Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide by Michael B. Oren: A Review

September 1, 2015

 

by Avi Davis

It is interesting to conjecture what the history of America-Israel relations, written 100 years from now, will read like.  Will it paint the eight years of the Obama Administration as the very nadir in relations between the two nations, yet only a hiccup in a long and flourishing relationship that endured despite the pitfalls which almost upended it?   Or will it instead be seen as the commencement of a long and rapid decline to the point where successive U.S. administrations began  lining up against the Jewish state?

Whatever the judgement, it is inevitable that future historians will pay close attention to the words of Michael B. Oren, and his book Ally, a memoir documenting his four long years as Israel’s ambassador to the United States during the first years of the Obama Administration.

Oren, a renowned historian and author of two authoritative works on the Middle East ( Six Days of  War and Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East) possessed excellent credentials to assume his ambassadorial post in 2009.  A New Jersey born Jew, who had lived in Israel for 30 years, he had already acted as a kind of  ambassador-in-waiting, with numerous book tours and a role as a highly respected television commentator and editorialist for distinguished American newspapers and magazines.  A fervent Zionist, whose ideological commitment to the state had not wavered an inch from his teenage years, he also possessed  the added strengths of being affable, politically limber and remarkably self effacing, to the point where his superiors recommended him as a man without an ego.

Of course Oren does have an ego, and he is as susceptible to flattery and praise – honors he received in copious amounts, as any man.  Yet his book, which caused  a firestorm upon its publication in June this year, is a modest and careful appraisal of not only his own journey along the America – Israel divide in the first years of the Obama Administration, but of the rocky relations which characterized the relations between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, two men as different as chalk and water.

As a careful monitor of  the temperature of Washington political  life, Oren from the beginning projected that Obama would be a very different kind of American leader – expressing no particular love nor admiration for the Jewish state and instead determined to impose ‘daylight’ between the two long term allies in order to conciliate Muslim opinion.  He notes how Obama’s  Cairo speech in June 2009, in which he defended Israel’s right to exist on the basis of  the Jewish people’s persecution during the Holocaust and not on its 3,000 historical ties to its ancient homeland, gave an insight into  the President’s thinking.  The speech of course played directly into the prevailing Arab narrative which contends that the Jews are only recent interlopers with no historical ties to the land.

It was a statement that Obama was later forced to walk back;  yet, in a series of crises in Oren’s first year as ambassador, the new appointee quickly realized that the president’s attitude to Israel was, as he first suspected, far more born of ideology than of practical statecraft.

This became first evident in early 2010 when Obama sought to reignite the moribund peace process by insisting that Netanyahu order a 10 month long moratorium on all construction in the West Bank.  Such a decision would be politically risky for the right wing prime minister for whom the political support of West Bank residents and leaders was crucial.  Nevertheless, members of the Obama Administration convinced the Israelis that a good will measure such as this would jump start peace talks, build trust between Netanyahu and Obama and bring the Palestinian leadership back to the table.

But quite the opposite happened.  Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas weaved and dodged for the entire length of those ten months, refusing to meet Netanyahu unless conditions, which would be clearly unacceptable to the Israeli leader ( such as pre-commitments over borders and the status of Jerusalem as well as the right of return 0f Palestinian refugees) were met. When the ten month moratorium expired, Abbas turned his back on the prospect of talks altogether and would not consider returning to the table without for a renewal of the moratorium.

And so developed a consistent pattern: Obama would demand Israeli concessions and when given, Abbas would merely pocket them and walk away, with no consequences whatsoever for his recalcitrance.  Abbas would go much further over the course of those four years, applying for member status at the United Nations as well as applying for status as a member of the International Criminal Court, giving the Palestinians standing to sue Israel for war crimes, none of which he coordinated with the White House.  And even more egregiously, the Palestinians made a gambit, in September, 2013  to have a State of Palestine  recognized by the Security Council of the United Nations – a direct repudiation of the Palestinians’ commitments under the 1993 Oslo Accords.

None of this seemed to faze Obama nor his advisers who ordered a pro forma veto of the measures at the United Nations, but elicited no significant public reprimand or  rebuke of the Palestinian leader. Which naturally caused Oren to ask himself how the President could allow himself to be consistently kicked in the teeth by Abbas and yet remain so publicly oblivious and forgiving of the Palestinian leader’s transparent contempt.

There was no greater evidence of the tectonic shift in the relations between Israel and the United States  than in  the intense private and public battle over the ongoing Iranian  negotiations. Although  Ally was published a month before the final agreement signed between the P5+1 ( the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany)  and the Iranian Republic in Vienna, Oren nevertheless details the painful confrontations between Obama and Netanyahu over Israel’s national security issues  and makes clear that Obama deliberately interfered in Israel plans to launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities and consistently argued that negotiations were the surest path to Iranian nuclear deterrence.  In the end, he concludes, Obama seemed  far more concerned with the consequences of an Israeli strike than he was with the likelihood of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and that this has been the guiding spirit of his Iran strategy.

All of which begs the question regarding these confusing years – how did Obama’s statecraft, which placed such inordinate pressure upon its ally, the only democracy and stable polity in the Middle East,while more or less ignoring Palestinian malfeasance, advance America’s national interests? As the Arab Spring imploded and regimes increasingly hostile to the United States replaced long term allies in Egypt, Yemen and Iraq, Obama  and his Secretary of State John Kerry, seemed to become monomaniacal in their quest for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict   which proved only a mere side show to the real drama playing out in those countries.  The stark reality that the entire Middle East was fast falling prey to a barbaric brand of  Islamic fundamentalism seemed beyond them.

The tensions in the relationship should not, however, overshadow the more uplifting moments over the past seven years, such as when Obama reacted with immediate aid and concern after Israel suffered a catastrophic forest fire in 2011 and  when visiting  the Jewish state in 2013, delivered speeches which could have been lifted directly from the writings of  the fervent right wing Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

And this is not to mention the unparalleled cooperation which continues between Israeli and U.S. military and intelligence services –  reportedly more firmly set than at any time in recent history.

But the roller coaster ride which the author presents provides an alarming view of a White House which had arrogated to itself the right to assess its ally’s best interests, regardless of any input from the ally itself.  It represented a very dangerous, some might say catastrophic, descent into bickering, distrust and suspicion when one would have expected that the rise of  ISIS, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and the prospect of a nuclear Iran, necessitated  the forging of even closer bonds.

Oren’s final chapter is titled ” Goodbye Ally” which  foreshadows a suggestion that a gulf between the two nations  has become so unbridgeable that further cooperation- at least on a diplomatic level -has become increasing problematic. However this is hardly his conclusion. The “goodbye” in the chapter heading refers to his own departure from his post rather than a permanent rupture between the two allies and the author goes to considerable lengths to point out the across-the-board support for Israel demonstrated in Congress as well as the generally favorable attitude towards the state among American citizens.

Yet for all this bubbly optimism, the reader is left with the discomfiting notion that the once impregnable alliance has suffered severe, although not fatal damage during the Obama years, with an administration which was given over to  the idee fixee ( not the first administration to believe it) of the Israel-Palestinian conflict as incontestably the root cause of instability in the Middle East. It paints the portrait  of a president whose confidence in his own intellect and powers of analysis  successfully rebuffed not only the opinion and advice of America’s friends and allies but the very facts on the ground.

Whatever the final judgement on Obama, the book provides a cautious warning to all statesmen – American, Israeli or other –  that they should deal with the world as they find it and not as they wish it to be. As Congress begins the debate on the Iran  deal in the second week of September that warning may carry a heady resonance.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of  The Intermediate Zone.


Netanyahu Delivers a Warning

March 3, 2015

 


Netanyahu Flies into a Storm of Obama’s Making

March 2, 2015

By Avi Davis

As the time for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress rapidly approaches, the skies around him are beginning to darken in an ominous way.

Yesterday a report from a Kuwaiti paper alleged that some time in 2014 Netanyahu, in consultation with his general staff, had authorized a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities for fear that the United States and Iran had concluded a secret agreement which would have compromised Israeli national security.  Yet when informed of the prospective assault, Barack Obama warned that the U.S. military would shoot the Israeli planes out of the sky if they so much as dared to cross into Jordanian airspace.

While the story is almost certainly false (the U.S. army or navy has had a very limited capacity to interdict any squadron over Jordanian airspace – or even more likely Saudi Arabian airspace  – since the complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011) , the fact that so many people registered their alarm that U.S. and Israeli pilots might be involved in a real military engagement against one another, only illustrates its believability.  Relations have apparently sunk so low that the United States government now appears to view the State of Israel itself as the most significant obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

Such a view of course makes a convenient detour around both Islamic State and al Qaeda, both of whom possess a far more serious claim to that title.  Netanyahu might then be forgiven for a little exasperation with the U.S. President and his administration  – who do not seem to be responding to Israeli intelligence nor its analysis of the situation on the ground.

But the Israeli prime minister knows that he is dealing with an amateur in foreign relations, a leader who has demonstrated time and again a failed grasp of statecraft and whose stubbornness, even in the face of the most exigent facts, blinds him to the consequences of his actions and the catastrophic impact that they might have on the region.

Throwing caution to the wind is not a luxury afforded a tiny state like Israel, surrounded by hostile forces seeking its destruction.  But Netanyahu is not coming to Washington to represent just his own nation.   When he stands before the two house of Congress on Tuesday, he will, sotto voce, also be representing the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia , Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom have witnessed the United States’ abandonment of leadership in the region and its apparent willingness to appease a determined Iran, glowing with the satisfaction of having gulled and outsmarted the Americans.

For Netanyahu the gambit to address Congress, at the risk of raising the ire of the Obama administration, is a supremely dangerous one; Obama still has now a little less than two years left in office and during that time there are many measures he can take to either punish Israel or else continue to endanger Israeli security – a perilous position in which to be in, considering that Iran’s military advisers now sit virtually on Israel’s very doorstep on the slopes of the Golan Heights.

Democratic supporters of Israel in Congress, alarmed by the widening rift, have urged the Israeli prime minister to cancel the appearance.   After all, does he not know that Obama has repeatedly stated over the years that he would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons ( recycling those very words at a press conference with David Cameron not three weeks ago)? And hasn’t Obama just as often stated the United States’ commitment to the defense of Israel  – implying that it would back that commitment with military assistance – if not force – if necessary?

Why is he doing it then?

The first reason is that the negotiations, conducted in camera in Geneva, have not involved the Israelis at all.   The country most threatened by Iranian aggression – in fact the one singled out repeatedly by the theocratic regime for annihilation, has also been the one not even consulted about the outcome of the talks.  The Israelis are well aware that this is no oversight.  And it must surely invoke the memory of the Czechs who were not invited to join the British, French and Italian leaders at their negotiations with Hitler at his Berchtesgarden retreat in September, 1938.  The Czechs were handed a fait accompli and thereafter completely abandoned by the Allies – forced to surrender a sizeable chunk of their territory while dismantling their formidable defenses.

And while drifting down memory lane, the Israeli leaders are no doubt recalling the events of November, 1956 and May, 1967.

On November 5, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower, enraged by the surprise joint, coordinated attack by British, French and Israeli troops on the Suez Canal – just recently nationalized by the Egyptian dictator Gamal Nasser, issued an ultimatum to the victorious armies – immediate withdrawal or face a Security Council denunciation at the United Nations.  The swift and sweeping conquest of the vast Sinai peninsula by the Israel Defense Forces relieved the country of a direct threat in the south from cross border fedayeen raids and Egyptian military insurgents and the Israelis were not about to give it up without something in return.  Eisenhower decided to give them a guarantee – that in the event of a future attack by Egypt in the south, an international  force would be stationed from now on in to help defend  the southern border.

Fast forward eleven years and Nasser was seen again threatening Israeli national security, this time mobilizing troops in the Sinai Peninsula and sabre rattling, in blood curdling national speeches, for the annihilation of the Jewish state.  Israel, pressed on three borders by hostile armies made urgent entreaties to President Lyndon Johnson, pointing to the guarantees offered by the Eisenhower administration.  Johnson hesitated, claiming his staff could not find the document but promising to organize an international flotilla to break the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba imposed by Nasser’s navy.  Weeks went by and no such flotilla appeared. Frustrated and alarmed, the government of Levi Eshkol realized it was truly alone – the U.S. guarantees were not worth the paper they were written on.  With nothing else to lose he authorized a pre-emptive strike on the Egyptian air force, a mission which was ultimately so staggeringly successful that it essentially determined the outcome of the war –  concluded in Israel’s favor within six days.

This history lesson can surely not be lost on the current Israeli leadership.  They see the writing on the wall – a President who takes their security concerns with a passive non-chalance; who believes that Iran, for all its 30 years of fostering terrorism and instability in the Middle East, can be transformed overnight into a partner for peace; a leader who cannot grasp that the ideological engine which fuels the nuclear ambitions of the Mullahs in Tehran is the same motor spinning in the minds of al Qaeda and ISIS.

Benjamin Netanyahu, a far more savvy and focused strategist than the American president, knows all of this and knows the limited time the Israelis now have to make to make their arguments- if not to the U.S. president who has ceased to listen, then at least to the American people through their representatives in Congress.

In doing so, Netanyahu will be making the case that the quashing of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is not just an Israeli interest, nor just an American interest – but an interest of the world community which must combine to recognize the most significant threat to world peace since the end of the Cold War and deal with in an unequivocal and final manner.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles and the editor of The Intermediate Zone.


Barack vs Bibi: And the Winner is……..?

February 4, 2015

by Avi Davis

One could ask many questions about Barack Obama’s outrage regarding John Boehner’s invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress before first having consulted the White House.

They include:

Why has the U.S. administration allowed the President’s contempt for the Israeli Prime Minister to seep into public view?

What does the Administration hope to gain by so publicly insulting Netanyahu (as well, it might be added, Congress) by characterizing the supposed breach of protocol as such a heinous act of betrayal?

When, exactly, was the White House actually informed about the invitation since Boehner’s office has now revealed that it notified the White House of its intentions many weeks ago?

How, in creating a storm of controversy around this issue, particularly when exactly the same set of circumstances occurred in 2011 without a peep of protest from the President, are the United States’ national interests truly served?

The open contempt Barack Obama so regularly displays for the Israeli Prime Minister often skirts the boundaries of credulity.  After all, Israel is the one stable democracy in the Middle East; its situation, given the rise of ISIS and a revitalized al Qaeda has given the United  States an unquestioned advantage in addressing the threats to both America and to the West from those insurgencies; and its sophisticated intelligence network is an invaluable ear to the ground in a war torn, violent area of the world, necessary for protecting not just Israelis but other Westerners and Americans too.

Should the U.S President, no matter what his personal rancor or feelings towards another head of state, really allow them to color and subsume his statecraft?

Since both men entered their respective offices in 2009, they have famously failed to see eye to eye.  Obama and his Administration seems fixated on finding petty and trivial matters with which to flay the Israeli leader while at the same remaining equally committed to loading him with full responsibility for the failures of any potential peace deal with the Palestinians.

Yet the Administration’s veiled threat to the Israeli prime minister –  that there are ‘consequences’ for abrogating protocol, coupled with the reminder that the President still has 24 months to serve in office – is a signal of the fear that the Administration possesses of being upstaged by the charismatic and silver tongued Israeli leader.

Perhaps it has good reason to fear.  Netanyahu seems to have taken the measure of  Barack Obama, knows that the President’s term is steaming towards a conclusion and realizes that the next president of the United  States may well be sitting among the gathered senators and representatives on Capitol Hill on March 3rd. Why waste time appeasing the wishes of a churlish, unreliable American leader, who has demonstrated a disturbing nonchalance towards Israeli security issues and has even suggested solutions which would leave the Israelis nakedly exposed?  The pressing existential demands of Israeli’s national security with the rise of a nuclear Iran, does not give this Israeli leader the luxury of attempting to mollify an American leader with juvenile antipathies.

Better, it would seem, to deal with an American representative body that has historically been extraordinarily supportive of the Jewish state, has looked skeptically at Arab promises of peace and has vowed to support its democratic ally in almost every crisis it has encountered over the past 40 years.

Is Obama’s petulance and open disdain for the Israeli prime minister then just the manifestation of a fear of irrelevance?

Not entirely. For there is another issue at play here, one that has much less to to do with the personal relations between the two men and much more to do with ideological differences.

And that is Obama’s visceral, deep seated uncertainty about Israel’s moral legitimacy.

Schooled in the politics of the far left, which since at least the Six Day War has traditionally seen the State of Israel as an imperialist force which draws its historical momentum from colonial power, he became emotionally invested in the Palestinian narrative at a relatively young age.   He now sees the Middle East, much as his bedfellows on the far left still see it, as a fine Arab tapestry whose interwoven threads were twisted into ugly knots by the intrusion of Zionism.  The dispossession of the Palestinians, a people who of course did not exist before 1965, is an international crime which weeps in his mind for justice  – and he won’t be deterred nor beguiled by eloquent Jewish statesmen who wish to read to him from another another chronicle altogether which contradicts the one with which he is already so familiar.

This really gets to the root of the Obama Administration stance towards Israel – and no change of Israeli leadership is likely to alter it.   It would be the same attitude he would instinctively demonstrate towards any Israeli prime minister who makes clear that his first duty is the protection and security of Israeli citizens and insists on raising the roof about Iranian intentions.  In his weak policy towards the Iranian Mullahs and his concomitant lack of will in the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda, Obama has exposed his thinking that the Israelis need to pay for the grave misdeed of their country’s founding  which occasioned another peoples’ displacement and that their security concerns must take a back seat to his realist vision of a necessary accommodation of Iranian power.  If then their exposure is what is necessary to lead to a greater sense of regional security, it will be the price the Israelis will have to pay.

There is almost no doubt that Netanyahu understands this thinking and has ascertained that this most ideological of presidents cannot be moved.  He cannot afford to waste valuable diplomatic capital reeducating him on the realities of the Middle East and though he must know it will bring him into direct conflict with Obama’s own policies, he also knows he has no choice.

Barack Obama has created quite an art out of identifying the wrong enemies of the United States. Contrary to what you might read, our real foes are not oil barons, fracking exponents, Tea Party activists, the Koch Brothers nor Republican congressmen.  Our real enemies are the 7th Century barbarians wreaking havoc in the deserts of Syria and Iraq and the beturbaned Mullahs in Tehran baying for the blood of Jews and Americans.

The struggle between Obama and Netanyahu ultimately represents the contest between those who see the world as it is and those who see it as they want it to be.  Yet in the coming race to reach the moral high ground on this issue you will see that it is Benjamin Netanyahu who will ultimately triumph – supported by Congress and the majority of Americans.  It is this constituency which will come to view the animus of Obama towards Israel as strangely perverse when seen in the context of the decapitated heads and burning corpses left from ISIS’ rampages or in the roaring eliminationist rhetoric of an emboldened Iran.

They will recognize that the President of the United  States has allowed his personal animus and skewed biases to color his view of countries and their leaders whom the United States needs most to cultivate.  And history will not be kind to that legacy.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone


The U.S. Enters Uncharted Territory in Yemen

February 1, 2015
 By Avi Davis
On January 20th, just as Barack Obama was delivering his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, a key statement he had made about U.S. foreign policy was about to explode in his Administration’s face.

“I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership. We lead best when we combine military power with strong diplomacy; when we leverage our power with coalition building; when we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now — and around the globe, it is making a difference.

First, we stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists — from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris. We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.”

A central plank in that promise was the cooperation of the Republic of Yemen with which the United States was coordinating its confrontation with  al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group which claimed responsibility for the Paris massacre in the first week of January.

When the American-backed government of Yemen abruptly collapsed on that Tuesday, the  country was left leaderless as it became convulsed by an increasingly powerful force of pro-Iranian insurgents.
This collapse should not have been  unexpected.  The Houthi are a Ziadi Shia insurgent group operating in Yemen’s mountainous northern region. Originally a Shia oriented youth movement formed in the mid-1990s and attracting thousands of young, disaffected Yemenis, it soon developed a political wing which was distinctly anti- American and anti-Zionist.  It gained inspiration – and even financial support – from the Iranian republic.

In November 2011, Houthis were said to be in control of two Yemeni governorates and close to taking over a third, which would enable them to launch a direct assault on Saa’ana, the Yemeni capital.

By May 2012, it was reported that Houthis controlled a majority of  three more governorates, had gained access to the Red Sea and had started erecting barricades north of the capital Sana’a in preparation for new conflict.

In September 2014, the Houthis made their advance on the capital.   By the time Obama was stepping to the podium to deliver his  State of the Union address, the rebels had already taken the presidential palace in the capital Saa’ na and forced President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s resignation.

Yet the resignation of the president, prime minister and cabinet took American officials completely by surprise and heightened the risks that Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, would become even more fertile breeding ground for al Qaeda , which had claimed responsibility for hundreds of anti-Western attacks.

Now commentators are predicting that former President Saleh who had been ousted in a coup during the Arab Spring in 2011 is poised to make a comeback as an ally of  the Houthi.

But don’t hold your breath for that eventuality.  The more likely development is civil war, with the South, which is strongly Sunni, attempting to break away from the now Shia dominated north.

How could the Obama Administration have so cavalierly allowed this to happen?  Most Administration officials on the day after the attack seemed stunned by the developments, since they always seemed to believe that the Yemeni government was sufficiently in control to prevent America’s interests being compromised.

For Obama, Yemen has represented something like a real war – one he seemed willing, finally, to get behind.

In the course of his administration there have been over 130  drone attacks in Yemen on al Qaeda targets, as well as a further 15 U.S. strikes using other forms of weaponry such as cruise missiles.

Indeed, Obama vastly accelerated the drone campaign in Yemen in 2011 and 2012, just as CIA drone strikes in Pakistan began to slow. Forty-seven strikes took place in Yemen in 2012, marking the first time the number of drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan reached comparable levels.

One reason for the acceleration in drone strikes in Yemen may have been Obama’s authorization in April 2012 of the “signature” strikes that had been approved the previous year for use in Pakistan’s tribal regions. He must see it as effective military tool against AQAP. Indeed how the American born terrorist sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki was targeted and eliminated in September 2011.

 The U.S. bases and the drone strategy in Yemen are now in peril.  As of this writing, the Administration has yet to outline how it intends to cope with the new situation on the ground.  Its continuing negotiations with the Iranian regime only complicates its relations with Yemen, given the leverage the Iranians now exert over this area of the Arabian peninsula. Iran can, quite feasibly, hold Yemen hostage in exchange for generous terms in its agreement over  the disposition of its nuclear program.

Needless to say, this is not the most  comfortable situation for the United States to be in.

One then has to wonder exactly how much “smarter” this new version of American leadership is going to turn out to be.  Remember these words – “We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.” And then measure them in six months time against the U.S.’ ability to act in Yemen.

Perhaps then the ‘new American leadership’ will not look quite as smart as the President has presented it to be.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone


The Saudi Succession and its Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy

January 23, 2015

by Avi Davis

The Saudi Royal Family must be blessing the fact that polygamy has always been practiced so prodigiously in their country.

The ascension to the Saudi throne of Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud (79), following the death of his 90 -year- old half brother King Abdullah on Friday, marks the fourth time a son of the Abdul Aziz al Saud, founding patriach of the Saud dynasty, has assumed power following the death of a brother.  Indeed, the fecundity of that first monarch, who had, over time, married close to 40 wives, should be noted for yet a fifth half-brother, Prince Muqrin, now stands in line as heir apparent.

Abdullah had been a capable king, steering his oil rich country into a close cooperative relationship with the United States, offering itself as a mainstay of moderate Arab power in the Persian Gulf.  His cooperation as regent for his ailing half brother Fahd during the first and second Gulf Wars were essential to American victories in Iraq and the kingdom has functioned as an oasis of stability in a time of tumultuous revolutions in the region.

That is not to say the Saudis are the most savory of our allies.  The kingdom, despite recent modernization and reforms by Abdullah, is still a despotic autocracy, ruled largely by personal fiat where sharia law enforcement police roam the streets, women are routinely stoned, journalists whipped and free speech severely repressed.  But the United States does not have the luxury of choosing its allies in the Middle East and the Saudis have generally come through on their commitments despite their trenchant resistance to American styled freedoms and deep seated hypocrisy.

But during the years of the first and second Obama Administrations, the strength of the U.S.- Saudi alliance has been shaken as the Saudis saw  a weak U.S. President buckle on his commitment to oust Iranian backed Bashar al Asad in Syria; an unwillingness to shore up a long term ally such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the seeming intent to appease a belligerent and nuclear seeking regime in Iran.  Since 2011, the Saudis have therefore increasingly set their own course in determining how to confront their most pressing security concerns, even reaching a tacit, if diplomatically discreet agreement their avowed enemy – the State of Israel, in the event of that country’s need to launch a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

A new complication now arises with the collapse of the American leaning government of  President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Yemen.   The coup of the Houthi, who represent an offshoot of Shiite Islam and are closely aligned with Iran, represents a dynamic shift in the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. For now we can speak of a Shiite archipelago in the Gulf with Iran linking with Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Asad Alawites in Syria and Hamas in Gaza.   This situation for the Saudis will be completely intolerable as their Sunni government will become an obvious target of  an emboldened Shiite Iran.

Given the geopolitical layout of the present day Middle East, the Obama Administration is looking increasingly flat footed.  The President’s insistence that the P5 +1  negotiations with Iran in Geneva must be allowed to run their course, without the imposition of any further pressure on the Iranians by way of increased sanctions, has infuriated U.S. allies in the region – which includes Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The recent decision of the Obama Administration to ignore Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States in early March only seems to fit an eerie pattern of nonchalance regarding the Iranian threat.  It leaves us with the most incomprehensible of scenarios:  the U.S. paying court to our country’s avowed enemy – a regime which has notoriously financed or else perpetrated the continuous murder of American servicemen and civilians for over 30 years  – while ignoring and snubbing those who are its most reliable supporters in the region.

 

The new king, the frail Prince Salman Ibn Abdulaziz is now presented with a troubling dilemma.  Without the guarantee of U.S. backing the Saudis will almost certainly need to strengthen cooperation with the more moderate Arab regimes in Egypt and Jordan while firming up its  relations with the State of Israel. It make look even further abroad  to China for superpower protection.   This should not exclude a likely decision to begin to construct its own nuclear facilities, leading to an arms race which cannot have a happy ending.   Such developments could leave the United States out in the cold as its policy of engagement with the Iranians falters and then collapses.

The other element which could play a decisive role in determining relations in the region is that of oil. As the price of oil has tumbled below $50 a barrel – and looks likely to go even lower – the Saudis and OPEC have defiantly refused to pull back on their own production levels which has in turn contributed to a world wide oil glut and driven prices down even further.  This has caused  many of the new U.S. shale oil producers to scale down production with an accompanying painful reduction in their profits.

But the Saudis should not be able to have it both ways.  They cannot strangle the U.S. oil producers while demanding U.S. protection from an aggressive Iran.  Here savvy statecraft on the part of the Obama Administration could have played to the U.S.’ advantage – forcing the Saudis to scale back their oil production in exchange for a tougher stance towards the Mullahs. Unfortunately that may beyond the abilities of this Administration and this President whose own linear thinking rarely takes into account the variability in relations between states.

Committed to one course of action, Barack Obama is unlikely to switch gears mid-course.  But that, unfortunately, may portend a crash which could take with it an alliance that successive U.S. administrations over 70 years have fought determinedly to maintain.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of  The Intermediate Zone


The Happy Relationship Between Benjamin Netanyahu and the U.S. Congress

January 22, 2015

By Avi Davis

As love affairs go, there could not be one more honeyed than that between the State of Israel and the United States Congress.

For decades, through one Administration after another, Israel has been able to count on Congressional backing no matter what its alleged sins. Thus, when Israel hit Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak in 1981, and severe condemnation followed from the Reagan White House, there was not even a squeak of denunciation from Congress.  When the the George H.W. Bush Administration in 1990 refused to follow through with promised loan guarantees in protest of continued Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, outrage in Congress forced the White House to back down;  When George W. Bush’s Secretary  of State Condeeleza Rice began pressuring Israeli leaders to return to negotiations, Congressional counter pressure ensured that her efforts were weakened.

 

Netanyahu, who has served in office for almost exactly the same length of time as Obama himself, has endured the testiest relationship of any Israeli prime minister with a sitting U.S. President.

The Obama Administration has repeatedly displayed its disdain for the Israeli leader, citing his intransigence on peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and picking fights over trivial matters such as housing developments in Jerusalem proper.   Relations hit a low most notably in 2010 when, during a visit to the White House, the Israeli prime minister was deliberately snubbed as he sat alone with his advisers in the West Wing while Obama abruptly departed their meeting to eat dinner with his family.  As recently as this summer, when Israel was engaged in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza to silence the rocket attacks pouring down on its population, Obama and Netanyahu exchanged harsh words with one another and the Administration delayed an Israeli request for replacement of spare parts for its weaponry while also almost certainly instructing the FAA to ban, for a short while, commercial flights to Tel Aviv.

It is little wonder then that at this nadir of relations between the State of Israel and the U.S. Administration, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner,  has invited Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of both houses of Congress?

In response to the Boehner invitation, the Obama Administration stated that there would be no scheduled meeting between the two leaders during the prime minister’s Washington trip, having previously indicated that protocol had been breached since planning for such visits is traditionally conducted through the White House alone and not through other branches of government.

So with a deep freeze crystallizing on the already frosty relationship, the two questions which might be asked are: why did Boehner invite Netanyahu now to speak to Congress?; And what does Netanyahu hope to achieve by his appearance?

The answer to the first question probably has as much to to do with the exercise of political muscle for Boehner as it does with the realities of Israel’s geopolitical challenges.   The sweeping victory of the GOP in November’s Congressional elections, gave notice to the White House that Republican control of both houses of Congress would signal a shift in power that the GOP would not hesitate to exercise when it felt the time appropriate.    That time might be now as negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program become continuously extended.  The recent joint press conference of the President with British prime minister David Cameron in which the two leaders insisted that Congress not impose new sanctions during on-going talks has been greeted in Congress with frustration and a degree of contempt. In fact  Robert Menendez, the Democratic co-sponsor of a bill to impose those additional sanctions on Iran  has labeled the President’s as “sounding like talking points that come straight of Tehran. ”

The lack of seriousness with which the Obama Administration views the Iranian nuclear threat was on full display when the President stated in the same press conference that the talks had less than a 50% chance of succeeding.  This was of course another way of stating his belief that negotiations are actually bound to fail.  If so, what contingency plans is the President offering should  negotiations come to nothing?   He refuses to say or even address the issue.

Congressional leaders have taken this  as evidence of an emerging policy of appeasement which they  justifiably view with alarm.  Many, even in his own party, see a President out  of touch and out to lunch (or out to dinner in the case of Netanyahu) on foreign policy, living, as Daniel Henniger  has commented in the Wall Street Journal, on his own private fantasy island, marooned from the pressing realities of a dangerous world.   Although the President has stated that he is resolved that Iran will never obtain a nuclear weapon, what he is really saying  is that it will not obtain such a weapon on his watch – a very different thing.

In the meantime, Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted Boehner’s invitation and will speak before a joint session of Congress on March 3rd.

With an approaching national election in Israel on March 17,, many have speculated that Netanyahu engineered the invitation himself in the hope of boosting his political fortunes in his own country.  However that does not entirely square with Israel’s pressing existential concerns about the Iranian menace – which are reflected across Israel’s political spectrum.  For years Netanyahu has issued public warnings – before joint sessions of Congress and at the United Nations – about Iran’s nuclear arms program, emphasizing not only how it threatens Israel’s security, but how it challenges world peace.  The Israelis have been insistent on a tough sanctions regime but have equally insisted that the West must be united in confronting the Iranian regime, (by force,if necessary)  since that regime has been, for decades, a sponsor of international terrorism and whose leaders have repeatedly threatened not just Israel but neighboring states.

It is obvious that Netanyahu has abandoned any hope that Obama will come to view the threat of a nuclear Iran as seriously as either he or as Israelis in general do.  He recognizes, as many Israeli prime ministers have before him, that Presidents come and go but Congressmen can retain their seats for multiple terms.  He also understands the shift in power in Washington DC as the GOP gears up for a full frontal assault on the Obama agenda and seeks to expose the President’s weak grasp of foreign policy.  The Israeli prime minister’s transparent attempt to conduct an end run around the presidency and speak directly to those whom he regards as true friends of the State about an issue central to its physical survival, should not be seen as a cynical electoral calculation but as a responsible act of statecraft, that is extremely time sensitive.

In this way he will be speaking not just to the representatives of the American people but just as surely to the next American president – a man or woman whom he hopes will have a much broader  and more incisive understanding of the geopolitical threats facing both the United States and Israel – and with a greater political will to act than the current resident in the White House.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone 

 

 


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