Israel is getting ready for a possible two decades of turmoil in the Middle East, a senior official told me just a few days ago. The US, an American diplomat confirmed, is well aware that such a scenario – two decades of turmoil – is far from being far-fetched. He also confirmed that this makes a renewed round of peace processing between Israel and the Palestinians seem unlikely in the near future. The Obama administration will have to first deal with Iraq and prevent its "principle foreign policy achievement" from disintegrating (the "achievement" being the US' withdrawal from Iraq). Having to reengage is a problem for the administration. Having to forcefully reengage is an even bigger problem. Yet the policy shapers understand that letting the rebel forces (ISIS) win in Iraq is quickly going to become an American problem as these rebels aren't exactly the type of people that will contain themselves to a certain area. For them a triumph is a stepping stone for the next battle.
So the US will have to focus on Iraq, and because of Iraq it will have to focus on Syria, and because of the two it will have to deal with Iran – and to possibly make trade-offs with Iran. And while Jerusalem wants the US to be engaged in Iraq, it doesn't want it to have to make trade-offs with Iran. And while the US doesn't want Israel to disrupt its dealings with Iran, it might need Israel's assistance if the need arises to defend Jordan from ISIS.
Eli Lake revealed last week that administration officials briefed Senators about the developing crisis and told them that "If the Jordanians are seriously threatened by ISIS, they would almost certainly try to enlist Israel and the United States into the war now engulfing the Middle East". For students of Middle East history, or people with long enough memories, this might sound like a familiar scenario. Back in 2007, I wrote an article for Slate in which I highlighted the fact that Jordan has always been a country in constant need of assistance. Once upon a time, Jordan needed help because of the power of its bullying neighbors – this was the case when Israel threatened to attack on Syria following the 1970 Syrian invasion of Jordan.
While back in the day Jordan had trouble dealing with a powerful Syria, it now has trouble dealing with a weak and fragile Syria that can't properly secure the Syrian-Jordanian border. It also has a problem with the weakening of Iraq. In the past, Jordan was exempted from joining the coalition against Sadam Hussein – its fear of the possible consequences was well understood by the George H.W. Bush administration – but it later had to deal with hordes of Iraqi refugees fleeting the Iraqi civil war. Today it has to deal, once again, with the possibility of a wave of refugees and with the even graver possibility of future ISIS attacks.
When voices for withdrawal from Iraq became louder, the Jordanians were quick to ring an alarm bell, as I reported back in 2007. "Democratic leaders heard the Jordanian warnings. Some were impressed, and others thought the potential impact on Jordan was not a good enough reason to stay the course. 'They're like this child at Christmas, wanting to get the pony,' a congressional source told me last week. The 'pony' being the United States staying put in Iraq. 'But they can't get the pony, they'll get something else'." Today, they might also have to get "something else", and the Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu hinted the other day that Israel might have to be that "something else", or at least a part of it.
Most of the headlines about Netanyahu's comments at Tel Aviv's INSS focused on his endorsement of Kurd independence. "A nation of fighters [who] have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence". His message on Jordan was more nuanced and closer to home – and it was double fold:
First – the Prime Minister explicitly explained that events in Iraq only bolster his position that Israel will have to be, for the foreseeable future, the guarantor of the Jordanian border. This means that no agreement with a Palestinian Authority or a future Palestinian state can convince him to pull Israel's forces away from the Jordan River. Israel – and this should be understandable even to those highly supportive of a Palestinian State – would be wary about letting the Palestinian forces be in charge of preventing ISIS forces from entering the West Bank (of course, they might propose other solutions such as international forces – I don't think Israel is going to fall for that. If you want to know why, look at how the Austrian forces responded when the civil war in Syria became dangerous). Netanyahu also spoke about the need for "a security fence on our eastern border" – namely, the border with Jordan. "That fence", he said, "does not hermetically prevent infiltration; it doesn’t prevent shooting through the fence as we saw tragically just a week ago; it doesn’t prevent barrages of missiles over it, or the digging of tunnels underneath it. But it does narrow down dramatically that permeation” on Israel's border.
His other message about Jordan was not as specific but no less important – in fact, it might be more important. Netanyahu implied that he doesn't want ISIS stopped on Jordan's border with the west Bank, he wants it stop on the Iraqi-Jordan border. "Jordan is a stable, moderate country with a strong army that can defend itself", Israel's Prime Minister said. Stable and moderate, namely a country that does not currently suffer from the type of turmoil expected from the next two decades. "It is especially due to this", Netanyahu continued, "that these international efforts are worthy of supporting it". Israel wants the international community, or the US, or maybe local forces, to “build an axis for regional collaboration”. An axis that will not pick a side – between Iraq and Syria’s Sunni extremists or Iran’s Shiite extremists. These two camps, he said, "are also other people’s enemies as well".
"Other people" – that refers to Jordan, among others. Israel can focus on its eastern border and guard itself, or it can do that and also be part of a collaborative effort against extremism, a collaborative effort which some leaders in Jerusalem still hope that the US can be pivotal in orchestrating but which others, as I wrote two weeks ago, have great doubts about.