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Category Archives: Benjamin Netanyahu

By George Friedman ~ Honorable Political Season Contributor
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 23. The meeting follows the explosion in U.S.-Israeli relations after Israel announced it was licensing construction of homes in East Jerusalem while U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel. The United States wants Israel to stop all construction of new Jewish settlements. The Israelis argue that East Jerusalem is not part of the occupied territories, and hence, the U.S. demand doesn’t apply there. The Americans are not parsing their demand so finely and regard the announcement — timed as it was — as a direct affront and challenge. Israel’s response is that it is a sovereign state and so must be permitted to do as it wishes. The implicit American response is that the United States is also a sovereign state and will respond as it wishes.
The polemics in this case are not the point. The issue is more fundamental: namely, the degree to which U.S. and Israeli relations converge and diverge. This is not a matter of friendship but, as in all things geopolitical, of national interest. It is difficult to discuss U.S. and Israeli interests objectively, as the relationship is clouded with endless rhetoric and simplistic formulations. It is thus difficult to know where to start, but two points of entry into this controversy come to mind.
The first is the idea that anti-Americanism in the Middle East has its roots in U.S. support for Israel, a point made by those in the United States and abroad who want the United States to distance itself from Israel. The second is that the United States has a special strategic relationship with Israel and a mutual dependency. Both statements have elements of truth, but neither is simply true — and both require much more substantial analysis. In analyzing them, we begin the process of trying to disentangle national interests from rhetoric.

Anti-Americanism in the Middle East

Begin with the claim that U.S. support for Israel generates anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world. While such support undoubtedly contributes to the phenomenon, it hardly explains it. The fundamental problem with the theory is that Arab anti-Americanism predates significant U.S. support for Israel. Until 1967, the United States gave very little aid to Israel. What aid Washington gave was in the form of very limited loans to purchase agricultural products from the United States — a program that many countries in the world participated in. It was France, not the United States, which was the primary supplier of weapons to Israeli.
In 1956, Israel invaded the Sinai while Britain and France seized the Suez Canal, which the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdul Nasser had nationalized. The Eisenhower administration intervened — against Israel and on the side of Egypt. Under U.S. pressure, the British, French and Israelis were forced to withdraw. There were widespread charges that the Eisenhower administration was pro-Arab and anti-Israeli; certainly no one could argue that Eisenhower was significantly pro-Israel.
In spite of this, Nasser entered into a series of major agreements with the Soviet Union. Egypt effectively became a Soviet ally, the recipient of massive Soviet aid and a center of anti-American rhetoric. Whatever his reasons — and they had to do with U.S. unwillingness to give Egypt massive aid — Egypt’s anti-American attitude had nothing to do with the Israelis, save perhaps that the United States was not prepared to join Egypt in trying to destroy Israel.
Two major political events took place in 1963: left-wing political coups in Syria and Iraq that brought the Baathist Party to power in both countries. Note that this took place pre-1967, i.e., before the United States became closely aligned with Israel. Both regimes were pro-Soviet and anti-American, but neither could have been responding to U.S. support for Israel because there wasn’t much.
In 1964, Washington gave Cairo the first significant U.S. military aid in the form of Hawk missiles, but it gave those to other Arab countries, too, in response to the coups in Iraq and Syria. The United States feared the Soviets would base fighters in those two countries, so it began installing anti-air systems to try to block potential Soviet airstrikes on Saudi Arabia.
In 1967, France broke with Israel over the Arab-Israeli conflict that year. The United States began significant aid to Israel. In 1973, after the Syrian and Egyptian attack on Israel, the U.S. began massive assistance. In 1974 this amounted to about 25 percent of Israeli gross domestic product (GDP). The aid has continued at roughly the same level, but given the massive growth of the Israeli economy, it now amounts to about 2.5 percent of Israeli GDP.
The point here is that the United States was not actively involved in supporting Israel prior to 1967, yet anti-Americanism in the Arab world was rampant. The Arabs might have blamed the United States for Israel, but there was little empirical basis for this claim. Certainly, U.S. aid commenced in 1967 and surged in 1974, but the argument that eliminating support for Israel would cause anti-Americanism to decline must first explain the origins of anti-Americanism, which substantially predated American support for Israel. In fact, it is not clear that Arab anti-Americanism was greater after the initiation of major aid to Israel than before. Indeed, Egypt, the most important Arab country, shifted its position to a pro-American stance after the 1973 war in the face of U.S. aid.

Israel’s Importance to the United States

Let’s now consider the assumption that Israel is a critical U.S. asset. American grand strategy has always been derived from British grand strategy. The United States seeks to maintain regional balances of power in order to avoid the emergence of larger powers that can threaten U.S. interests. The Cold War was a massive exercise in the balance of power, pitting an American-sponsored worldwide alliance system against one formed by the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has acted a number of times against regional hegemons: Iraq in 1990-91, Serbia in 1999 and so on.
In the area called generally the Middle East, but which we prefer to think of as the area between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush, there are three intrinsic regional balances. One is the Arab-Israeli balance of power. The second is the Iran-Iraq balance. The third is the Indo-Pakistani balance of power. The American goal in each balance is not so much stability as it is the mutual neutralization of local powers by other local powers.
Two of the three regional balances of power are collapsed or in jeopardy. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the failure to quickly put a strong, anti-Iranian government in place in Baghdad, has led to the collapse of the central balance of power — with little hope of resurrection. The eastern balance of power between Pakistan and India is also in danger of toppling. The Afghan war has caused profound stresses in Pakistan, and there are scenarios in which we can imagine Pakistan’s power dramatically weakening or even cracking. It is unclear how this will evolve, but what is clear is that it is not in the interest of the United States because it would destroy the native balance of power with India. The United States does not want to see India as the unchallenged power in the subcontinent any more than it wants to see Pakistan in that position. The United States needs a strong Pakistan to balance India, and its problem now is how to manage the Afghan war — a side issue strategically — without undermining the strategic interest of the United States, an Indo-Pakistani balance of power.
The western balance of power, Israel and the surrounding states, is relatively stable. What is most important to the United States at this point is that this balance of power also not destabilize. In this sense, Israel is an important strategic asset. But in the broader picture, where the United States is dealing with the collapse of the central balance of power and with the destabilization of the eastern balance of power, Washington does not want or need the destabilization of the western balance — between the Israelis and Arabs — at this time. U.S. “bandwidth” is already stretched to the limit. Washington does not need another problem. Nor does it need instability in this region complicating things in the other regions.
Note that the United States is interested in maintaining the balance of power. This means that the U.S. interest is in a stable set of relations, with no one power becoming excessively powerful and therefore unmanageable by the United States. Israel is already the dominant power in the region, and the degree to which Syria, Jordan and Egypt contain Israel is limited. Israel is moving from the position of an American ally maintaining a balance of power to a regional hegemon in its own right operating outside the framework of American interests.
The United States above all wants to ensure continuity after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dies. It wants to ensure that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan remains stable. And in its attempts to manage the situation in the center and east, it wants to ensure that nothing happens in the west to further complicate an already-enormously complex situation.
There is very little Israel can do to help the United States in the center and eastern balances. On the other hand, if the western balance of power were to collapse — due to anything from a collapse of the Egyptian regime to a new Israeli war with Hezbollah — the United States might find itself drawn into that conflict, while a new intifada in the Palestinian territories would not help matters either. It is unknown what effect this would have in the other balances of power, but the United States is operating at the limits of its power to try to manage these situations. Israel cannot help there, but it could hurt, for example by initiating an attack on Iran outside the framework of American planning. Therefore, the United States wants one thing from Israel now: for Israel to do nothing that could possibly destabilize the western balance of power or make America’s task more difficult in the other regions.
Israel sees the American preoccupation in these other regions, along with the current favorable alignment of forces in its region, as an opportunity both to consolidate and expand its power and to create new realities on the ground. One of these is building in East Jerusalem, or more precisely, using the moment to reshape the demographics and geography of its immediate region. The Israeli position is that it has rights in East Jerusalem that the United States cannot intrude on. The U.S. position is that it has interests in the broader region that are potentially weakened by this construction at this time.
Israel’s desire to do so is understandable, but it runs counter to American interests. The United States, given its overwhelming challenges, is neither interested in Israel’s desire to reshape its region, nor can it tolerate any more risk deriving from Israel’s actions. However small the risks might be, the United States is maxed out on risk. Therefore, Israel’s interests and that of the United States diverge. Israel sees an opportunity; the United States sees more risk.
The problem Israel has is that, in the long run, its relationship to the United States is its insurance policy. Netanyahu appears to be calculating that given the U.S. need for a western balance of power, whatever Israel does now will be allowed because in the end the United States needs Israel to maintain that balance of power. Therefore, he is probing aggressively. Netanyahu also has domestic political reasons for proceeding with this construction. For him, this construction is a prudent and necessary step.
Obama’s task is to convince Netanyahu that Israel has strategic value for the United States, but only in the context of broader U.S. interests in the region. If Israel becomes part of the American problem rather than the solution, the United States will seek other solutions. That is a hard case to make but not an impossible one. The balance of power is in the eastern Mediterranean, and there is another democracy the United States could turn to: Turkey — which is more than eager to fulfill that role and exploit Israeli tensions with the United States.
It may not be the most persuasive threat, but the fact is that Israel cannot afford any threat from the United States, such as an end to the intense U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship. While this relationship might not be essential to Israel at the moment, it is one of the foundations of Israeli grand strategy in the long run. Just as the United States cannot afford any more instability in the region at the moment, so Israel cannot afford any threat, however remote, to its relationship with the United States.

A More Complicated Relationship

What is clear in all this is that the statement that Israel and the United States are strategic partners is not untrue, it is just vastly more complicated than it appears. Similarly, the claim that American support for Israel fuels anti-Americans is both a true and insufficient statement.
Netanyahu is betting on Congress and political pressures to restrain U.S. responses to Israel. One of the arguments of geopolitics is that political advantage is insufficient in the face of geopolitical necessity. Pressure on Congress from Israel in order to build houses in Jerusalem while the United States is dealing with crises in the region could easily backfire.
The fact is that while the argument that U.S. Israel policy caused anti-Americanism in the region may not be altogether true, the United States does not need any further challenges or stresses. Nations overwhelmed by challenges can behave in unpredictable ways. Netanyahu’s decision to confront the United States at this time on this issue creates an unpredictability that would seem excessive to Israel’s long term interests. Expecting the American political process to protect Israel from the consequences is not necessarily gauging the American mood at the moment.
The national interest of both countries is to maximize their freedom to maneuver. The Israelis have a temporary advantage because of American interests elsewhere in the region. But that creates a long-term threat. With two wars going on and two regional balances in shambles or tottering, the United States does not need a new crisis in the third. Israel has an interest in housing in East Jerusalem. The United States does not. This frames the conversation between Netanyahu and Obama. The rest is rhetoric.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

Two major leaks occurred this weekend over the Iran matter.

In the first, The New York Times published an article reporting that staff at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear oversight group, had produced an unreleased report saying that Iran was much more advanced in its nuclear program than the IAEA had thought previously. According to the report, Iran now has all the data needed to design a nuclear weapon. The New York Times article added that U.S. intelligence was re-examining the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007, which had stated that Iran was not actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.

The second leak occurred in the British paper The Sunday Times, which reported that the purpose of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly publicized secret visit to Moscow on Sept. 7 was to provide the Russians with a list of Russian scientists and engineers working on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The second revelation was directly tied to the first. There were many, including STRATFOR, who felt that Iran did not have the non-nuclear disciplines needed for rapid progress toward a nuclear device. Putting the two pieces together, the presence of Russian personnel in Iran would mean that the Iranians had obtained the needed expertise from the Russians. It would also mean that the Russians were not merely a factor in whether there would be effective sanctions but also in whether and when the Iranians would obtain a nuclear weapon.

We would guess that the leak to The New York Times came from U.S. government sources, because that seems to be a prime vector of leaks from the Obama administration and because the article contained information on the NIE review. Given that National Security Adviser James Jones tended to dismiss the report on Sunday television, we would guess the report leaked from elsewhere in the administration. The Sunday Times leak could have come from multiple sources, but we have noted a tendency of the Israelis to leak through the British daily on national security issues. (The article contained substantial details on the visit and appeared written from the Israeli point of view.) Neither leak can be taken at face value, of course. But it is clear that these were deliberate leaks — people rarely risk felony charges leaking such highly classified material — and even if they were not coordinated, they delivered the same message, true or not.

The Iranian Time Frame and the Russian Role

The message was twofold. First, previous assumptions on time frames on Iran are no longer valid, and worst-case assumptions must now be assumed. The Iranians are in fact moving rapidly toward a weapon; have been extremely effective at deceiving U.S. intelligence (read, they deceived the Bush administration, but the Obama administration has figured it out); and therefore, we are moving toward a decisive moment with Iran. Second, this situation is the direct responsibility of Russian nuclear expertise. Whether this expertise came from former employees of the Russian nuclear establishment now looking for work, Russian officials assigned to Iran or unemployed scientists sent to Iran by the Russians is immaterial. The Israelis — and the Obama administration — must hold the Russians responsible for the current state of Iran’s weapons program, and by extension, Moscow bears responsibility for any actions that Israel or the United States might take to solve the problem.

We would suspect that the leaks were coordinated. From the Israeli point of view, having said publicly that they are prepared to follow the American lead and allow this phase of diplomacy to play out, there clearly had to be more going on than just last week’s Geneva talks. From the American point of view, while the Russians have indicated that participating in sanctions on gasoline imports by Iran is not out of the question, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev did not clearly state that Russia would cooperate, nor has anything been heard from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the subject. The Russian leadership appears to be playing “good cop, bad cop” on the matter, and the credibility of anything they say on Iran has little weight in Washington.

It would seem to us that the United States and Israel decided to up the ante fairly dramatically in the wake of the Oct. 1 meeting with Iran in Geneva. As IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei visits Iran, massive new urgency has now been added to the issue. But we must remember that Iran knows whether it has had help from Russian scientists; that is something that can’t be bluffed. Given that this specific charge has been made — and as of Monday not challenged by Iran or Russia — indicates to us more is going on than an attempt to bluff the Iranians into concessions. Unless the two leaks together are completely bogus, and we doubt that, the United States and Israel are leaking information already well known to the Iranians. They are telling Tehran that its deception campaign has been penetrated, and by extension are telling it that it faces military action — particularly if massive sanctions are impractical because of more Russian obstruction.

If Netanyahu went to Moscow to deliver this intelligence to the Russians, the only surprise would have been the degree to which the Israelis had penetrated the program, not that the Russians were there. The Russian intelligence services are superbly competent, and keep track of stray nuclear scientists carefully. They would not be surprised by the charge, only by Israel’s knowledge of it.

This, of course leaves open an enormous question. Certainly, the Russians appear to have worked with the Iranians on some security issues and have played with the idea of providing the Iranians more substantial military equipment. But deliberately aiding Iran in building a nuclear device seems beyond Russia’s interests in two ways. First, while Russia wants to goad the United States, it does not itself really want a nuclear Iran. Second, in goading the United States, the Russians know not to go too far; helping Iran build a nuclear weapon would clearly cross a redline, triggering reactions.

A number of possible explanations present themselves. The leak to The Sunday Times might be wrong. But The Sunday Times is not a careless newspaper: It accepts leaks only from certified sources. The Russian scientists might be private citizens accepting Iranian employment. But while this is possible, Moscow is very careful about what Russian nuclear engineers do with their time. Or the Russians might be providing enough help to goad the United States but not enough to ever complete the job. Whatever the explanation, the leaks paint the Russians as more reckless than they have appeared, assuming the leaks are true.

And whatever their veracity, the leaks — the content of which clearly was discussed in detail among the P-5+1 prior to and during the Geneva meetings, regardless of how long they have been known by Western intelligence — were made for two reasons. The first was to tell the Iranians that the nuclear situation is now about to get out of hand, and that attempting to manage the negotiations through endless delays will fail because the United Nations is aware of just how far Tehran has come with its weapons program. The second was to tell Moscow that the issue is no longer whether the Russians will cooperate on sanctions, but the consequence to Russia’s relations with the United States and at least the United Kingdom, France and, most important, possibly Germany. If these leaks are true, they are game changers.

We have focused on the Iranian situation not because it is significant in itself, but because it touches on a great number of other crucial international issues. It is now entangled in the Iraqi, Afghan, Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese issues, all of them high-stakes matters. It is entangled in Russian relations with Europe and the United States. It is entangled in U.S.-European relationships and with relationships within Europe. It touches on the U.S.-Chinese relationship. It even touches on U.S. relations with Venezuela and some other Latin American countries. It is becoming the Gordian knot of international relations.

STRATFOR first focused on the Russian connection with Iran in the wake of the Iranian elections and resulting unrest, when a crowd of Rafsanjani supporters began chanting “Death to Russia,” not one of the top-10 chants in Iran. That caused us to focus on the cooperation between Russia and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on security matters. We were aware of some degree of technical cooperation on military hardware, and of course on Russian involvement in Iran’s civilian nuclear program. We were also of the view that the Iranians were unlikely to progress quickly with their nuclear program. We were not aware that Russian scientists were directly involved in Iran’s military nuclear project, which is not surprising, given that such involvement would be Iran’s single-most important state secret — and Russia’s, too.

A Question of Timing

But there is a mystery here as well. To have any impact, the Russian involvement must have been under way for years. The United States has tried to track rogue nuclear scientists and engineers — anyone who could contribute to nuclear proliferation — since the 1990s. The Israelis must have had their own program on this, too. Both countries, as well as European intelligence services, were focused on Iran’s program and the whereabouts of Russian scientists. It is hard to believe that they only just now found out. If we were to guess, we would say Russian involvement has been under way since just after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, when the Russians decided that the United States was a direct threat to its national security.

Therefore, the decision suddenly to confront the Russians, and suddenly to leak U.N. reports — much more valuable than U.S. reports, which are easier for the Europeans to ignore — cannot simply be because the United States and Israel just obtained this information. The IAEA, hostile to the United States since the invasion of Iraq and very much under the influence of the Europeans, must have decided to shift its evaluation of Iran. But far more significant is the willingness of the Israelis first to confront the Russians and then leak about Russian involvement, something that obviously compromises Israeli sources and methods. And that means the Israelis no longer consider the preservation of their intelligence operation in Iran (or wherever it was carried out) as of the essence.

Two conclusions can be drawn. First, the Israelis no longer need to add to their knowledge of Russian involvement; they know what they need to know. And second, the Israelis do not expect Iranian development to continue much longer; otherwise, maintaining the intelligence capability would take precedence over anything else.

It follows from this that the use of this intelligence in diplomatic confrontations with Russians and in a British newspaper serves a greater purpose than the integrity of the source system. And that means that the Israelis expect a resolution in the very near future — the only reason they would have blown their penetration of the Russian-Iranian system.

Possible Outcomes

There are two possible outcomes here. The first is that having revealed the extent of the Iranian program and having revealed the Russian role in a credible British newspaper, the Israelis and the Americans (whose own leak in The New York Times underlined the growing urgency of action) are hoping that the Iranians realize that they are facing war and that the Russians realize that they are facing a massive crisis in their relations with the West. If that happens, then the Russians might pull their scientists and engineers, join in the sanctions and force the Iranians to abandon their program.

The second possibility is that the Russians will continue to play the spoiler on sanctions and will insist that they are not giving support to the Iranians. This leaves the military option, which would mean broad-based action, primarily by the United States, against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Any military operation would involve keeping the Strait of Hormuz clear, meaning naval action, and we now know that there are more nuclear facilities than previously discussed. So while the war for the most part would be confined to the air and sea, it would be extensive nonetheless.

Sanctions or war remain the two options, and which one is chosen depends on Moscow’s actions. The leaks this weekend have made clear that the United States and Israel have positioned themselves such that not much time remains. We have now moved from a view of Iran as a long-term threat to Iran as a much more immediate threat thanks to the Russians.

The least that can be said about this is that the Obama administration and Israel are trying to reshape the negotiations with the Iranians and Russians. The most that can be said is that the Americans and Israelis are preparing the public for war. Polls now indicate that more than 60 percent of the U.S. public now favors military action against Iran. From a political point of view, it has become easier for U.S. President Barack Obama to act than to not act. This, too, is being transmitted to the Iranians and Russians.

It is not clear to us that the Russians or Iranians are getting the message yet. They have convinced themselves that Obama is unlikely to act because he is weak at home and already has too many issues to juggle. This is a case where a reputation for being conciliatory actually increases the chances for war. But the leaks this weekend have strikingly limited the options and timelines of the United States and Israel. They also have put the spotlight on Obama at a time when he already is struggling with health care and Afghanistan. History is rarely considerate of presidential plans, and in this case, the leaks have started to force Obama’s hand.

By George Friedman~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting Washington for his first official visit with U.S. President Barack Obama. A range of issues — including the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israeli-Syrian talks and Iran policy — are on the table. This is one of an endless series of meetings between U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers over the years, many of which concerned these same issues. Yet little has changed.

That Israel has a new prime minister and the United States a new president might appear to make this meeting significant. But this is Netanyahu’s second time as prime minister, and his government is as diverse and fractious as most recent Israeli governments. Israeli politics are in gridlock, with deep divisions along multiple fault lines and an electoral system designed to magnify disagreements.

Obama is much stronger politically, but he has consistently acted with caution, particularly in the foreign policy arena. Much of his foreign policy follows from the Bush administration. He has made no major breaks in foreign policy beyond rhetoric; his policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and Europe are essentially extensions of pre-existing policy. Obama faces major economic problems in the United States and clearly is not looking for major changes in foreign policy. He understands how quickly public sentiment can change, and he does not plan to take risks he does not have to take right now.

This, then, is the problem: Netanyahu is coming to Washington hoping to get Obama to agree to fundamental redefinitions of the regional dynamic. For example, he wants Obama to re-examine the commitment to a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. (Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said Israel is no longer bound by prior commitments to that concept.) Netanyahu also wants the United States to commit itself to a finite time frame for talks with Iran, after which unspecified but ominous-sounding actions are to be taken.

Facing a major test in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has more than enough to deal with at the moment. Moreover, U.S. presidents who get involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations frequently get sucked into a morass from which they do not return. For Netanyahu to even request that the White House devote attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem at present is asking a lot. Asking for a complete review of the peace process is even less realistic.

Obstacles to the Two-State Solution

The foundation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for years has been the assumption that there would be a two-state solution. Such a solution has not materialized for a host of reasons. First, at present there are two Palestinian entities, Gaza and the West Bank, which are hostile to each other. Second, the geography and economy of any Palestinian state would be so reliant on Israel that independence would be meaningless; geography simply makes the two-state proposal almost impossible to implement. Third, no Palestinian government would have the power to guarantee that rogue elements would not launch rockets at Israel, potentially striking at the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor, Israel’s heartland. And fourth, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have the domestic political coherence to allow any negotiator to operate from a position of confidence. Whatever the two sides negotiated would be revised and destroyed by their political opponents, and even their friends.

For this reason, the entire peace process — including the two-state solution — is a chimera. Neither side can live with what the other can offer. But if it is a fiction, it is a fiction that serves U.S. purposes. The United States has interests that go well beyond Israeli interests and sometimes go in a different direction altogether. Like Israel, the United States understands that one of the major obstacles to any serious evolution toward a two-state solution is Arab hostility to such an outcome.

The Jordanians have feared and loathed Fatah in the West Bank ever since the Black September uprisings of 1970. The ruling Hashemites are ethnically different from the Palestinians (who constitute an overwhelming majority of the Jordanian population), and they fear that a Palestinian state under Fatah would threaten the Jordanian monarchy. For their part, the Egyptians see Hamas as a descendent of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks the Mubarak government’s ouster — meaning Cairo would hate to see a Hamas-led state. Meanwhile, the Saudis and the other Arab states do not wish to see a radical altering of the status quo, which would likely come about with the rise of a Palestinian polity.

At the same time, whatever the basic strategic interests of the Arab regimes, all pay lip service to the principle of Palestinian statehood. This is hardly a unique situation. States frequently claim to favor various things they actually are either indifferent to or have no intention of doing anything about. Complicating matters for the Arab states is the fact that they have substantial populations that do care about the fate of the Palestinians. These states thus are caught between public passion on behalf of Palestinians and the regimes’ interests that are threatened by the Palestinian cause. The states’ challenge, accordingly, is to appear to be doing something on behalf of the Palestinians while in fact doing nothing.

The United States has a vested interest in the preservation of these states. The futures of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are of vital importance to Washington. The United States must therefore simultaneously publicly demonstrate its sensitivity to pressures from these nations over the Palestinian question while being careful to achieve nothing — an easy enough goal to achieve.

The various Israeli-Palestinian peace processes have thus served U.S. and Arab interests quite well. They provide the illusion of activity, with high-level visits breathlessly reported in the media, succeeded by talks and concessions — all followed by stalemate and new rounds of violence, thus beginning the cycle all over again.

The Palestinian Peace Process as Political Theater

One of the most important proposals Netanyahu is bringing to Obama calls for reshaping the peace process. If Israeli President Shimon Peres is to be believed, Netanyahu will not back away from the two-state formula. Instead, the Israeli prime minister is asking that the various Arab state stakeholders become directly involved in the negotiations. In other words, Netanyahu is proposing that Arab states with very different public and private positions on Palestinian statehood be asked to participate — thereby forcing them to reveal publicly their true positions, ultimately creating internal political crises in the Arab states.

The clever thing about this position is that Netanyahu not only knows his request will not become a reality, but he also does not want it to become a reality. The political stability of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is as much an Israeli interest as an American one. Indeed, Israel even wants a stable Syria, since whatever would come after the Alawite regime in Damascus would be much more dangerous to Israeli security than the current Syrian regime.

Overall, Israel is a conservative power. In terms of nation-states, it does not want upheaval; it is quite content with the current regimes in the Arab world. But Netanyahu would love to see an international conference with the Arab states roundly condemning Israel publicly. This would shore up the justification for Netanyahu’s policies domestically while simultaneously creating a framework for reshaping world opinion by showing an Israel isolated among hostile states.

Obama is likely hearing through diplomatic channels from the Arab countries that they do not want to participate directly in the Palestinian peace process. And the United States really does not want them there, either. The peace process normally ends in a train wreck anyway, and Obama is in no hurry to see the wreckage. He will want to insulate other allies from the fallout, putting off the denouement of the peace process as long as possible. Obama has sent George Mitchell as his Middle East special envoy to deal with the issue, and from the U.S. president’s point of view, that is quite enough attention to the problem.

Netanyahu, of course, knows all this. Part of his mission is simply convincing his ruling coalition — and particularly Lieberman, whom Netanyahu needs to survive, and who is by far Israel’s most aggressive foreign minister ever — that he is committed to redefining the entire Israeli-Palestinian relationship. But in a broader context, Netanyahu is looking for greater freedom of action. By posing a demand the United States will not grant, Israel is positioning itself to ask for something that appears smaller.

Israel and the Appearance of Freedom of Action

What Israel actually would do with greater freedom of action is far less important than simply creating the appearance that the United States has endorsed Israel’s ability to act in a new and unpredictable manner. From Israel’s point of view, the problem with Israeli-Palestinian relations is that Israel is under severe constraints from the United States, and the Palestinians know it. This means that the Palestinians can even anticipate the application of force by Israel, meaning they can prepare for it and endure it. From Netanyahu’s point of view, Israel’s primary problem is that the Palestinians are confident they know what the Israelis will do. If Netanyahu can get Obama to introduce a degree of ambiguity into the situation, Israel could regain the advantage of uncertainty.

The problem for Netanyahu is that Washington is not interested in having anything unpredictable happen in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The United States is quite content with the current situation, particularly while Iraq becomes more stable and the Afghan situation remains unstable. Obama does not want a crisis from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. The fact that Netanyahu has a political coalition to satisfy will not interest the United States, and while Washington at some unspecified point might endorse a peace conference, it will not be until Israel and its foreign minister endorse the two-state formula.

Netanyahu will then shift to another area where freedom of action is relevant — namely, Iran. The Israelis have leaked to the Israeli media that the Obama administration has told them that Israel may not attack Iran without U.S. permission, and that Israel agreed to this requirement. (U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went through the same routine not too long ago, using a good cop/bad cop act in a bid to kick-start negotiations with Iran.)

In reality, Israel would have a great deal of difficulty attacking Iranian facilities with non-nuclear forces. A multitarget campaign 1,000 miles away against an enemy with some air defenses could be a long and complex operation. Such a raid would require a long trip through U.S.-controlled airspace for the fairly small Israeli air force. Israel could use cruise missiles, but the tonnage of high explosive delivered by a cruise missile cannot penetrate even moderately hardened structures; the same is true for ICBMs carrying conventional warheads. Israel would have to notify the United States of its intentions because it would be passing through Iraqi airspace — and because U.S. technical intelligence would know what it was up to before Israeli aircraft even took off. The idea that Israel might consider attacking Iran without informing Washington is therefore absurd on the surface. Even so, the story has surfaced yet again in an Israeli newspaper in a virtual carbon copy of stories published more than a year ago.

Netanyahu has promised that the endless stalemate with the Palestinians will not be allowed to continue. He also knows that whatever happens, Israel cannot threaten the stability of Arab states that are by and large uninterested in the Palestinians. He also understands that in the long run, Israel’s freedom of action is defined by the United States, not by Israel. His electoral platform and his strategic realities have never aligned. Arguably, it might be in the Israeli interest that the status quo be disrupted, but it is not in the American interest. Netanyahu therefore will get to redefine neither the Palestinian situation nor the Iranian situation. Israel simply lacks the power to impose the reality it wants, the current constellation of Arab regimes it needs, and the strategic relationship with the United States on which Israeli national security rests.

In the end, this is a classic study in the limits of power. Israel can have its freedom of action anytime it is willing to pay the price for it. But Israel can’t pay the price. Netanyahu is coming to Washington to see if he can get what he wants without paying the price, and we suspect strongly he knows he won’t get it. His problem is the same as that of the Arab states. There are many in Israel, particularly among Netanyahu’s supporters, who believe Israel is a great power. It isn’t. It is a nation that is strong partly because it lives in a pretty weak neighborhood, and partly because it has very strong friends. Many Israelis don’t want to be told that, and Netanyahu came to office playing on the sense of Israeli national power.

So the peace process will continue, no one will expect anything from it, the Palestinians will remain isolated and wars regularly will break out. The only advantage of this situation from the U.S. point of view it is that it is preferable to all other available realities.