Haim Malka
CNN (Opinion)
October 6, 2011 - 12:00am

For a brief moment, the Palestinian statehood debate brought together two leaders seemingly at odds: President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Many Israelis were genuinely surprised by the depth of President Obama’s defense of Israel at the United Nations.

Despite the brief comfort that Obama’s words brought to many Israelis, the episode exposes a difficult predicament for both allies: Israel is increasingly dependent on the United States to manage its most pressing diplomatic and security challenges at a time when the United States, try as it might, is less capable of effectively addressing those challenges. The quandary will further complicate U.S.-Israel relations in the months and years ahead by aggravating political and strategic differences, primarily over the Palestinian issue.
The dramatic deterioration of Israel’s strategic environment compounds the dilemma, as the country faces its most serious combination of military and diplomatic threats in decades. Israel’s common interests with the Mubarak regime on everything from containing Iran to pressuring Hamas in Gaza have largely evaporated. Turkey is moving from a strategic partner to a potential adversary. The Palestinian statehood drive threatens to deepen the diplomatic assault against Israel and heighten its growing isolation. Meanwhile, the Iranian threat looms in the background, as the Islamic Republic continues pursuing its nuclear weapons program while its allies Hamas and Hezbollah remain firmly entrenched. While some of these challenges are constant, the current combination is increasingly difficult for Israel to manage.

For the Israeli government a lack of faith in the United States’ resolve and strategic judgment in the Middle East further deepens this predicament. The U.S. government’s response and initial enthusiasm for the Arab Spring and insistence on a multilateral approach to military intervention in Libya also deepen those doubts. Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to intervene on Israel’s behalf suffer from a fundamental mistrust of Prime Minister Netanyahu and a growing sense that Israeli policies are counterproductive and deepen Israel’s isolation, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently expressed.

Despite the misgivings on both sides, the United States has worked tirelessly to help resolve Israel’s daunting range of crises and challenges. The Obama administration struggled for months to thwart the Palestinian U.N. bid. U.S. officials also worked quietly for nearly a year to broker an acceptable compromise in the unfolding Turkish-Israeli saga. When angry mobs stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo in September, it was the U.S. Secretary of Defense who appealed to the head of Egypt’s military leadership to rescue the stranded diplomats. When it comes to Iran, only the United States has the combined diplomatic and military resources to lead the international effort against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Yet despite its tremendous efforts, America’s ability to manage these problems has diminished. America’s foes and allies alike are more willing to accept the risks of contradicting U.S. positions, and many perceive a growing regional power vacuum that they can exploit with more independent policies. Even after the threat of a U.S. veto, the Palestinian leadership was willing to risk cuts in U.S. aid in order to pursue its U.N. statehood bid. Turkey’s leadership believes that its opposition to a range of U.S. policies strengthens its regional stature. While the U.S. government maintains strong ties with Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, it is largely powerless to shape the direction and nature of Egyptian politics, which are just beginning to awaken. Iran too, in enduring international sanctions for over a decade, has found U.S. policies against the Islamic Republic tolerable.

None of these crises is about to be resolved. If anything they will become more complicated to manage as the United States struggles to respond to fast-paced regional trends and events that are largely beyond its control. The Israeli government is not solely responsible for its deteriorating strategic position. There is little opportunity for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians as long as Hamas remains entrenched in Gaza. Turkey’s leadership meanwhile seems intent on preventing a rapprochement with Israel, despite U.S. efforts.

Yet rather than formulate policies to ease Israel’s combination of threats, the Israeli government increasingly pursues counterproductive policies, such as ill-timed housing construction, that inflame rather than ease its already deteriorating diplomatic position. These decisions also complicate the United States’ ability to help manage Israel’s threats and mediate its diplomatic crises.

By falling back on these policies Israel’s government is threatening the vitality of the U.S.-Israeli partnership, and assuming that the United States will always see it as an indispensable ally. Because Israel has the most to lose from a further deterioration of U.S.-Israeli cooperation, the burden is on the Israeli government to adopt new ways of being indispensable that reflect the evolution of U.S. policies and interests in the region. Ultimately, the United States can only help Israel solve its challenges; it cannot solve them for Israel.


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