel, especially because the Department of Defense has stated that these depots are so large that it would take seventy-five thousand American soldiers to neutralize them.
But, most importantly, it does little to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and threatening the very existence of Israel. Further, Hamas has upgraded M-75 rockets that can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Hezbollah has reinforced bases for missiles that could hit all of Israel, presenting an increased threat to the home front. To the extent that the multiple crises in the Arab Middle East absorbed the attention of the Obama administration and Western powers, it might allow Iran to lose importance in their eyes and to make a successful dash toward nuclear weapons and the systems to deliver them. This alone, given the small size of Israel, would mean that the crises in the Arab Middle East, far from possibly helping Israel, could ultimately prove a disaster for it. American resolve could help avert such an outcome.
Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Asaf Romirowsky is the acting executive director for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).
Image: Flickr/Samuel Johnson. CC BY 2.0.