U.S. President Barack Obama is making his first visit to Israel. The visit comes in the wake of his re-election and inauguration to a second term and the formation of a new Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Normally, summits between Israel and the United States are filled with foreign policy issues on both sides, and there will be many discussed at this meeting, including Iran, Syria and Egypt. But this summit takes place in an interesting climate, because both the Americans and Israelis are less interested in foreign and security matters than they are in their respective domestic issues.
In the United States, the political crisis over the federal budget and the struggle to grow the economy and reduce unemployment has dominated the president’s and the country’s attention. The Israeli elections turned on domestic issues, ranging from whether the ultra-Orthodox would be required to serve in Israel Defense Forces, as other citizens are, to a growing controversy over economic inequality in Israel.
Inwardness is a cyclic norm in most countries. Foreign policy does not always dominate the agenda and periodically it becomes less important. What is interesting is at this point, while Israelis continue to express concern about foreign policy, they are most passionate on divisive internal social issues. Similarly, although there continues to be a war in Afghanistan, the American public is heavily focused on economic issues. Under these circumstances the interesting question is not what Obama and Netanyahu will talk about but whether what they discuss will matter much.
Washington’s New Strategy
For the United States, the focus on domestic affairs is compounded by an emerging strategic shift in how the United States deals with the world. After more than a decade of being focused on the Islamic world and moving aggressively to try to control threats in the region militarily, the United States is moving toward a different stance. The bar for military intervention has been raised. Therefore, the United States has, in spite of recent statements, not militarily committed itself to the Syrian crisis, and when the French intervened in Mali the United States played a supporting role. The intervention in Libya, where France and the United Kingdom drew the United States into the action, was the first manifestation of Washington’s strategic re-evaluation. The desire to reduce military engagement in the region was not the result of Libya. That desire was there from the U.S. experience in Iraq and was the realization that the disposal of an unsavory regime does not necessarily — or even very often — result in a better regime. Even the relative success of the intervention in Libya drove home the point that every intervention has both unintended consequences and unanticipated costs.
The United States’ new stance ought to frighten the Israelis. In Israel’s grand strategy, the United States is the ultimate guarantor of its national security and underwrites a portion of its national defense. If the United States becomes less inclined to involve itself in regional adventures, the question is whether the guarantees implicit in the relationship still stand. The issue is not whether the United States would intervene to protect Israel’s existence; save from a nuclear-armed Iran, there is no existential threat to Israel’s national interest. Rather, the question is whether the United States is prepared to continue shaping the dynamics of the region in areas where Israel lacks political influence and is not able to exert military control. Israel wants a division of labor in the region, where it influences its immediate neighbors while the United States manages more distant issues. To put it differently, the Israelis’ understanding of the American role is to control events that endanger Israel and American interests under the assumption that Israeli and American interests are identical. The idea that they are always identical has never been as true as politicians on both sides have claimed, but more important, the difficulties of controlling the environment have increased dramatically for both sides.
The problem for Israel at this point is that it is not able to do very much in the area that is its responsibility. For example, after the relationship with the United States, the second-most important strategic foundation for Israel is its relationship — and peace treaty — with Egypt. Following the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the fear was that Egypt might abrogate the peace treaty, reopening at some distant point the possibility of conventional war. But the most shocking thing to Israel was how little control it actually had over events in Egypt and the future of its ties to Egypt. With good relations between Israel and the Egyptian military and with the military still powerful, the treaty has thus far survived. But the power of the military will not be the sole factor in the long-term sustainability of the treaty. Whether it survives or not ultimately is not a matter that Israel has much control over.
The Israelis have always assumed that the United States can control areas where they lack control. And some Israelis have condemned the United States for not doing more to manage events in Egypt. But the fact is that the United States also has few tools to control the evolution of Egypt, apart from some aid to Egypt and its own relationship with the Egyptian military. The first Israeli response is that the United States should do something about problems confronting Israel. It may or may not be in the American interest to do something in any particular case, but the problem in this case is that although a hostile Egypt is not in the Americans’ interest, there is actually little the United States can do to control events in Egypt.
The Syrian situation is even more complex, with Israel not even certain what outcome is more desirable. Syrian President Bashar al Assad is a known quantity to Israel. He is by no means a friend, but his actions and his father’s have always been in the pursuit of