The Democrats Are Finally Turning Away from Israel

And it's high time they did.

The news that Martin Indyk, the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has resigned and is returning to his think-tank perch at the Brookings Institution is confirmation of what most Middle East observers already assumed -- active American involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process has ended.

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry's protestations that the United States "remains committed … to resuming the process when the parties find a path back to serious negotiations," what comes next is anyone's guess. And that refers not just to the peace process but also to the long-term bond between the United States and Israel.

If the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is like that of a bitter divorcing couple that will argue over even the smallest of issues and hold their ground with undiminished intensity, the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship can be defined in similar matrimonial terms. The two countries are becoming more and more like a married couple that has fallen out of love but remains together, in large measure because of a combination of inertia -- and the kids (American Jews and evangelical Christians).

While the United States and Israel continue to be, in the words of National Security Advisor Susan Rice, "bound by our shared history and our shared values" and still cooperate closely on security and anti-terrorism initiatives, there is little question that on everything from Iran and the Arab Spring to the peace process, there is less and less common ground between the two countries. Unless there is a dramatic political change in both countries, the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship is likely one of less cooperation, more disagreements, and greater tension.

Personality explains a lot about how we've reached this point. While publicly the two countries have played nice, there is clearly no love lost in Barack Obama's administration for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Things got off to a rocky start in early 2009 when Netanyahu initially refused the United States' request for a settlement freeze. They got worse when Netanyahu sought to give Obama a "history lesson" in the Oval Office on the security challenges facing Israel; they plummeted further during the 2012 election when Bibi all but endorsed the president's Republican rival, Mitt Romney; and they took a major hit when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon publicly disparaged Kerry.

But relations truly reached rock bottom after the signing of the interim nuclear deal last fall between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany). It was one thing to oppose the deal. It was quite another for Israel to actively try to torpedo it. Not only did the Israelis seek to poison the well in Geneva by bad-mouthing U.S. efforts, but via the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, they sought to undermine the deal in Congress by pushing for passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act.

That rancor is likely to get worse, particularly as Washington and Tehran continue negotiations toward a final deal this summer -- and new indications of cooperation between Washington and Tehran over the ISIS invasion of Iraq are beginning to emerge.

There is also a larger strategic context at play. Resolving Iran's nuclear program would take one of the most pressing Middle East security challenges to the United States off the table. Doing so would likely hasten America's retreat from the region and its ongoing pivot to Asia. According to Amos Harel, a national security reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that process is already beginning: "You keep hearing from everyone in the Israeli security community -- both publicly and privately -- that the Americans are less engaged in what's going on in the region." The concern (which was bolstered by President Obama's decision to not enforce his red line on Syrian chemical weapons) is that U.S. support for Israel will inevitably weaken as a result.

So the tensions are as much about strategic priorities as they are about personalities. The failure of the Kerry peace gambit is not in itself an inflection point but, rather, confirmation of how differently the two sides see the world.

U.S. diplomats believe the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is ultimately not sustainable. Support for Israel -- as it becomes more isolated, delegitimized, and resolved to maintain the occupation -- could, in time, boomerang against the United States as Washington is put in the unenviable position of defending increasingly indefensible Israeli behavior. Already, Obama has hinted that the United States will no longer be able to carry diplomatic water for Israel the same way that it has in the past.

The current Israeli government does not feel the same sense of urgency.

This divergence was evident in the U.S. response to the breakdown in negotiations. Much of the public focus has been on Kerry's use of the word "apartheid" to describe where Israel may be headed. Strikingly, after his off-the-record comments were leaked, he refused to take them back. While noting that he should have used a different word, Kerry stuck to the view that Israel is facing a dark, undemocratic future.

Then there was the bombshell interview given by anonymous State Department officials (one of whom is generally assumed to be Indyk), published by Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Nahum Barnea. They placed most of the blame for the talks' failure on Israel, and they were not shy in saying why: "People in Israel shouldn't ignore the bitter truth -- the primary sabotage came from the settlements."

In a follow-up speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in early May, Indyk tried to cast blame more equitably. But he was also not shy in placing significant responsibility on Israel's continued construction of new settlements during the talks.

It is, says Matt Duss, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, an indication of a subtle "shift in the relationship. U.S. officials are willing to speak up more bluntly when Israel acts in ways that undermine U.S. goals."

It's more than words, however. In June, the U.S. government recognized the newly created Palestinian unity government, which controversially includes members of Hamas. The move caught Israelis off guard, but of an even greater salience, it failed to spark much of an outcry in the United States. The once unthinkable has increasingly become the norm.

Still, what we're seeing is more a gradual decline in the U.S.-Israel relationship than a dramatic turning point. Israel will likely find itself under international pressure from emboldened Palestinian diplomacy and European sanctions, and, according to Alan Elsner, the vice president for communications at J Street, the pro-peace U.S. lobbying group, there may be less willingness by Washington to push back on these moves. But the gestation period should be measured in years, not months. "This erosion would probably play out over a very long period of time," says Eisner. "And much of it would depend on which administration comes into power in 2017."

But even on the politics of Israel, the ground is shifting. Support for Israel was once one of the few issues on which both Democrats and Republicans could agree. Yet in recent years Republicans have tried to make Israel a partisan issue (with often ample backing from Netanyahu). The failure last fall of the Iran sanctions bill was emblematic. The debate in Congress was cast along party lines, with Republicans seeking to undercut one of Obama's key foreign-policy initiatives and Democrats choosing to side with their president.

For Republicans, unquestioning backing for the Jewish state is a reflection of the strong support among conservative American evangelical Christians for Israel -- rather than a political move to steal away votes from American Jews, who continue to uniformly sway Democratic. But even among American Jews, new cracks are visible. Support for Israel's policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians is exceedingly low; fewer than half of American Jews see Israel as sincere in its desire to make peace. Among younger, secular Jews, support for Israel as an essential element of their Jewish identity is far less than that among older and religious Jews. It's a reflection of the growing and pervasive generational divide in the community.

No longer can it be said with certainty that a candidate's support for Israel is a litmus test for Democratic voters the way it might have been 20 years ago. As Israel becomes more nationalistic, more religious, and more defensive in its attitudes toward the occupation, it is hard to see an increasingly secular, liberal, American Jewish community responding with unqualified backing. And for national Democrats, the need to be seen as a steadfast ally of Israel may no longer be so politically important. If the Obama administration -- as well as a potentially subsequent Democratic administration -- truly intends to pivot to Asia and reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, it will no longer want to be bogged down in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is particularly so as the actions of Israel, in regard to the occupation, become far more difficult to defend -- and Israeli leaders increasingly identify themselves with the Republican Party. When one combines the changing politics of support for Israel with Israel's continued obstinacy on ending the occupation, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the U.S.-Israel relationship doesn't change.

This process of divergence will take time. But it is increasingly clear that the United States and Israel are on two different and diverging paths. If Kerry is right that Israel is becoming an apartheid state -- or some approximation of that -- it's a question of not if but when that begins to remake the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Photo by LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images


Welcome to Stanistan

Behold the power of Central Asia's new superstate.

At a signing ceremony in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on May 29, the presidents of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan ratified the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) into existence. An EEU modeled on the European Union was first mooted back in 1994 by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, but took off only after his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, seized upon its potential as a Moscow-centered, Asia-oriented alternative to the EU. The groundwork was laid in 2010 by a customs union among the three signatories.

Armenia intends to join the EEU in July, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are also on the fast track toward membership. Already, though, the three-nation EEU has created a single trade zone of 170 million people with a GDP of $2.7 trillion. Although the integration initially is purely economic, if Putin has its way the EEU could become a more overtly political project over time -- like the EU itself.

But whether the fledgling EEU and its first inductees are planting the seeds of a new world empire remains to be seen. Putin's dream to restore Russia to its former glory may falter at the EEU's inherent contradictions and shortcomings: Its members themselves seem more interested in trading with Europe and China than with each other, and, even combined, their economies measure less than one-fifth of either the EU or the U.S. economy.

If Putin's new Eurasia is to be more than re-demarcating the shrunken limits of the Kremlin's regional influence, it will eventually need to attract a few crucial states on its eastern and western flank as EEU members: China and Ukraine, for example. Or even Turkey, which is officially still waiting for the green light from Brussels to join the European Union. None of those three countries seems likely to accede to the EEU (though Turkey at least has been officially invited by Kazakhstan). So for now, the EEU consists of Russia and the most Moscow-friendly of the former Soviet republics -- its nearest abroad, so to speak.

Belarus was always going to be the most willing partner in Russia's attempts at self-aggrandizement. Having languished under President Aleksandr Lukashenko since 1994, Europe's last dictatorship is isolated from the West and totally dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, and thus has no other geopolitical options. And like Belarus, Kazakhstan is landlocked and somewhat lacking in democratic credentials -- Nazarbayev has been running the show since 1989, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But unlike Belarus, whose main exports include tractors and meat, Kazakhstan is resource-rich. With 30 billion barrels still in the ground, it has the world's 11th-largest crude oil reserves. Gas, coal, and uranium are also plentiful. The country's stated aim is to use its mineral wealth to join the club of 30 most developed nations and become a "Singapore of the steppes."

Kazakhstan is neither poor nor insecure -- which seem the two main reasons for other former Russian satellites to want in on the EEU. In fact, despite signing the accord, the Kazakhs seem wary of Moscow's intentions and could strike out for an empire of their own -- if only they looked south for inspiration instead of west for reassurance. But that runs counter to the instinct of its present leadership.

In February 2013, Nazarbayev proposed changing his country's name to Kazakh Eli, to differentiate it from the "stans" on its southern border. The change (which hasn't gone through yet and might never be adopted) illustrates a mindset popular among the nouveaux riches, be they individuals or countries: Dissociate yourself from your poor, backward, violent cousins.

But what if Kazakhstan did the exact opposite?

What if, instead of becoming a little fish in Russia's big pond, it dared to dream of being the big fish in a pond of its own creation? A pond comprising all the 'stans, for example -- not just the former Soviet ones, but also the ones further south. That wouldn't be such a little pond either, for such a power block would unite no fewer than seven countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The total area would be about 2.1 million square miles, roughly half the size of the United States. This would make it the world's seventh-largest country: smaller than Australia (3 million square miles) but bigger than India (1.3 million square miles). Together, they would comprise a large, crucial chunk of Central Asia, providing the heartland of the "world island" -- that interlinked trio of Old World continents Asia, Africa, and Europe.

The Kazakh-inspired superstate would occupy a strategic place on the global map, linking Europe (yes, Kazakhstan is so massive that it's partly in Europe as well) to the Indian subcontinent. It would also bridge the geostrategic gap between the Middle East and the Far East. One could argue that Afghanistan already does this, thanks to its Wakhan Corridor, tenuously touching China, but the terrain and the security there are less than ideal. The main strength of the new country might be the maritime outlet, via the Arabian Sea, that it would provide for northern Asia's largely untapped development potential. Pipelines, railways, and other as-yet-nonexistent links to Karachi and other Pakistani ports would be the shortest route to market for the oil, coal, and gas in the Kazakh underground.

The superstate would have an annual GDP of just under $600 billion (2013), which would rank it somewhere between Switzerland and Sweden -- though in per capita terms, it would roam the bottom half of the tables, with Kazakhs averaging $12,000 a year (slightly less than Hungarians), and Afghans surviving on one-seventeenth of that ($700, slightly more than Rwandans). In addition to its economic advantages, it would be ethnically and linguistically diverse, with Slavic, Turkic, and Persian influences swirling about. But it would also have a few important unifying traits. It would be predominantly Muslim, and it would share many historical and cultural similarities, from the memory of the Silk Road and the legacy of Genghis Khan to the celebration of Nowruz -- the Iranian New Year. They're not all "stans" -- which means "land" or "country" in Persian -- by accident.

With an aggregate population of around 280 million, it would be the world's fourth-most-populous country, after China, India, and the United States. And with a combined force of just under 1 million military personnel on active duty, it would have the world's fifth-largest standing army, after China, the United States, India, and North Korea, but before Russia. The new superpower's largest city would be Karachi, Pakistan's coastal metropolis of 9 million, though for strategic reasons a more central capital could be chosen. One possibility would be the Tajik capital of Dushanbe (population 750,000).

But finding a location for its capital would be the least of the new country's problems. War -- to name the most urgent one. As the West withdraws from Afghanistan, the government in Kabul increasingly faces the Taliban alone, meaning the violence is likely to get worse. Across the Durand Line, the Pakistani government is facing its own Taliban insurgency, plus separatism in Baluchistan and a Cold War with subcontinental rival India. Ethnic strife and religious fundamentalism provide flammable material even in the former Soviet 'stans, particularly in the Fergana Valley, divided between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Then there's the grinding poverty: Apart from Kazakhstan, all the 'stans have a per capita GDP of less than $10,000 (2013).

The list of negative indicators is depressingly long and predictable. Corruption: high. All the 'stans score high on Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index (Afghanistan is eclipsed only by North Korea and Somalia). Literacy: low. Shockingly, 186 million-strong Pakistan is only 55 percent literate. Afghanistan (28 percent) is again close to the world's worst performer. (For fairness's sake, the post-Soviet 'stans do much better, with near-complete literacy.) Democracy: iffy at best. Afghanistan, for all its other failings, is upholding the process with ongoing presidential elections even in the face of war. But governance on the steppe can be ridiculously pantomime-like in the worst cases -- remember the bizarre personality cult around Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen), who renamed the month of April after his own dear mother?

But what would be the name of this new country? Of course, something predictable and boring like the Central Asian Federation would be proposed. But the flash of lightning that could jolt this strangely assembled beast to life would be the epithet that refers to the suffix they all share. And if "Country of Countries" sounds a bit generic in English, the original is of a simple, unforgettable beauty.