Posts Tagged United States

A defense treaty between the US and Israel? Just say no

This is a response to an essay by Charles Freilich on U.S.-Israeli relations, published in Mosaic Magazine.

Trump and NetanyahuCharles Freilich has produced an astute and savvy analysis of the forces driving the U.S.-Israel relationship. It’s no surprise: all who know him regard him as one of the most thoughtful (and critical) students of Israeli decision-making, and his writing is a model of care and restraint.

But the reader encountering Freilich for the first time is bound to be confused, because his major operative conclusion seems at odds with his analysis. After explaining at length how it would best serve Israel to be less dependent on the United States, he then proposes that it strive to conclude a formal defense treaty with that same United States. Having noted that the stature of the United States in the Middle East “is at its nadir,” he urges Israel to “cement” its understandings with the waning superpower. What gives?

The explicit rationale offered by Freilich is that such a treaty would be valuable to Israel in deterring Iran. Indeed, he writes, it “might prove to be the only partially effective response to a nuclear Iran.” If that were the case, such a treaty would be an existential necessity. But I find it improbable that Freilich really believes this, because in many other op-eds and interviews he’s asserted the opposite: that Israel is perfectly capable of independently deterring Iran, were that country to cross the nuclear threshold. “Israel’s own deterrence should suffice,” he has written. If so, a defense treaty with the United States would add no value to Israeli deterrence of Iran, and so would be totally unnecessary.

Then there are threats that fall short of the nuclear. But Israel, as Freilich knows, is capable of dealing with these threats on its own, and when its estimate of such threats differs from Washington’s, it presently has the leeway to chart its own course of action. Even Freilich is reluctant to sacrifice this freedom, however infrequently Israel exercises it. That’s why he writes that “a treaty could be crafted that would explicitly not apply to cases of low- to medium-level threats and hostilities.”

So if a treaty isn’t necessary to deter high-level threats, and wouldn’t apply to medium- and low-level threats, just what would it add? I could profess to be puzzled, but I’m not. That’s because I’m an avid reader of everything Freilich writes, so I hope he won’t object if I put his Mosaic essay in a broader context.

Elsewhere Freilich has argued consistently that Israel is headed for perdition if it doesn’t separate from the Palestinians. To achieve that separation, he has written, “Israel will have to agree to withdraw from virtually all of the territory [of the West Bank], other than limited land swaps, to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and to divide Jerusalem.” Since there is no Palestinian partner to an agreement, Israel should work to “keep the two-state solution alive” by the transfer of additional territory to the Palestinians “and above all [by] a halt to settlements outside the ‘blocs’ and [by] provision of incentives to settlers to begin ‘coming home,’ even without a final settlement.” Eventually, Israel will have to be prepared “to move the 100,000 settlers who live outside the blocs.” Unless Israel does so, it will be headed down a one-way street to a binational state—if it hasn’t turned that corner already.

Why is this relevant to Freilich’s essay on U.S.-Israeli relations? Because it is his view that no agreement with the Palestinians will ever be reached without the United States. “Peace will be achieved, if at all, only with American assistance.” And the only way for the United States to achieve results is “to confront both sides and ‘crack heads.’” Freilich doesn’t say this in his Mosaic essay, but he’s said it elsewhere, and it explains his otherwise most puzzling proposal that Israel should seek a formal treaty with the United States.

The explanation is made explicit in this crucial passage:

A defense treaty might constitute the kind of security assurance and strategic “carrot” that could increase the willingness of a highly skeptical Israeli electorate to accept the risks, and dramatic concessions, necessary for peace with the Palestinians.

This sentence appears in an earlier iteration of Freilich’s Mosaic essay. It was titled “How Long Could Israel Survive Without America?” and was published last July in Newsweek. The sentence reveals that the real significance of the defense treaty isn’t its contribution to Israel’s security. Rather, the treaty fits into a future public-relations strategy for wooing the Israeli center into concessions, so that Israelis won’t entirely recoil when the Americans start “cracking heads.” It’s the carrot to accompany the stick, something a future Israeli prime minister can dangle as compensation when time is ripe for the next big push for “peace.”

This linkage of the defense treaty to the Palestinian issue is, however, completely missing from the Mosaic essay, and that has the effect of making Freilich’s entire proposal nonsensical. For if you think that now is the time for Israel to assert its independence vis-à-vis the United States, and if you argue, as Freilich does, that Israel should even give up U.S. military assistance, why would you argue for a defense treaty, which would only shackle Israel even more tightly to the United States? The seeming contradiction is resolved as soon as the missing rationale is restored. The treaty has nothing to do with Israel’s real security needs. It’s the psychological part of the compensation package a future Israeli government will need, when it prepares to divide Jerusalem and turn 100,000 settlers out of their homes so that they can “come home.”

Let’s give Israel’s electorate more credit: they know that a defense treaty wouldn’t add substantially to Israeli security. And Freilich anticipates this by making another argument: a treaty may not add to Israel’s security, but its absence could subtract from it. Why?

Because, he answers, U.S.-Israel relations may have peaked, and, absent a treaty, U.S. support for Israel might slip. Freilich emphasizes the erosion of support for Israel on the left end of the American political spectrum, before making this argument: “A defense treaty would symbolize and cement the ‘special relationship’ at a time when signs indicate it may not continue to be as deep as it is now.” By constituting “a binding commitment to Israel’s security,” a treaty would “ensure the ongoing availability of weapons, remove any residual limitations on the supply of arms and technologies, and assure Israel’s long-term qualitative military edge”—even if the relationship goes from “deep” to shallow.

Freilich says a treaty would “cement” the relationship; another common expression is “lock in.” Robert Danin, a former U.S. diplomat and negotiator, used just that phrase in a 2016 Foreign Affairs article: Israel and the United States could

drift apart as each undergoes demographic, political, and social changes. This may be happening already. . . . There is no guarantee that the strong pro-Israel consensus that has long been a bipartisan feature of U.S. politics will endure forever. Now is therefore the time for Israel to lock in the existing benefits of its relationship with Washington.

So we are supposed to believe that even if support for Israel in America were to erode away, the United States would continue to “pay out,” as if a defense treaty were a Treasury bill.

This is a charmingly naïve approach to American foreign policy. In the vast spectrum of promises of all kinds issued by the United States, the T-bill is the most reliable; the foreign treaty is the least. You can “lock in” an interest rate for 30 years and sleep soundly. Sign a treaty with the United States? Don’t close your eyes for a moment.

It’s not that the United States is less reliable than other nations. It’s that interests aren’t interest rates, and when they shift (or the perception of them shifts), no treaty in the world can hold up under the stress. If the assessment in Jerusalem is that the United States is going to drift away from Israel, the last thing Israelis should want is a defense treaty. Israel would end up imploring some future administration to keep commitments it would rather forget, and for which there’s dwindling public support.

Given Freilich’s own doubts about the stability of American politics and policy, it’s remarkable he continues to propose this. He has called Donald Trump “probably the most ill-suited president ever elected in American history, glaringly incompetent, a danger to the American people and to the world.” The American president, he has written, “is motivated by fleeting political and personal gain, rather than deep strategic thought.”

If one believes this, why would one continue to advocate a defense treaty with a polity whose electorate has shown itself capable of putting such a “dangerous” man at the helm? Perhaps the rules of American politics have changed? Does Israel want to be handcuffed to a polarized and weakened power? Don’t misunderstand me: it’s not I who’ve passed this judgment on the Trump administration. But if I had, I wouldn’t be pressing for a defense treaty with a state whose foreign policy has just fallen unexpectedly into “dangerous” hands and might easily do so again.

Freilich has argued that it would be a betrayal of Zionism were the Jews to become a minority in their own state. I think he’s right. But I also think it would be a betrayal of Zionism if the only sovereign Jewish state were to become a satrapy. I agree fully with Freilich: Israel’s independence has eroded, and it must work systematically to restore its freedom of maneuver. But a U.S.-Israel defense treaty would be precisely the wrong way to go about it.

• See the original response at Mosaic Magazine, right here.

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    Israel, American Jews, and the gap

    Moment Magazine runs a symposium in its November-December issue on “The Growing Gap Between Israel and American Jews.” Contributors include Elliott Abrams, Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi, Aaron David Miller, Jonathan Sarna, Anita Shapira, Abe Sofaer, Dov Zakheim, and more. Here is my contribution.

    It would be difficult to find two halves of one people who inhabit such totally different worlds. The blue-state suburbs of America, where most American Jews reside, are the most stable, secure and peaceful abodes known to humankind since the Garden of Eden (in one word: ever). In most of these places, no soldier has fired a shot in more than a century. American Jews are a minority of just under two percent of the population in an open society that embraces them. Having let their guard down, they’re being assimilated away.

    Israeli Jews are just under two percent of the population of the Arab world, which adamantly refuses to “normalize” them in any way. They are subjected to barrages of threats in a region where people fulfill threats of violence every day. Arabs can be ruthless to one another: The death toll in nearby Iraq and Syria since 2003 is about equal to the massive death toll of the American Civil War. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen to Israel’s Jews were they to let their guard down. Is it any wonder, then, that American Jews and Israelis see the world differently?

    Yet despite the perils, Israeli Jewry is thriving. When Israel was born, there were nine American Jews to every Israeli Jew. Now they are at parity, and the long-term trend is clear: Israel is destined to become the center of the Jewish world. Sovereignty is such a powerful elixir that Jews who enjoy it thrive even in the most troubled part of the world. In less than a century, the center of world Jewry will have moved from Europe to America, then from America to Israel. Alas, some American Jews are experiencing this as a loss. The negation of Israel is one (minority) response among those who can’t grasp the dilemmas of sovereignty in an often anarchic world. But the majority of American Jews are driven by a sincere desire to help Israel prosper. Where their expectations aren’t realistic, Israel must work to change them. But it must never ignore them, lest the Jews cease to be a people.

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      How independent is Israel?

      This article appeared at Mosaic Magazine on May 18. It is based on remarks delivered at a conference on “U.S.-Israel Relations” held on May 6 at the Center for International Security Studies, Princeton University.

      On Israel’s Independence Day, it is customary for the Central Bureau of Statistics to summarize some of the basic facts about the transformation of Israeli demography and living standards since the state’s founding in 1948. This is always an encouraging read. Israel’s Jewish population, for instance, has grown nearly tenfold in the intervening years, from 700,000 to almost 6.4 million. When independence was declared in 1948, Israel’s Jews constituted a mere 6 percent of the world Jewish population; today they are at 43 percent. Moreover, 75 percent of Israel’s Jewish population is native-born, more than twice the percentage in 1948. Back then, there were only 34,000 vehicles on the roads; today there are three million. And so forth.

      Israel has indeed grown dramatically—in population, wealth, and military prowess. These are all grounds for celebration. But has Israel seen a comparable growth in its independence? That is, has there been a comparable expansion of its ability to take the independent action it must take if it is to protect its interests and survive as a Jewish state? Or is it possible that in these respects Israel was actually more independent in its early years and that it has grown less so over time, especially with the deepening of its relationship with its principal ally the United States?

      Let me explore this latter possibility with a quick trip through history. Israel’s security and sovereignty as a Jewish state rest on three events to which precise dates may be assigned: 1948, 1958, and 1967.

      • In 1948, Israel declared independence. Just as important, the way it waged war, and the way the Arabs waged war, resulted in the flight of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs and determined that the new state would have a decisive Jewish majority. 1948 gave birth not only to a legally but also to a demographically Jewish state.
      • In 1958, still subject to Arab threats to eliminate it, Israel commenced construction of a nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev. Subsequent progress secured Israel’s existence against any conceivable threat of destruction by Arab states.
      • Finally, in 1967 Israel broke through the narrow borders in which the Jewish state had found itself after the 1948 war, giving it exclusive military control of the land mass from the Mediterranean to the Jordan valley—a control Israel is determined to preserve in any peace scenario. Israel’s victory also finally persuaded many Arabs that they would never defeat it outright, thus creating the incentive for later peace treaties.

      These three actions laid the foundation of Israel’s secure existence as a sovereign Jewish state—demographically, militarily, geographically, and politically. But here is an often-overlooked fact: the United States vigorously warned Israel against all three of these actions, and threatened that taking them would leave Israel on its own and “alone.”

      Signing the declaration

      Let’s begin again with 1948. Britain had turned over its mandate for Palestine to the United Nations, which in November 1947 voted to partition the territory into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Initially the Truman administration supported partition, but then began to backtrack in favor of a UN trusteeship over the whole. As Palestinian Jews contemplated whether to declare independence, Secretary of State George Marshall issued the first U.S. “alone” warning to Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), the foreign-minister-in-waiting. “I told Mr. Shertok,” Marshall reported to President Harry Truman,

      that they were taking a gamble. If the tide [of Arab hostility] did turn adversely and they came running to us for help they should be placed clearly on notice now that there was no warrant to expect help from the United States, which had warned them of the grave risk which they were running.

      This admonition so shook Sharett’s confidence that David Ben-Gurion practically had to quarantine him on his return.

      It was, then, in defiance of an American warning that Ben-Gurion declared independence on May 14, 1948. Of course, it is true that Truman immediately recognized Israel, much to Marshall’s chagrin. But the United States also imposed an arms embargo on both Israel and the Arabs. Since Arab states had access to British arms, this effectively left Israel to scramble for weaponry, ultimately provided by the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia.

      Had the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community, been dependent on the United States in 1948, its leaders might have decided against pressing for independence. Alternatively, had the new state been dependent on the United States, the 1948 war might have ended in an early ceasefire, leaving Israel a “Jewish state” governed by a bare and dwindling Jewish majority—something like the Maronite Christians of Lebanon.

      Next, 1958. With French assistance, Israel began construction of the Dimona nuclear reactor. The CIA immediately suspected the reactor’s purpose, but would underestimate Israel’s rate of progress. In May 1963, President John F. Kennedy wrote to Ben-Gurion, demanding that American inspectors be given access to the site: “We are concerned with the disturbing effects on world stability which would accompany the development of a nuclear-weapons capability by Israel.” Possession of such a weapon, Kennedy continued, would spur the Arabs to seek a similar capability from the Soviets, and others would follow suit.

      Then came a presidential threat: the U.S. commitment to Israel, Kennedy wrote,

      would be seriously jeopardized in the public opinion in this country and in the West as a whole if it should be thought that this government was unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of the character of Israel’s efforts in the nuclear field.

      Translation: you will be alone. Israel didn’t ignore JFK’s warning, but it also wasn’t alone, since it still had the cooperation of the French. In the following years it proceeded to stonewall and conceal its actions until, by 1968, the CIA concluded that, in defiance of the United States, Israel had indeed acquired a nuclear weapon.

      Had Jerusalem been dependent on Washington at the time, and had the U.S. already been a major supplier of its conventional weaponry, Israel probably would never have developed a nuclear program.

      Finally, 1967. In the spring, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea, blockading Israel’s southern port of Eilat. It also evicted UN troops that had been in the Sinai since 1957. Israel then asked the Lyndon Johnson administration to uphold an Eisenhower-era American commitment to keep the straits open.

      President Johnson not only balked; he warned Israel not to act. The U.S. position, as he formulated it verbally to Israel’s ambassador Abba Eban and in a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, was this:

      I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone. We cannot imagine that it will make this decision.

      Once again in defiance of the United States, Israel did make this decision. In a preemptive act of self-defense, it flew French fighter aircraft on its way to ultimate victory, thus utterly transforming its overall strategic situation. When Jordan and Syria joined the fray, Israel swept through the West Bank and Golan Heights. Had Israel already then been dependent on the United States for its hardware, the events of that June might have unfolded very differently, leaving Israel in its narrow borders opposite emboldened foes still bent on its destruction.

      It’s important to stress that none of the three decisions taken by Israel in the face of U.S. opposition was arrived at lightly or insouciantly. If anything, the warning that, if Israel did act, it would find itself “alone” sounded even weightier at the time than it might today. Only recently, after all, the United States had left the Jews very much alone. It had done so in the 1930s when it closed its gates to the Jews of Europe desperate to escape Hitler’s vise, going so far in 1939 as to turn away a refugee ship that had managed to reach American shores. During the Holocaust itself, Europe’s Jews were once again left alone as the United States conspicuously refrained from initiating any rescue program.

      Marshall, Kennedy, and Johnson had lived through these events. They could well have thought that warning the Israelis they would be alone would touch deep apprehensions and effectively deter them from acting.

      But it didn’t work, and for an obvious reason: in 1948, 1958, and 1967, Israel was not very reliant on the United States. Washington still believed in an “even-handed” approach as between Israel and the Arabs, and, though it huffed and puffed at Jerusalem, it also kept its distance. It lacked the leverage to make its “you’ll-be-alone” warnings decisive.

      Things changed after 1967, as successive administrations finally concluded that leverage could be achieved only by drawing Israel into the American orbit. The first step was to sell it Phantom fighter jets, and the rest followed. Over time, in the race to maintain its “military edge,” Israel has been given access to the world’s best military hardware and (for the most part) enjoyed the political backing of the world’s greatest power. The tradeoff, however, is that in becoming ever more reliant on the United States it has sacrificed some measure of its freedom of action and thereby eroded its independence.

      The erosion was evident as early as October 1973, when, deferring to U.S. pressure, Israel desisted from preempting an imminent Arab attack. To this day it remains a matter of dispute whether preemption was even possible by the point at which it was considered. Henry Kissinger, the American secretary of state at the time, has argued that it was not, but Golda Meir, then Israel’s prime minister, later testified to the contrary. “My heart was drawn to a preemptive strike,” she told the Agranat commission that investigated the war, “but I was scared…. 1973 is not 1967, and this time we will not be forgiven, and we will not receive assistance when we have the need for it.”

      In other words, the fear was that, by preempting, Israel would be alone—and that that would be disastrous. In the event, the enemy struck first, the fighting was desperate, and only a massive, last-minute resupply of American weaponry enabled Israel to emerge the winner in a war that cost it thousands of dead.

      This has been the general pattern ever since: Israel is expected to show “restraint,” if not to make concessions, in return for hardware and diplomatic backing. The earlier approach of ineffectual “you-will-be-alone” warnings was superseded by a “carrot-and-stick” approach, the carrot being the large military-assistance package.

      The method’s effectiveness was on display in 1979, a fourth crucial date, when the United States helped add yet another pillar to Israel’s security as a sovereign state by mediating the peace with Egypt. This would render conventional Arab wars against Israel obsolete—no small benefit, although it is still an open question whether the peace concluded in 1979 was as fundamental to Israel’s security as the achievements Israel made on its own in 1948, 1958, and 1967. Indeed, the peace with Egypt (as well as later with Jordan) rests no less firmly, and maybe more firmly, on those earlier achievements.

      One Israeli understood the price of his country’s growing dependence on the United States. In 1981, Israel destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor and bombed a PLO headquarters in Beirut, surprising and angering Washington. True to the carrot-and-stick approach, the Reagan administration proceeded to suspend delivery of fighter jets. Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin, a man with an acute sense of national pride, rose in righteous indignation in a remarkable statement:

      Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic? Are we youths of fourteen who, if they don’t behave properly, are slapped across the fingers? Let me tell you who this [Israeli] government is composed of. It is composed of people whose lives were spent in resistance, in fighting and in suffering. You will not frighten us with “punishments.” He who threatens us will find us deaf to his threats. We are only prepared to listen to rational arguments.

      Such words from an Israeli prime minister would be unthinkable today, when Israelis have become accustomed to a degree of dependence on the United States that Begin’s generation could never have imagined. The self-sufficient Zionist and Israeli “resistance” to which Begin alluded is a thing of the distant past. Today, it is hard for most Israelis to remember life outside the Pax Americana, before the era of the “unshakable bond” between the two countries.

      But this is why, as Israel celebrates its nearly seven decades of independence, it is worth recalling that things were not always like this—and that during its first two decades, when it didn’t depend on the United States, Israel’s very lack of dependence served it well. Despite Washington’s disapproval and admonitions, Israel achieved a number of crucial goals that still form the bedrock of its national security as a viable sovereign state. Had it instead become an American client earlier in its history, it would likely be a far weaker state today.

      In this perspective, the Iran deal concluded by the Obama administration last year, and vigorously but futilely opposed by Jerusalem, leaves one wondering whether a scenario might yet arise, possibly sooner than the deal’s expiration, in which Israel will wish it still possessed the freedom of action it enjoyed in its earliest years. Without the tools afforded by its American alliance, Israel would have very few options against Iran. But that very alliance may well foreclose even those options.

      Israel declared independence 68 years ago, but being independent is a process, not a moment. That process is still unfolding, and it is still incomplete.

      Illustration: Signing Israel’s declaration of independence, May 14, 1948. On left: Ben-Gurion; on right, Sharett. Government Press Office.

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        Superpower Outage

        This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 13.

        US and IsraelJonathan Tobin, writing at the Commentary blog, rightly dismisses as dangerous any Israeli attempt to play China or Russia off the United States out of frustration with the Iran policy of the Obama administration. When it comes to dealing with the immediate threat posed by Iran, only Washington has superpower leverage, and if Israel wanders off the reservation, it will only damage itself.

        But Jonathan makes a further claim: “Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.” This “linkage” is problematic, and its acceptance could blind Israelis to what they need to do to survive through the next half-century.

        The problem with American power, like all power, is that it waxes and wanes. We have become used to the notion that U.S. preeminence in the world and the Middle East is a constant. But it isn’t so. Geography has rendered the United States the most self-contained superpower in history. As a result, it goes through manic bouts of interventionism and isolationism, and sometimes awakens to the responsibilities of its power too late. It did so during the Holocaust, and it did so during the first years of Israeli independence, when the fledgling Jewish state had to look to the Soviet Union and France for the arms essential to its defense. The simple truth is that Israel cannot rely on the United States to do just the right thing at just the right time. That’s at the heart of the crisis of confidence between the United States and Israel over Iran, and its sources run deeper than the particular world view of Barack Obama.

        More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.

        Hedging has been a fundamental principle of Zionism from its inception. That’s how it managed to outlast the fall of two empires that dominated the Middle East in the pre-state decades. When political Zionism emerged, the Ottoman Empire still held sway over the land, and Theodor Herzl went as a supplicant to the sultan’s palace in Istanbul. As late as 1912, the future first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the future second president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, went to Istanbul to study Ottoman law, on the assumption that they would have to build the Yishuv under the same Ottoman power that had ruled the country for four centuries. (Here they are, looking like the deputies to the Ottoman parliament they planned to become.) A few years later, Ottoman power collapsed. Fortunately, Chaim Weizmann had laid the foundations for the support of the Allied victors, above all the British, whose empire now expanded to encompass the core of the Middle East.

        British dominance in Palestine lasted for thirty years, during which London became the center of Zionist political activity. Britain was the mother of democracy, bastion of freedom, and home to a strong tradition of philo-Judaism and Christian Zionism. Much was made of “shared values.” But Britain, after facilitating the remarkable growth of the Yishuv, backtracked on its commitment to Zionism at the very moment of paramount Jewish need. It was Ben-Gurion who understood that the world war would bring down the British empire across Asia and Africa, Palestine included, and who sought an alliance with the ascendant United States. Still, years would pass before the United States would admit Israel to a “special relationship,” leaving Israel to fend for itself in the world’s arms market. That insecurity drove Israel to ally with Britain and France against Nasser’s Egypt—to Washington’s chagrin—and to build a nuclear capability with French assistance—in defiance of Washington.

        Those days may seem distant, and Israel and the United States have had an extraordinary run. But history stands still for no people, and if our history has taught us anything about geopolitics, it is this: what is will not be. However enamored we are of the status quo, Israel needs a Plan B, and it has to consist of more than editorially flogging America for failing to maintain its forward positions in the Middle East. The State of Israel, like Zionism before it, must be agile enough to survive a power outage of any ally, and to plug in elsewhere. If Israel’s long-term safety really did depend on America’s will to govern the world, then it would be a poor substitute for Judaism’s own survival mechanism, by which the Jewish people outlasted the fall of countless host empires. But Israel’s future depends upon something within its own grasp: its ability to read the changing map of the world, to register the ebb and flow of global power, and to adapt as necessary.

        Let us pray for the perpetuation of America’s power to do good in the world. Let us prepare for something less.

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          The Middle East Circa 2016

          I have been remiss in not posting my remarks on a panel held on May 12, at the annual Soref Conference of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I shared the podium with Robert Kagan and Robin Wright, and the assignment was to envision the Middle East five years hence, in 2016. The Institute has published a précis of the entire conference, including my panel. Below, my remarks as delivered (or you can watch me say the same thing here).

          When I received the assignment for today, it reminded me of that 1999 book, Dow 36,000. At the time the authors wrote it, the Dow stood at 10,300, and the book became a bestseller. But today the Dow is only 20 percent higher than it was then—it’s only at 12,700. Last February, one of the co-authors wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why I Was Wrong About ‘Dow 36,000’.” “What happened?” he wrote. “The world changed.” Well, what a surprise.

          Now there was a lot of talk that sounded like “Middle East 36,000” just a couple of months ago. This is a new Middle East, everything you thought you knew is wrong, bet on revolution and you’ll be rewarded handsomely with democracy. Let’s face it: Americans like optimistic scenarios that end with all of us rich and the the rest of the world democratic. There’s much in the American century since World War Two to foster such optimism. But while you enjoy reading your copy of “Middle East 36,000,” I’m going to quickly tell you what’s in the small print in the prospectus—the part that’s in Arabic.

          First, the competition. For years, the structure was defined by what I’ll call, for short, the circle and the crescent. The circle was comprised of Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, wrapping around the region. It was an informal alliance of unnatural allies. American credibility and the willingness to use its power kept the circle intact. Opposite it was the crescent, beginning in Iran and stretching westward through Iraq, Syria, and into Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamists. Iran’s skill in using its leverage has kept the crescent in alignment. The crescent is smaller but more cohesive and integrated than the circle—largely because it’s mostly Shiite.

          These two formations are being transformed. In fact, the circle is pretty much broken, a scene of elbowing and shoving. The deterioration between Turkey and Israel started it, now the scuffling has commenced between Egypt and Israel, and this is only the beginning. In contrast, the crescent is still intact. As Syria wobbles, the Western end of the crescent could come undone. But the crescent is a more natural formation than the circle. Some of those in it happen to be cousins, so it’s more resilient. And even as Iran represses its own people, it’s been able to build bridges to Erdogan’s Turkey and post-Mubarak Egypt, capitalizing on disarray in the circle.

          Now, what the competition might look like in 2016 is anyone’s guess. Alliances will have shifted; some states may flip alliances. But the key variable, I think, is whether the United States can or can’t resurrect a stable coalition of unnatural allies. If it can’t, a few cohesive middle powers are going to emerge as rivals for dominance, and they will be testing one another as they jostle to fill the void left behind by the United States.

          There are four middle powers: Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. They are already operating beyond their borders, with flotillas to Gaza, and rockets to Lebanon, and secret bombings of Syria, and troops into Bahrain. By 2016, the middle powers will have developed more capabilities to do these sorts of things, from long-range missiles to surveillance satellites, and nuclear weapons will be next. And their competition will have intensified. In this respect, the Middle East in 2011 bears a certain resemblance to Europe in 1911. Looking five years out, that’s not an analogy we would want to see fulfilled.

          Now you notice I didn’t include Egypt as a middle power. There has been much talk of Egypt returning to its Arab vocation, to its past role as a regional leader. It’s unlikely. Egypt is going to have to recover from the revolution, which will depress the economy as long as uncertainty lasts. Is Egypt too big to fail? That’s going to be the Egyptian question in Washington between now and 2016. Egypt desperately needs to raise the rent others pay for its good will, so while we’ll hear the sound of the rattling sabre, more insistent will be the sound of the rattling cup.

          What about the other countries that aren’t middle powers? Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, the Palestinians? The defining character of these states is that they are highly segmented. Under a ruthless dictator, they have played larger roles—think of Iraq under Saddam, Syria under Hafez Asad, even the Palestinians under Arafat. But as the era of the dictators winds down, the likely outcome will be a mix of quasi-democratic practices with regionalism, sectarianism, and even tribalism. Violence will be endemic, and disaffected groups on the margins will seek to break away from ineffectual central governments. In some places, the very map may be redrawn. Some of these states are little empires, preserving in amber the interests of the long-defunct empires of Europe circa 1916. By 2016, some of these mini-empires could fracture. And in this volatile situation, Israel is unlikely to part from its own best lines of defense, the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights.

          Finally, a warning label on Islamism. Those who were mesmerized by images from Tahrir Square, and thought that Islamism was passé, saw only what they wanted to see. Today Islamists call the shots in Lebanon, they’ve survived a serious challenge in Iran, they dominate the scene in Turkey, they’re busy planning their creeping takeover in Egypt, and they’re poised to set the agenda for the Palestinians. Democracy, such as it is in these places, is usually a mechanism of Islamist empowerment. No one knows how this will play out by 2016. It does mean that Islamism’s opponents will have to be much more agile than they were when the dictators were doing the work.

          So I’ve read you the small print. But this is just a caveat, not a prediction, and the story can be changed. It can be changed by what used to be called a “wild card,” but is now called a “black swan”—something unpredictable yet decisive. There could be an Iranian spring. There could be a breakthrough on energy. China could propel itself into the Middle East. Who knows? No one does.

          More to the point, though, the United States could do something to help improve the story. Earlier I said that the key variable is whether the United States can or can’t resurrect a stable coalition of unnatural allies. The way to do this isn’t to resolve their age-old differences—you can’t, and you end up looking weaker for failing. The way to do it is to be consistent in rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies. Then people will want to be your friends, even if they don’t like the company. In other words, to resurrect the circle, you have to clip the crescent. You might not get to “Middle East 36,000.” But you might just prevent a crash.

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