The notion that Israel is primarily responsible for deteriorating relations with Turkey, Egypt and the Palestinians, as claimed by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in his speech to the 2011 Saban Forum last weekend, is more than simply inaccurate. It is disturbing and potentially dangerous.
While bad at any time, his finding fault with Israel at a time of great instability and uncertainty in the region is particularly distressing. More than ever, Israel stands out as an island of stability and friendship with the United States.
The defense secretary’s comments need a clear repudiation from the White House. Letting the secretary’s views stand as is could serve to bolster those in the region who seek to return to days when Israel truly was isolated. Rather than scoring points for this administration in the Muslim world, it will reinforce their perception of U.S. weakness for not sticking with a friend and will embolden enemies of Israel to increase their hostility toward the Jewish state.
Panetta’s analysis of developments in the region is quite strange. That Israel is facing difficulties with Turkey, Egypt and the Palestinians is a fact; that is a given. Why that is so, however, bears no resemblance to what the defense secretary said.
In the case of the Palestinians, it is Israel that has called for negotiations time and again, only to be rejected by the Palestinians.
Particularly surprising was Panetta’s answer to a question about what Israel should do: “Just come to the damn table.” Yet, only two months ago, the Middle East Quartet, in which the United States is a key participant, took the position that the parties should return to the table without preconditions – a position that coincided with Israel’s and that Israel accepted while the other side dawdled, at best.
Regarding Turkey, while the dispute over the 2010 Gaza flotilla tragedy continues and some in Israel think their government should go further in apologizing, any objective analysis as to why the rupture in relations has occurred must point to a strategic decision by Turkey to distance itself from Israel long before the flotilla affair.
All one has to do is go back to 2009, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan so rudely abused Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos conference. It was already clear then that Turkey was moving rapidly away from the strategic alliance that had developed over the years between the two countries. A Turkish repositioning internationally corresponded with its domestic change. Israel’s behavior and policies had little or nothing to do with it.
As to Egypt, it is the revolution and the course that it is taking, not anything Israel has done, that has created tensions.
Hope still exists that Egypt will maintain its relations with Israel and, most important, the peace treaty that serves the interests of both parties.
Here, too, it is most surprising that Panetta would express himself this way, only days after Islamists won about 60 percent of the votes in the first round of Egyptian elections. Even those who are labeled “moderate” within the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrate fierce hostility to Israel and to Jews.
Panetta had other things to say for which he should be commended. For example, he reiterated the importance of the unprecedented security cooperation between the United States and Israel.
He focused on Iran as the greatest threat to U.S. interests. He made clear that any Iranian steps to block the free flow of oil in the region would be met with a strong U.S. response. And he indicated that the U.S. policy to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear capability would require an emphasis on sanctions and diplomacy, while keeping a military option on the table.
All in all, however, the totality of the defense secretary’s comments seems to be a significant step backward. Much good work had been put in by the White House in recent months to remedy the missteps that characterized its Middle East approach during the first two years. The administration has tried to set things right – in the president’s admirable address at the United Nations in September, in its public and behind-the-scenes effort to forestall the Palestinian U.N. initiative, and in leading the effort within the Quartet calling on the parties to negotiate without preconditions.
Now, if the secretary’s remarks are allowed to stand, they will likely set in motion events that will exacerbate existing problems.
If Turkey is going to consider any improvement of relations with Israel, it is U.S. persuasion that could help bring it about. Indeed, the president has been working at that. Now the defense secretary seems to have let Turkey off the hook.
If those in Egypt who appear to be winning the day are contemplating more aggressive steps against Israel (short of breaking the treaty), the secretary’s comments may have made it easier for them to believe they might do so without suffering major consequences.
If the Palestinians were feeling pressure to return to the table after their misstep at the United Nations and the rebuff by the Quartet, they could see Panetta’s statements as an easing of any pressure.
These perceptions can add fuel to the fire of an already raging region. It is urgent that the White House make clear that the secretary’s remarks do not represent the views and position of the administration.