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Leon Panetta says Israel is increasingly isolated. But the big problem is that Washington is running away from its influence in the Middle East.

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Leon Panetta preparing to depart from Tel Aviv yesterday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is only the latest American to join the chorus of government officials and opinion-makers suggesting that the Arab Spring has left Israel more isolated than ever. “It’s pretty clear, at this dramatic time in the Middle East when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated,” Panetta said Sunday on his way to Israel. “And that is what has happened.” In fact, it’s the United States—not Israel—that’s losing power in the region.

Since its founding 63 years ago, the Jewish state has been relatively isolated from much of the international community. The United States has typically used the diplomatic and political clout befitting its superpower status—including its veto at the U.N. Security Council—to shelter Israel from the slings and arrows of its adversaries. So, why is the Obama Administration jumping on the bandwagon of those who peck away at Israel’s legitimacy?

When Panetta and others talk about Israel’s increasing isolation, they are essentially referring to Israel’s faltering relationships with Egypt and Turkey and the absence of a peace process with the Palestinians. As to the first, Egyptian and Israeli officials insist that while former President Hosni Mubarak is gone, relations between the two governments remain unchanged. Egyptian officials have repeatedly stated that they have no desire to break the peace treaty and forfeit $2 billion a year in U.S. aid. Of course, the Egyptian masses that toppled Mubarak have a rather different attitude toward the Jewish state, which is why they painted swastikas on the battering rams they used to storm the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last month. It would be useful to know what sort of policies Panetta thinks Jerusalem might pursue to earn the friendship of such mobs.

Many observers argue that Israel’s strategic relationship with Turkey began to deteriorate in May 2010, when Israeli commandos killed nine armed activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship that Ankara dispatched as part of an unlawful effort to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza. Angry that Israel did not apologize to Turkey, the White House now peddles this narrative for reasons of its own. Washington sees the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt, Syria, and the Palestinian territories, and it believes that the Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be able to influence regional actors.

Unfortunately for Washington, any influence that Turkey exercises will be on behalf of its own interests—not American ones. And even then, Ankara’s ability to project power is much more limited than Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman rhetoric would let on. As Israel’s ties with Turkey have withered, Turkish rivals Greece and Bulgaria, two historical enemies of the Ottomans, have jumped at the chance to establish ties with Israel. By losing one ally and gaining two, Israel is plus one in the strategic relationship column.

Consider the current scorecard in the rest of the region. Of the two terrorist entities on Israel’s borders, Hamas had to put some distance between itself and Syria when the Alawite minority regime there started slaughtering its majority Sunni population. Syria is also Hezbollah’s customary supply line to Iranian arms, but with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fighting for his life, that’s now been cut off. Hezbollah is isolated domestically as well: Shiites’ fear of another war with Israel has isolated Hezbollah from large parts of its own Shia constituency.

Israel’s more conventional adversaries are in equally bad shape. The nascent civil war in Syria shows that no matter how long Assad survives, his regime will be prevented from projecting power in its typical fashion: by supporting terrorism abroad. An economic meltdown in Egypt has turned its army inward to deal with domestic problems.

What does Israel’s strategic position actually look like? Hamas, Hezbollah, Egypt, and Syria are isolated. It’s true that the Iranians are still marching toward a nuclear bomb, but the possibility of losing Hezbollah and Syria along the way would represent a net loss. The fact is that only Qatar has had a more successful Arab Spring than Israel.

Contrary to Panetta’s warnings, the picture has never looked rosier for the Jewish state. What’s worrying, then, is not Israeli isolation but rather the isolation of Israel’s superpower patron: the United States. The real strategic danger to Israel is that America is losing its place as the region’s great power. Egypt, the cornerstone of the Pax Americana in the Eastern Mediterranean since the 1978 signing of the Camp David Accords, looks like an increasingly shaky ally. Half a year after the fall of Mubarak, the Egyptian military is incapable of controlling Cairo—never mind the Sinai.

In Syria, the Obama Administration has disdained to play any hand at all. The administration has hesitated to throw its weight behind the opposition movement, and U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford has warned that if Assad’s opponents take up arms they will lose whatever international support they have. In other words, as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia all make contingency plans for Syria, the White House announces it is out of the picture. Net American gain: zero.

By withdrawing from Iraq, the White House has effectively abandoned a vital U.S. interest to Iran. President Barack Obama sought meaningful engagement with the Iranians, but Tehran rebuffed even the administration’s offer to establish a hotline to prevent some minor event from turning into a major conflagration. The Iranian message is clear: There is no reason to talk, since our intent to drive you from the region couldn’t be clearer. Another zero.

The White House has shown it will not take the Iranian nuclear issue seriously. Clandestine operations and cyber-warfare are not serious actions taken by a superpower against a state threatening a nuclear breakout: They are sideshows meant to assuage Israel and distract our Arab allies in the Gulf. Accordingly, the Saudis have warned they will go their own way by building their own coalitions against Iran. Even the Palestinian Authority, which exists solely at the pleasure of the U.S. government, and thanks to the munificence of American taxpayers, has decided to strike out on its own at the United Nations.

Can Jerusalem survive Washington’s self-imposed isolation? Of course it will. Israel is a part of the Middle East—the region from which the United States, purposefully or not, is now extricating itself.

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Jules says:

Washington should (as the American people too would much prefer not any much longer like to be dragged into a dragging pit of preposterous hell) abandon it’s influence in the region until Israel is serious about its colonizing designs on Arab inhabited lands and properties that are still under Israeli occupation. Abandon the madness until Israel comes around to ending its illegitimate claims to all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. End of story. It is enough.

georges melhem says:

The more the US pulls out,(not that it’s firmly entrenched anywhere) the greater the vacuum for others to fill. God help us here.
Txs Lee, always to the point.

Charlie in NY says:

As any objective observer understands, the US interest in the Middle East happens not to be driven by concern for Israel but by its interest in energy stability (and this was true during the Cold War as well when, pre-1967 the US was not exactly Israel’s closest ally). Although oil is fairly fungible commodity on the market, we are there mainly for Europe’s security. What Israel does provide the US is a stable and reliable partner in that area. Comments such as Jules’ simply reveal a lack of historical understanding of the region that seems all too common when the topic of Israel is raised. Some passing familiarity with the San Remo Conference, Treaty of Lausanne, League of Nations Mandate for Palestine and UN Article 80, and this sadly is just for starters, would result in the expression of views more grounded in fact and less in facile and unhelpful rhetoric. You can always disagree with territorial dispositions but you should not ignore that they were done (and the legal consequences that flow from them) simply because in this instance it was Jews who were the beneficiaries.

Lee Smith states that the PA exists solely because of the munificence of the American taxpayer.

If so, why oh why can’t the Europeans fund this? After all, we’re in the Middle East primarily for their (Europeans) benefit.

Dave, you’re in completely crazed denial. We are (The United States of America)in the Mid East for raw petroleum and the products produced there from. Your simple mindedness and silly sophistry might have seemed and been deemed quaintly sweet a quarter century ago, now however you just sound stupid as you really step your foot in it.

Beatrix says:

What do you want to bet that Jules name is not Jules, and that he’s about as Jewish as my pet pig.

American? Possibly a lefty, but don’t count on it.

Beatrix says:

By the way, this is an excellent article. How I miss intelligent, experienced leadership.

I too thought that this was an excellent article with one meaningful exception.

Strategic relations between Turkey and Israel started well before the foltilla episode. Think back a year or two, after operation Cast Lead, when Turkey’s Prime Minister lashed out during an international conference with an ad homen attack on Peres in which he accsed him of being a murderer of innocent women and children.

It’s a persuasive argument, but what prevents Israel from acceding to U.S. wishes and imposing a freeze on settlements and going an extra mile in trying to satisfy Palestinian preconditions for talking?

If the Palestinians are insincere, it will call their bluff.

Moreover, the U.S. Israeli relationship is mutually beneficial, and U.S. aid is used mainly to purchase U.S. goods, but it is unbecoming to flout the requests of a benefactor, even one that reaps all sorts of intangible goods from its patronage.

If U.S. influence in the area is waning, then why buck it in the same manner as the loathsome regimes in Turkey and elsewhere? Why not redouble efforts to be a good friend and yield unconditionally to American recommendations regarding the peace process?


Israel did impose a freeze and the Palestinians refusesed to come to the table.

June, I know. Why not do it again? What is the downside? I’m as cynical as anyone about the Palestinian leadership, but why not force them to match their rhetoric with action? If they won’t, so be it. There is no cost, and it reaffirms a commitment to Washington, even if Washington’s tactics are flawed.

My real fear is that Netanyahu’s domestic political maneuvering to undercut his right flank’s influence is doing irrevocable harm to Israel’s relationship to the U.S. I don’t know what the Republicans are whispering in Netanyahu’s ear, but forging a temporary alliance with them at the expense of the broader relationship will earn negligible short term benefits with disastrous long term costs.

Jules says:

Roy, I agree with your statements. Mr. Netanyahu is merely using an old tried and true stalling tactic that is so tired and absurdly out of date that it would be stupidly tragic to tart it out any longer until it is really too late.

Beatrix says:

Netanyahu finally agreed to negotiate from 1967 borders and to stop building in settlements. Again. Palestine still is going to go ahead with their UN bid for statehood.

And whenever Netanyahu agrees to stop building in settlements, Abbas adds that he also has to stop building in East Jerusalem, even in Jewish neighborhoods.

Netanyahu will never satisfy Abbas. It’s time for Obama to insist that Abbas satisfy him.

Obama needs money for reelection and so this is the only time he’ll do anything for Israel.

Europe does donate billions to Palestine and the UN supports the camps the Palestinians set up for the “right of return” where half of their people reside.

Jules says:

It’s time for Netanyahu to get a life.

jonny b says:

“Influence” in the Middle East seems highly overrated to me. All the US needs to do is keep the shipping lanes open. As the world’s only naval superpower this should not require much help from the regional players. The US should leave the petty squabbles of the various inhabitants of the region well enough alone, be they Jews, Arabs, Persians, Turks, or Kurds. Why should the US pick sides in any of these fights? To what end? Each one is worse than the last. What little oil remains under Arabian sand will flow regardless. It always does.

Jules says:

The lone role of police force everyday on the beat has bled our home economy so badly sore I don’t think the American people can or will tolerate it any more.

Stuart Wilder says:

Lee Smith and his friends in the National Review/Weekly Standard crowd share a large part of the blame for American retreat from responsibilities it once willingly assumed. Before they made their unholy alliance with the know-nothing crowd that does not want to pay taxes and believes government is good for nothing they should have thought about how this crowd would turn on allowing tax dollars to go overseas or to pay to back up America’s word. It is only a matter of time, perhaps months, before this crowd turns on Israel too due to the large share of the budget that goes its way and towards its interests, whether or not those interests are shared with the U.S. Defense and effective foreign policy costs money, and Americans will not tolerate that money being spent overseas while they are out of work unless they are being taken care of too.

This article pure Zionist propaganda. Look Zionist asshole, sooner or later, your terrorist state israel will pay for the crimes they committed. No body believes in you, because you are liar, untrustworthy. Sooner or later, people you rob in America and Europe will wakeup, then, you are nothing, yes nothing. No more money, no more support to your zionist lies.

The Obama administration has been isolating the US world wide, it has alienated Czech Rep., Poland, cancelling the missile shield unilaterally, Insulting the Dali Lama, PM Brown, Pres Berluscolli, Pres Sarkozy, and Pres Merkel. He has turned a blind eye to Chinas’ expansion in Asia. He has actively forfeited the muslim world. Now that the US has extolled the arab spring let’s see where it evolves. Obama has refused to talk with turkey about its anti west actions,and actually rewarded turkey with UAVs, Attack copters and a radar site. The Us barely responded when turkey stated that info would not be shared with Israel.Will it be used to spy on Israel? Obama is set on isolating the US and making US a third rate power. He so stated in his Cairo speech

Obama should and will stick to his decision as the American people broadly agree and support it as well that if Israel is on the level about engaging in the embarkation of a true and lasting peace it must stop building illegal settlements on lands held ironclad under occupation since 1967(the West Bank and East Jerusalem). I support my president’s policy as set forth and I feel fully confidant that the American people support it as well. Enough foot dragging over this. At some 60 plus years it is time for Israel to stop being a bully and start being an earnest peace seeker.

Rocky says:

A lot of the public relations damage that has been done to Israel is of its own making. I have no use for religious fundamentalists, whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. If religious Jews in Israel wish to write off the majority of US Jews who are not very religious or are not religious at all, that is their choice. But you can’t run a modern economy with an increasingly theocratic population. I can’t recall an ultra Orthodox Jew ever winning a Nobel prize in anything.

Shalom Freedman says:

This is an especially thoughtful and interesting article. It brings out ‘positive sides’ of recent developments in regard to Israel, that I had not seen. I would only raise the question of whether Bulgaria and Greece taken together are worth the friendship of Turkey alone. Turkey has been important to Israel in many ways. One is Intelligence cooperation in the war against Terrorism. Another is military cooperation including Israeli use of Turkish airspace for training. A third is commercial relations. A fourth is the friendship with a large and important Islamic state as an opening toward Peace with the greater Islamic world.
The loss of Turkey is extremely meaningful then. Even more troublesome is the possibility, given the question of
Erdogan’s intense hostility to Israel of an actual outbreak of violence. Erdogan seems in certain ways now to be in the irrational mode. I will not detail this. But there is much to be concerned about in regard to the Turkish turn.
I would only second the point however that the U.S. has not shown real backbone and strength in regard to Turkey.

This article is an example of the kind of inbred group think that comes about when like minded folks come together to expound on an issue that touches them closely. Objectivity is sacrificed for delusion. F.Y.I., Israel really is isolating itself from the world at large and really is slipping into a dangerous position…

Beatrix says:

Israel has just won its 3rd Nobel Prize and it’s only 63 years old. They’ve contributed to our cell phones, computers, medical science, and weapons for defense with their sophisticated inventions and upgrades.

They have won numerous prizes for their books, poetry and their movies have even been nominated for Oscars.

They have relations with numerous nations in the world. Even nations who vote with Palestine because they need Arab oil, deal with Israel because of her business and scientific acumen. Palestine simply has nothing to offer.

Abbas would love to have the power to isolate Israel, but he hasn’t done it except in the mind of the Obama administration and its supporters.

an impressive very very accurate analysis of politics in Middle East

Tushar Pimpale says:

Well said, in a few words. USA should look inward and solve its own economic and social problems and restore its American public confidence inside its own household.

One big blunder committed in Iraq by the then American hawks which drained the American exchequer of trillions of dollars is driving America into the whorl of another cyclonic disaster. It is high time Americans take up rebuilding of confidence in housing sector, create more jobs, educate more Americans to manage their own industries rather than importing foreign talent and refrain from interfering in domestic problems of other countries at the cost of America’s future growth.

We do not ordinarily comment however i have to state regards for your post on this 1.


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Leon Panetta says Israel is increasingly isolated. But the big problem is that Washington is running away from its influence in the Middle East.

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