Four years ago, the U.S. Congress invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint congressional session as part of his campaign to defeat the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate the Iranian nuclear accord. Netanyahu’s address was an unacceptable interference in the U.S. domestic political arena and should have been challenged. President Obama refused to hold a private meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister but, before leaving office, the president signed the most generous military aid package ever given to the Israelis. Thus, Netanyahu paid no price for lobbying in our congress against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Last week, 400 members of the Senate and House of Representatives presented Netanyahu with another gift in the form of letter to President Trump advocating a Middle East policy that fully indulged the Israeli agenda for the region. The fact that the letter coincided with Netanyahu’s floundering efforts to form a new Israeli government suggests that the Congress was trying to enhance the Israeli prime minister’s efforts. Clearly, the U.S. president and the U.S. Congress are on the same page in trying to boost Netanyahu’s standing.
The letter to the president was presented as a U.S. regional security agenda for the Middle East, but the recommendations that concerned Syria and Iran were thoroughly consistent with Israeli (and Saudi) proclamations and propaganda. Israeli and Saudi spokesmen have been lobbying the Congress in recent months for such a statement and, in gaining a letter signed by most Democratic and Republican party leaders, the capitals of Jerusalem and Riyadh have been well rewarded. (Five congressional contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination signed the letter, indicating that they would continue the one-sided policy of the current administration.)
The letter elevates Israeli (and Saudi) security concerns to the highest priority and falsely argues that the United States shares these concerns. Terrorist groups in Syria represent a challenge to Israeli national security, but it is ludicrous to argue that the “main purpose” of these groups is to “plan and implement attacks against…the U.S. homeland.” The emphasis on the threat from Iran is also consistent with the Israeli (and Saudi) playbook for the greater Middle East, but distorts the limited challenge that Tehran represents to U.S. interests.
In conveying the Israeli national security viewpoint, the letter obfuscates the importance of the United States finding a way to reduce its role in the Middle East where a series of Washington administrations have wasted resources in confronting growing regional instability. The U.S. commitment to Israel is sufficiently strong and even one-sided; it is in no need of greater enhancement. But the congressional letter emphasizes that the United States must continue to defend Israel against “growing threats” without acknowledging that Israel is a relative superpower in the region, no longer requiring massive U.S. blandishment.
The U.S. problem in the greater Middle East is one of too much visibility; the solution is to lower the U.S. role in the region. The congressional letter assumes that any threat to Israel is equal to a threat to the United States. In fact, it was the U.S. invasion of Iraq that put the region on the current path to instability in the first place. The congressional letter merely continues Washington’s escalation of the Iran problem that could lead to confrontation. The U.S. demonization of Iran must stop.
The key to solving the problem with Iran is to return to the diplomatic tool that produced the JCPOA. This marked a successful exercise in international diplomacy and a potential tool for reviving a moderate community in Tehran. We need to ignore the demands of Israel (and Saudi Arabia) and find a way to establish a diplomatic dialogue with Iran that leads to the eventual restoration of diplomatic relations that were broken 40 years ago. The congressional letter plays into an unfortunate U.S.-Israeli-Saudi triangle that finds the Saudis and Israelis successfully worsening the U.S.-Iranian relationship (such as it is).
The Syrian situation is much too complex for any easy solution, particularly because of the presence of so many non-Arab forces and interests, including the United States, Israel, Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Donald Trump’s back-and-forth pronouncements on a U.S. military presence have not helped to stabilize the situation. Unfortunately, a token U.S. presence must remain in Syria in order for the United States to have a place at any bargaining table. Syria probably cannot be restored as an effective nation-state until the Assad dynasty (approaching 50 years) comes to an end, but greater Russian and Iranian influence should not be assumed because of their non-Arab credentials in this tribal arena.
The greater problem for the U.S. is dealing effectively with Israel and Saudi Arabia, the traditional twin pillars of U.S. policy in the region. The energy revolution in the United States means that we are no longer dependent on Saudi oil, and should be using leverage for genuine reform in Saudi Arabia. The White House and the Congress should stop playing to the worst sides of Bibi Netanyahu, and should start making genuine efforts to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority in order to seek a path toward a two-state solution. The congressional catering to Bibi Netanyahu and the presidential catering to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and his criminal behavior must stop.