Netanyahu and the New Middle East

Netanyahu has just announced that he is forming the core of his coalition government with Avigdor Lieberman, head of the “Land of Israel” nationalist party. This has several immediate ramifications, the first of which is contrary to what many commentators have been saying in the mainstream media, simply, that the incoming Israeli government will probably be more stable with a narrow ideological band, than with a wide one.

Many left wing journalists have made the claim that the new government should be a “national unity” government that includes Kadima, the center-left party of Tzipi Livni in order to maximize stability. Whether or not a national unity government is desirable, pushing for it under the aegis of stability betrays a lack of understanding of the working of Israeli democracy (imperfect as that may be). Simply put, a cabinet with ministers who are various flavors of “right” will have less likelihood of blowing up and leading to parties walking out than one that includes complete ideological opposites.

The truly fascinating thing about Lieberman as Foreign Minister under Netanyahu is the opportunity that is now staring the Israeli government in the face. The Middle East is being transformed by the United States of America, and now, in the middle of that process, we have had a change in leadership and a total change in tone regarding our dealings with the Arab world. This creates great dangers and opportunities for Israel and the Arab states both.

Obama started his term as President with the idea that he would change the “tone” of relations with such enemies as Iran. He also said that he would improve relations with the Arab world, and apparently, to look at his actions since assuming the Presidency, he doesn’t understand the difference between those two entities.

Within a week in office, Obama made a fascinating statement to the Middle East in which he spoke of engaging with Iran and set a very conciliatory tone. This was interesting because he did it on Al Aribiyah television, an Arabic language news channel out of the Arab Gulf.

Now, basically, to boil down Obama’s statement, he said; “we want to talk, we want to improve relations” with Iran. He did it on an Arabic channel that is generally watched by Arabic language speakers. It apparently didn’t occur to the President that if you want to make a statement to Iran, it might be a good idea to do it in Farsi, not Arabic. In fact, while many Iranians speak Arabic, it certainly isn’t the language of the majority of that state. Instead, Obama’s signal went out to a lot of Arab states who are justifiably nervous about Iranian imperialism in the region. States like Bahrain, that have longstanding territorial disputes with the potential nuclear power that are exacerbated when senior Iranian government officials refer to them as a “province” of Iran. Other Gulf states are equally nervous about growing Iranian power to their North combined with restive Shiia populations within. States like Kuwait are also painfully aware of the problems of being a small, weak state with a low population that also guards a valuable natural resource. Kuwait is aware that Iran is just as capable of threatening them as Iraq, and all these Arab states have until now relied on the USA to provide them with an unwritten security guarantee against Iran.

Thus, Obama makes a conciliatory statement to Iran; but makes the statement principally to the Arab, not Persian, world, and predictably, this causes a great deal of nervousness amongst Arab states. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf nations, and others, are all grappling with the likely dimensions of American Middle East policy.

Since we have to assume that the Obama White House is competent enough to know the difference between making a statement on an Arabic language station and one that caters to Persians, we have to assume (perhaps more generously than this White House deserves) that he intended his message mainly to the Arabs. This means in plain speach that the USA is giving fair warning to those states who rely on us for protection that we intend to seek d’etant with Iran. Their security concerns are obviously secondary.

Expect the Saudi nuclear program to accelerate (leading to shocked statements from our mainstream media who are unaware the Saudis even have a nuclear program), also expect Egypt to seriously get a nuclear program underway. These are expected outcomes, but for the small states of the Arab Gulf, the choices are less obvious.

This brings me back to Netanyahu. Israel’s deterrent power in the region is helped tremendously by the election of a fundamentally right-wing government. Israel’s influence in the Middle East has always stemmed from their perceived willingness to actually carry through with the sort of threats Washington makes periodically but does nothing to back up. Israel on the other hand is seen as a sort of “Darth Vader” figure who will probably carry through with any threat it makes, and therefore has a good deal of deterrent credibility (unless it is making deals to trade 400 captive terrorists for a single soldier’s dead body).

With this in mind, if Netanyahu’s government understands the current situation in the Middle East, they will realize that a unique opportunity exists for Israel to fill the imminent vacuum created by Obama’s ceding of the US role as counter balance to Iran in the region.

Gulf Arab states will cast about for some other security arrangement to back them up against a nation that could easily swallow them whole, and regularly refers to them as wayward provinces. They will migrate to appeasement with Iran if no other option presents itself, but Israel has the ability to offer the Gulf States precisely the alternative they need. Certain trade and diplomatic relations already exist, along with a tradition of misunderstanding including Shimon Peres once refusing to sell Israeli tanks to a small Gulf state concerned about Iranian domination because they were an Arab state. If this small-minded thinking can be overcome on the part of Israeli leadership, Netanyahu and Lieberman will realize the true pragmatism of the Gulf leaders who place their national survival above diplomatic niceties. Unlike the USA, Israel actually has the credibility to back up such an arrangement because whereas the constant concern of US allies is that it will “pull out” of the region entirely when faced with casualties, Israel has nowhere to “pull out” to. They must back up their Middle Eastern commitments, because they have no other region to retreat to if they burn this one.

As far as US foreign policy goes, if Obama keeps on the course he has started on, we should expect to see a massive crash and burn of US influence in the Middle East as regional players rush to fill the vacuum left by our retreat and some inevitably swing toward Iran in a bid for self-preservation.

Israel stepping up to fill a “big boy” role in the Middle East may be too much to ask, but given Binyamin Netanyahu’s understanding of Iran, if any Israeli leader could see that far, he can. We may be reduced to hoping for Israel to hold the line against tyranny in the Middle East until the US gets it’s head back together, or the White House educates itself about the difference between Farsi and Arabic.

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~ by Jubal Biggs on March 16, 2009.

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