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What Jerusalem Sees When It Looks at Baghdad

by Shmuel Rosner

June 19, 2014 | 3:24 am

Volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), gather with their weapons during a parade on the streets in Basra, southeast of Baghdad, June 16, 2014. REUTERS/Essam Al-Sudani

The following mix is based on conversations with several Israelis – some of whom are government officials. I have reason to believe that senior Ministers share many of the observations included here.

Regional instability

For many years decision makers in Jerusalem argued that the world powers’ focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a focus on a Middle East side show. Naturally, they were suspected, and still are, of attempting to explain away their reluctance to compromise with the Palestinians, by invoking changing regional circumstances. But the past few years have made it more difficult to ignore their claims – the so-called Arab Spring, the war in Syria, and now the flare-up of Iraq all make the Palestinian issue seem, well, small. It puts it in perspective. Surely, Palestinians still suffer and still don’t have all the political rights to which they aspire, but the level of violence is relatively low, the economic hardships are mild compared to other countries in the area, and the everyday life is much more tolerable than life in, say, parts of Lebanon, parts of Syria, most of Libya, parts of Iraq.

Jerusalem looks at the region and sees change and battles all around. If the world wants to solve problems in this region, it can do plenty without having to attend to the “conflict”. Does it want to solve problems in the region?

American Reluctance

The US doesn’t seem to want to do such a thing, not to an extent that would require paying a price for it – and intervening without risking a price means ineffective intervention. American reluctance might mean some relaxation of some of the tensions between the two countries. It means that the US isn’t likely to nag Israel about making concessions for an imaginary peace process. But in the long term, American reluctance to play a more active role in Syria, Libya, and Iraq is bad news: Israel relies on America’s power and intimidating presence. If the US is no longer intimidating, enemy forces might see an opportunity for action. If the US is no longer intimidating, Israel has to be even stronger than it is now to be able to counter such attempts of enemy action. One bright point: the American public seems to understand the need for Israel to be even stronger under the current circumstances. It looks at Israel from the traditional point of view, seeing it as the only stable, friendly power in the region.

Iranian Cards

When the US says that it might deal with Iran to stabilize Iraq – but that this will have nothing to do with the nuclear negotiations – it raises a flag of suspicion. And it ignites three types of responses:

1. It is impossible that the Americans are so naïve – they know as well as we do that there is no deal with Iran on Iraq that doesn’t involve the nuclear negotiations (one Israeli said to me: “they have all read Kissinger”). Their statements are no more than a façade. Conclusion: The US isn’t serious about involving Iran.

2. Same as the previous point, except for the conclusion: the US is ready to tamper its nuclear demands to get something done on Iraq.

3. It is indeed possible that the Americans are so naïve, but they will soon discover that the Iranians aren’t playing ball – and only then the moment of truth will come: is the US willing to pay with nuclear concessions for stabilization in Iraq?

Obviously, points 2 and 3 are worrisome for Israel.

Realignments

The stability of Jordan is always a concern. It is a concern because of the war in Syria, and it will be an even bigger concern if radical militias take over Iraq. The Saudis and the Egyptians aren’t happy with the way the US is handling Syria and with the advance of Iran-backed forces. They also know that Iraq-style Sunni radicalism endangers them. What role Turkey wants to play in the region is a mystery. An unstable Iraq can’t be good for neighboring Turkey, but an Iraq dominated by Iran is also not necessarily a desirable outcome (the Kurds can be the beneficiaries of these concerns).

All of the above, and many other developments, might present new opportunities for Israel – it is not clear that they will, but it is possible that they will. In Jerusalem, a Prime Minister who is very careful (much more so than people commonly think) would be inclined to take a wait-and-see approach rather than take action when there’s so much fog clouding one’s political vision. Of course, this echoes my first point: such carefulness can easily be suspected as being an attempt to explain away the reluctance to compromise with the Palestinians and as an attempt to use the cover of fog to further strengthen Israel’s hold over territory (in the West Bank but possibly also in the Golan Heights).

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