Voice

Does America Still Have a Special Relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia?

And, if so, is it even worth keeping?

A week or so ago, I found myself sitting on a panel about Iran with Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud and Israel analyst and former Mossad officer, Yossi Alpher.

If F. Scott Fitzgerald was right that the mark of the sophisticated mind is the ability to reconcile the yes and the no, he should have been there to see this. The Israeli-Saudi exchanges were fascinating, cordial, edgy, and quite instructive. There was some real push and pull on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but clearly a common view on the danger and challenge posed by Iran.

As a historian by training though not by trade, the Israeli-Saudi conversation started me thinking about these two U.S. allies -- how they agreed and disagreed with one another and we with them. But most of all I was reminded how primary they both have been and still are to America's successes and failures in the Middle East.

During the 1940s when the United States was first getting its feet wet in the Middle East (and its oil), Washington developed very special, though very different, relationships with Riyadh and Jerusalem, roughly about the same time. The first with Saudi Arabia was driven largely by the growing importance of oil in the wake of World War II and the European recovery. Nothing was more emblematic of that emerging relationship than the famous meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi King Abd Al-Aziz on Great Bitter Lake in February 1945. And while Roosevelt was likely as enamored by kings and the romance of distant and exotic lands as he was by Middle East strategy, the basis would be laid for a strategic relationship lubricated by Saudi oil in exchange for U.S. security guarantees and military, technological, and economic support for the kingdom.

A more complex mix of moral, humanitarian, and domestic political concerns would drive U.S. support for the creation of a Jewish state in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust. And a bit of realpolitik too. By the spring of 1948 -- with the newly created State of Israel coming into being -- President Harry Truman saw merits in adviser Clark Clifford's arguments that the Russians were poised to recognize Israel and that Washington shouldn't worry much about Abd al-Aziz's reaction. The Saudis, he argued, had nowhere else to sell their oil and no one else to help them develop it. Clifford turned out to be right, for the most part. Indeed with rare exceptions, notably the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, the United States has succeeded in keeping oil and Palestine quite separate.

Over the years, these two special relationships would continue to develop, mature, and to define much about U.S. policy in the region. Indeed, of the three original reasons for America's involvement in the Middle East -- the Cold War, oil, and Israel -- only the last two really continue to shape U.S. policy. Regardless of differences between the United States and these two strange Middle East bedfellows, what binds the bilateral ties has been stronger than what divides them. And this is likely to continue. To bring Mark Twain into the argument, rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated. More than likely they're here to stay. And here's why.

Stability, Stability, Stability

It is the cruelest of ironies that with all of the promise of the Arab Spring and its tropes of democratization, gender equality, freedom of conscience, and the like, it is the authoritarian kings, Saudi Arabia in particular -- the anti-force to all of these values -- that have survived largely untouched. And this administration and its predecessor -- for all the talk of the Freedom Agenda and being on the right side of history -- still values stability as the paramount virtue. The Saudis don't want an Arab Spring in Riyadh. And neither does Washington.

Sure, there are tensions in the relationship, and yes the oil-for-security tradeoff has been weakened. But billions in arms sales and oil technology, the U.S. commitment to Gulf security, and bases and prepositioning in Gulf Cooperation Council countries nearby continue to drive the importance of this relationship. Whatever doubts the Saudis have about U.S. reliability, should Iran or anyone else threaten the kingdom they won't be calling Moscow or Beijing first for help.

As for the U.S.-Israel relationship, the character of that bond remains as durable as ever. It's in the broadest conception of the American national interest to support likeminded democracies and that value affinity remains the bulwark of the relationship. Just take a look at the March 2013 Gallup poll revealing that public support for Israel is at an all-time high. Since the Arab Spring, that bond has only strengthened as Israel's Arab neighbors have melted down -- driving spikes in violence, anti-American sentiment, and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

The fact remains that Israel's best talking points in Washington in defense of a strong relationship remain the Arab instability and dysfunction that mark their neighborhood. It would take a fundamental change in America's image of Israel to break that bond. And part of that change would require a Sadat-like Arab leader to make the case in a way that few Arab leaders have ever done, at least since the death of Jordan's King Hussein.

The bizarre axis of common enemies

No two countries could be more fundamentally different in character, history, religious affiliation, political system, and culture than Israel and Saudi Arabia. The old joke that when the Jews left Egypt Moses should have turned right instead of left and everything might have been different puts the matter in perspective. That the United States has managed to maintain these relationships and benefit from them without much conflict given the differences between them is as much a result of basic Saudi and Israeli needs as it was American diplomatic creativity and skill.

Still, rarely, if ever it seems have Israeli and Saudi interests seemed to converge as closely as they do now, leaving the United States on certain issues the odd man out. Of course, there are major differences over the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace. But on issues relating to Egypt (where Riyadh and Jerusalem welcome the military's return), and Iran (where both fear a nuclear Tehran) it may well be that this informal Jerusalem-Riyadh axis carries more influence than one may think, particularly on the Iranian nuclear issue. The United States will be hard-pressed to do a deal with Iran that leaves two of its last remaining Middle East allies angry, aggrieved, and fundamentally left doubting America's will and power. And so most likely, despite Saudi and Israeli fears, Washington probably won't be forced to accept its own stated slogan that no deal is better than a bad one. Two allies in hand is worth one very problematic potential frenemy in the proverbial bush.

* * *

But that leaves us with a big question: are these special relationships even good for Washington anymore? The argument has been made for years that the United States is too subservient to Israel and too addicted to Saudi oil. Why not reduce its dependence on these two and make new friends? How about Turkey? Maybe even Iran? Surely, building these relationships would help the United States be seen as more credible around the region. One could argue it would also allow it greater freedom of action to protect its interests.

There's no doubt that maintaining close ties with the specials come with liabilities. Washington is directly linked to supporting or acquiescing in Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and other Arabs that engender rage, and support for the Saudi monarchy makes a mockery of U.S. principles of democracy and respect for human rights.

But for seven decades now, the advantages of these relationships have also made America relevant and influential in a very tough region. In war and in peace, these relationships have proved invaluable. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, the Saudis offered vital staging areas and Arab cover to enable the United States to push him out. And without the U.S. relationship with Israel, there would have been no Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and likely no chance of an Israel-Palestine peace agreement today either.

But the U.S.-Israel relationship is supposed to be special -- not exclusive. And America is still too dependent on Saudi oil and not nearly tough in pushing the kingdom to stop funding jihadi groups and Wahabbi ideology.

Yet today, especially, when Washington lacks a reliable Arab partner, when it can't seem to make up its mind as to whether Egypt is a friend or adversary, Israel and Saudi Arabia are critically important. There are clear differences in these bilateral ties; but these really do pale compared with the convergence. If the White House wants to manage the Iran nuclear issue or push the Israel-Palestine peace process forward or keep trying to find a solution for Syria, it needs their help. With friends like these, many critics of the special relationships argue, who needs adversaries? But the critics tend to see the world as they want they want it to be, not the way it is. But with diminished U.S. influence and perhaps even a reduced role in the region, can beggars be choosers? Who else are we really going to rely on? This really isn't Lehman Brothers. We have them; and they're too big to fail.

Jim Watson - Pool/Getty Images

Reality Check

Empty Promises

Can Obama deliver on Israel and Iran -- or is he overreaching?

When it comes to the Middle East and perhaps foreign policy in general, Barack Obama is a curious president, a leader deeply ambivalent and seemingly at war with himself.

Last week, I argued that Obama may well be the first president to preside over a shrinking U.S. role in the Middle East. His actions on almost every issue -- getting out of old wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, avoiding new ones (Syria), avoiding interventions in lands visited by the Arab Spring, and resetting his relationship with Israel -- reflect a general attitude of risk aversion in the region.

And yet, the president himself doesn't seem to realize it, or at least he's not tuned in to the implications of his own words. Last month at the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), in front of much of the world and all of its relevant diplomatic players, without the slightest hesitation, Obama committed himself to near-impossible overreach on two of the most intractable issues in the region: resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. As Mitchel Hochberg, my research assistant, quipped the other day, you don't set high expectations in a region that eats them for lunch.

What's really going on here? Does the president actually mean that he's planning to resolve the two most challenging diplomatic puzzles in the Middle East? Or were these throwaway lines, rhetorical preludes to real American diplomatic initiatives, or just a "caught up in the moment" wish list?

For a guy who's remarkably disciplined when it comes to acting in the Middle East, the president is remarkably undisciplined when it comes to talking about it. You may remember the 2009 settlements freeze, the Cairo speech of the same year, the 2011 "Assad must go" comment, and the 2012-2013 chemical weapons red lines in Syria.

Sure, every president engages in rhetorical excess from time to time. But it's no small matter for American credibility -- already in short supply -- when the president's own words leave a huge disconnect between his intentions and his capacity to deliver.

Let's look at some of the disconnects between intent and capacity on these particular issues -- in other words, the reasons Obama's ambitions in the Middle East are not likely to come to fruition.

(1) The negotiations would be a nightmare.

Just carrying out a negotiation with Iran on the nuclear issue or mediating another between Israelis and Palestinians would be hard enough. But balancing two sets of negotiations that could come to decision points at roughly the same time? It's a negotiator's nightmare however you look at it. First, U.S. domestic politics are at play in both. Even in Obama's second term, freed from reelection constraints, that will impose serious limits on American margin for maneuver. Second, the substantive challenges are formidable enough that even months of negotiations will not conclusively resolve them. These are evolutionary, not revolutionary, agreements -- no one is going to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Iranian nuclear issue in a single accord. Finally, the president is dealing with a tough and suspicious ally in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a tough and suspicious adversary in Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. There will be little sentimentality, benefit of the doubt, or magnanimity in either process.

(2) You won't get a Palestinian deal without an Iranian one.

But the worst thing about these two negotiating challenges is that they're tied together, sequenced in the mind of the one regional player with a primary stake in both -- Netanyahu. Netanyahu's laws of political gravity don't allow him to make historic decisions on the Palestinian issue without a stronger sense for where Iran is headed. For the Israeli prime minister, the Palestinians are a long-term ideological problem. Iran is short term and very much in his threat-oriented comfort zone. For Netanyahu, liberating Israel from the shadow of the Iranian bomb squares much more with his own self-image than dividing Jerusalem. So the only chance for Obama to succeed in both negotiations would be to pursue Iran first and then move to the Palestinian deal.

Unfortunately, addressing Iran first carries major risks for Obama. If he fails, either producing no agreement with Iran or worse, producing a bad agreement, U.S. leverage over Israel is reduced to near zero and Israel has no incentive to move on the Palestinian issue. Not to mention the obvious: Without an agreement that substantially reduces the Iranian nuclear threat, Israel might actually strike Iran -- making an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the near term all but impossible. It would be very hard to negotiate a Palestinian state with thousands of Hezbollah and Hamas rockets flying about and Israel responding. A successful agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, meanwhile, wouldn't guarantee an Israeli-Palestinian accord. But it would at least increase Obama's capacity to press for one and reduce Bibi's capacity to resist.

(3) Time is not on Obama's side.

Neither negotiation can drag on interminably. On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, even though expectations are below zero, there will come a point when folks will start to wonder whether there's truly anything there. We're already into the second three months of Secretary of State John Kerry's informal nine-month clock for making a deal.

On Iran, the pressure won't come from any fixed clock as much as it will from an impatient U.S. Congress, hard-line mullahs and security types within Iran, and even an American administration that has all but committed itself to expedited talks. Indeed, the minute Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif talked to the U.S. president and Kerry in late September, this process wasn't on mullah time anymore.

Ticking clocks can be good if they build urgency to make a deal. But as early as spring of next year, talks on these serious issues will start hemorrhaging credibility if there's nothing to show. And given what's at stake, second chances may not be possible.

(4) Resolution isn't possible right now.

Granted, we're the fix-it nation, and we really believe that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all. Clearly the president is right to try. But Obama could have been somewhat more temperate in his UNGA speech, particularly when it came to the use of the word "resolving."

Netanyahu isn't a resolver; neither is Khamenei or Rouhani. But surprise, surprise, neither is Obama. He's a transactor if there ever was one, balancing between the desirable and the achievable, between the possible and the probable. His entire presidency -- as his critics from the left complain -- reflects that fact. Obama is a man of the left, but he's also a man in the middle, always trying to reconcile his views with the other guy's. There is no conflict-ending agreement available between this Israeli prime minister and this Palestinian president where each stands publicly and says: While we don't have reconciliation, on all the core issues all claims have been adjudicated, all irredenta have been abandoned, and our conflict is over. Nor are we talking about some permanent end state where Iran abandons its right to enrich uranium or gives up its capacity at some point to weaponize. Obama needs to think outcomes, maybe even good outcomes. But not solutions and resolutions.

(5) There is no strategic grand bargain.

If this were Hollywood, the story line would be quite different and far more heroic. A strategic grand bargain might emerge.

The heroic American president would say to the visionary Israeli prime minister: Let's make history. Make my day on the Israeli-Palestinian issue; give me some real flexibility in negotiations with Iran too; and if the mullahs can't or won't address our needs on the nuclear issue, I'll make your day and ensure that Iran will not get nukes.

But this isn't the movies. It's planet Earth. And these sorts of grand trade-offs and neat bargains just don't appear very often or at all.

Instead what usually emerges is the tendency to end up neither here nor there, sometimes with half a loaf, sometimes with a big mess. If Barack Obama is lucky he'll avoid the latter. And if he's really willful, skillful, and even luckier, he'll get something on each issue that stabilizes matters, avoids conflict, and creates a real basis for more progress and perhaps -- over time -- even the "resolving" he identified in his UNGA speech. But he ought to dial down the rhetoric. The whole enchilada anytime soon? Not a chance. As the late, great Yitzhak Rabin used to say, cigarette in one hand as he dismissively waved the other, "You can forget about it."

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images