As the revolutionary fervor is sweeping the Middle East, America’s relations with two of its most important allies in the region is coming under severe strain. In Washington the urgent always trumps the important, so let’s start by analyzing the urgent problem: Israel. The second issue presenting an important but not yet urgent challenge is Saudi Arabia.
Washington has so far been blessed by the fact that the Arab spring has not turned Islamist or anti-American. But this situation can rapidly change in case there are negative developments on the Israeli-Palestinian front. In the past, I argued in this column that there is already a perception of Western double standard in the region because of the decision to intervene in Libya. Going after Muammar Gaddafi while Yemeni, Bahraini and Syrian autocrats show no mercy against their own people may end up alienating the masses in the Middle East. Unless Europe and the United States become more consistent in their support for democracy in the region, soon it will be radical Islamists and enemies of the West that will have the upper hand in mass demonstrations. At a time when there is such a risk, the last thing the US wants is another war between Palestinians and Israelis. This is why recent developments in Gaza -- with Israeli military retaliations against Hamas rockets -- can pave the way towards a nightmare for Washington and the whole region. It is absolutely urgent for Washington to stop the spiraling negative dynamics before things escalate to a full blown-military confrontation between Hamas and Israel.
The second dimension of the Israeli challenge for Washington has to do with the diplomatic timetable. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad declared in September 2009 that his government would be ready for independent statehood in two years. Similarly, President Barack Obama said last September that he expected the framework for an independent Palestinian state to be declared in a year. Tel Aviv is therefore under mounting pressure to make a far-reaching offer to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In the absence of such a deal, Tel Aviv and Washington will face a United Nations vote that will welcome the formation of a State of Palestine, as a member whose territory includes all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority has been steadily building support for such a resolution in September. Needless to say, a UN vote about Palestinian statehood will isolate Washington and Tel Aviv since the rest of the international community looks much more favorably on such a development. If such a state is created, Israel will find itself occupying land belonging to a fellow United Nations member. Faced with such dynamics, the Israeli political landscape is as divided as ever. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unwilling to compromise, Ehud Barak, his defense minister, is ringing alarm bells about a political tsunami and President Shimon Peres is due at the White House this week to explore ways out of the bind.
In any case, time is not on Israel’s side. There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity for peace. Tel Aviv has already lost Egypt and Turkey as partners. The situation in Jordan is tenuous. It would be wise for Israel to present its own plan without further delay. Finally, let’s conclude with a couple of words about the rapidly unraveling Saudi-American relations. King Abdullah is reportedly furious about the way Washington handled its relations with Egypt. It is no secret that the Saudi dynasty is very nervous about popular unrest in the region spreading to the kingdom. In the event of a widespread revolt in the kingdom, King Abdullah fears that Obama will act the way he did with Egypt. The lesson Riyadh is drawing is simple: You cannot trust Washington. According to Martin Indyk, a colleague at Brookings and a long-time policymaker and observer of the Arab world, King Abdullah is reportedly making arrangements for Pakistani troops to enter his kingdom should the need to suppress popular demonstrations arise. All this clearly demonstrate that Washington’s Middle East policy is facing urgent challenges in unexpected places. As new democracies are emerging in the region, Washington may very soon lose its old partners. In that sense, time is not on Washington’s side either.