The shutdown of the American government has been devastating to the United States’ international credibility. It undermines the American ability to make a promise, give a guarantee or claim the position of international leadership that conservatives in particular have until now believed to be the nation’s modern manifest destiny. The facts of what has happened are not responsible for this so much as the pettiness and irresponsibility that now seem endemic qualities of legislative government in the United States.

It is reasonable to assume that the foreign political figures most profoundly affected by this will be Benjamin Netanyahu, who addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, and the members of his government at home. The Israelis some time ago warped the use of the term “existential” from its philosophical definition denoting intrinsic individual awareness of contingency and freedom to a propaganda use as meaning existence-threatening. What has happened in New York, Washington, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus now constitutes an existential threat to Israel.

Until chemical weapons made their appearance in the Syrian civil war, the Israelis were standing apart from that war, in recognition of the difficulty in assessing its probable consequences. The problem was whether the Assad government managed to hold on to power over the country, or fell to what had become seen as an incoherent movement of rebels — or, as things appeared to be developing, whether Syria would ultimately come under the domination of fundamentalist jihadists supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The last seemed the most ominous of the three possibilities, so far as Israel’s security is concerned.

The evidence of chemical weapons use appeared at first a deadly blow to Assad’s international position, as he was first taken to be responsible for an atrocity that discredited both the president and his cause. If he nonetheless remained in power, Israel’s position would remain unchanged.

The prospect of regime change, with radical Sunni fundamentalist forces ascendant, would mean that forces hostile to Israel would continue to control the country. But if this new government was under the predominant influence of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Israel’s situation would be essentially unchanged, so long as the Egyptian army remained in control of Egypt.

It was the outcome of the Iranian election this year, with Hassan Rouhani named president and suggesting new proposals for settlement of Iran’s issues with the U.S. and the West (and implicitly Israel), that were confirmed by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme authority, that overturned Prime Minister Netanyahu’s expectations. These events provoked an upheaval in the regional situation and posed a grave threat to Israeli-American relations.

This happened at just the moment when Barack Obama – hitherto treated with contempt by Netanyahu and his entourage – was vaulted by events in Syria, and new diplomatic initiatives by Russian President Vladimir Putin, into the crucial role in the crisis he now occupies.

The American president now must test the possibilities of a settlement of the nuclear issue with Iran, and explore the unexpected cooperativeness of Russia in dealing with the chemical weapons crisis in Syria. Conceivably, a new course has opened towards settlement of the civil war in that country — under the auspices of the U.N., an organization Israel has consistently disliked and feared as an agent of an international legality.

The U.N. poses a permanent threat to Israel so long as the latter pursues a policy of expansion and annexation of legally Palestinian territories, and continues its present policies for controlling the Palestinian population of the county, which Israel’s own internal critics increasingly are willing to describe, or see described, as unlawful and a form of apartheid.

The chemical weapons ban, promised by Syria as a new signatory of the international agreement prohibiting their possession, leaves Israel, assumed by all to have stocks of such weapons, as an isolated non-signer of the international ban. The purpose of Syria’s chemical weapons was to establish a balance of terror weaponry, deterring Israel from attacking Syria. If Syria’s security now is guaranteed by Russia, Israel is itself isolated vis-a-vis Syria by a more formidable barrier than ever existed before.

The purpose of the telephone conversation between Obama and Rouhani before the latter’s departure from New York was to further plans for Iranian-U.S. negotiations that might support Iran’s claim not to be developing nuclear weapons, and its willingness to have this validated by foreign and American observers.

Should this occur, Israel would remain the sole clandestine possessor of nuclear weapons in the region, having refused to sign the U.S.-sponsored nuclear non-proliferation treaty. This, too, is a totally unexpected and decidedly uncomfortable position in which Israel finds itself.

The conclusion of such a series of developments could be the regulation and legalization of the conventional weapon stocks possessed by Syria and Iran, leaving Israel as an outlaw not only because of its possession of weapons of mass destruction, but also because of its aggressive expansion and apartheid policies with respect to the Palestinian territories and their populations. This would pose a fundamental question of Israel-American relations.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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