The Middle East Matters to America’s State of the Union (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- February 13, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Biden’s State of the Union speech last week did not mention the Middle East. So what? As you and others have stated, the Middle East is not on this administration’s radar screen.

A. It should be. Here are perhaps the three most pressing reasons why. First, the threat to democracy in Israel. Second, the increasingly global threat posed by Iran. And third, the strategic dimensions of the earthquake devastation in Turkey.

With all due respect to President Biden, to his admirable sense of American priorities and to the time constraints on his excellent State of the Union speech, these issues should be ranked by the Biden administration demonstrably higher on the American national agenda.

Q. Okay, start with democracy in Israel. Didn’t the president compensate by sending an important statement to New York Times columnist Tom Friedman?

A. Kudos to Friedman for asking Biden for a statement, and to Biden for releasing it. But this does not make up for the State of the Union omission. Indeed, apparently Friedman sensed the significance of the omission too; otherwise, why petition the White House now?

Nor does President Biden’s belated statement to Friedman say what millions of concerned Israelis who fear for their democracy believe the president of the United States should say.

Here is Biden’s statement to Friedman: “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”

Why is this not enough? First, because it will have no effect on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition of fascists, racists, and advocates of Hungarian-style illiberal democracy. A more detailed call for stopping Israel’s anti-judicial legislation and sitting down first to “build consensus for fundamental changes” was issued eloquently by President Herzog on prime-time TV Sunday night. He was preceded by many hundreds of retired jurists, generals and national security advisers, along with leading economists, bankers and industrialists.

Bibi’s buddies don’t care. They just decided to ‘legalize’ another nine settlement outposts on the West Bank and to build another 10,000 dwellings there, in full awareness of US disapproval.

The second reason Biden’s statement to Friedman is not sufficient is that it has no teeth. Israelis know that a more forceful US presidential statement that threatens genuine sanctions on Israel as it begins this week to legislate against its judicial branch of government is one of the few things that could actually force Netanyahu and the Likud to stop and negotiate. It is by now almost axiomatic in Israel that Netanyahu will only bow to two forms of pressure regarding his own threat to democracy: economic disaster, and a threat to American strategic support for Israel.

In his State of the Union address, President Biden asked rhetorically, in the context of the war in Ukraine, “Would we stand for the defense of democracy?” In Ukraine the US is sending tanks to defend democracy. If Israel ceases to be a liberal democracy, not only it and its neighbors will suffer. US interests in the Middle East will suffer too. The global Jewish community will suffer. That’s why a genuinely forceful presidential statement to that effect should have been in last week’s State of the Union speech.

Q. And the threat posed by Iran?

A. You cannot talk about the threat posed by Russia in Ukraine without noting and condemning Tehran’s emerging military alliance with Moscow. The Iran issue is no longer just about Iran’s military drive for strategic hegemony in the Levant, where it seeks to threaten Israel and Sunni Arab countries. It is no longer only about Iran’s nuclear project, which is now judged to be only two years away from posing a military nuclear threat to the entire Middle East and ultimately, through Iran’s growing long-range missile arsenal, to the world. For an example of Iran’s growing global reach, just google Iran-Venezuela-military.

In terms of international threats, Iran now has to be cited in the same breath as Russia and China. This is no longer just about Israel’s national security, or Saudi Arabia’s. Iran presents a looming threat to American security interests. That too deserved mention in last week’s State of the Union address.

Q. Lastly, Turkey’s earthquake?

A. As the geographic dimensions become clearer and as the tens of thousands of dead and the tens of millions (yes, tens of millions!) of displaced and traumatized victims become known, it is time to acknowledge the true impact of last week’s earthquake in Turkey and war-torn Syria. It has the potential to become a destabilizing event of grand strategic dimensions.

In earthquake-devastated Turkey, as Turkish Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk just wrote, “I have never seen our people so angry.” That anger could soon be directed not only at corrupt Turkish developers who used shoddy materials to build multi-story dwellings that are now in ruins. With the rebuilding effort threatening to overwhelm Turkey, the anger could be directed against the government of President Erdogan. This in turn could affect the regional strategic orientation of a country whose location makes it a player in the Ukraine war, the Iran unrest, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Syrian civil war, the Caucasus, and Europe’s refugee concerns.

Syria, whose northwest corner with its large anti-regime refugee population has also been devastated by the earthquake, has been in a fragile state of civil war for more than a decade. Could the earthquake push it over the edge, with ramifications for the entire Middle East?

The United States is sending massive humanitarian aid. Yet the Turkey-Syria earthquake is not merely a humanitarian crisis. It has potential geopolitical ramifications for a huge region. This is why the earthquake, too, deserved mention in Biden’s State of the Union address.

Q. But the annual State of the Union address is for Americans. Biden focused on what matters to them, like jobs, taxes and health. He’s looking at the next election cycle.

A. Of course. But elsewhere in the world, a lot of people are watching and listening to what is said and not said by the US president. Ukrainians justifiably heard reassurance for their cause. Earthquake-traumatized Turks, Iran’s concerned neighbors, and Israelis campaigning to preserve their democracy heard . . . nothing.

Q. Bottom line?

A. The state of the American union could have benefited last week from another three quick takes concerning three truly vital sets of US interests in the Middle East:

  • Israel is our vital Middle East ally. When Israeli democracy is endangered, that alliance is jeopardized. We must respond forcefully.
  • Turkey is a vital NATO ally. The earthquake catastrophe there is of biblical proportions. Our response must be strategic.
  • The Islamic regime in Iran is projecting a military threat as far as Ukraine. Here too, we will know how to respond.