Nowhere is the 80-year historical cycle identified twenty years ago by William Strauss and Neil Howe making more of an impact in the world today than in the Middle East, where new independent regimes emerged about 65 years ago. Israel, which began as a fundamentally secular state based upon nationalism, has evolved into a theocracy that remains determined to expand beyond its original borders. In Egypt the secular military rule that began under Nasser in the early 1950s and endured for about sixty years is a thing of the past, and President Morsi of the Muslim brotherhood is trying to exert real control over the political process, which threatens to lead to civil war. Syria is being torn apart by the Sunni-Shi'ite split that the United States let loose when it invaded Iraq. Turkey has, remarkably, now preserved its post-First World War constitution largely intact for more than 90 years, but Muslim political parties have brought the Army's role as supreme arbiter to an end--a development very similar to what is happening in Egypt. The Shi'ite-Sunni split also threatens to overturn the pro-US government of Bahrain, home of our largest naval base in the region. The Jordanian government faces huge hostile demonstrations. Hamas has entered into a new relationship with both the Egyptian and Turkish governments, and last week the New York Times ran a piece discussing the emerging split between a coalition of Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Hamas on one side, and Iran, the teetering Syrian regime, and Hezbollah on the other. The article did not mention that both are united in their hatred of Israel.
In the midst of all this, the United States lost control of the Israel-Palestine issue in the UN General Assembly--not for the first time-and the Palestinians won observer status by a wide margin. This may allow them to gain representation in the International Criminal Court and push for investigations of Israeli policies in the West Bank. It may also create pressure in the US Congress, always ready to follow the whims of the American-Israeli lobby, to defund those organizations, as it already did when the Palestinians joined UNESCO. (I just checked, and it seems that the Weekly Standard, one of the main organs of the pro-Israel lobby, has so far declined to comment on the UN move at all. It would not be impossible for a coalition of the Israeli lobby and nationalist Republicans to move for a cut in US funding for the UN itself in response.)
When Israel was founded, as was explained to me many years ago by an Israeli diplomat making the rounds of American cities, the government based its foreign policy in large part on good relations with the non-Arab states of the region, including Ethiopia, Turkey, and Iran. The relationship with Iran became particularly close after the US-UK backed coup in 1953 that overthrew the elected government and replaced it with the Shah, and the Mossad and Savak intelligence services cooperated closely. The Shah's fall in 1979 was therefore quite catastrophic for Israel, whose leaders tended to blame it upon the United States, just as they did two years ago at the time of the Arab spring. Now Turkey is also in the enemy camp, thanks in part to the insane Israeli decision to attack a Turkish ship carrying relief supplies to Gaza. Mohammed Morsi has stated that the continuance of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 depends upon peace with Palestine, as called for by that agreement. Should the Jordanian government fall--a possibility that does not, to be fair, seem imminent just yet--it would probably give way to a Palestinian-led regime.
I do not expect that Turkey, Egypt, and perhaps a new Syrian government could mount the kind of conventional challenge to Israel's existence that the Israelis faced from the 1950s through the 1970s. On the other hand, I wonder whether, in an age of increasingly accurate rockets and drones, Israel can survive surrounded by nothing but hostile neighbors. Peace between Israel and Palestine now seems to me impossible on anything less than the 1967 borders yet the Israeli government is totally unwilling to entertain a return to them. We are fortunate that the United States remains the only great power with any really active interest in the region. Neither Russia nor China seems interested in affecting events there to any significant extent. But the United States now seems more closely tied to Israel than ever, another legacy of the George W. Bush Administration which Barack Obama has not reversed.
In one way or another Israel has been under fire for much of its existence. This is hardly the most dangerous moment they have faced, but hostility towards them seems to be increasing in the governments of the region and the UN vote suggests that nearly the entire world has lost patience with their continual expansion into Palestine. I just heard the Israeli ambassador Michael Oren (who was born in the United States) make on NPR argue in effect that new settlement activity is all the Palestinians can expect if they refuse to negotiate. This amounts to saying, surrender on our terms now, or face a worsening situation in the future. The interviewer mentioned that "many countries" see settlements as a violation of international law but couldn't bring himself to mention that that has been the official American position for many years too. Sunday's New York Times now reports plans to complete the Israeli settlement link between East Jerusalem and a large block of West Bank settlements, cutting the West Bank in two. It also refers to the roads under construction which will have separate lanes for Israelis and Palestinians, and off-ramps for much of their length for Israelis only. This is what is called apartheid. The reason the accusation of apartheid provokes more outrage among Israelis and many of their American supporters than holocaust denial is simple: because the accusation is true.
For three decades, from the early 1970s until about 2001, the United States government tried to reconcile Israel with its neighbors. That goal is now slipping away. With the US on its way to energy independence thanks to massive increases in domestic production, perhaps our leadership now believes that military supremacy alone will keep Israel secure. Some may even be counting on the Sunni-Shi'ite religious war to keep the Muslims focused upon one another, rather than Israel. One of the very real legacies of the Bush II presidency is that the United States, in the Middle East, no longer stands for peace--or for international law.