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Geopolitical realities after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon will force the United States to back away from its relationship with Israel and favor Muslim allies such as Egypt and Jordan, as well as old foes like Iran and Syria. And Israel’s guardian in Washington, the Jewish political lobby, is being challenged by a growing Muslim political power, according to STRATFOR, the private global intelligence company.
On the Sept. 28 one-year anniversary of the latest Palestinian uprising against Israel, King Abdullah II of Jordan met with President Bush to support the U.S. counter-terrorism campaign. The Bush administration was also courting Islamic support with separate meetings the previous day between Secretary of State Colin Powell, Abdullah and Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem.
The tenor of relations between Washington and Israel will change as the White House gives the Israeli government the diplomatic cold shoulder. The United States will also continue to put significant pressure on Israel to clamp down on the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Depending on how the Israelis react, this may be the beginning of a sea change in U.S.-Israeli relations.
The United States is negotiating with Iran and Syria in the hope that they join the growing international anti-terror coalition, or at least remain neutral. Damascus and Tehran are both cooperating to a certain degree, believing that U.S. gratitude will allow them sufficient political leeway in the future.
In responding to the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington needs Muslim cooperation, especially in obtaining intelligence on fundamentalist groups. A coalition with Muslim support would also give the United States political cover in carrying out operations against countries like Afghanistan.
But Washington’s close ties with Israel make such cooperation difficult. Some Muslim states are holding Washington’s feet to the fire, hoping to reduce U.S. concessions to Israel. Other regimes such as Egypt and Jordan face massive domestic pressure from fundamentalists, and in order to cooperate, need Washington to visibly reduce its support for Israel in order to avoid destabilization.
Two factors have pushed the United States toward Israel over much of the last half-century: the Cold War and domestic political pressure from Jewish groups in the United States. But times have changed, and Israel will no longer be at the top of U.S. strategy in the Middle East.
American support for Israel during the Cold War owed much to simple geography. Former Soviet allies Syria and Iraq surrounded Turkey, a key U.S. military ally, and by pumping military and economic support into Israel, Washington was able to ease the pressure on Ankara. At the same time, Israel’s proximity to the Suez Canal offered some measure of security for American shipping companies.
The easing of the Soviet threat negated some of Israel’s strategic utility to the United States. In fact, the U.S. government had already begun backing away from Israel in the early 1990s, but the process was interrupted by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
The danger of domestic political consequences for a tough policy on Israel has been alleviated to a certain degree by the emergence of a Muslim voting bloc in the United States. In 1997 a group of national Islamic organizations formed the American Muslim Political Coordination Council, comprising the four largest Islamic organizations in the United States, to “bring Muslims off the political sidelines and onto the political playing field.”
The group has made leaps and bounds in the past four years, and while Muslim political groups do not match their Jewish counterparts in funding or organization, they can match them in sheer potential voting power, according to William Martin, a religion and government professor at Rice University. Nearly all estimates place the numbers of Muslims in America at about more than 6 million. That amounts to about 3 percent of the population, similar to the number of Jews.
Martin said the key is that Muslim voters have shown a willingness to vote as a block. They did so in the last presidential election, giving George W. Bush about 70 percent of their vote after the coordination council endorsed him in late October.
That support included 28,000 key votes in Florida, compared to perhaps 6,000 for Gore. Large populations of Muslim voters live in key battleground states such as Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
The United States will still not completely abandon Israel. Washington needs access to Israel’s human intelligence resources. The United States also won’t ditch all the political, economic and military tools it uses to influence Israeli policy. And because the Israeli air and ground forces are the only significant military force between Germany and India, their support could become necessary if the U.S. military finds itself overextended.
But with the new calculus in both foreign and domestic policy, the United States is already putting more pressure on Israel. For example, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon became the focus of a recent withering White House push to approve a meeting between Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to discuss a cease-fire.
Restarting the Israeli-Palestinian talks became a high priority for the Bush administration following the terrorist attacks. The White House believes that a Peres-Arafat meeting could be a first step toward improving the atmosphere in the region, which is crucial to its bid to pull together a global coalition against terrorism, according to American diplomatic sources cited by Haaretz, the Israeli daily newspaper.
Powell called Arafat and Sharon repeatedly in recent days, urging them to hold the talks. Last week Sharon rejected Bush’s request that he permit Peres to meet with Arafat and proposed instead Israeli help for the anti-terrorism coalition.
According to Haaretz, Bush told Sharon in no uncertain terms that he was the only leader to have turned down a request from the United States since the attacks. Bush reportedly said, “… when I ask you for A and you suggest B, I consider that a refusal.”
Soon after the conversation, the groundwork was laid for Arafat’s meeting with Peres this week. And Sharon, who earlier expressed reservations about joining the anti-terror coalition, in part because of fears about possible concessions to the Palestinians, later reversed his statements after talking with Bush.
Washington appears to be pressing its point with the Sharon government by threatening Israeli pocketbooks. American officials are reviewing a proposal to immediately end all civilian aid to Israel, totaling nearly $900 million, in the context of a general review of America’s foreign aid priorities, according to a senior Western diplomat cited by Haaretz.
U.S. civilian aid to Israel accounts for almost 1 percent of Israel’s gross national product and is helping to keep the struggling Israeli economy out of recession. So far though, it appears U.S. military aid to Israel, which amounts to nearly $2 billion, would not be affected.