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US in the Middle East: With friends like these...

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9 February 2015 14:29

Here in Lebanon, three events have dominated the headlines over the course of the past few weeks. The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the skirmish between Hizbullah and Israel in the Golan, and the desperately cruel murder of the Jordanian pilot by ISIS. All three issues are integral to the problems afflicting the wider Middle East. They are also all issues that involve important US allies in the region.


Photo of a 2012 Saudi women's conference, which has gone viral this week. (HuffPo.)

However, a brief scan of the media in recent months highlights the ridiculous situation the US finds itself these days. Two of its closest allies appear to be working hard to undermine its efforts to maintain regional security as well as showing themselves to be distinctly at odds with the US human rights agenda.

First, Israel. US-Israeli (or rather Obama-Netanyahu) relations appear to be at their lowest ebb yet. In October 2014 it was reported that Netanyahu declared he has 'written off' Obama. Not the smartest statement to make publicly when the US president will hold office for two more years. As Jeffrey Goldberg notes: 'It is immaterial whether an Israeli prime minister finds an American president agreeable or not. A sitting president cannot be written off by a small, dependent ally, without terrible consequences'. Then, Netanyahu further infuriated the White House by arranging to speak directly to Congress against the President's policy of engaging with Iran. This has reportedly also infuriated a good deal of Congress and is placing at risk the understanding that support for Israel is a bipartisan issue.

It's currently unclear how distressed the US was at the Israeli attack on the Hizbullah convoy in the Golan – ultimately both parties had no business being there. But the current understanding between Hizbullah and Israel is that a war would benefit neither. Destabilising that arrangement at a time when the region has never been less stable probably didn't make the White House terribly happy. But what the Israeli action did reveal is that it is possible Israel is doing more than simply providing medical care to members of Jabhat al-Nusra. This has been partly verified by UN officials in the UNDOF mission in the area. While Jabhat al-Nusra is not directly connected to ISIS, it has been linked to al Qaeda and ultimately has an unclear relationship with ISIS. In fact, on the borders of Lebanon, the group has declared itself in an alliance with ISIS on more than one occasion. If indeed Israel is providing arms to this group, this is destabilising at best and a flagrant flouting of US policy in the region at worst.

Finally, in terms of the US human rights agenda, the recent much circulated photo in an Israeli Ultra-Orthodox newspaper of the Charlie Hebdo march where all the women were electronically removed is well, just plain embarrassing. As Alison Kaplan Sommers is quoted as saying in Haaretz: 'Sure, we Israelis can say this is par for the course with parts of the Ultra-Orthodox community — but it is rather embarrassing when, at a time that the Western world is rallying against manifestations of religious extremism, our extremists manage to take the stage'.

Then there is Saudi Arabia, where human rights situation is much worse. The Saudi Ambassador to France participated in the Hebdo march just two days before his government decided to enforce the flogging of Raif Badawi for allegedly insulting Islam because his website criticised some of the Kingdom's clerics. Just two days ago, a photo of the Saudi conference on Women's Rights from 2012 was circulated, causing much hilarity (see above). And now we have revelations emerging from a former Guantanamo Bay inmate who is giving detailed evidence of the liaison between Saudi princes and al Qaeda. Of course there are question marks over the veracity of this evidence, but it is remarkable that Saudi princes and religious figures are now being implicated specifically in the 9/11 attacks. Let's hope there's no fire where there's smoke. In the meantime, the Pentagon has decided to hold an essay competition as a tribute to the life and leadership of the late King Abdullah.

With friends like these, reaching out to old foes might be the smarter strategy.

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