The problem with Panetta

David Brog Executive Director, Christians United for Israel
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Let’s start with the good news. Speaking at the Brookings Institution on Friday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta clearly stated that the United States will not allow a nuclear Iran. He elaborated that when it came to stopping Iran from going nuclear, “all options are on the table.”

Ideally, one might wish for less talk and more action. Sanctioning Iran’s central bank would be a good place to start. But such are the times in which we live that to hear a national leader recognize a looming threat as such was a welcome moment of clarity.

All such clarity blurred the instant our secretary of defense turned his attention to Israel. Panetta bemoaned Israel’s increasing isolation, the deterioration of its relations with former strategic partners like Turkey and Egypt, and the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. And whom did he blame for this trio of troubles? Israel.

Israel is an American ally on the front lines of the battle against militant Islam. We should view such front-line allies as an early warning system. When such an ally suffers a setback, we’re given advanced notice of forces at work which may also threaten our interests. At the same time, we’re likely to blame the ally if the threat to which they alert us is one we’d prefer to ignore. Panetta is hardly the first American leader to blame a front-line ally. But his reaction should raise a question: What is he so desperate to deny?

The fact is that the United States is facing — well, refusing to face — two significant shifts in the Middle East. In each case we’re hoping that these developments won’t threaten our interests in the region. But in both cases the damage they’ve already caused our ally Israel is a warning sign flashing red.

The first shift is Turkey’s increasingly aggressive pursuit of a neo-Ottoman foreign policy through which it seeks to reclaim its influence in the lands of its former empire. This effort, underway for some time, has recently been accelerated by the opportunity to forge alliances with the Islamists rising to power in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. And how best to win friends and influence Muslim Brothers? Attacking Israel — verbally or otherwise — is an excellent place to start.

Yes, the Mavi Marmara incident certainly accelerated the downward spiral in relations. But the downgrade — both designed and desired by Turkey— was already well under way before this ship left for Gaza. Anyone doubting this should Google “Erdogan Peres Davos” to see a clip of Turkey’s prime minister verbally assaulting Israel’s president back in January 2009. The fact that the Mavi Marmara set sail in the first place was an effect of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman policy, not its cause.

The second shift keeping thoughtful policy planners awake at night is the rise of the Islamists in those countries rocked by the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood won a big victory in Egypt’s first round of parliamentary elections last week. And an even more hard-line Salafist party came in second. This follows similar Islamist victories in Tunisia and Morocco. We still hope that these victors will be moderates who will not challenge our regional interests. But there are already signs of trouble.

The crisis in Israel-Egypt relations is a direct product of the Arab Spring. Immediately after Mubarak was overthrown, those seeking to replace him began competing to see who could be more hostile towards Israel. Brotherhood leaders have spoken of re-examining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and normalizing relations with Hamas (an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood). The Brotherhood’s anti-Semitic pre-election rally — complete with repeated calls to “kill all the Jews” — didn’t help inspire optimism.

Finally, there’s the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel has repeatedly declared its desire to return to the negotiating table. And the Palestinians have repeatedly refused. Panetta may want Israel to “just get to the damn table.” But the Palestinians prefer instead to seek recognition from the United Nations, thereby getting everything they want without having to make the difficult concessions required by peace.

Our secretary of defense has much on his mind. He’s facing too many problems with too few resources. And he’s a much better functionary than he is a visionary. In such trying times, it must be refreshing to imagine that a little “outreach” here, a little “fence mending” there, can solve looming geo-strategic problems. Thus the allure of blaming Israel. But blaming Israel is the opposite of the leadership this moment demands.

David Brog, the executive director of Christians United for Israel, is the author of In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity (Encounter 2010).