Worldly-wise, Mid-East strategy from an avowed sceptic

Steven Simon, a former White House official, has written a book on US influence in the Middle East, which offers quite the take on the dynamics of the relationship between the US and “Israel”.

A former senior White House official, Steven Simon, who served as Middle East Adviser in the Obama Administration, has written a book. Quite a book. And with the Region at a strategic inflection point, Simon asserts starkly that America just does not have ‘the juice,’ nor the strategic interest, to get involved with Israel’s crisis: The point “simply is that it’s not our problem.”

This leads to the crux of matters: As Haaretz notes, issues relating to “Israel” now are strictly ‘political’, rather than ‘strategic’:

“Why would the Administration pick a fight with the current government in Israel – on something [the struggle by one party to argue their vision of Israel – over a consensus upholding the status quo] – over which the US simply has no control”.

The US has no ‘heft’ here, precisely because the rift amongst Israelis is so deep – It goes to the heart of what “Israel” is:

“There isn’t a US strategic stake involved – and in the absence of the strategic stake, it’s really just all about politics.”

Simon points to the current US-Israeli environment whose roots lay in the late 1990s as one creating a structural disadvantage for Democrats, since the party as a whole is moving in a different direction to that of the Israeli government.

“So why, when there’s an American election coming up, where the stakes are truly immense, would the Biden administration walk into a minefield for this? It would appear to me to be deeply imprudent … [Why] pick a fight with the current government in Israel over something that the United States … has no control”.

What matters in Washington is that political issues involving “Israel” ‘use a lot of air’:

“[S]o you’ve got this campaign that’s really fraught. It’s dealing with a lot of serious issues and deep issues, in an American context, and the stakes are really high. Why would you allocate bandwidth to this issue [the Israeli crisis]? It’s simply something you don’t want out there. It crowds out other stuff”.

“Everybody’s so interested in this current crisis [the protests] precisely because it seems to be like a tipping point. The message of the book, to the extent that it’s relevant to the crisis that’s going on now back there – is simply that it’s not our problem. What we’re looking at now – goes back to the 1930s, at least. Now the chickens are coming home to roost in a fairly big way. There, the issues are sort of much deeper”, Simon says.

“My main takeaway (drawn from my former Washington perspective 2011-12 and ’94 –‘99 at the National Security Council and 15 years at State Dept, before that) was that…the US–Israel relationship was ‘over’” — finished:

“The relationship was over and the US and Israel were in a very different place than they had been”.

This view extends to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ‘Peace Process’ too.

According to Simon, the US began to realize during Obama’s first term that it ‘had no juice’ [in respect to the conflict], and when then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts during the second term were not met with much enthusiasm [it confirmed the assessment].

According to Simon, the foundations of the US-“Israel” relationship were grounded in the liberal temper of a certain era, first established by Harry Truman. “He was deeply troubled by the Holocaust and what had been done to the Jews, there’s no question. But he also understood that this was politics and he overruled [Secretary of State George] Marshall and [senior State Department officials’ George] Kennan and [Loy] Henderson. Truman recognized [the Jewish state] 15 minutes after Israel declared its independence”, Simon writes.

“You could see that trend very clearly in [John F.] Kennedy’s rhetoric, and it was the language in which people expressed themselves,” he says, noting that the relationship evolved from being values-based to strategy-based under GOP President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. “Israelis liked that, because they thought it was going to be more durable than commitments based on shared values.”

However, the Obama administration’s decision to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan during the second term came down to personalities rather than strategy, Simon believes:

“Why the Obama administration made the play in the second term to try and do something vis-à-vis the Palestinians mostly came down to Kerry. He really wanted to do it, so Obama said: then ‘just do it’ – and it worked out, more or less, how people expected”.


“There’s no strategic stake. It doesn’t matter to the US what happens to the Palestinians. Strategically, is the US better or worse off if the Palestinians are better or worse off?  Not that I can tell, not in strategic terms – At the end of the day, it’s just going to embroil you; and put you in a fight with the Israeli government”.

His take on Netanyahu is in a similar ‘Realist vein’:

“Prime Minister Netanyahu might be viewed by historians as strategically great for Israel – because he succeeded in achieving independence from the US, whilst, at the same time, manipulating American domestic politics. That’s not nothing”, Simon underlines.

Simon believes Netanyahu made a calculation – based on rhetoric and behaviour – that “Israel” is better off with the Republicans in power, and that “Israel’s” relationship with the Democratic Party is unlikely to stabilize:

“You just bet on a horse to ride. The base will be narrower. You’ll have more and more Americans who don’t really understand why we’re doing all this for Israel; or, might develop a more articulated distaste for certain Israeli policies – but why would that matter in Jerusalem? Congress will just do the easy thing: Appropriate the money – regardless of the White House preferences – because that’s the sensible political thing to do. When it’s cost-free [politically speaking], why would you not do it?”

Of course, if Simon is correct in his analysis, then consider applying the same logic to Saudi Arabia: US Democrats may despise Netanyahu, but that sentiment is matched only by their feelings for Mohammad bin Salman (feelings that are reciprocated by the Prince). Yet, the Saudi relationship with the US too is ‘too big to fail’.  MbS does not need Washington, whereas Washington needs MbS (particularly at a time of American financial stress).

Yes, the Kingdom can, and will, do ‘political things’ for the US (such as hold a Peace Consultation on Ukraine), which costs nothing: ‘Why would he not do that’ (you can imagine Simon asking)? But doing the ‘strategic thing’ of normalising with “Israel” is strategic: It has a strategic ‘downside’ — that of making MbS look weak — for MbS well knows that Netanyahu will never lift a meaningful finger for the Palestinians (it would implode his Coalition), and in any case, the PM would not want to do it as it would spoil his bragging that “[the issue] was never the Palestinians.”

So, both “Israel” and Saudi are free to engage with the new multi-polar paradigm accelerating across the globe: to hedge with Russia and China; to realign their trading interests, without undue reference to American preferences.

Congress will observe the niceties of these ‘Too Big to Fail’ relationships — and the $4 billion per year for “Israel” will be viewed “as a practical political matter, it’s pocket change … so you do it”,  Simon says.

The only caveat?  Don’t screw up the US elections; ‘keep’ the quiet. Well, THAT is very far from certain!

Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East by Steven Simon.

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