John B. Judis: Bush's Failed Israeli Strategy

Roundup: Media's Take

Since the early 1980s, if not before, American administrations have been torn between two very different approaches to U.S.-Israel relations. The first, which dates back to the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, conceives of the United States as an "honest broker" between the Israelis and their Arab adversaries. The second, which dates from the Reagan years, conceives of Israel as a "strategic ally" of the United States amidst the Arab Middle East. Presidents and their policy advisors have often wavered between the two conceptions, but the Bush administration has come down squarely on the side of the latter--with disastrous results for the United States and for Israel.

America's role as an honest broker was most recently put forward by the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. This does not mean, as is sometimes charged, ascribing moral equivalence to the particular actions of Israelis and Arabs, but rather acknowledging that, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Jews and Arabs in Palestine had equal moral claims to a homeland in that area. As Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, put it, "The conflict between ourselves and the Palestinians is not a conflict of justice against injustice, but a conflict between two equal rights."

America's commitment to serving as an honest broker was based originally on a combination of moral obligation to the Jews of Palestine, domestic pressure from a powerful Jewish lobby, and concerns about political stability in the oil-rich Middle East. The United States was initially worried about Arab governments being driven into the arms of the Soviet Union. As they became more powerful in their own right--as evidenced in the oil boycott of 1973--the United States worried pure and simple about alienating them.

Initially, the United States encouraged negotiations between Israel and neighboring states over refugees (about 700,000 displaced by the 1948 war), borders, border security, and water rights. Later, with the founding of the PLO in 1964, the United States increasingly acted as a broker between Israel and a Palestinian leadership. Since the 1990s, however, the priorities of diplomacy have become reversed. Whereas, before, an agreement between Israel and its neighbors carried the hope for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has become a prerequisite for an agreement between Israel and its neighbors.

Some historians have dated Israel's status as a strategic ally as far back as 1958, when the United States sent the Marines to Lebanon to quell what was feared to be a regional revolt against pro-Western regimes. But as late as 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger could tell Jewish leaders that "the strength of Israel is needed for its own survival but not to prevent the spread of Communism in the Arab world. So it doesn't necessarily help the U.S. global interests as far as the Middle East is concerned. The survival of Israel has sentimental importance to the United States."

It was the Reagan administration, prodded by Israel and by the American-Israel Political Affairs Committee, that began to think of Israel as primarily a strategic asset in the cold war. In November 1981, the United States and Israel agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation to "deter all threats from the Soviet Union to the region." Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig also backed off from the Carter administration's effort to initiate talks on Palestinian self-rule, and Reagan repudiated his predecessor's opposition to the Israeli settlements. "As to the West Bank and the settlement there, I disagree with the previous administration as they referred to them as illegal," Reagan said in a news conference in February 1981. "They're not illegal--not under U.N. resolutions that leave the West Bank open to all people, Arab and Israeli alike."

By the end of his second term, however, faced with the first intifada and the PLO's willingness to accept Israel's existence, Reagan and Haig's successor, George Shultz, had returned to seeing the United States as honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians--a position that would be reaffirmed by the next two administrations. But with some zigs and zags, George W. Bush has moved American diplomacy back to where it stood during Reagan's first years. He has envisioned Israel as a strategic ally in the United States' war on terror, and Israel's adversaries as America's.

Bush's move away from being an honest broker began soon after he took office. Author Ron Suskind has reported that Bush announced at his first National Security Council meeting, "We're going to tilt back toward Israel." When then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, fearing that Bush would encourage the Israeli army in the West Bank, warned that "the consequences of that could be dire, especially for the Palestinians," Bush responded, "Sometimes a show for force by one side can really clarify things." While endorsing a Palestinian state, Bush backed then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's refusal to deal with Yasir Arafat and held out hope that elections could remove the Palestinian Authority leader from power....
Read entire article at New Republic

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Greg L. Hampton - 8/7/2006

Bush's policies are never set for short term results. He almost always take a long term view at solving a problems wheter it's domestic policy or foriegn policy. His approach to energy policy, and the Bush Doctrine for the War on Terror are two excellent examples of this mindset. Bush's policies with respect to Israel are no different. He is not looking for short term, McDonald's quality answers to the problems that confront Israel. Rather his polices look towards a long term view of how things need to be to achieve lasting peace and stability in a region that has not had much of either in the last 50 or so years. As is noted....previous administrations have had little or no success in achieving a long term, positive, and successful solutions to the problems that confront the Middle East. It would seem to me that the author seems angry that Bush is trying a different approach....and that approach...if given time..will have more success than anything anyone else has tried.