After more than a year, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu meets President Barack Obama at the White House on Monday, Nov. 9, with the deck heavily stacked against him – and not just because of the Islamic State, which is a universal bane, or Obama’s Iran policy – or even the evaporation of the peace process with the Palestinians. This time, Netanyahu is not getting a dressing-down over the disappearance of the two-state solution, because even the US president has decided to shelve it for the remainder of his presidency which ends in January 2017.
This is not because the Netanyahu government has missed any chances for talks with the Palestinians, as the Israeli opposition loudly claims, but because it is unrealistic.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen (Mahmud Abbas), who lost all credibility on the Palestinian street long ago, has been quietly but continuously encouraging the continuous Palestinian wave of terror by knives, guns and cars.
The Israeli prime minister had his most promising card snatched from him just ten days before he traveled to Washington. He had intended presenting the US president with the quiet alliance he had formed with key moderate Arab governments as a viable alternative for the deadlocked Palestinian peace process, with the promise of a measure of stability for its members in the turbulence around them.
However, the linchpin Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi’s position was suddenly shaken up badly by the downing of the Russian passenger plane over Sinai on Oct. 31, presenting him with his most dangerous crisis since he took power in 2013.
In addition, the security situation in Syria, including along Israel’s northern border, especially the Golan, has gone from bad to worse – especially since Russia built up its military presence in Syria.
Israel has been forced to forego most of its red lines for defending its security as no longer relevant. Although no Israeli official says so openly, Israel’s military options in Syria have shrunk, and even the overflights by its air force flights for keeping threats at bay are seriously restricted..
Iran and Hizballah, under Russian air cover, have been slowly but surely making gains in their attempt to retake southern Syria from the rebels and hand it over to the army of Syrian President Assad.
Israel is still insisting that it will not allow the deployment of Iranian or Hizballah forces on the Syrian side of the Golan, but these statements are losing their impact. If the coalition of Russia, Iran, Syria and Hizballah defeats the rebels in southern Syria and moves in up to its border, Israel will find it extremely difficult to prevent this happening.
It would also mark the end of more than three years of investment and building of ties with various elements in southern Syria as part of a strategic decision to transform those groups into a buffer between Israel and Iran in the Golan area.
Netanyahu’s struggle against the nuclear deal with Iran was not just aimed at Washington’s recognition of Iran’s nuclear program, but ever more at Obama’s acknowledgement of Iran as America’s strategic partner and leading Middle East power. But in this respect, the US president is most likely chafing over the setbacks to his own cherished plan, as a result of four developments:
1. Iran has plunged more deeply than ever predicted into the Syrian conflict. For the first time since the 19th century, Iran has not only sent its military to fight beyond its borders, but it is coordinating its moves with Moscow, not Washington.
Even if Israel needed to turn to the US administration for a helping hand against Iran, it would have no address because Washington too has been displaced as a power with any say in the Syrian picture.
2. Although the alliance by Israel and moderate Arab countries was designed by Netanyahu to serve as a counterweight to the US-Iranian partnership, that alliance too is far from united on Syria: Egyptian President El-Sisi, for example, supports President Bashar Assad, and is in favor of keeping him in power in Damascus.
3. The Islamic State continues to go from strength to strength in Syria and the Sinai Peninsula which share borders with Israel as well as in Iraq.
4. Israel’s political, defense and intelligence elite have badly misread or missed altogether four major events in the region:
- Assad’s persistent grip on power
- The deep Russian and Iranian military intervention in Syria
- The strengthening of ISIS
- The eruption of a new, deadly Palestinian campaign of terror which strikes unexpectedly in every town, highway and street.
These errors are taking their toll on Israel’s security, wellbeing and prestige.
Even if Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Obama, like Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, do reach an agreement on Israel’s security needs for the coming years and US military assistance, such an agreement may not withstand the test of Middle East volatility. The rapidly changing conditions are for now all to the detriment of the US and Israel.