Time To Reinvigorate The US-Israeli Strategic Relationship


Monday’s election of a new Israeli government may prove to be an historic watershed in relations between the United States and Israel. Conventional wisdom holds that the installation in Jerusalem of a coalition that is steadfastly opposed to key aspects of the Bush Administration’s Middle East policy will produce still greater frictions in an alliance already severely strained over the past year.

In fact, the Center for Security Policy believes that a different outcome is both possible and necessary. The convergence of two key developments — Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s success in assembling a governing coalition comprised exclusively of conservative political parties on the one hand and, on the other, recent irrefutable evidence of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s continuing embrace of terrorism — necessitates a fundamental U.S. reappraisal of the present American policy in the region.

If such a reappraisal is performed without illusions and on the basis of the actual international and regional conditions (as opposed to wishful thinking about the way things might or "should" be), it could create a basis for a far more harmonious U.S.-Israeli relationship and improve the prospects for preserving the peace in the ever volatile Middle East. The following analysis is intended to serve as a catalyst for that reappraisal and to identify key elements of present American policy which should be specifically addressed — and corrected.

The Global Context

It does not necessarily follow from the proposition that U.S.-Soviet relations are improving that the international environment is actually becoming safer for peace-loving nations. In fact, the chance of conflict at the sub-strategic level arguably is increasing substantially now that the prospect of conflict between the superpowers is judged to be waning and less susceptible to triggering by hostilities between their respective clients.

Indeed, the improvement in superpower relations may actually have the effect of exacerbating this danger as it relates to Israel. Perceptions of firm American support for Israel may be the single most decisive factor in the calculations of her regional enemies concerning the consequences of attacks against the Jewish state.

To the extent that the United States seeks to "cash in" on one of the putative benefits of the thaw in the Cold War — namely, the opportunity to obtain Soviet cooperation in "resolving" the Middle East crisis — it may foster the impression that the U.S. is prepared to subordinate its commitment to Israel to the pursuit of new diplomatic joint ventures with the USSR. As a practical matter, such cooperation would almost certainly take the form of a mutual effort to pressure Israel into making concessions concerning negotiating procedures and/or substantive positions, e.g., exchanging "land for peace."

This result is all the more likely to the extent that the Bush Administration perceives a perishable "window of opportunity" for dealing with the Soviet Union. As the Washington summit demonstrated, the more uncertain becomes Gorbachev’s fate the greater the self-imposed pressure on the U.S. government to make concessions to Moscow, ostensibly in the interest of bolstering the Soviet leader’s domestic position. Some even seem to view Gorbachev’s weakness as requiring a sort of noblesse oblige on the part of the United States to be manifested in the arms control, trade and regional contexts as a greater willingness to be accommodating of the Kremlin’s positions where American and Soviet interests are said roughly to converge.

In one such area, the Middle East, the pressure to accommodate Soviet interests (which often have much in common with the agendas of Moscow’s radical Arab clients in the region) is welcomed by many within the American foreign policy establishment. Notably, Arabists in the U.S. Foreign Service have been particularly quick to urge that the "Soviet card" be played; they recognize the considerable potential of such a diplomatic initiative to distance the United States from Israel and to allow a closer alignment with so-called "moderate" Arab regimes.

Curiously, such sentiments seem to be dominating Bush Administration policy toward the region at the very moment that State Department experts are confronting the unravelling of one of their principal theses, i.e., that time is on the side of the Arabs. In fact, two strategic developments suggest that, all other things being equal, time is actually on Israel’s side.

For one thing, the decline of the Soviet Union, or at least its preoccupation with other issues, holds out the possibility that several of the Soviet client states most hostile to Israel (notably, Syria, Iraq and Libya) may find that the flow of advanced weaponry and materiel and other support from Moscow is going to be sharply reduced.

Secondly, the emigration of tens and potentially hundreds of thousands of Jews from the USSR to Israel promises to bolster Israel demographically, strategically, and economically insuring (among other things) Israel’s future ability to marshall sufficient human and other resources needed to protect itself. Perhaps nearly as important has been the renewed popular awareness of the raison d’etre for the state of Israel — a sure refuge for Jews obliged to flee persecution and oppression. It is presumably just such considerations that have aroused the bitter opposition of the Arab world to this Soviet exodus.

The Regional Context

In addition to misjudging the true character of the strategic context for the Middle East "crisis," many analysts fail to appreciate that the conflict with which they are concerned is actually an Arab-Israeli one, not an Israeli-Palestinian one. For them, Israel has, in the course of the Intafada, ceased to be the David surrounded by well-armed and threatening Goliaths; instead, it is now seen as a monstrous Goliath in its own right, bent on oppressing the stone-throwing Davids of a would-be Palestinian state.

The reality is that Israel continues to face a severe and potentially overwhelming threat — not from the Palestinians but from their Arab state backers.

  • Israel’s pre-1967 geographic disposition (a width, at its narrowest point, shorter than what most American commuters travel to get to work) left it extremely vulnerable to lightning attack and dismemberment.

  • The proximity of its adversaries means that such attack is entirely possible with the barest of warning.

  • The unchecked belligerency of those adversaries ensures that such attack could come at virtually any moment.


Consequently, true peace in the Middle East can only come from genuine amelioration of these factors. It cannot result from a "peace process" such as that demanded by the United States which is disconnected from them — or, worse yet, which may actually exacerbate them.

The Palestinian Dimension

While Israel’s real security problem lies with its Arab state enemies and not with the Palestinians, American policy-makers also need to revisit their working assumptions about the true character of the PLO. The fact of the matter is that the Palestine Liberation Organization remains formally committed by word and by deed to the destruction of the state of Israel. It is comprised not of Jeffersonian democrats but of radical extremists, sworn to advance their anti-democratic goals not through "dialogue" but through force of arms.

Were there any doubt on this score, the situation in Lebanon should be sufficient proof of the real complexion of the PLO’s modus operandi and preferred style of government. The notion that a peaceful PLO-dominated entity could be implanted in the midst of Israeli territory and not represent a security nightmare is laughable. At best, such a "homeland" would be a festering sore that would make the Intafada look tame by comparison; at worst it would be a pretext for large-scale Arab assaults on Israel.

What is more, the United States can be under no illusion that the PLO and their Arab state backers are other than the principal source of terrorism worldwide. As last week’s abortive seaborne raid on the Tel Aviv hotel district made abundantly clear, Yasir Arafat’s organization has not abandoned murder of innocent civilians as an instrument to advance its cause. To the contrary, in the year following Arafat’s much-ballyhooed December 1988 "renunciation" of terrorism, his organization and associated groups conducted no fewer than 13 terrorist attacks inside Israel (i.e., within the pre-1967 borders), 17 cross-border attacks, and 125 murders of Palestinian civilians.(1)

Even as the PLO and its factions have mounted this campaign of terror, Arafat’s organization has been awarded unprecedented prestige and legitimacy through a diplomatic dialogue with the United States. This despite the fact that such contacts had been explicitly predicated by the U.S. on a pledge by Arafat not to employ terrorism.

Worse yet, when this dialogue was initiated on 15 December 1988, its continuation in the future was expressly tied by the United States to three conditions: (1) "No American administration can sustain the dialogue if terrorism continues by the PLO or any of its factions;" (2) the PLO was required to "publicly disassociate" itself from "terrorism by any Palestinian group operating anywhere;" and (3) "in the event of a terrorist action by any element of the PLO or one or more of its members" the United States would expect the PLO "not only [to] condemn this action publicly but also discipline those responsible for it, at least by expelling them from the PLO." Even though none of these conditions have been satisfied, the United States has, to date, continued its contacts with the PLO.

In fact, with the publication of a report on the PLO’s compliance with its commitments in March 1990, the Bush Administration went one step further: It whitewashed the actual record by concluding that "the PLO has adhered to its commitment undertaken in 1988 to renounce terrorism." In so doing, the United States became an accomplice to Arafat’s effort to perpetrate international terror without bearing any of the costs that the community of civilized nations might impose for doing so.

While it must be acknowledged that this is hardly the only occasion when an American government betrayed those who have placed trust in it, such behavior begs the question: Why on earth should Israel put its future security at risk by entering into negotiations with the Palestinians predicated on the exchange of "land for peace" if the ultimate safeguard is supposed to be American willingness to guarantee any agreement reached and come to Israel’s rescue if things go badly? In light of current U.S. behavior, the patronizing notion of some U.S. government officials and non-governmental experts that America must coerce Israel to accept such risks on the basis of a U.S. guarantee is worse than extortion; it becomes a prescription for Israel’s national suicide.

Conclusions and Recommendations

In light of the foregoing, the Center for Security Policy believes that American Middle East policy simply cannot continue on its present course. Specifically, the Center concludes that:

  • The Bush Administration’s present diplomatic strategy which, if successful, would inevitably give rise to a Palestinian homeland on parts of territory now held by Israel, is a formula for disaster for U.S. as well as Israeli security interests.

    Such a homeland would create a Lebanon in Israel, not simply a Northern Ireland. It would imperil the security of a key regional ally and vital strategic asset. And it would foster a radical anti-West and anti-democratic entity in the midst of a region already excessively susceptible to such sentiments.


  • If recent experience with the Soviet Union teaches anything, it is that — far from fostering desired change — diplomacy and detente in the face of irreconcilable substantive differences can simply serve to slow the realization of such change. Instead, it can have the effect of actually propping up unpalatable regimes, rather than increasing pressure for their reform. Real change — to the extent it is occurring in the Eastern bloc — is a product of conversion, not compromise. There is no evidence that such conversion is in the offing or likely on the part of either Israel or the Arabs.

  • Concepts like "land for peace" are doomed to fail; Israel must settle for nothing less than "peace for peace."

    Peace must be made with the Arab states that constitute the real threat to Israeli security — not with the PLO alone. Peace must be on the basis of a real and explicit — not grudging, oral or hollow — acceptance of the right of Israel to exist and to preserve its security.


  • Under present circumstances, such outcomes are not likely to emerge from negotiations with the Palestinians — irrespective of Israel’s willingness to engage in them.

    In fact, the PLO is spitting in the United States’ face with its shameless pursuit of terrorism in violation of the terms of the diplomatic dialogue, to say nothing of humanitarian and international law. Ignoring this — at the very moment that the U.S. is asking the Israelis to place faith in our willingness to act in the future should the PLO behave unacceptably — is an insult to a valued ally. It is, moreover, calculated to encourage precisely that sort of behavior from an organization hostile to U.S. and Israeli interests.


  • Accordingly, it is the height of folly for the United States to persist in a policy that is tantamount to extorting Israel to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of such U.S. guarantees. This extortion has taken the form of, among other things, President Bush’s personal intervention on the question of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem in a manner seemingly calculated to bring down the previous, coalition government.

    The certain result if this American coercion continues will be further to exacerbate U.S.-Israeli ties. More worrisome still, it may cause Israel’s enemies in the region to believe that the existing U.S. security guarantee to Israel is less than absolute. Such a perception can only invite aggression against Israel to both her detriment and that of this country. Indeed, the intended purpose of the exercise — namely, resolution of the Palestinian problem — is extremely unlikely to be advanced if the United States winds up undermining Israel’s security as a device to force it to treat with its adversaries on unfavorable terms.

The current Middle East crisis is simply not amenable to the sort of expeditious resolution sought by President Bush and Secretary of State Baker. They are in serious danger of repeating the mistakes of a number of their predecessors, i.e., of squandering personal energies and national prestige in this region to no avail.

In fact, U.S. interests — and those of the Bush Administration — will be better served by displaying the sort of steadiness of purpose and support for an ally that is likely to preserve both Israel’s security, U.S. interests and the peace. Accordingly, the time and political capital of the United States government should not be wasted further in trying to force a "solution" to the Middle East problem on the new Shamir government — particularly by doing so at the expense of the U.S.-Israeli security partnership.

1. See Special Report by the Advisor for Countering Terrorism, Prime Minister’s Bureau, Government of Israel, December 1989.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *