The New York Times’s regular feature “Room for Debate” often brings together a fairly diverse and interesting group of commenters on the chosen topic, and today’s is no different. The topic this time is about American support for Israel, and whether that hampers American influence in the Middle East. The debate group features Aaron David Miller, Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Gordis, Daoud Kuttab, and others.
But the strangest part of the debate is not what any of the contributors said, but how the topic is introduced. Here’s the Times’s opening explanation for the debate:
The president of Israel is resisting calls for a unilateral strike against Iran, but it’s just the “unilateral” part that he finds troubling: “It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America.” Even if this is just posturing, the statement shows one reason the U.S. struggles to make allies in the Arab world: Israelis and Arabs alike assume that the U.S. will take a side in Mideast conflicts, and that the U.S. will side with Israel. Are they right?
Using the Iran example to touch off this debate is nonsensical. First of all, including Iran in the “Arab world” usually leads to a misunderstanding of the Islamic Republic, since it is not an Arab state (though that doesn’t mean it has nothing in common with its Arab neighbors). But even more bizarre is the fact that the Times thinks Israel and the Arab states are on opposing sides on the issue. They are not. Last year, as Oren Kessler reported, the WikiLeaks cables proved what anyone with any experience with the region’s politics and history already expected: there was “unanimous” support for taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities. Kessler wrote:
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah urged Washington to “cut off the head of the snake,” and both he and then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak described the Islamic Republic as “evil” and untrustworthy.
An Iranian nuclear weapon, Mubarak warned, was liable to set off a region-wide arms race.
“Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb,” added Zeid Rifai, then president of the Jordanian senate. “Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter.”
In the Persian Gulf, the rulers of Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were all reportedly in favor of a strike.
So too was the king of Bahrain, where a Sunni elite rules over a large Shi’ite majority and which officials in Iran have described as the country’s “fifteenth province.”
Mubarak may be gone, but there seems to be no other outdated exception to the story. This wasn’t the only such report, however. Saudi Arabia appears to be making preparations for any oil disruption caused by an attack on Iran. That is in their interest whether they support an attack or not, since they would still need to get their product to market safely, but it would also keep the price of their oil from skyrocketing, which dramatically reduces the harm to the West in the event of an attack or disruption.
And as Shai Feldman wrote with regard to the region’s Sunni Arab states, “None of these countries uttered a word when in 2007 Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Sunni-Arab Syria.”
So contra the New York Times, the Arab states are not only assuming the U.S. would support Israel on the Iran issue, but hoping and lobbying for such support.
As for the Times’s discredited and debunked suggestion that strong support for Israel works against American diplomacy, I suppose it’s worth repeating that Israel has proven time and again to be far more willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the peace process when U.S. support is strong and “daylight” between the two is minimized. But that’s the obvious part of this that everyone knows. The Iran aspect of the debate introduction, however, shows the Times to be strikingly unaware of what the Arab states actually want from the United States.