After eight years of the closest possible relations,
the United States and Israel may be headed for a period of increasing strain,
particularly given the likelihood that whatever Israeli government emerges from
last week's election will be more hawkish than its predecessor.
While Iran, with which Barack Obama has pledged to engage in a "constructive
dialogue," and the future of its nuclear program will no doubt serve as
the greatest source of tension between the two allies, the new president's commitment
to achieving real progress on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian
conflict may also provoke serious friction, particularly if a reunified Arab
League launches a major new push for its 2002 peace plan.
Last week's election produced a clear majority for right-wing parties led by
the Likud Party of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly
declared his opposition to a settlement freeze, territorial concessions, and
the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Even if the more-centrist Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, can
patch together a government of national unity, the right-wing parties will be
able to effectively block major concessions in any peace talks, in the absence
of any external pressure.
"Given the philosophical differences between Kadima and Likud on peace
issues, such a unity government would be hard-pressed to make the historic decisions
needed to reach a deal with the Palestinians," wrote former U.S. Mideast
peace negotiator, Aaron David Miller, in the Jewish Forward this week.
But Obama and his Mideast special envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, may indeed
be willing to exert pressure on Israel among other things, by tabling
their own views about a final peace agreement and how precisely it might be
achieved especially if ongoing Arab efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah
in a new coalition government succeed.
If all goes well on that front, the Arab League, fortified by a developing
rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia, could announce the latest version
of its 2002 peace plan at next month's summit in Doha, according to Marc Lynch,
a George Washington University specialist on Arab politics. Such a move "could
galvanize the situation and put the onus on whatever Israeli government emerges
to respond positively," he wrote on his widely read blog on the Foreign
Policy Website this week.
"If you have a unified Palestinian government and a unified Arab move
for peace," added Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, "then
it's much more likely that Obama will step up his own efforts ideally,
working with an Israeli government that's ready to go along with a serious peace
process, but, if not, being willing to make his disagreement (with that government)
The result could be a serious test between the next Israeli government and
its influential advocates here and an administration which clearly believes
that real progress toward resolving the 60-year-old conflict is critical both
to restoring Washington's credibility among the Arab states and curbing the
further radicalization of the region's population, particularly in the wake
of Israel's recent military offensive in Gaza.
A more likely source of tension between the U.S. and Israel, however, will
be Iran's nuclear program
"It's very important to realize that Iran is going to be the most likely
issue on which Israel and the United States will have a serious difference of
opinion, if not a confrontation, in the next year," warned former U.S.
Amb. Samuel Lewis after the election last week.
Although Netanyahu has been the most outspoken, virtually the entire Israeli
political and military establishment has described Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions
as an "existential" threat to the Jewish state and suggested that
Israel should be prepared to unilaterally attack Tehran's key nuclear facilities
as early as within the next year if it cannot persuade Washington to do so.
Already last year, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked President George W. Bush
for bunker-busting bombs, refueling capacity and permission to fly over Iraq
for an attack on Iran, according to a new book by New York Times correspondent
David Sanger, entitled "Inheritance."
That request was strongly opposed by Pentagon chief Robert Gates, who has been
retained by Obama, and ultimately rejected by Bush. According to Bush's former
top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams, Bush who almost never denied the
Israelis anything was worried that any attack on Iran risked destabilizing
While the violence in Iraq has continued to decline, U.S. military commanders
insist that stability there remains "fragile," so that Bush's concerns
about the implications for Iraq of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran are likely
to be shared by Obama.
Even more important, however, is the new administration's conviction that Afghanistan
and Pakistan which, like Iraq, also border Iran constitute the
true "central front in the war on terror," an assessment backed up
by Obama's announcement this week that he will deploy 17,000 more U.S. troops
to Afghanistan over the next few months, bringing total U.S. and NATO troop
strength there to some 80,000.
Top U.S. civilian and military officials dealing with "AfPak," as
the new administration has dubbed the two countries, have made clear that they
hope to enlist Iran, with which Washington cooperated in ousting the Taliban
in 2001, in helping to stabilize Afghanistan.
''It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan,"
Obama's special "Afpak" envoy, Amb. Richard Holbrooke, said in Kabul
earlier this week in an interview during which he pointedly declined to repeat
Bush administration charges that Tehran was aiding the Taliban. "[Iran
has] a legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan's neighbors,"
Most regional specialists, including Bruce Riedel, who co-chairs the White
House's "AfPak" policy review, and John Brennan, Obama's top counter-terrorism
adviser, have long argued that Iran's cooperation would make Washington's effort
to stabilize the region and ultimately defeat al Qaeda markedly easier while,
conversely, its active opposition, as in Iraq, is likely to make the task considerably
That assessment has, if anything, gained strength in just the past few weeks
as Washington has scrambled to secure new supply lines into landlocked Afghanistan
after a key bridge in Pakistan's Khyber Pass was destroyed by Taliban militants
there and Kyrgyzstan threatened to end Washington's access to its Manas air
While U.S. efforts to compensate have focused so far on the overland route
through Russia and the Central Asian "Stans," a growing number of
voices have noted that a much less costly and more efficient alternative route
would run from Iran's southern ports into western Afghanistan.
Although Tehran would no doubt be very reluctant to permit the U.S. military
to use its territory at this point, NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Gen. John
Craddock, said earlier this month that he had no objection if other NATO members
could negotiate an access agreement with Iran.
Of course, it is not yet clear whether U.S. success in "AfPak"
and Iran's possible role in securing it will help trump Washington's
concerns about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
But the clear priority stabilizing Southwest Asia is being given by the new
administration and the abrupt change in the rhetoric emanating from Washington
about Iran not to mention abiding concerns regarding Iran's ability to
destabilize Iraq clearly run counter to Israel's efforts to depict Tehran's
nuclear program as, in Netanyahu's words, "the greatest challenge facing
the leaders of the 21st century..." And it will surely make it more difficult
for him or anyone else in the next Israeli government to "harness the U.S.
administration to stop the threat."