Why Israel (and the U.S.) Are in Worse Trouble Than They Think in the Mideast

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The Washington Institute's Robert Satloff argues that Israel now faces a starkly deteriorating strategic landscape:

With Hamas’s strong political backing from regional states, future historians might very well view the Gaza conflict as the first episode of a new era of renewed inter-state competition and, potentially, inter-state conflict in the Arab-Israeli arena. This is not to suggest that full-scale Arab-Israeli war is in the offing. Israel’s potential adversaries, such as Islamist-led Egypt and an Islamist-led post-Assad Syria, may quite likely be consumed with other priorities, such as sorting out internal socio-economic problems or resolving domestic ethnic disputes, for years or even decades to come. This focus on problems at home may, for a long time, mask the strategic shift now underway—a shift in which countries that used to share strategic interests in preventing direct state-to-state conflict may find tactical ways to postpone conflict to another day. But that doesn’t make the shift any less real or menacing, either for Israeli or American interests.

Israel insulated itself from state-to-state wars by both beating its adversaries handily and relying on U.S. aid and pressure to keep regional dictators at bay. Yet that structure is collapsing before our eyes. Newly democratic governments in the region are likely to continue to use Israel as a scapegoat for their own domestic failings, but unlike the autocrats of old, they may feel more pressure to actually deliver on anti-Israeli rhetoric. Autocrats face no such referendum.

Satloff continues:

What makes this development particularly worrisome for friends of Israel is that it puts the Jewish state at the heart of two mega-trends that are defining what can be termed the “new new Middle East.” The “old new Middle East” was a region of peace, trade, and regional cooperation about which visionaries, like Shimon Peres, waxed poetic. This Middle East reached its heyday in the mid-’90s, when Israelis were welcome everywhere from Rabat to Muscat. The “new new Middle East” is the region defined by the twin threats of Iranian hegemonic ambitions and the spread of radical Sunni extremism, a vast area where Israelis are not only unwelcome but where they are building fences along their borders to separate themselves from the Gog-versus-Magog fight around them.

In some parts of the region, such as Syria and Bahrain, these two trends are fighting each other, whether directly or via proxies. But in the Arab-Israel arena, these two trends have found a way to join forces, as seen in the division of labor between Iran’s provision of rockets and weapons to Hamas and the growing Sunni (Egyptian-Qatari-Tunisian-Turkish) provision of political support to Hamas. That these two trends, which battle each other ferociously elsewhere in the Middle East, can find common ground in their battle against Israel does not augur well for Israel’s strategic situation in the future.

No it does not and it might be worse than that. The problem is that as the U.S. seeks to blunt "Iranian hegemony" (such as it is) it winds up empowering the Sunni radical threat (i.e. the same forces that brought us 9/11) and vice-versa. There's no simple method to balance these forces in a way that doesn't invite future catastrophe. Satloff's suggestion is to bribe Egypt back into the fold and prop up Jordan's monarchy -- solutions that may provide a temporary reprieve, but no more.

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