“On the surface, Tuesday’s presidential elections do not seem to have such dire consequences for Israel. The nuclear deal signed last year set Iran’s program back by at least a decade and top American officials admit that the possibility of achieving major progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front is extremely unlikely, even as Barack Obama is reportedly mulling some sort of international initiative in his final days in office.
Nevertheless, these elections are in fact dramatic for Israel. Here is why.”
JERUSALEM POST – There were years when israelis looked at the US elections with concern and optimism. In 2008, for example, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert told The Jerusalem Post that George W. Bush would not leave office with Iran still in possession of a viable nuclear program.
“The bottom line is that President Bush hasn’t changed his opinion regarding the danger posed by Iran. And I haven’t changed my impression regarding President Bush’s commitment to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons,” Olmert said on the eve of Bush’s visit to Israel in the beginning of 2008.
A few months later, as the presidential race was nearing the end, John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, predicted that Israel would attack Iran before the next president took office. The optimal strike window, he claimed, would be between the November 4th elections and the January 20th inauguration.
Both were wrong. Bush and Olmert ended their terms with Iran still on its way to becoming a nuclear power.
On the surface, Tuesday’s presidential elections do not seem to have such dire consequences for Israel. The nuclear deal signed last year set Iran’s program back by at least a decade and top American officials admit that the possibility of achieving major progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front is extremely unlikely, even as Barack Obama is reportedly mulling some sort of international initiative in his final days in office.
Nevertheless, these elections are in fact dramatic for Israel.
Here is why.
Since the 1960s, when the Israeli-US alliance moved up a notch after the French imposed their embargo on the IDF, Israel’s diplomatic and military power have been derived from three primary sources.
The first is the country’s conventional military – the IDF.
While other countries surrounding Israel built up formidable armies, the IDF overtook them with its superior air force, navy, ground forces and missile systems. Still today, the IDF is considered one of the most powerful and technologically advanced militaries in the world.
The second source is the country’s purported nuclear program.
While Israel continues to maintain a policy of ambiguity on whether it has or does not have nuclear weapons, the fact that the entire world believes it does possess them creates an amazing level of strength.
Just this past week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the importance of Israel’s nuclear reactor near Dimona during the unveiling of Shimon Peres’s tombstone.
“Only when I became prime minister and entered the nuclear facility did I understand its importance for Israel’s security,” Netanyahu said at the Mount Herzl ceremony.
This creates deterrence and provides the country with invaluable diplomatic currency.
The third source, and just as important as the previous two, is Israel’s strategic alliance with the United States, the cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy for most of the last 68 years.
It is the US which defends Israel in international forums like the United Nations, UNESCO and the IAEA. It is the US which sells Israel some of the most advanced weapons systems in the world, like the F-35 stealth Joint Strike Fighter, and it is the US which recently signed a 10-year $38 billion military aid package with the Jewish state.
While this material and diplomatic support is important and even critical for Israel, there is something deeper that Israel needs when it comes to its relationship with the US – for America to be strong. If America is strong, Israel is strong.
If America is perceived as weak, Israel is perceived as weak.
That is why for Israel, these elections are vital for efforts being made to restore a semblance of order in the region.
The sense in Israel and across the wider region is that under Obama, the US distanced itself from direct involvement in the region, preferring to lead from behind instead of from the front.
When the US drew red lines in Syria, for example, it never stuck to them, leaving the country wide open for Russia to sweep in and establish a presence not seen in the Middle East since the Soviet Union left Egypt on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. This has presented Israel with an unprecedented set of challenges, including having its vaunted air force threatened by Russian air defense systems.
While Netanyahu and his staff pride themselves in establishing strong ties with moderate Sunni states throughout the Gulf in recent years, the real reason these countries are warming up to Israel is because they are disappointed with Washington. Egypt, for example, looked to the US for support throughout the Arab Spring, but instead got turned off by Obama’s handling of the transition of power from Hosni Mubarak to Mohamed Morsi and then to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The controversial Iran deal, opposed by Israel and many of the Sunni states, also brought Israel closer to the Gulf, enabling unprecedented diplomatic and security exchanges.
A new American diplomatic push in the region, alongside increased involvement, could cause some of these countries to decide to wean off from their ties with Israel. Nevertheless, there is an advantage for Israel in once again having a strong and involved America playing a leading role in stabilizing the region and empowering its moderate neighbors.
Whoever is elected on Tuesday will face numerous challenges ahead. First and foremost, they will be working to unite a fragmented America and polarized political system.
Making American power reverberate again throughout the Middle East should also be on the winner’s list of priorities.
It will be for Israel.