It is provocative, but not entirely inaccurate, to suggest that U.S. foreign policy these past few months has been sufficiently erratic to make America’s allies reconsider the degree to which we can be trusted-and our adversaries re-evaluate the degree to which we must be feared.
The canary in the coal mine on such matters is Israel. None of America’s allies is more sensitive to even the most subtle changes in the international environment, or more conscious of the slightest hint of diminished support from Washington.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been so concerned that a member of his fractious coalition might give vent to some damaging public observation on this issue that he has imposed a strict “nobody talks on the subject but me” rule. That the gag has been even partially effective, given the wide-open nature of the Israeli political process, is astonishing. It is also a measure of how worried the Israelis are.
My own reporting on the Middle East in general and Israel in particular goes back almost 40 years-to the days of Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in the region. On a recent visit to Jerusalem, I met with a number of very senior current and former government officials who spoke on a not-for-attribution basis. They were anything but restrained in voicing their concerns, and some of the views expressed in this article reflect the outlook of the prime minister himself.
Overshadowing all other concerns is the fear that Iran is poised to reap enormous benefits from the so-called Arab Spring. “Even without nukes,” one top official told me, “Iran picks up the pieces. With nukes, it takes the house.”
Hearing Israeli leaders express grave concerns about Iran and its nuclear potential is nothing new. What is new is a growing worry that America’s adversaries will be less inclined to take warnings from Washington seriously. Each week that passes without the overthrow or elimination of Moammar Gadhafi is perceived in Jerusalem as emboldening the leadership of Iran and North Korea.”Imagine,” one source told me, “how Gadhafi must be kicking himself for giving up the development of Libya’s nuclear program.”
Given the current wide range of U.S. responses to public upheavals throughout North Africa and the Persian Gulf, the Israelis are convinced that the principle needs to be unambiguously restated, if only as a reminder that Washington knows where its critical national interests lie. Absent such a public recommitment, they worry that Iran will be encouraged to even greater mischief. Wherever there is a restive and newly active Shiite minority, as for example in Bahrain, a mere causeway from the coast of Saudi Arabia, Tehran can be expected to provide assistance and stir the pot.
Just as enemies such as Iran need to be cautioned, America’s traditional allies need to be reassured. That’s why Israeli officials are recommending a Marshall Plan for Egypt. The overthrow of Hosni Mubarak may have been no loss in the annals of democracy, but under Mr. Mubarak Egypt was a pillar of stability and a reliable if not always warm partner for Israel. Egypt’s political future at this time is uncertain enough; the Israelis believe it is essential to prevent its economic collapse. The U.S. has poured billions of dollars into Egypt since Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, and senior Israeli officials believe the economic spigot should remain wide open.
With almost no margin for error, the Israelis have long been among the world’s foremost pragmatists. While I was in Jerusalem, events in Syria were coming to a boil. Since the Syrians are closely allied with Israel’s bitterest enemies-Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hezbollah’s main sponsor, Iran-one might expect Israeli leaders to take some comfort in seeing the regime of Bashar Assad in trouble. But here, too, the Israelis are far more comfortable with stability on their borders. Assad, like his father before him, has maintained an uneasy truce along Syria’s border with Israel, despite Israel’s continued occupation of the Golan Heights.
Little, if anything, that has happened during the past few months has improved Israel’s standing in the region. One of the most telling blows to Israel’s security has gone all but unnoticed in the swirl of uprisings. For years, the most stable relationship that Israel enjoyed with any Muslim nation was with Turkey. Even under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has specialized in publicly baiting the Israelis, the relationship between the two countries’ intelligence agencies remained strictly professional. “That,” a high-ranking Israeli official told me, “is no longer the case.”
The outlook from Jerusalem these days is not encouraging. Iranian influence is growing throughout the Persian Gulf and beyond. Egypt’s commitment to its peace treaty with Israel is uncertain. Syria could explode into total chaos at any moment. Jordan’s stability is in question. Pakistan, a Muslim country with more than a 100 nuclear warheads, is confronting an uncertain future-made all the more unpredictable by the commencement of a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. Whether any U.S. troops will remain in Iraq after the end of this year remains an open question. America is war-weary and facing a crushing deficit.
The only glimmer of good news for the Israelis may be that, when it comes to reliable allies in the region, Washington’s list also keeps getting shorter.
Mr. Koppel was the anchor and managing editor of “Nightline” from 1980 to 2005. He is currently a contributing analyst for BBC and a commentator for NPR.