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A New Reality in U.S.-Israeli Relations

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By George Friedman
Founder and Chairman

U.S. President Barack Obama is making his first visit to Israel as president. The visit comes in the wake of his re-election and inauguration to a second term and the formation of a new Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Normally, summits between Israel and the United States are filled with foreign policy issues on both sides, and there will be many discussed at this meeting, including Iran, Syria and Egypt. But this summit takes place in an interesting climate, because both the Americans and Israelis are less interested in foreign and security matters than they are in their respective domestic issues.

In the United States, the political crisis over the federal budget and the struggle to grow the economy and reduce unemployment has dominated the president's and the country's attention. The Israeli elections turned on domestic issues, ranging from whether the ultra-Orthodox would be required to serve in Israel Defense Forces, as other citizens are, to a growing controversy over economic inequality in Israel. 

Inwardness is a cyclic norm in most countries. Foreign policy does not always dominate the agenda and periodically it becomes less important. What is interesting is at this point, while Israelis continue to express concern about foreign policy, they are most passionate on divisive internal social issues. Similarly, although there continues to be a war in Afghanistan, the American public is heavily focused on economic issues. Under these circumstances the interesting question is not what Obama and Netanyahu will talk about but whether what they discuss will matter much. 

Washington's New Strategy

For the United States, the focus on domestic affairs is compounded by an emerging strategic shift in how the United States deals with the world. After more than a decade of being focused on the Islamic world and moving aggressively to try to control threats in the region militarily, the United States is moving toward a different stance. The bar for military intervention has been raised. Therefore, the United States has, in spite of recent statements, not militarily committed itself to the Syrian crisis, and when the French intervened in Mali the United States played a supporting role. The intervention in Libya, where France and the United Kingdom drew the United States into the action, was the first manifestation of Washington's strategic re-evaluation. The desire to reduce military engagement in the region was not the result of Libya. That desire was there from the U.S. experience in Iraq and was the realization that the disposal of an unsavory regime does not necessarily — or even very often — result in a better regime. Even the relative success of the intervention in Libya drove home the point that every intervention has both unintended consequences and unanticipated costs. 

The United States' new stance ought to frighten the Israelis. In Israel's grand strategy, the United States is the ultimate guarantor of its national security and underwrites a portion of its national defense. If the United States becomes less inclined to involve itself in regional adventures, the question is whether the guarantees implicit in the relationship still stand. The issue is not whether the United States would intervene to protect Israel's existence; save from a nuclear-armed Iran, there is no existential threat to Israel's national interest. Rather, the question is whether the United States is prepared to continue shaping the dynamics of the region in areas where Israel lacks political influence and is not able to exert military control. Israel wants a division of labor in the region, where it influences its immediate neighbors while the United States manages more distant issues. To put it differently, the Israelis' understanding of the American role is to control events that endanger Israel and American interests under the assumption that Israeli and American interests are identical. The idea that they are always identical has never been as true as politicians on both sides have claimed, but more important, the difficulties of controlling the environment have increased dramatically for both sides.

Israel's Difficulties

The problem for Israel at this point is that it is not able to do very much in the area that is its responsibility. For example, after the relationship with the United States, the second-most important strategic foundation for Israel is its relationship — and peace treaty — with Egypt. Following the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the fear was that Egypt might abrogate the peace treaty, reopening at some distant point the possibility of conventional war. But the most shocking thing to Israel was how little control it actually had over events in Egypt and the future of its ties to Egypt. With good relations between Israel and the Egyptian military and with the military still powerful, the treaty has thus far survived. But the power of the military will not be the sole factor in the long-term sustainability of the treaty. Whether it survives or not ultimately is not a matter that Israel has much control over.

The Israelis have always assumed that the United States can control areas where they lack control. And some Israelis have condemned the United States for not doing more to manage events in Egypt. But the fact is that the United States also has few tools to control the evolution of Egypt, apart from some aid to Egypt and its own relationship with the Egyptian military. The first Israeli response is that the United States should do something about problems confronting Israel. It may or may not be in the American interest to do something in any particular case, but the problem in this case is that although a hostile Egypt is not in the Americans' interest, there is actually little the United States can do to control events in Egypt.

The Syrian situation is even more complex, with Israel not even certain what outcome is more desirable. Syrian President Bashar al Assad is a known quantity to Israel. He is by no means a friend, but his actions and his father's have always been in the pursuit of their own interest and therefore have been predictable. The opposition is an amorphous entity whose ability to govern is questionable and that is shot through with Islamists who are at least organized and know what they want. It is not clear that Israel wants al Assad to fall or to survive, and in any case Israel is limited in what it could do even if it had a preference. Both outcomes frighten the Israelis. Indeed, the hints of American weapons shipments to the rebels at some point concern Israel as much as no weapons shipments.

The Iranian situation is equally complex. It is clear that the Israelis, despite rhetoric to the contrary, will not act unilaterally against Iran's nuclear weapons. The risks of failure are too high, and the consequences of Iranian retaliation against fundamental American interests, such as the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, are too substantial. The American view is that an Iranian nuclear weapon is not imminent and Iran's ultimate ability to build a deliverable weapon is questionable. Therefore, regardless of what Israel wants, and given the American doctrine of military involvement as a last resort when it significantly affects U.S. interests, the Israelis will not be able to move the United States to play its traditional role of assuming military burdens to shape the region.

The Changing Relationship

There has therefore been a very real if somewhat subtle shift in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Israel has lost the ability, if it ever had it, to shape the behavior of countries on its frontier. Egypt and Syria will do what they will do. At the same time, the United States has lost the inclination to intervene militarily in the broader regional conflict and has limited political tools. Countries like Saudi Arabia, which might be inclined to align with U.S. strategy, find themselves in a position of creating their own strategy and assuming the risks. 

For the United States, there are now more important issues than the Middle East, such as the domestic economy. The United States is looking inward both because it has to and because it has not done well in trying to shape the Islamic world. From the Israeli point of view, for the moment, its national security is not at risk, and its ability to control its security environment is limited, while its ability to shape American responses in the region has deteriorated due to the shifting American focus. It will continue to get aid that it no longer needs and will continue to have military relations with the United States, particularly in developing military technology. But for reasons having little to do with Israel, Washington's attention is not focused on the region or at least not as obsessively as it had been since 2001. 

Therefore Israel has turned inward by default. Frightened by events on its border, it realizes that it has little control there and lacks clarity on what it wants. In the broader region, Israel's ability to rely on American control has declined. Like Israel, the United States has realized the limits and costs of such a strategy, and Israel will not talk the United States out of it, as the case of Iran shows. In addition, there is no immediate threat to Israel that it must respond to. It is, by default, in a position of watching and waiting without being clear as to what it wants to see. Therefore it should be no surprise that Israel, like the United States, is focused on domestic affairs.

It also puts Israel in a reactive position. The question of the Palestinians is always there. Israel's policy, like most of its strategic policy, is to watch and wait. It has no inclination to find a political solution because it cannot predict what the consequences of either a solution or an attempt to find one would be. Its policy is to cede the initiative to the Palestinians. Last month, there was speculation that increased demonstrations in the West Bank could spark a third intifada. There was not one. There might be another surge of rockets from Gaza, or there might not be. That is a decision that Hamas will make.

Israel has turned politically inward because its strategic environment has become not so much threatening as beyond its control. Enemies cannot overwhelm it, nor can it control what its enemies and potential enemies might do. Israel has lost the initiative and, more important, it now knows it has lost the initiative. It has looked to the United States to take the initiative, but on a much broader scale Washington faces the same reality as Israel with less at stake and therefore less urgency. Certainly, the Israelis would like to see the United States take more aggressive stands and more risks, but they fully understand that the price and dangers of aggressive stands in the region have grown out of control.

Therefore it is interesting to wonder what Obama and Netanyahu will discuss. Surely Iran will come up and Obama will say there is no present danger and no need to take risks. Netanyahu will try to find some way to convince him that the United States should undertake the burden at a time suitable to Israel. The United States will decline the invitation. 

This is not a strain in the U.S.-Israeli relationship in the sense of anger and resentment, although those exist on both sides. Rather it is like a marriage that continues out of habit but whose foundation has withered. The foundation was the Israeli ability to control events in its region and the guarantee that where the Israelis fail, U.S. interests dictate that Washington will take action. Neither one has the ability, the appetite or the political basis to maintain that relationship on those terms. Obama has economics to worry about. Netanyahu has the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox on his mind. National security remains an issue for both, but their ability to manage it has declined dramatically.

In private I expect a sullen courtesy and in public an enthusiastic friendship, much as an old, bored married couple, not near a divorce, but far from where they were when they were young. Neither party is what it once was; each suspects that it is the other's fault. In the end, each has its own fate, linked by history to each other but no longer united.

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