Middle East Conflagration to Come? A Changing U.S. Role?

A generation ago, Israeli and Egyptian leadership worked to lesson tensions in the volatile Middle East. Israel’s PM Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat back in the 1970s realized that “jaw-jaw” was better than “war-war” in Churchill’s words. Since then (with the exception of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993) there has been a dearth of leadership—and serious peacemaking proposals. Israel has not seriously considered solving problem of occupied territories. For their part the Palestinians, the wry saying goes, have never turned down an opportunity to turn down an opportunity to resolve conflicts with the Jewish state.

Now, for a number of reasons, the tinderbox is especially dry and the sparks numerous and especially dangerous. Israel’s 1981 bomb of Iraq’s nuclear plant was in the minds of some “a quick fix;” but it only provoked the Iraqis to accelerate their nuclear-bomb producing capability.  The problems are now so intractable that “quick fixes” will not suffice. Instead, policymakers should strive for “reasonable fixes.”

Today, in the background is demographics. There are approximately 7.7 million Israelis (and 13.3 million Jewish people in the world), and approximately 1.57 to 1.65 billion Islamic people—and its growing quickly. U.S. relations with the Middle Eastern nations (whose populations are overwhelmingly Islamic) have been frigid in the post 9/11, post-US invasion of Iraq era. Although few U.S. voters cast their ballot for Obama because his father’s Islamic faith might help him in reaching out to this population, perhaps some had hope that Obama’s background could somehow improve U.S. relations with those of Islamic faith.

Focusing on Israel itself, the population of orthodox Jews in Israel is growing very fast. Therefore, the possibility of an “accommodationist” leadership in Israel coming to the fore is slim. Also, the Palestinian population within Israel and the West Bank is rapidly increasing. How these demographic shifts will affect Israel’s politics will be an important question for US foreign policymakers in the near future.

And, given the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic political groups, it is unlikely “accommodationist” leadership rise to the fore in the Arab world.

Given this situation, the outcome of the ongoing “Arab Spring” is critically important. If anti-Israel Islamist groups come to the fore in Syria, for example, Israel could feel yet more embattled—and might contemplate a “first strike” against Syria or Iran.

Traditional US-Israel closeness will make it hard for the United States to be an “honest broker” in the Middle East. The historically powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States will ensure that U.S. military assistance to Israel remains at high levels. However, with the Cold War over for nearly a generation, younger U.S. leaders will not see Israel as such a valuable ally as did their Cold-War forebears. If Israel loses its powerful patron the United States, it could feel even more embattled.

As such, whoever occupies the White House in 2013, U.S. policy towards the Middle East must be slow, careful, and deliberative—perhaps a return to the Nixon-Ford-Carter efforts of the 1970s? The worst –case scenario would be for a fearful Israel to decide to take unilateral military action against Syria or Iran—and pull the United States in to that war. Hopefully future US foreign policymakers will devise a way of preventing such occurrences.