Latest Middle East Conflict Focuses Attention on US-Israel Ties

Credit: haaretz.com[/caption]

It has been close to seven days since the Israel – Hamas ceasefire. As the fog of war is receding, two things have become uniquely apparent. The first, is that US news coverage of the conflict was weighted towards Israel. Innumerable time was given to Israeli lawmakers, spokespeople, and military representatives with little to no time given to either Palestinian lawmakers, the people of Gaza, or Arab Israelis. Secondly, and probably because of the former, almost 60% of all Americans sided with Israel during the conflict.

Sympathy for Israel remains a reflection of US perceptions on the Middle East, arguably for two reasons. Firstly, most Americans see something of themselves in the individual perseverance of a country that has defied robust odds in such a hostile environment. Second and more instinctively, after 9-11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and continued terrorist threats, support for Israel seems like a tacit victory against Arab or Muslim antagonists. However, these are perceptions and should not be the authentic drivers of policy in a region of shifting power dynamics.

It is time to challenge the US – Israel relationship.

According to Senate Resolution 599, passed on November 15, 2012, “ expressing vigorous support and unwavering commitment to the welfare, security, and survival of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”. Herein lies the paradox and one which Americans valuing secular and pluralistic principles should recognize, Israel is not solely a Jewish state.

At least 20% of Israelis are Arab Israeli citizens, with another 4% comprised of Druze, Christians, and other ethnic minorities. Israeli lawmakers and lobbyist have become relentlessly efficient at demagoguing the surrounding demographics, which supports the narrative of an exclusive Jewish state. This, in turn, provides the justification whereby conservative Israeli politicians can always claim legitimate self-defense. Even as settlement expansion and land theft continues in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as the blockade of Gaza, which is going into its fifth year.

As a matter of course, both demographics and external relations will overtake and shift the political archetype for American lawmakers and the relationship with Israel. By some estimates, the Arab Israeli population will outnumber the Jewish Israeli population by 2035. Can the commitment to a Jewish state remain unwavering if they become the minority in Israel? Conversely and more immediate is the change in political leadership caused by the series of events originating with the Arab Spring.

Prior to the events surrounding the Arab Spring, the engines of US foreign policy could always rely on countries such as Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan to play an active role in mediating conflicts with Israel. While the recent conflict was, in part, mediated by Egypt, the atmospherics are not favoring détente with Israel. As a new generation of Arabs assume power there will be an inescapable desire to challenge the existing status quo. The forward isolation of Israel is apparent. Only two of the seven Arab embassies remain open in Tel Aviv.

Naturally, this puts US foreign policy in the Middle East in a precarious position, especially with emerging policies from neighboring Arab states. If the US fails to bring Israel back to negotiations while providing uninterrupted military support, which is used to engage both Hamas and Palestinian civil society, it is entirely possible that certain Arab states will attempt to downgrade relations with the US.

This could include the termination of arms purchases, aid packages, and the closure of US bases, all of which are used to influence the wider strategic agenda in the region. If these dispensations are discontinued then the US will have no leverage to ensure that countries rotate in their sphere of influence. Countries like China and Russia can act as an immediate stop-gap for a loss of this influence. Unfortunately, this will irreparably damage the strategic security portfolio of the US, in addition to hindering economic recovery domestically.

Of course, this might not be prudent policy for certain Arab countries, but the Arab Spring has proven that no political class is safe from the ire of the streets. If pushed on relations with Israel, Arab leadership will react in their own self-interest.

None of this is to imply that Israel does not have a legitimate right to self-defense. The firing of rockets into Israel is contemptible; however, the artistry of Israeli media strategy has been to convince the American public that the Palestinians, in turn, have no right to self-defense.

This has been constantly exploited by US lawmakers to justify the continued isolation of Gaza including Eric Cantor who, in a CNN editorial, wrote, “Hamas exploits their own citizens as human shields, locating rocket stockpiles in populations centers.” The unspoken fact is, Gaza is only 141 SqM with a population density of 1.7 million people. Any location for rocket batteries will be in relation to population centers. This is an inauspicious tactical reality and should not justify the discriminate targeting of civilian populations.

So what can the US do to ensure that foreign policy objectives are achieved while also safeguarding Israel’s security?

For starters, the US must recognize that the political wing of Hamas is the elected representative of Gaza. Believing that the Palestinian Authority will become the main negotiator for Gaza is ridiculous and misguided. A probationary recognition of the political wing of Hamas will demonstrate good will with Palestinians, but also align the policy interests of Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan with the US.

This creates the conditions whereby Hamas has an incentive to engage in sustainable security frameworks, as a process for US brokered negotiations with Israel. US alignment with Egyptian policy on Hamas will also provide reasoning for the Egyptian military to root out terror networks in Sinai and close the smuggling tunnels into Gaza. This will temper hardline rhetoric and guarantee that there is no move to revoke the peace treaty with Israel.

Both sides must be brought back to the negotiating table with all wings of Hamas acknowledging Israel’s right to exist. This empowerment should happen by withholding aid and assistance on both sides. USAID provides 40 million a year in humanitarian assistance to Gaza and the Department of Defense, 1.8 billion in Foreign Military Financing. If neither side is willing to negotiate, this funding should be revoked. International funding of aid and weapons has enabled both sides to sustain the conflict indefinitely.

There are no easy solutions to remedy the conflict between Israel and Hamas; only hard choices. These choices must come from a realignment of US foreign policy objectives to the contemporary political realities of the Middle East. If not, the outcome will be failure.

The total arc of US strategy in the Middle East must be pragmatic and incorporate countries like Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey, which is impractical so long as US policy is inflexible on Israel and their policies in the West Bank and Gaza. The US must be firm with Israel while not sacrificing commitments to their security. This can be done without kowtowing to a government whose ministers publicly support, “sending Gaza back to the Middle Ages”. This is not the message the US government should be supporting as it seeks to rebuild its image in the Middle East.