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Cross-purposes? The misalignment of U.S. and Israeli priorities in the Middle East

In today’s session at the 2015 Saban Forum, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Knesset Member Yair Lapid laid out their thoughts on restoring order in the Middle East. Much of the discussion centered on a question of Israel’s role and how it fits in with the broader U.S. approach to the region.

One of the biggest challenges is that, for all the rhetoric of brotherhood, the United States and Israel have different interests—or, more accurately, different priorities—in the region. For the United States, the current focus is on stopping the Islamic State and, more broadly, containing the chaos emanating from the Syria conflict. Israeli leaders would not disagree with these goals, but the Islamic State is not currently targeting Israel; they would prioritize reducing Iran’s influence in the region and ensuring that Hamas, Hezbollah, and other more immediate threats to Israel are weak and off-balance.  Israel’s position, ironically, is closer to that of U.S. allies in the Arab world, most of whom are more focused on countering Iran and the supposed political threat of the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas’ parent organization) than on defeating the Islamic State.

For all the rhetoric of brotherhood, the United States and Israel have different interests—or, more accurately, different priorities—in the region.

So the United States will find it hard to work with allies to restore order. Efforts to fight the Islamic State put Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq front-and-center, despite claims on both sides that formal cooperation is not in the cards. Such legitimation of Iran in Iraq and Syria is anathema to U.S. allies. Indeed, they see Iran’s role as a formal negotiating partner as an unwanted follow-up to the Iran nuclear deal: both, they fear, are part of a U.S. desire to normalize relations with Iran and in so doing abandon its traditional allies.

Similarly, the United States is not devoting much energy to stopping Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s counterproductive policies against the Muslim Brotherhood in his country. Indeed, now that the Islamic State’s so-called “province” in Sinai is active in international terrorism, as indicated by its October 31 downing of a Russian airplane that killed 224 people, the United States is likely to be more inclined to give the government a pass on any policy it can carry out in the name of international terrorism.

Although much of the Hadley and Lapid discussion focused on an Israeli-Palestinian deal, one of the ironies is that this is not a priority for either government now.

This isn’t the first time the United States and Israel are at cross-purposes, and it won’t be the last: both countries have their own interests and their own politics. Indeed, although much of the Hadley and Lapid discussion focused on an Israeli-Palestinian deal, one of the ironies is that this is not a priority for either government now.  Indeed, my colleague Natan Sachs talks about Israel’s policy being one of “anti-solutionism.” So the greatest area of cooperation unfortunately is likely to lie in common inaction.

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