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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Arab revolt narrows US policy choices


No single other power has as close a relationship to Israel as does the United States. (File photo)

No single other power has as close a relationship to Israel as does the United States. (File photo)
This year’s anti-authoritarian revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa increasingly complicates US efforts to continue unqualified support for Israel without jeopardizing relations with key Arab allies.

The revolt has already driven a wedge between the United States and Saudi Arabia, its key Arab ally alongside Egypt, whose post-revolution policies towards the Palestinians and Iran are at odds with those of Washington.
To be sure, no single other power has as close a relationship to Israel as does the United States, making it the major player in trying to persuade Israel to be more accommodating toward the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, President Barack Obama’s efforts in recent weeks to reset US policy towards the Middle East and North Africa by providing a framework for definition of the boundaries of a future Palestinian state and unequivocally backing Arab aspirations for greater political freedom and economic opportunity have failed to restore confidence in the role of the US as a relatively impartial mediator and in some cases have fuelled distrust.

The widening gap between the United States and at least some of its key Arab allies threatens to gravitate toward a situation in which Mr. Obama could be forced to make choices between Israel and America’s Arab allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu demonstrated earlier this month that confrontation with Israel would force Mr. Obama to battle Israel’s powerful supporters in the US Congress as well as in other segments of American society. As Mr. Netanyahu responded to Mr. Obama’s insistence on Israel’s pre-1967 borders as the basis for Palestine’s boundaries in a tough but rare address to Congress by a foreign leader, the Israeli prime minister was interrupted tens of times by the supportive applause of his audience.

The pitfalls produced by the Arab revolt in Mr. Obama’s effort to balance support for Israel despite Israeli intransigence with the changing situation on the ground across the Middle East is evident in recent changes in policies by various Arab states.

The pitfalls are compounded by fundamental differences between Mr. Obama and the leaders of such key allies as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain when it comes to the revolt itself. They are further accentuated by the fact that Arab governments irrespective of how the revolt affects them increasingly need to be perceived as attentive to public opinion and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers an easy way to ensure that.

The impact of throwing the bone of Palestine to public opinion is evident in Egypt, which under ousted President Hosni Mubarak helped Israel enforce its blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Post-revolution Egypt last week opened for the first time since 2007 its border with Gaza to human traffic. Egypt earlier mediated an end to the long-standing feud between Hamas and the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmud Abbas that had virtually paralyzed Palestinian politics and crippled the Palestinians' negotiating position with Israel. Israel and the United States refuse to have any dealings with Hamas until it recognizes the Jewish state, renounces violence and accepts past Israeli-Palestinian agreements and understandings. Egypt has also distanced itself from the Western and Saudi-led anti-Iran camp by re-establishing relations with the Islamic republic.

The emerging rupture between the US and Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer and the custodian of Islam's two holiest cities, threatens to be even more serious and could jeopardize past close cooperation between the two allies not only in the Middle East and North Africa but also across the globe.

The Arab revolt was but the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back in increasing Saudi uneasiness with US policy. Saudi unease was initially sparked by the US-led war against Iraq in 2003 that replaced Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Muslim regime with Shiite majority rule and boosted Shiite Iran’s position in the region.

Mr. Obama’s failure last year to impose an indefinite settlement moratorium on Mr. Netanyahu coupled with little indication that his latest Middle East policy speech constitutes the starting shot of a serious effort to force both Israelis and Palestinians to make necessary concessions has undermined Saudi confidence in US ability to achieve Middle East peace.

The Iraq war, the US decision to back Egyptian protesters against its long-standing ally. Mr. Mubarak, and Washington’s efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia not to intervene militarily in Bahrain in support of the Gulf island-state’s embattled royal family makes the United States an unreliable ally in Saudi eyes.

As a result, Saudi Arabia and the United States find themselves on opposite sides of the fence.

The kingdom has positioned itself as a leader in defence of the regional status quo, the United States as a firm supporter of political and economic change; Saudi Arabia supports efforts to achieve United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood in a step that aims to force changes in US policy and reduce Palestinian dependence on US mediation; Saudi Arabia is rallying Arab and Asian nations in a front against Iran which it sees as the main instigator of the region’s protests while the United States insists that reform and possibly regime change is the main way of salvaging regimes and ending the turmoil.

To be sure, the United States and the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agree on the need to replace Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh and are not far apart on Syria where President Bashar al-Assad is brutally cracking down on protesters. They also see eye to eye on containing Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions and the flow and pricing of oil are not contentious issues.

Nonetheless, widening policy differences between the United States and its closest Arab allies is the writing on the wall. The Arab revolt is making the balancing of contradictory interests in the Middle East and North Africa increasingly difficult and could at some point in the near future render it virtually impossible.

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