How Israel and Saudi Arabia lost their standing in Washington

Following the nuclear agreement with Iran, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter arrived in Israel and offered a consolation prize of aircraft and missiles to strengthen the country’s security. Secretary of State John Kerry, for his part, hurried to offer a Saudi newspaper the first interview of his term, in which he reiterated that the US views Iran as an enemy and is committed to its allies in the Gulf. However, these gestures fail to convince its regional strategic allies: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to discuss military aid, and the Saudis take every opportunity to lambast the US agreement with Iran in every media outlet. US President Obama is derided as a scoundrel, as weak, as naïve, as a playboy and as an intellectual, disconnected from reality, while the western powers are presented as yielding to the Iranians for money – as apparently evidenced by the German economics minister’s hasty trip to Tehran just a few days after the agreement was signed in Vienna.

However, US policy is not driven by naivety. The Americans are directly involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, and are well aware of Iran’s role in the region. In Iraq and Afghanistan the US collaborates with Iran in its battle against ISIS and the Taliban. In fact, the US’s painful failure in Iraq and Afghanistan is what led the Obama administration to the far-reaching conclusions that have turned President Bush’s foreign policy on its head.

Bush divided the world into “good” and “evil”, and volunteered to play the role of global policeman, much to the chagrin of “Old Europe,” which feared his administration’s aggressive stance. Obama and Netanyahu began their terms of office together, but each moved in a different direction: Netanyahu continued along Bush’s lines, while Obama made a U-turn, rejecting the role of global policeman, with the support of the vast majority of the American electorate, and seeking to rehabilitate the alliance with good old Europe.

The defining moment that underlined the distance between the two leaders was Obama’s speech at Cairo University in 2009. Obama understood that if he wanted to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, he would have to find a way to placate the Muslim world, and the way to do this was to end the Israeli occupation and establish a Palestinian state. He understood that no real reconciliation was possible as long as the US supported Israel, which continued its Gaza siege and its construction of settlements in the Occupied Territories.

Indeed, within ten days, Netanyahu delivered his Bar-Ilan speech, committing himself to the principle of two states. However, since then he has done all he can to thwart American diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He succeeded in torpedoing the peace talks conducted by Kerry, and he repeatedly embarrassed the US administration by insisting on various strange conditions for the talks while continuing the settlement project.

Thus Israel, once a strategic ally, became a strategic burden. For decades, Israel has been dependent on US aid, and now, when the US needs Israel in order to extricate itself from its bloody interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it struggles under enormous costs in the middle of a global economic crisis, Israel refuses to stand by its side. Far be it from Israel to serve the strategic interests of the world’s superpower: instead, the US must subordinate itself to the whims of the Israeli fundamentalist Right.

It is not only Israel which is being asked to contribute to reconciliation with the Muslim world, but Saudi Arabia too – together with Israel, the Saudi kingdom was the central pillar of US policy in the region. But Saudi Arabia too disappointed Obama: the war against radical Islam required support for moderate Islam, and the end of totalitarian regimes such as those of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Therefore, the US saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a potential partner, perhaps the only partner, for bringing about the necessary changes. And then, two years after Obama’s famous Cairo speech, the Arab Spring broke out and all the principles it expressed were realized.

The US allowed Mubarak to fall, and accepted the Muslim Brotherhood as the legitimate partner in building a new democratic regime. Obama’s vision was fully realized in Tunisia, when the Muslim Brotherhood government led the democratic process, formulated a constitution, held presidential elections, and passed the seat of power to the liberal party when the latter won a majority. Similarly, in Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood set up a government with the blessing of the king, respecting the democratic process.

The Saudis, who nurture radical Islam and refuse to accept democracy, were none too happy with these historical developments. It is not by chance that most of those involved in the 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia, a detail the Americans have not forgotten.

The Saudis worked with the Egyptian army to engineer a coup, to bring down Egypt’s first freely elected president, and to sentence him to death on trumped-up charges. But the Saudi role in the region does not stop there. The Saudis engineered another army coup in Libya, using General Khalifa Hafter, and in Syria they channeled funds and arms to jihadist organizations so they would be a counterweight to the alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the democratic forces. In Iraq, the Saudis collaborated with the Sunni uprising against the Shiite president, Nouri al-Maliki, which led to a stronger ISIS, to the occupation of Mosul, and the creation of the Islamic State stretching from northeast Syria to the western Iraqi desert. In this way Saudi Arabia created chaos in the Middle East, extending the base of ISIS from Libya to Yemen, through Iraq and Syria, all the way to Israel’s border with the Sinai Peninsula.

In the process, ISIS became a threat to US national security and Iran became a partner in the struggle against it, while Israel and Saudi Arabia became a strategic burden, each for its own reasons. This situation certainly played into the hands of Iran, which was only waiting for Saddam Hussein’s fall after Bush occupied Iraq in order to step in to fill the vacuum, and today it enjoys the space Israel and the Saudis themselves created.

Therefore the Vienna agreement does indeed express a strategic shift in US policy in the region. Israel and Saudi Arabia are still allies and fulfill an important role, and will continue to receive massive US support, but their influence on American policy is waning. Until recently, Israel’s strategic security interests played a lead role in the formation of US Middle East policy. Now this has changed, and the battle against ISIS is the administration’s top priority. Israel and the Saudis have little to contribute to this battle – ISIS does not endanger them and Iran remains their main enemy. For the US, the situation is the other way round: Iran is a secondary foe, while ISIS is the main enemy. It is possible to negotiate with Iran, but ISIS must be destroyed.

The weakness of US policy is that Iran is a doubtful partner in the war against ISIS, which draws power from the sectarian hostility between Sunnis and Shiites. Iran is no different than Saudi Arabia – it supports Hezbollah while the Saudis support Jabhat al-Nusra. Shiite fundamentalism competes with Sunni fundamentalism, and both are leading the region into anarchy, which is tearing apart the Arab states. Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria are crumbling, and the chaos is playing into ISIS’s hands. The Vienna agreement strengthens Iran at the Saudis’ expense, and neutralizes the nuclear threat, but it fans the flames of the religious and civil wars in the region, while granting legitimacy to the continuation of Assad’s massacre of the Syrian people.

Netanyahu was right when he said the agreement legitimizes Iranian terror, but in his acts, his contempt for the international community, and his arguments with the Obama administration, he has pushed Obama into Iran’s arms and lost his credibility in US and European eyes. He who called on his supporters to go to the polls because “the Arabs are voting in droves,” he who promised that no Palestinian state would be established during his term, has contributed significantly to the regional chaos and bears direct responsibility for the warming relations between the US and Iran. The agreement with Iran does not threaten Israel – indeed, it is a boon for Israel’s security – but it ignores the blood of millions of Arab citizens, butchered and uprooted as a result of Tehran’s support for the bloody regimes in Damascus and Baghdad. This is the reason why the agreement has been condemned by the entire Arab world, and this is why it is a mistake for which the US will pay a very high price.

  • Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger

About Yacov Ben Efrat