by Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
Last Wednesday, the die was cast. Following Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to grant political asylum (which at this point won't be just temporary) to Edward Snowden, the leaker of classified National Security Agency information, U.S. President Barack Obama decided to cancel a planned upcoming meeting with his Russian counterpart. That meeting was supposed to take place in Moscow in September after the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.
At first glance, this may appear as if it was a firm American move meant to project an image of strength and toughness. But a more thorough analysis of U.S.-Russia relations during the Obama era leads to a completely different conclusion.
In stark contrast to Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev's decision in May 1960 to scuttle a conference in Paris with then-U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower (a step that sent a Soviet message of defiance and willingness to "go all the way"), Obama's cancellation of the meeting with Putin was evidence of ongoing American weakness in the international arena. The decision to nix the meeting was closer to the roar of a mouse than the battle cry of a lion.
Obama's decision was an unavoidable necessity after the White House recently suffered public humiliation at the aggressive hands of the Kremlin. The Americans found themselves as beggars at the door, pleading with the Russian president to be so kind as to hand over a U.S. citizen wanted on grave espionage charges.
As no breakthroughs were expected on divisive issues during the Moscow meeting (for which only one day was allotted), it is tough to say that the U.S. move to cancel the meeting will have any actual global significance. Furthermore, given the chilly, if not contemptuous attitude Putin has regularly displayed toward Obama (evidenced by the icy winds that blew between the two during previous meetings), it's likely that the cancellation of the Moscow meeting merely saved Obama from another frosty encounter (at a time when Snowden is enjoying warm Russian hospitality).
It is only natural that Putin has taken note of the excessive caution shown by the American superpower in places like Libya, Syria and, of course, Iran. It appears that Putin's defiant conduct in the Snowden affair is an inevitable by-product of that.
If we turn our gaze toward Jerusalem, there are undoubtedly clear and immediate consequences for Israel from the decline of U.S. power. First, the continuing deterioration of ties between Obama and Putin and the Kremlin's perception of Obama as a "paper tiger" could reduce even further America's ability to pull on levers of influence and convince Putin to cooperate on formulating joint policies on issues like Iran and Syria. During his time in the White House, Richard Nixon (along with his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger) succeeded, at least temporarily, in using a position of strength to tame the Russian bear and channel it along a path of more restrained conduct. Today, the situation is completely different. The implication for Israel is clear -- the chances of Washington getting Moscow on board with an effective deterrent move to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold are decreasing.
The second consequence for Israel is related to the renewal of the negotiating progress with the Palestinians. For the U.S., the initiator and mediator of the new talks, it's extremely important that progress be made toward a peace agreement. But given the image of weakness and helplessness America is exuding in the international arena, it will have a very tough time providing Israel with the credible guarantees that must accompany any deal to reduce the risk margins and uncertainties Israel will face. So despite the effort that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry invested in restarting talks, it is still not clear that he is carrying the basket of benefits, incentives and compensation that would be so vital to the success of his mission.
Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
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