Two years of President Barak Obama’s Middle Eastern foreign policy, and especially its handling of the Egyptian revolution, earned poor marks at Israel’s flagship national security event, the Herzliya Conference. The prestigious conference attracted NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, U.K. Defense Minister Liam Fox, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and many others.
Israel is concerned that the the Obama Administration demonstrated inconsistency, first declaring the Mubarak regime stable, then hastening to ease out an octogerian President who for a long time was America’s and Israel’s trustworthy partner despite being an authoritarian ruler.
A stable regime in Egypt is seen here as crucial to keeping intact the 32-year-old Camp David Accords, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
Egypt—and especially Vice President Omar Suleiman—are also credited with playing a key role in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and closing the Gaza–Egypt border to weapons smuggling.
The majority of speakers perceived the U.S. power in the region in decline. The U.S. initially decided to push Mubarak out instead of engaging in “intimate dialogue between two allies,” Israelis complained. It looks now, however, that a compromise may be in the making, allowing Mubarak to depart with dignity.
Might inconsistencies in handling the Egyptian regime by the Obama Administration suggest a speedy disengagement from Israel? Can Israel count on the long-term relationships with its allies? As Iran and Turkey appear to boost their power, it is little wonder that Israel feels more insecure—and less likely to make concessions the Obama Administration demands.
The peace process did not fare much better. For most of the last two years, the U.S. failed to convince the Palestinians to negotiate directly with Israel, let alone arrive to a permanent settlement. Palestinian leadership is now bypassing the Obama Administration, seeking to engage the U.N. General Amir Eshel, the head of Israeli Planning Division, said that the order in the Middle East is defined by three states, none of them Arab: Iran, Turkey, and Israel.
Some experts called for Israel to supplement the strong U.S.–Israeli relationship by reaching out to powers other than the U.S., whereas Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader, called for a deal with the Palestinians in coordination with Washington. However, if such a deal has not materialized so far, it is not clear how it will occur when Iran, Syria, and Hamas are perceived as rising.
Rafi Barak, the Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, pointed out that China, Brazil, and even Russia have gotten more involved in the Middle East, while the U.S. is preparing to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq, according to some experts, is becoming more Islamist and more Iran-influenced. All this creates a multi-crisis (not multi-polar) environment, Barak said.
Iran, like Egypt, was front and center at the conference. Experts credited Tehran with a de facto takeover of Lebanon. Iran turned Hezbollah and Hamas into semi-states, pushing their legitimacy up, whereas Israel’s legitimacy is under attack. While some speakers, such as Ephraim Halevy, the former chief of the Mossad, said that the U.S. and Israel “are winning the war” to stop the Iranian nuclear program, others (such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka and Ephraim Sneh, the former Deputy Minister of Defense) said that sanctions alone will not suffice. They called for a more robust effort regarding Iran, including a credible military option and outreach to the Iranian people who are sick and tired of the mullah regime.
The conference will continue through February 9.