Timid Elephant: Washington vs. Tel Aviv

Elephants get attention just by walking into the room. Only a very ineffective elephant needs to go running around trampling the grass. Even trumpeting is usually an overreaction. Superpowers are no different.

But when it comes to Israel, the world’s last surviving superpower must beg and plead like a hungry monkey…and as likely as not will still get a slap in the face. Monkeys tolerate such behavior; elephants do not, nor should they if they wish to be treated like elephants. States, of course, are not jungle animals but entities governed by sophisticated individuals who would never dream of being so petty as to play childish games of payback. Nevertheless, gaining the reputation of being a slow-witted elephant that monkeys and hyenas can take advantage of at will is no way to manage a global jungle. Nothing says an elephant has to run the jungle, but elephants doing business under every tree may wish to pay heed to the impression they make on all the lesser beasts.

All actors should understand that egregiously causing harm to a superpower comes at a price. When Obama spends his energy and uses up his line of credit begging/pressuring the Muslim Brotherhood administration of Egypt to persuade Hamas to stand down in Gaza and Netanyahu responds by inflicting collective punishment on all West Bank Palestinians by announcing new illegal housing in a particularly sensit ive region, the result is to make Washington look foolish and inept. Netanyahu succeeded in getting away with attacking Gaza, teaching Cairo a lesson about cooperating with Washington, and humiliating Washington before a global audience. Obama looks like an amateur but, worse, the superpower looks weak. Indeed, the U.S. did, by this chain of events, actually lose power: Cairo will in the future be less inclined to follow Washington’s lead, anti-U.S. Israelis will be even more convinced that they can manipulate the U.S. at will, and all others will be more willing to call Washington’s bluff. A fundamental U.S. policy position, for better or worse, is that no one in the Mideast can make war without American permission.

If others say when and where to launch a war, then obviously the U.S. is no longer in charge. The issue for Obama thus is not “punishing” Netanyahu. The issue is whether or not he wishes to demonstrate to the world that Washington is serious about leading the world. Netanyahu has just made the claim to leadership of the Mideast: he is strutting the regional stage as though he were making the key decisions for everyone. Indeed, he is.  This particular example was perhaps minor, but the message is not, and if it leads Netanyahu to start a war against Iran, the situation will become considerably more significant. Obama has just won reelection, and Netanyahu is about to do the same thing.

Now is a tipping point for the future of the Mideast.



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