The abandoned Circassian village of Zureiman provides a vantage point across the fortified Israeli border into Syria. Regime forces hold an area from the crossing at Quneitra to Ruheineh. Elements of the rebel Free Syrian Army are attacking from both north and south, attempting to close the corridor. A slow artillery duel — thud, thud — proceeds in the near distance. Farther south in Syria, global jihadist groups predominate.
A few miles back from the border, traveling between minefields that cover 30 percent of the Golan, you come to an Israeli winery serving samples and lunch à la Napa Valley. It smacks of symbolism: Ten minutes from the Syrian civil war to a nice sauvignon blanc.
Israel is the relatively quiet eye of the Middle Eastern storm. But there are vistas of conflict on nearly every side. The triumph of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, according to Sallai Meridor, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, would “not be the devil we know, but a much worse devil, an agent of Iran and Hezbollah.” Israel’s cold peace with Egypt is fragile, and a distracted Egyptian military could allow jihadists to cause trouble in the Sinai. “We look at Jordan,” says Meridor, “and pray.”
Not all the consequences of regional chaos are immediately bad for Israel. The Syrian military has been decimated as a fighting force. Hezbollah, by joining Assad’s anti-Sunni holy war, has lost its luster in the Arab world.
But the general Israeli attitude is worry and wariness — the understandable attitude of a people with a long history of heroism but not much experience with happy endings. “Everything looks worse,” says Meridor. “There is a feeling that we can be prepared, but there is nothing proactive we can do about it.” So Israeli foreign policy is reactive. It focuses on disrupting short-term threats (such as arms transfers to Hezbollah) rather than developing long-term strategies. And Israeli politics has turned inward toward domestic concerns.
Many Israeli political figures share a concern: That the United States has also become reactive. That it is focused on disrupting short-term threats rather than developing long-term strategies. And that U.S. politics has turned inward toward domestic issues. “There is a sense you can count less on America,” according to Meridor, “that it is weaker, or has chosen not to act, or that events are out of control, or a combination.”
The United States, much to Israel’s chagrin, has adopted a more Israeli approach to foreign policy. In the most favorable interpretation, Washington is rebalancing burdens between a reluctant superpower and its free-riding allies. Or it is pivoting to Asia. But it is accompanying this shift with an impression of political paralysis, rising debt and growing public skepticism about global engagement.
The results are becoming obvious. The Obama administration, according to Meridor, “tried a different approach, with resets and accommodations. But is the United States today more loved, respected or more feared? With sorrow, it is not.” U.S. passivity and confusion have left a trail of missed opportunities. During the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009, the administration remained fixed on a strategy of regime engagement. In 2011, it hesitated in supporting Syria’s civil uprising. Since 2011, it has managed to convince every side in Egypt that the United States has betrayed them.
It is increasingly difficult to argue that America is shaping the agenda in the Middle East. But little positive actually gets done in the region without active U.S. leadership. Unless the United States coordinates the arms shipments of Turkey or Qatar to Syrian rebels, those shipments go to very disturbing people. Unless the United States effectively leads the opposition to Iranian ambitions, other nations are tempted to lose heart or to cut self-serving deals.
A regional power such as Israel might be able to afford a reactive, short-term approach. If the United States does not proactively shape the security environments in which it operates, it is left to respond on progressively less favorable terms. The collapse of, say, Jordan, or the collapse of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty system would have profound, unavoidable implications for U.S. security.
The United States, of course, is not abandoning the Middle East, just creating an impression of tired ambivalence. Nearly every Israeli politician, legislator and think-tank scholar seems to be debating whether the United States has really drawn a red line on Iranian nuclear weapons or is leaving some strategic ambiguity — which means the administration is leaving ambiguity.
Such debates, conducted over a glass of wine, eventually become less theoretical, as the storm gathers strength.
MICHAEL GERSON is a columnist for The Washington Post and a former senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. He was President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006 and was a Bush Administration senior advisor.