Those with long memories will recall the British-French intervention in the Suez Canal in October 1956, following the Egyptian nationalization of the canal ‒ in effect the Suez Canal company in which stockholders from those countries had major shares. The nationalization was the culmination of persistently worsening relations between Egypt, then led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser who, as a former colonel of the Egyptian armed forces, had seized power in that country, and the Western powers Britain, France and the United States.
The United States took umbrage since it appeared that the immediate cause of the nationalization was the withdrawal of an offer it (and Britain) had made to fund the Aswan Dam, after Nasser had made an agreement for the receipt of arms from the then Soviet Union. The act was seen as not only provocative, but an intervention by Nasser himself in the Cold War relations between the Soviet Union and the West.
It is now known that there was British-French-Israeli collusion to invade Egypt and forcibly control the canal. But then President Dwight Eisenhower, in spite of American aggrievement, perceived the British-French initiative as a premature, if not unnecessary provocation, and pressured the Europeans to withdraw, which they did before the end of the year. The Israelis stayed until early the following year until forced to pull out by the US.
That event, in the minds of the Europeans, as well as the Israelis, was an aggravation of what they believed to be their legitimate presence and interest in the Middle East. It followed the overthrow, by British Intelligence and the American CIA of Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran in 1953, after he announced the nationalization of the petroleum industry in that country. But in the case of their move against Nasser, the Americans thought it unduly provocative, and, in effect, preferred to split the Western alliance which to Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, his Secretary of State, was premature and likely to disrupt their own plans.
In this last month or so, the British and the French leaderships found themselves once more anxious to make an intervention in the Middle East, this time in Syria, the leadership of which would appear to be supported in its present difficulties by Iran. In that course of action too, the British and French are supported by Israel, with Prime Minister Netanyahu doing his provocative best to negate the diplomacy initiated by Russia designed to inhibit intervention against President Assad.
What Israel and its leader have found, to their surprise, is that their Western allies have been willing to resort to active diplomacy with Iran, following the accession of Rouhani as President there. Further Netanyahu perceives that on this issue, as well as on the issue of intervention in Syria, a kind of alliance has developed between the United States and Russia. He sees a linkage between Iran’s new diplomacy and its relationship to not only what happens with that country’s nuclear initiatives at home, but what happens next in Syria.
The Israeli Prime Minister knows that Russia, having already persuaded the Americans to accept, or having manoeuvred them into accepting, that diplomacy could make a difference on the Syrian issue could, if President Obama’s phone call to Rouhani when he visited the US General Assembly is any indication, have a similar effect on US relations with Iran.
Mr Netanyahu is, of course, well aware of two things. The first is that the commitment of the US to negotiations with Syria towards the removal of chemical weapons there, is not a completely autonomous decision on the part of the President. For in quick succession, Obama has seen the British leadership embarrassed by its own Parliament in David Cameron’s anxiety to mount a military initiative in Syria. Britain and France had led what they like to believe was a successful initiative in Libya, succeeding in the liquidation of Gaddafi. But from President Obama’s perspective a politically meaningful result, in the negative sense, was the subsequent killing of the US Ambassador in Libya.
Secondly, the President has found himself just narrowly escaping from serious embarrassment in his own Congress, by a firm, virtually bipartisan show of unwillingness to see any American intervention in Syria.
So the ground, on both counts, for what Mr Netanyahu would like to see, is soft, and not worth any alienation, at this time, of the Congress by the President. So Netanyahu’s diplomatic campaign is unlikely to succeed as long as Russia can persuade the Syrians to keep on course in relation to the United Nations’ present efforts in Syria.
President Obama is also well aware that what, from a medium term perspective, has been his perhaps most pressing issue in the Middle East is the fate of Egypt. The President having, soon after his first inauguration, given his ‘Paris Spring’ speech, full of hope for the Middle East and Egypt in particular, has found himself supporting a renewed military dictatorship there, just as he thought that there could have been an evolution towards some form of constitutional government.
The paradox of the situation is that Mr Obama cannot really seem to be even remotely overzealous about the behaviour of the present military government in Egypt, even as he would obviously have little political affection for a Muslim Brotherhood which has, in effect, thrown away its chances of governance.
But the President also knows that the present situation, which the US supports with, literally, billions of dollars, is not a satisfactory solution to the country’s present problems. He knows, too, that an Egypt, burying itself in its own problems, cannot provide the diplomatic help that he may need in dealing with the Palestine issue. He must, indeed, be hoping that the US’s old ally, Saudi Arabia, can have some influence on Egypt in a direction which the US would like.
In effect, as many hands are playing in the Middle East, the US seems somewhat constrained, and Obama seems to be tip-toeing through the maze of conflict and confusion there. President Putin too, with his own preoccupation with Muslimist elements in parts of Russia, would want to do nothing that would provoke their hostility at home.
The Middle East is therefore, presently, something of a predicament for the major powers. They do not have much support for interventionist enterprises. But they cannot stay away from the many provocations offered, whether in Syria, Libya Egypt or the spillover of the Syrian problem into both Lebanon and Jordan.