Arthur Cyr - Obama's Israel visit underscores nations' vital ties


"We are you, and you are us." That is how Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, described his nation's alliance with the United States while visiting Washington a year ago.

Netanyahu's verbal bear hug is important to keep in mind regarding President Barack Obama's Middle East trip this week, which included Israel. For all the disagreements between the two governments, notably regarding Israel's sustained aggressive establishment of settlements in occupied Arab territories, the ties that bind remain strong, almost always under strain but never severed.

Israel's leader deserves commendation for expressing friendship as well as reconfirming alliance, and we can hope a similar tone continues to characterize encore interchanges, both short- and long-range.

There is no shortage of grim and disturbing news from the Middle East, but the true picture is mixed with complex colors, not black and white. Iran's development of nuclear capabilities continues. Nearly three years ago, Israel commandos took over ships from Turkey carrying relief supplies to Gaza.

The resulting violence and deaths severely strained the American alliance tie, while upending Israel's important cooperation with Turkey.

Some pro-Palestinian activists who organized the flotilla were looking for trouble, and Israel's government unwisely accommodated. Netanyahu compounded the blunder by righteously retorting that his government's use of force was justified.

Regarding Iran, there are some encouraging signs beneath the scare headlines. Netanyahu estimated it would take Iran roughly a year to manufacture a nuclear weapon, Associated Press reported, and Obama agreed there was "not a lot of light, a lot of daylight" in the two leaders' intelligence assessments. Yet United Nations sanctions are hurting. Iran's currency has effectively collapsed, and serious talks have begun -- among the U.S., the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France plus Germany -- aimed at restricting nuclear power to peaceful civilian uses.

The Obama administration retains important leverage to encourage Mideast stability. First, Israel is more dependent than ever on American good will as well as aid. The regional turmoil resulting from the Arab Spring underscores the point.

Second, important progress in the Middle East has occurred in the context of tensions and even crises between Israel and the former President Jimmy Carter, through enormous determination and will power, was able to achieve an historic treaty between Egypt and Israel. Though occasionally badly frayed, the accord essentially has held.

The Suez Crisis of 1956 remains the most serious and potentially destructive. President Dwight Eisenhower decisively used economic leverage and astute diplomacy to end a secretly planned old-style colonial military effort by Britain, France and Israel to recapture the Suez Canal, which had been seized by Egypt's new nationalist regime.

As usual, Ike's instincts were sound. American-Israeli relations eventually gained. There has been no repeat of such obvious and outdated imperialism. There is no need for special anxiety in Washington because relations with our ally again have become characterized by serious tensions.

Third, U.S. foreign policy leadership is now structured to undertake in-depth diplomacy. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton may well have performed an important service through relentless travel and strident public emphasis on human rights, including women's equality.

Her successor, John Kerry, has the experience, interest and discipline to address the often-vexing details of diplomatic agreements.

This traditional approach is how foreign policy progress is actually achieved. Obama has already used him fairly extensively, though quietly, as diplomatic trouble-shooter.

Finally, the Obama administration has combined aggressive pursuit of terrorists with efforts to reduce the American military presence in the Middle East. This combination is promising for long-term stability and Washington influence.

Complete withdrawal from the volatile region, however, would be a mistake.

(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of After the Cold War.)

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