President George W. Bush meeting with then-Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan at the Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas. (U.S. government photo)
The twin crises in Syria and Egypt have marked the emergence of a new superpower coalition in the Middle East, the odd-couple alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia, with Jordon serving as an intermediary and the Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms playing a supporting role.
The potential impact of this new coalition can barely be overstated, with Israel bringing to the table its remarkable propaganda skills and its unparalleled influence over U.S. foreign policy and Saudi Arabia tapping into its vast reservoir of petrodollars and exploiting its global financial networks. Together the two countries are now shaping international responses to the conflicts in Syria and Egypt, but that may only be the start.
Both see Iran, with its Shiite rulers, as their principal regional rival. Both are leery of the populist Islamic movements unleashed by the Arab Spring. Both sided with the Egyptian military in its coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, and both are pleased to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad facing a possible military assault from the United States.Though Israel and Saudi Arabia have had historic differences -- one a Jewish religious state and the other embracing the ultraconservative Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam -- the two countries have found, more recently, that their interests intersect.
While the two countries could be accused of riding the whirlwind of chaos across the Middle East -- inviting a possibility that the sectarian divisions and the political violence will redound negatively to their long-term interests -- there can be little doubt that they are enjoying at least short-term gains.
In recent months, Israel has seen its strategic position enhanced by the overthrow of Egypt's populist Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, a political change that has further isolated the Hamas-led Palestinians in Gaza. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the Shiite movement of Hezbollah has come under increasing military and political pressure after sending militants into Syria to support the embattled Assad regime.
Assad is an Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam, and has been a longtime benefactor of Hezbollah, the political-military movement that drove Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon and has remained a thorn in Israel's side. The growing sectarian nature of the Syrian civil war, with Sunnis leading the fight against Assad, also served to drive a wedge between Hamas, a Sunni movement, and two of its key benefactors, the Syrian government and its Iranian allies.
In other words, Israel is benefiting from the Sunni-Shiite divisions ripping apart the Islamic world as well as from the Egyptian coup which further weakened Hamas by re-imposing the Gaza blockade. Now, Israel has a freer hand to dictate a political solution to the already-weak Palestinian Authority on the West Bank when peace talks resume.
A Method to Neocon Madness
Giving Israel this upper hand has long been the goal of American neoconservatives, although they surely could not have predicted the precise course of recent history. The idea of "regime change" in Iraq in 2003 was part of a neocon strategy of making a "clean break" with frustrating negotiations in which Israel was urged to trade land for peace with the Palestinians.
The plan to dump negotiations in favor of confrontations was outlined in a 1996 policy paper, entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" and prepared by prominent neocons, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, for Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign for prime minister.
In the document, the neocons wrote: "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq -- an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right -- as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions." [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Mysterious Why of the Iraq War."]
The neocons failed to persuade President Bill Clinton to invade Iraq in the late 1990s, but their hopes brightened when George W. Bush became president in 2001 and when the American people were whipped into a state of hysteria by the 9/11 attacks.
Still, it appears that the neocons believed their own propaganda about the Iraqis welcoming American troops as liberators and accepting a U.S. puppet as their new leader. That, in turn, supposedly was to lead Iraq to establish friendly ties with Israel and give the U.S. military bases for promoting "regime change" in Syria and Iran.
In 2002, as President Bush was winding up to deliver his haymaker against Saddam Hussein, neocons passed around a favorite joke about where to go next after conquering Iraq. Should it be Syria or Iran, Damascus or Tehran? The punch line was: "Real men go to Tehran!"
However, the Iraq War didn't work out exactly as planned. Bush did succeed in ousting Hussein from power and enjoyed watching him marched to the gallows, dropped through a trapdoor and hanged by the neck until dead. But the U.S. occupation touched off a sectarian bloodbath with Hussein's Sunni minority repressed by the newly empowered Shiite majority. Sunni extremists flocked to Iraq from around the Middle East to kill both Iraqi Shiites and Americans.
The end result of the Iraq War was to transform Iraq from a Sunni-ruled authoritarian state into a Shiite-ruled authoritarian state, albeit still a place where sectarian bombings are nearly a daily occurrence. Yet, one of the principal beneficiaries of the Iraq War was Iran with its Shiite theocratic government unexpectedly finding itself with a new Shiite ally replacing a longtime Sunni enemy, Saddam Hussein, all thanks to the United States.