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Peril of ignoring the Middle-East

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The peril of ignoring the Middle East

Walter Russell Mead

  • 7:26PM JANUARY 10, 2023

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As White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan prepares to visit Israel this month, he will encounter unexpected areas of strategic convergence between Israeli and American concerns. With Tehran’s utter rejection of Biden administration efforts for conciliation and its wholehearted embrace of Moscow, US and Israeli views of Iran have become more aligned.

But even as the strategic gap has narrowed, the moral gap is widening. The new Israeli government’s positions — on settlements, the Palestinian Authority, secularism, amending the Law of Return and changing the balance of power between the Israeli Supreme Court and the Knesset — all run counter to Biden administration policy preferences as well as the deeply held social and cultural beliefs of many American liberals and Jews.

Already one Israeli minister has visited the holy site known to Muslims as the Haram Al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The new government has restricted the display of Palestinian flags on public land, withheld revenue from the Palestinian Authority, blocked Palestinian construction activity, and cut the travel privileges of Palestinian dignitaries. As tensions rise on the West Bank, Biden officials resent what they see as gratuitous Israeli actions that could set off another round of conflict.

Meanwhile, the entire Middle East is in flux. Higher energy prices have sent floods of cash into the region, boosting the confidence of local rulers. China is working to raise its economic and political profile in a region essential to its future. The United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Russia are looking to thwart US policy in Syria, perhaps leading to the consolidation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The diplomatic balance is changing in other ways. The long European romance with Iran is cooling as the regime’s brutality at home and its collusion with Russian aggression in Ukraine sour European hopes for profitable and peaceful relations with the mullahs. A massive scandal over alleged Qatari influence-peddling in the European Parliament has stunned the Brussels establishment and at least temporarily dented the ability of Qatari diplomats to lobby against Israel, against Israel’s conservative Arab allies, and for a policy of conciliation toward Iran.

Mr Sullivan’s visit comes after a 15-year decline in America’s regional influence. Israelis, Arabs, Iranians and Turks all have less respect for American power — and therefore less regard for US wishes — than they did in 2008. President Barack Obama’s waffling and President Donald Trump’s incoherence left regional powers deeply sceptical about American wisdom and stability.

The Biden administration faces a real dilemma. Feeling overstretched against Russian aggression in Ukraine and Chinese ambition in the Indo-Pacific, the White House wants to minimise its exposure to the Middle East. Yet the region is too important to ignore — and the more the US withdraws, the more influence it sheds. As America becomes less relevant, regional actors feel free to make more decisions that Washington dislikes, effectively undermining U.S. influence around the globe.

Ironically, after progressives in the US spent decades denouncing America’s pro-Israel bias and its anti-democratic alliances with authoritarian regimes across the region, it’s precisely the Palestinians and human-rights campaigners who are the biggest losers from the American withdrawal. Weaker than the Israelis, the Palestinians desperately need outside mediators to coax concessions from Jerusalem that the Palestinians can’t extract on their own. The Americans, for all their faults from a Palestinian viewpoint, have a stronger commitment to Palestinian statehood — and the Palestinian Authority — than most Arab rulers do. And human-rights and democracy activists get more space when Arab governments either fear American displeasure or hope to win Washington’s support.

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For now it is Saudi Arabia and the UAE, not the US, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thinks about most as he struggles to balance the demands of his radical coalition partners with Israel’s national interests. Mr Netanyahu wants to extend the Abraham Accords, not break them, and he needs to take Arab concerns on board as he crafts his policies on settlements and the Haram al-Sharif.

If Mr Biden wants to restore American influence in the region, he can still do so. The price, however, is what it has been for the past 15 years. A resolute and effective US policy to disrupt Iran’s ability to threaten its Arab neighbours — if combined with measures to ensure that Israel and its friends can, if all else fails, take military action to block Tehran’s nuclear program — would put the US back at the centre of Middle Eastern order.

The cost of influence is high, but impotence is more expensive in the long run. If Mr Sullivan’s message to Jerusalem is that Mr Biden is ready for serious engagement along these lines, the response in Israel and beyond will be greater attentiveness to American concerns. Otherwise, Israel and its neighbours will continue to make decisions with less concern for American interests — and the Biden administration will struggle to manage the consequences.

The Wall Street Journal

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Article source: The Australian, 11/1/2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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