The Next Decade: What the World Will Look Like - George Friedman (2011)
Chapter 6. REDEFINING POLICY: THE CASE OF ISRAEL
The United States faces no more complex international relationship than the one it maintains with Israel, nor one more poorly understood, most of all by the Americans and the Israelis. U.S.-Israeli relations would appear to poison U.S.-Islamic relations and complicate the termination of warfare in the Middle East. In addition, there are some who believe that Israel exercises control over U.S. foreign policy, a view not confined to Islamic fundamentalists. The complex reality, as well as the even more complex perception of the tie that binds the United States and Israel, will continue to be a fundamental issue for the United States’ global strategy over the next decade.
U.S.-Israeli relations are also a case study for the debate between realists and idealists in foreign policy. America’s close relations with Israel are based both on national interest and on the moral belief that the United States must support regimes similar to itself. This latter idea has, of course, become an intense philosophical battleground. On the idealist side are those who focus on the kind of regime Israel has: an island of democracy in a sea of autocrats. But there are also those who argue that because of its treatment of the Palestinians, Israel has forfeited any moral claims. On the realist side are those who argue that Israel gets in the way of better relations with the Arabs, and those who argue that they are allies in the war against terrorism.
If there is any place where finding a coherent path that incorporates both strategic and moral interests is more difficult, I can’t think of one. But to truly understand this complex state of affairs, we must go back in history.
Given the antiquity of the Middle East, it is fortunate that understanding its contemporary political geography requires going back only as far as the thirteenth century. This was the time when the Byzantine Empire was fading and control of the areas bordering the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean shifted to the Ottoman Turks. By 1453 the Turks had conquered Constantinople, and by the sixteenth century they were in command of most of the territory that had once fallen to Alexander the Great. Most of North Africa, Greece, and the Balkans, as well as the area along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, was under Ottoman control from the time of Columbus to the twentieth century.
All this came to an end when the Ottomans, who had allied with Germany, were defeated in World War I. To the victors went the spoils, which included the extensive Ottoman province known as Syria. A secret wartime deal between the British and the French, the Sykes-Picot agreement, had divided this territory between the two allies on a line running roughly from Mount Hermon due west to the sea. The area to the north was to be placed under French control; the area to the south was to be placed under the control of the British. Further divisions gave rise not only to the modern country of Syria but to Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel as well.
The French had sought to be an influence in this region since the days of Napoleon. They had also made a commitment to defend the Arab Christians in the area against the majority Muslim population. During a civil war that raged in the region in the 1860s, the French had allied with factions that had forged ties with France. Paris wanted to maintain that alliance, so in the 1920s, when the French were at last in control, they turned the predominantly Maronite (Christian) region of Syria into a separate country, naming it after the dominant topographical characteristic, Mount Lebanon. As a state, then, Lebanon had no prior reality. Its main unifying feature was that its people felt an affinity with France.
The British area to the south was divided along similarly arbitrary lines. During World War I, the Muslim clan that ruled the western Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, the Hashemites, had supported the British. In return, the British promised to install this group as rulers of Arabia after the war. But London made commitments to other tribes as well. Based in Kuwait, a rival clan, the Saud, had launched a war against the Turks in 1900, trying to take control of the eastern and central parts of the Arabian Peninsula. In a struggle that broke out shortly after World War I, the Sauds defeated the Hashemites, so the British gave Arabia to them—hence today’s Saudi Arabia. The Hashemites received the consolation prize of Iraq, where they ruled until 1958, when they were overthrown in a military coup.
The Hashemites left in Arabia were moved to an area to the north along the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Centered on the town of Amman and lacking any other obvious identity, this new protectorate became known as Trans-Jordan, as in “the other side of the Jordan River.” After the British withdrew in 1948, Trans-Jordan became contemporary Jordan, a country that, like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, had never existed before.
West of the Jordan River and south of Mount Hermon was yet another region that had once been an administrative district of Ottoman Syria. Most of it had been called Filistin, undoubtedly after the Philistines, whose hero Goliath had fought David thousands of years before. The British took the term Filistin, ran it through some ancient Greek, and came up with Palestine as the name for this new region. Its capital was Jerusalem, and its residents were thereafter called Palestinians.
None of these remnants was a nation in the sense of having a common history or identity except for Syria itself, which could claim a lineage going back to biblical times. Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine were French and British inventions, created for their political convenience. Their national history went back only as far as Mr. Sykes and Monsieur Picot and some British double-dealing in Arabia.
Which is not to say that the inhabitants did not have a historical connection to the land they lived on. If not their homeland, the territory was certainly a home, but even here there was complexity. Under Ottoman rule, the ownership of the land, particularly in Palestine, had been semifeudal, with absentee landlords collecting rent from the felaheen, or peasants, who actually tilled the soil.
Enter the Jews. Members of the European Diaspora had been moving into this region since the 1880s, joining relatively small Jewish communities that had existed there (and in most other Arab regions) for centuries. This immigration was part of the Zionist movement, which—motivated by the European idea of the nation-state—sought to create a Jewish homeland in the region the Jews had last controlled in biblical times.
The Jews came in small numbers, settling on land purchased with funds raised by Jews in Europe. Frequently this land was bought from the absentee landlords, who sold it out from under their Arab tenants. From the Jewish point of view, this was a legitimate acquisition of land. From the tenants’ point of view, it was a direct assault on their livelihood, as well as an eviction from land their families had farmed for generations. As more Jews arrived, the acquisition of land, the title to which was frequently dubious anyway, became less scrupulous and even more intrusive.
While the Arabs generally (but not universally) saw the Jews as alien invaders, they did not agree on something perhaps more important: to whom did the residents of Palestine owe national allegiance?
The Syrians regarded Palestine the way they regarded Lebanon and Jordan—as an integral part of Syria. They opposed an independent Palestine, just as they opposed the existence of an independent Jewish state, for the same reason they opposed Lebanese and Jordanian independence: for them, the Sykes-Picot agreement was a violation of Syria’s long-standing territorial integrity.
The Hashemites, formerly from the Arabian Peninsula, had even greater problems with the Palestinians. The Hashemites were, after all, an Arabian tribe transplanted on the east bank of the Jordan. After the British left in 1948, they became rulers by default of what is today the West Bank. While sharing Arab ethnicity and the Muslim faith with the Palestinians who were native to the area, these transplants were profoundly different in culture and history. In fact, the two groups were quite hostile to each other. The Hashemite (now Jordanian) view was that Palestine was legally theirs, at least the part left after Israel gained independence. Indeed, from the time that the Jews became more numerous and powerful in Palestine, the Hashemite rulers of Jordan saw these new emigrants from eastern Europe and elsewhere as allies against the native Palestinians.
To the southwest of Israel were the Egyptians, who at various points had also been dominated by the French and the British, as well as by the Ottomans. In 1956 they experienced a military coup that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. Nasser opposed the existence of Israel, but he had a very different vision of the Palestinians. Nasser’s dream was the creation of a single Arab nation, a United Arab Republic, which he succeeded in establishing very briefly with the Syrians. For him, all of the countries of the Arab world were illegitimate products of imperialism and all should join together as one, under the leadership of the largest and most powerful Arab country, Egypt. Viewed in that context, there was no such thing as Palestine, and the Palestinians were simply Arabs occupying a certain ill-defined piece of land.
All the Arab states within the region, then, save the Jordanians, wanted the destruction of Israel, but none supported, or even discussed, an independent Palestine. The Gaza strip, occupied by Egypt during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, was administered as part of Egypt for the next twenty years. The West Bank remained a part of Jordan. The Syrians wanted all of Jordan and Palestine returned to them, along with Lebanon. This was complicated enough, but then the Six Day War of 1967 shuffled the deck once more.
In 1967, Egypt expelled UN peacekeeping forces from the Sinai Peninsula and remilitarized it. They also blockaded the Straits of Tiran and the Bab el Mandeb, cutting off the port of Eilat from the Red Sea. In response, the Israelis attacked not only the Egyptians but also the Jordanian West Bank, which had shelled Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights in Syria, which had shelled Israeli settlements.
Israel’s success, including the occupation of Jordan west of the river, transformed the entire region. Suddenly a large population of unwilling Palestinian Arabs was under the rule of an Israeli state. Israel’s initial intent seems to have been to trade the conquered areas for a permanent peace agreement with its neighbors. However, at a meeting held in Khartoum after the 1967 war, the Arab states replied with the famous “three no’s”: no negotiation, no recognition, no peace. At this point the Israeli occupation of these formerly Palestinian areas became permanent.
It was also at this point that the Palestinians first came to be viewed as a separate nation. The Egyptians had sponsored a group known as the Palestine Liberation Organization and installed a young man named Yasir Arafat to lead it. Nasser still clung to the idea of an Arab federation, but no other nations chose to accept his leadership. Nasser wasn’t prepared to submit to anyone else, which left the PLO and its constituent organizations, such as al-Fatah, by default the sole advocates for a Palestinian state.
The Jordanians were happy to have the Palestinians living in Israeli territory, as an Israeli problem. They were also happy to recognize the PLO as representing the Palestinian people, and just as happy that the Israelis didn’t allow the Palestinians to be independent. The Syrians supported their own organizations, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which advocated that Israel should be destroyed and that the Palestinians should be incorporated into Syria. So the recognition of Palestinian nationalism by the Arabs was neither universal nor friendly. Indeed, Arab support for the Palestinians seemed to increase in proportion to the distance the Arabs were from Palestine.
It should be obvious from this summary that the moral argument that rages about the rights of Israel, which any American president must deal with, is enormously complex. Beyond the substantial displacement of populations that occurred with the creation of modern Israel, the immigration of European Jews did not constitute the destruction of a Palestinian nation, because no such nation had ever existed. The Palestinian national identity in fact emerged only out of resistance to Israeli occupation after 1967. And the hostility toward Palestinian national claims was as intense from Arabs as it was from Jews. Israeli foreign policy was shaped by these realities and took advantage of them in order to impose the current political order on the region. But whatever was the case in the past, there is certainly today a self-aware Palestinian nation, and that is part of what must inform U.S. policy going forward.
Apart from dealing with this incredibly convoluted history, which weighs on any moral judgment, U.S. policy in this region must accommodate two other basic facts. First, whatever the Israelis’ historical claim, from a twentieth-century perspective, the Jews were settlers from another continent who displaced the natives. Then again, it is difficult for Americans, who displaced their own native population even more thoroughly, to make a moral case against Israel for usurping Palestinian land and mistreating the indigenous people.
A more powerful moral argument is the one that Roosevelt made in support of France and England against Nazi Germany: Israel (excluding the West Bank and Gaza) is a democratic country, and the United States is the “arsenal of democracy.” This means that the United States has a special relationship with democratic states, as well as obligations that transcend geopolitics. Therefore, the United States must support democratic Israel exclusive of other moral or even geopolitical considerations.
Realists would disagree. They would argue that the moral claims of any side can have no hold on the United States, and that the United States must shape its policies to its national interest. However, as I have argued, pursuing a national interest without reference to a moral purpose leaves the national interest shallow and incomplete. More important, defining the national interest in the region on its own terms is extraordinarily difficult. The moral compass must be there, but it points in many directions. The pursuit of the national interest is less obvious than it might appear.
Morality rooted in historical claims can be shaped to suit, and is by all sides. A simple moral judgment doesn’t deal with the realities on the ground, and simply arriving at a coherent moral position is breathtakingly difficult. As for the realist position, it is extraordinarily difficult to extract what that might be. So the question is, how do we frame a realistic foreign policy that will serve the moral purpose and national interest in the decade to come? To find the answer, we need to consider the history of the relationship between Israel and the United States.
THE UNITED STATES AND ISRAEL
The United States recognized Israeli independence in 1948, but the two countries were hardly allies in any sense of the term. While the United States always recognized Israel’s right to exist, that fact never really drove U.S. policy. The primary American interest in 1948, when Israel came into being, was the containment of the Soviet Union, and the American focus was primarily on Turkey and Greece. Greece had an internal Communist insurgency. Both Greece and Turkey had an external Soviet threat as well. For the United States, Turkey was the key to the region. It was only a narrow strait in Turkey, the Bosporus, that blocked the Soviet fleet in the Black Sea from entering the Mediterranean Sea in force. If that strait fell into Soviet hands, the Soviets would be able to challenge American power and threaten southern Europe.
The major impediment to the U.S. strategy of containment in the Middle East was that the British and French were trying to reestablish the influence in the region that they had held before World War II. Seeking to develop closer ties in the Arab world, the Soviets could and did exploit hostility to the Europeans’ machinations. Things came to a head in 1956, after Nasser took power and nationalized the Suez Canal.
Neither the British nor the French (who were fighting to suppress an anticolonial revolt in Algeria and who were striving to reclaim their influence in Lebanon and Syria) wanted Egypt to control the canal. Neither did Israel. In 1956, the three nations hatched a plot for an Israeli invasion of Egypt, but with a twist. After Israel reached the canal, British and French forces would intervene, seizing the canal to secure it from the Israeli invasion and potential conflict with Egypt. It was one of those ideas that must have made sense when sketched on a cocktail napkin after a few drinks.
In the American view, the adventure was not only doomed to failure but would drive Egypt into the Soviet camp, giving them a strong and strategic ally. Since anything that might increase Soviet power was unacceptable to the United States, the Eisenhower administration intervened against the Suez scheme, forcing British and French withdrawal and Israel back to the 1948 lines. In the late 1950s, there was no love lost between Israel and the United States.
The strategic problem for Israel was that its national security requirements always outstripped its industrial and military base. In other words, given the challenges it faced from Egypt and Syria, and potentially from Jordan, not to mention the Soviet Union, it could not produce the weapons it needed in order to protect itself. To ensure a steady source of weapons, it needed a major foreign patron.
Israel’s first patron was the Soviet Union, which saw Israel as an anti-British power that might become an ally. The USSR supplied weapons to Israel through Czechoslovakia, but this relationship crumbled quickly. Then France, still fighting in Algeria, replaced the Soviets as Israel’s benefactor. The Arab countries supported the Algerian rebels, and thus it was in France’s interest to have a strong Israel standing alongside France in opposition. So the French supplied the Israelis with aircraft, tanks, and the basic technology for their nuclear weapons.
At this time the United States still saw Israel as of marginal importance to its broader strategic goals in the area. After the Suez crisis, however, the United States began to reconsider its strategic relationships. The Americans had intervened on behalf of Egypt in Suez, but the Egyptians migrated into the Soviet camp regardless. The French and British had left behind a series of regimes, in Syria and Iraq in particular, that were inherently unstable and highly susceptible to the Nasserite doctrine of militarily driven Arab nationalism. Syria had begun moving into the Soviet camp as early as 1956, but in 1963 a left-wing military coup sealed that position. A similar coup occurred that same year in Iraq.
By the 1960s, American support for the Arabs had begun to look like an increasingly questionable enterprise. Despite the fact that the only assistance the United States was providing Israel was food, the Arab world had turned resolutely anti-American. The Soviets were prepared to fund projects the United States wouldn’t fund, and the Soviet model was more attractive to Arab socialists. The United States remained fairly aloof for a while, content to let France maintain the relationship with Tel Aviv. But when the United States began supplying antiaircraft systems to anti-Soviet regimes in the region, Israel was included on the gift list.
In 1967, Charles de Gaulle ended the Algerian war and sought to resume France’s prior relationship with the Arab world, and he did not want Israel attacking its neighbors. When the Israelis disregarded his demands and launched the Six Day War, they lost access to French weapons. Israel’s victory over its Arab neighbors in the 1967 conflict generated pro-Israeli support in the United States, which was bogged down in Vietnam; the Israelis seemed to provide a model of swift and decisive warfare that revitalized the American spirit. The Israelis capitalized on that feeling to aggressively woo the United States.
Struggling with the Vietnam War and public opinion, Lyndon Johnson saw American public infatuation with Israeli military successes as useful in two ways. First, the generation for support of any war might strengthen support for the Vietnam War. Second, the Israeli victory had strengthened an already powerful Soviet hand in Egypt and Syria, making Israel a useful ally. A strategic basis for the U.S.-Israeli relationship emerged. The Soviets had penetrated Syria and Iraq in the mid-1960s and were already building up the military of both countries. The Soviets’ strategy for dealing with their encirclement by U.S. allies was to try to leapfrog them, recruiting their own allies to their rear and then trying to increase the political and military pressure on them. Turkey, which had always been at the center of U.S. strategic thinking, was the key for the Soviets, as it was for the Americans. The coups in Syria and Iraq—well before 1967—had intensified the strategic problem for the United States. Turkey was now sandwiched between a powerful Soviet Union to the north and two Soviet clients to the south. If the Soviets placed their own forces in Iraq and Syria, Turkey could find itself in trouble, and with it would go the entire American strategy of Soviet containment.
The Israelis now represented a strategic asset, allowing the United States to play leapfrog in return. In order to tie down Iraqi forces, the United States armed Iran, important in its own right because it shared a border with the Soviets. Israel did not share a border with the Soviets, but it did border Syria, and a pro-American Israel served to tie down the Syrians while making a Soviet deployment into Syria more complex and risky. In addition, Israel stood in opposition to Egypt. The Soviets were not only arming the Egyptians, they were using the port of Alexandria as a naval base, which could develop into a threat to the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.
Contrary to widespread belief, the Egyptians and Syrians did not become pro-Soviet because of U.S. support for Israel. In fact, it was the other way around. The Egyptian shift and the Syrian coup happened before America replaced France as Israel’s source of weapons, a development that in fact happened in response to Egyptian and Syrian policies. Once Egypt and Syria aligned with the Soviets, arming the Israelis became a low-cost solution for restricting Egyptian and Syrian forces while forcing the Soviets on the defensive in those countries. This helped secure the Mediterranean for the United States and relieved pressure on Turkey. It was at this point, and for strategic—not moral—reasons, that the United States began supplying a great deal of aid to Israel.
The U.S. strategy worked. The Egyptians expelled the Soviets in 1973. They signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978. While the Syrians remained pro-Soviet, the expulsion of Soviet forces from Egypt blunted the Soviet threat in the Mediterranean. However, another threat had emerged in the meantime: Palestinian terrorism.
The PLO had been crafted by Nasser as part of his extended struggle with the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, an effort to topple the royal houses and integrate them into his United Arab Republic. Soviet intelligence, wanting to weaken the United States by contributing to instability in Arabia, trained and deployed PLO operatives. The situation became critical in September 1970, when Yasir Arafat engineered an uprising against the Hashemite rulers of Jordan, key allies of the United States and covert allies of Israel. At the same time, Syria moved armor south into Jordan, clearly intending to use the chaos to reassert Syrian authority. The Israeli air force intervened to block the Syrians, while the United States flew in Pakistani troops to support Jordanian forces to put down the uprising. About ten thousand Palestinians were killed in the fighting, and Arafat fled to Lebanon.
This conflict was the origin of the group known as Black September, which, among other things, carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Black September was the covert arm of Arafat’s Fatah movement, but what made it particularly important was that it also served Soviet interests in Europe. During the 1970s, the Soviets had organized a destabilization campaign, mobilizing terrorist groups in France, Italy, and Germany, among others, and supporting organizations such as the Irish Republican Army.
The Palestinians became a major force in this “terrorist international,” a development that served to further bind the United States and Israel together. To prevent the destabilization of NATO, the United States wanted to shut down the Soviet-sponsored terrorist organizations, whose members were being trained in Libya and North Korea. For their part, the Israelis wanted to destroy the Palestinians’ covert capability. The CIA and Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, cooperated intensely for the next twenty years to suppress the terrorist movement, which did not weaken until the mid-1980s, when the Soviets shifted to a more conciliatory policy toward the West. During this time, the CIA and Mossad also cooperated in securing the Arabian Peninsula against covert Soviet and PLO operations.
The collapse of the Soviet Union—and indeed, the shift in policy that took place after Leonid Brezhnev’s death—changed this dynamic dramatically. Turkey was no longer at risk. Egypt was a decaying, weak nation of no threat to Israel. It was also quite hostile to Hamas. Formed in 1987, Hamas was a derivative of the Muslim Brotherhood that had threatened the regime of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Syria was isolated and focused on Lebanon. Jordan was in many ways now a protectorate of Israel. The threat from the secular, socialist Palestinian movement that had made up the PLO and that had supported the terrorist movements in Europe had diminished greatly. U.S. aid to Israel stayed steady while Israel’s economy surged. In 1974, when the aid began to flow in substantial amounts, it represented about 21 percent of the Israeli gross domestic product. Today it represents about 1.4 percent, according to the Congressional Research Office.
Once again, it is vital to understand that U.S.-Israeli cooperation did not generate anti-Americanism in the Arab world but resulted from it. The interests that tied Israel and the United States together from 1967 to 1991 were clear and substantial. Equally important to understand is the fact that since 1991, the basis of the relationship has been much less clear. The current state of play makes it necessary to ask precisely what the United States needs from Israel and what, for that matter, Israel needs from the United States. As we consider American foreign policy over the next ten years, it is also vital to ask exactly how a close tie with Israel serves U.S. national interests.
As for the moral issue of rights between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the historical record is chaotic. To argue that the Jews have no right in Palestine is a defensible position only if you are prepared to assert that Europeans have no right to be in America or Australia. At the same time, there is an obvious gulf between the right of Israel to exist and the right of Israel to occupy the home territory of large numbers of Palestinians who don’t want to be occupied. On the other hand, how can you demand that Israel surrender control when large numbers of Palestinians won’t acknowledge Israel’s right to exist? The moral argument becomes dizzying and cannot be a foundation for a foreign policy on either side. Supporting Israel because we support democracies is a far more persuasive argument, but even that must be embedded in the question of national interest. And it must be remembered that the United States has been inconsistent in applying this principle, to say the least.
The Israel of today is strategically secure. It has become the dominant power among the bordering states by creating a regional balance of power among its neighbors that is based on mutual hostility as well as dependence by some of them on Israel.
By far the most important element of this system is Egypt, which once represented the greatest strategic threat to Israel. The Egyptians’ decision in the 1970s that continued hostility toward Israel and alignment with the Soviet Union were not in their interests led to a peace treaty in which the Sinai became a demilitarized zone. This kept Egyptian and Israeli forces from impinging on each other. Without a threat from Egypt’s military, Israel was secure, because Syria by itself did not represent an unmanageable threat.
The peace between Egypt and Israel always appears to be tenuous, but it is actually built on profoundly powerful geopolitical forces. Egypt cannot defeat Israel, for reasons that are geographical as well as technological. To defeat Israel, Egypt would have to create a logistical system through the Sinai that could support hundreds of thousands of troops, a system that would be hard to build and difficult to defend.
The Israelis cannot defeat Egypt, nor could they stand a prolonged war of attrition. To win they would have to win swiftly, because Israel has a small standing army and must draw manpower from its civilian reserves, which is unsustainable over an extended period. Even in 1967, when victory came within days, the manpower requirements for the battle paralyzed the Israeli economy. Even if Israel could defeat the Egyptian army, it could not occupy Egypt’s heartland, the Nile River basin. This region is home to more than 70 million people, and the Israeli army simply does not have the resources even to begin to control it.
Because of this stalemate, Egypt and Israel would risk much and gain little by fighting each other. In addition, both governments are now battling the same Islamic forces. The Egyptian regime today still derives from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular, socialist, and militarist revolution. It was never Islamic and was always challenged by devout Muslims, particularly those organized around the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni organization that is the strongest force in opposition to established regimes throughout the Arab world. The Egyptians repressed this group. They fear that a success by Hamas might threaten the stability of their regime. Therefore, whatever grumbling they might do about Israeli Palestinian policy, they share Israel’s hostility to Hamas and work actively to contain Hamas in Gaza.
Israel’s accord with Egypt is actually the most important relationship it has. So long as Egypt remains aligned with Israel, Israel’s national security is assured, because no other combination of neighbors can threaten it. Even if the secular Nasserite regime fell, it would be a generation before Egypt could be a threat, and then only if it gained the patronage of a major power.
Nor does Israel face a threat from Jordan, even though the Jordan River line is the most vulnerable area that Israel faces. It is several hundred miles long, and the distance between that line and the Tel Aviv–Jerusalem corridor is less than fifty miles. However, the Jordanian military and intelligence forces guard this frontier for Israel, a peculiar circumstance that exists for two reasons.
First, the Jordanian-Palestinian hostility is a threat to the Hashemite regime, and the Israelis serve essential Jordanian national security interests by suppressing the Palestinians. Second, the Jordanians are much too few and much too easily defeated by the Israelis to pose a threat. The only time that the Jordan River line could become a threat would be if some foreign country (Iraq or Iran, most likely) were to send its military to deploy along that line. Since desert separates the Jordan River from these countries, deploying and supplying forces would be difficult. But more than that, such a deployment would mean the end of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, which would do everything it could to prevent a significant deployment and would be backed by the Israelis. Israel and Jordan are in this way joined at the hip.
That leaves Syria, which by itself poses no threat to Israel. Its forces are smaller than Israel’s fully mobilized ones, and the areas in which it could attack are too narrow to exploit effectively. But far more important, Syria is a country that is oriented toward the west, and therefore toward Lebanon, which it not only regards as its own but is where its ruling elite, the Alawites, have close historic ties.
Lebanon is the interface between the northern Arab world and the Mediterranean. Beirut’s banks and real estate, as well as the Bekaa Valley’s smuggling and drug trade, are of far more practical interest to the Syrians than any belief that all of Ottoman Syria belongs to them. Their practical interests are in dominating and integrating Lebanon informally into their national economy.
Following the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, and faced with hostility from Iraq, the Syrians found themselves isolated in the region. They were also hostile to Arafat’s Fatah movement, going so far as to invade Lebanon in 1975 to fight the Palestinians. Nevertheless, they saw themselves at risk. The Iranian revolution in 1979 created a new relationship, however distant, and one that allowed the Syrians to increase their strength in Lebanon, using Iran’s ideological and financial resources. In the 1980s, following Israel’s own invasion of Lebanon, an anti-Israeli Shiite militia was formed, called Hezbollah. In part, Hezbollah is simply a part of the Lebanese political constellation. In part, it is a force designed to fight Israel. But in return for receiving a free hand in Lebanon from Israel, Syria guaranteed to restrain Hezbollah actions against Israel. This agreement broke down in 2006, when the United States forced Syrian uniformed forces out of Lebanon, as punishment for supporting jihadists in Iraq. As a result Syria renounced any promise it had made to Israel.
The deeper the detail, the more dizzyingly complex and ambiguous this region becomes, so a summary of the strategic relationships is in order. Israel is at peace with Egypt and Jordan, a far from fragile peace based on substantial mutual interests. With Egypt and Jordan aligned with Israel, Syria is weak and isolated and poses no threat. Hezbollah is a threat, but not one with the weight of fundamentally threatening Israel.
The primary threat to Israel comes from inside its boundaries, from the occupied and hostile Palestinians. But while their primary weapon, terrorism, can be painful, terrorism cannot ultimately destroy the Israelis. Even when Hezbollah and other external forces are added, the State of Israel is not at risk, partly because the resources those forces can bring to bear are inadequate, and partly because Syria, fearing Israeli retaliation, limits what these groups can do.
Indeed, Israel’s problems have been lessened by the split among the Palestinians. Fatah, Arafat’s organization, was until the 1990s the main force within the Palestinian community. Like the Nasserite movement it came from, it was secular and socialist, not Islamist. During the 1990s, Hamas, an Islamic Palestinian movement, arose, which has split the Palestinians, essentially creating a civil war. Fatah controls the West Bank; Hamas controls Gaza. The Israelis, playing the balance-of-power game within the Palestinian community as well as in the region, are now friendly and supportive of Fatah and hostile to Hamas. The two groups are as likely to fight each other as they are to fight Israel.
The danger of terrorism for the Israelis, beyond the personal tragedies it engenders, is that it can shift Israeli policy away from strategic issues and toward simple management of the threat. The killing of Israelis by suicide bombers is never going to be acceptable, and no Israeli government can survive if it dismisses the concern. But the balance of power makes Israel secure from threats by nation-states, and the threat of terrorism within the occupied territories is secondary.
The problem for Israel remains the same as it was in biblical times. Israel has always been able to control Egypt and whatever powers were to the east and north. It was only the distant great powers, such as Babylon, Persia, Alexandrian Greece, and Rome, that were able to overwhelm the ancient kingdom of the Jews. These empires were the competitors that Israel didn’t have the weight to manage and sometimes engaged with catastrophically by overestimating its strength or underestimating the need for diplomatic subtlety.
Terrorism puts Israel in the same position today. The threat of this violence is not that it will undermine the regime but that it will cause the regime to act in ways that will cause a major power to focus on Israel. Nothing good can come from Israel’s showing up too brightly on the global radar screen.
From the Israeli point of view, Palestinian unhappiness or unrest or even terrorism can be lived with. What Israel cannot accommodate is the intervention of a major power spurred on by Israeli actions against the Palestinians. Great powers—imperial powers—can afford to spend a small fraction of their vast resources on issues that satisfy marginal interests or that merely assuage public opinion. That small fraction can dwarf the resources of a country like Israel, which is why Israel must maintain its regional arrangements and prudently manage the Palestinians and their terrorism.
The only such imperial power today is the United States. As such, it has varied global interests, some of which it has neglected during a time of preoccupation with terrorism and radical Islam. The United States must uncouple its foreign policy from this focus on terrorism and realign with countries that do not see terrorism as the singular problem of the world, and that do not regard Israeli occupation of territory with large numbers of Palestinians as being in their interests.
At the same time, there are numerous regional powers, such as Russia and Europe, that can have enormous impacts on Israel, and Israel cannot afford to be indifferent to their interests. Unless Israel reevaluates its own view of terrorism and the Palestinians, it may find itself isolated from many of its traditional allies, including the United States. This would not destroy Israel but would be a precondition for its destruction.
As we’ve seen, U.S. support for Israel was not the main driver of Muslim hostility to the United States, and no evolution of events in Israel directly affects core American interests. Accordingly, the United States would gain little by breaking with Israel, or by forcing the Israelis to change their policies toward the Palestinians. In fact, the net effect of an estrangement between the United States and Israel would be panic among Israel’s neighbors. As mentioned earlier, support for the Palestinians increases the farther away you get from them, and that support in the Arab world is largely rhetorical.
Apart from skirmishes in Lebanon, Israel maintains a stable balance of power and does it without American assistance. Jordan and Egypt actually depend on Israel in many ways, as do other Arab countries. The Israelis are not going to be overwhelmed by the Palestinians, and thus the complex regional balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean will stay in place regardless of what the United States does or doesn’t do. All of which leads to the conclusion that as far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes, we should let sleeping dogs lie.
The best option for the American president is to marginalize the conflict as a concern without actually doing anything to signify a shift. The United States should quietly adopt a policy of disengagement from Israel, which would appear to mean simply accepting the current imbalance of power. Yet in the longer term, its purpose would be to reestablish the balance of power, containing Israel within its framework, without endangering Israel’s existence. It would, however, compel Israel to reconsider what its national interests are.
Publicly distancing the United States from Israel would not only appear to open opportunities for Syria and Egypt, it would also present domestic political problems within the United States. The Jewish vote is small, but Jewish political influence is outsized because of carefully organized and funded lobbying efforts. Add to this mix Christian conservatives who regard Israel’s interests as theologically important and the president faces a powerful bloc that he doesn’t want to antagonize. For these reasons the president should continue sending envoys to build road maps for peace, and he should continue to condemn all sides for whatever outrages they commit. He should continue to make speeches supporting Israel, but he must have no ambitions for a “lasting peace,” because any effort toward achieving that goal could in fact destabilize the region.
The things the United States needed from Israel in the past no longer exist. The United States does not need Israel to deal with pro-Soviet regimes in Egypt and Syria while the U.S. is occupied elsewhere. Israel is, however, valued for sharing intelligence and for acting as a base for supplies to support U.S. fighting in the region. Israel is not faced with the likelihood of major conventional war anytime soon. It does not need vast and sudden deliveries of tanks or planes, as it did in 1973. Nor does it need the financial assistance the United States has provided since 1974. Israel’s economy is robust and growing.
For Israel, foreign aid means far less than close ties with U.S. hedge funds do. Israel is quite capable of handling itself financially. What the foreign aid signifies to Israel, which has no formal treaty with the United States, is a public commitment by the United States to Israel. Israel uses that as a card both in the region and to comfort Israeli public opinion. What the United States once got in return for that aid was a stable partner in the region, which could not manage without the money. Now the United States has a partner regardless of the aid. On the negative side of the ledger, the aid provides grounds for Islamicist arguments that the United States is the source of all their problems, including ruthless behavior on the part of the Israelis. Given that the aid is marginal in importance, that price is too high. Giving up this commitment to aid would actually help Israel by eliminating a prime argument of the anti-Israeli lobby in the United States.
Of course, this is all window dressing for the core policy of simply allowing the balance of power to be reestablished. Israel was of great value to the United States during the second part of the Cold War. After the Cold War, the benefits to the United States of the relationship have declined while the costs have risen. The equation does not call for a break in relations with Israel. It calls for a recalibration based on current realities. Israel does not need foreign aid and is not in strategic danger from conventional forces. There is a mutual need for intelligence sharing and weapons development, but that is by definition a fairly quiet development.
There is no moral challenge here. No democratic ally is being abandoned, and Israel’s survival is not at issue. At the same time, while settlement in the West Bank may be a fundamental national interest to Israel, it is not of interest to the United States. These are two sovereign nations, which means that both get to define the relationship. And every relationship has to be viewed in terms of its value to the broadest sense of the national interest. What the United States needed from Israel thirty-five years ago is not what it needs today.
From the Israeli side, the primary pressure to reach an agreement with the Palestinians comes from concerns that they will find themselves alienated from the United States and particularly Europe over their treatment of the Palestinians. Economic relations are important to Israel, but so are cultural ties. But the Israelis have internal pressures. Given the Palestinian disarray, the idea of reaching a settlement with a Palestinian state that is unable or unwilling to control terrorist attacks from its territory has limited support. Any settlement would require concessions to the Palestinians that the Israelis would not want to make and that, given the weakness of the Palestinians, they are not inclined to make.
The Arab-Israeli balance of power is out of kilter. Egypt and Jordan have opted out of the balance, and Israel is free to create realities on the ground. It is not in the interest of the United States for Israel, or any country, to have freedom of action in the region. As I have said, the balance of power must be the governing principle of the United States. The United States must reshape the regional balance of power partly by moving closer to Arab states, partly by drawing back from Israel. This does not pose an existential threat to Israel, which would pose a moral challenge. Israel is in no danger of falling and does not depend on the United States to survive. That was in the past. It is not the case in the next decade. The United States needs distance. It will take it. There will be domestic political resistance. There will also be domestic political support. This is not an abandonment of Israel, but relations between two nations can’t be frozen in an outdated mode.
The complicating factor in this analysis is the rest of the Islamic world, particularly Iran and Turkey. The former threatens to become a nuclear power, and the latter will become a powerful force in the region, shifting away from close ties with Israel. Having begun with a narrow focus on Israel, we need to switch to a broader lens. And that is how, as a case study, the balance of power of an empire works.