With the landslide victory of Ariel Sharon in the Israel general election on February 6, it is obvious that America needs to reevaluate its policy in the Middle East. A revised policy should be based on three key premises.
First, Israel is a small foreign country. It is a friendly and democratic country, but by no means “special” to America or “central” to its interests.
Second, resurgent Islam is a major threat to America’s global security and, in the longer term, to the survival of our civilization. U.S. foreign policy should avoid creating conditions which would further its rise, including the perception of a permanent bias in Middle Eastern affairs that breeds anti-Americanism.
Third, American national interests in the Middle East are primarily economic. It is vitally important to the United States to have permanent access to secure and affordable sources of energy. It is not vitally important whose flag flies over the Dome of the Rock, any more than whose flag flies over Pristina. American interests demand a lasting, stable peace that should be based on scrupulously evenhanded treatment of the various parties’ claims and aspirations.
This approach would also serve American interests by enhancing Israeli security. Forcing Israel to diversify and enhance its external relations and to reduce its excessive dependence on the United States would make it better equipped to survive in an inherently unfriendly environment. “The people of Israel have lived for 3700 years without a strategic memorandum with America and will continue to live without it for another 3700 years,” said the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin almost two decades ago. The present U.S.-Israeli symbiosis is not inherent to Israel’s existence. The Jewish state came into being against many odds, and it fought three wars quite successfully before the present “special relationship” finally ripened after the Six Day War of 1967. Foreign policy is a form of adaptive behavior aimed at preserving and enhancing the security of a state. Being perceived as a permanent by Srdja Trifkovic American client state, and—worse still—perceiving itself as such, is bad for Israel because it distorts the adaptive pattern. Overreliance on the United States limits Israel’s room to maneuver diplomatically and militarily, and this may become apparent during Prime Minister Sharon’s tenure if American and Israeli strategies diverge.
Sharon is a 19th-century-style nationalist and, as such, seems culturally odious to the postnationalist elites who run “the West.” He belongs to the tradition of Begin and Itzhak Shamir, two former prime ministers who insisted on the unity of the land of Israel, including “Judea and Samaria,” i.e., the West Bank. This concept is at odds with the “land for peace” approach, the cornerstone of American policy. Begin and Shamir were prepared to offer territorial concessions, specifically returning occupied territories in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights to Egypt and Syria. The true objective of those concessions was always the same, however: to gain time to build settlements in the West Bank, the territories that really mattered to them and which their present heir has no real intention of relinquishing.
George W. Bush seems to share his father’s doubts about Israel’s usefulness as a “strategic asset.” Israel’s media image, after months of bloodshed, is at a lower point than at any time in living memory. Sharon will need to reach out to other partners and allies. A reappraisal of U.S. foreign policy may turn out to be the best favor America has ever done for Israel. If it were forced to diversify the sources of its political, economic, and military support, Israel would be safer than it is today. It should not wait for American hegemony in the region to be challenged —say, by Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons—because then the limits of symbiosis may become rapidly (and, for the Israelis, painfully) obvious.
American policymakers must realize that the conflict in the Middle East is neither unique nor incomprehensible outside of its own terms of reference. It is structurally comparable to that between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, or between Orangemen and Nationalists in Ulster. It is a zero-sum dispute, with one side’s gain rightly seen as another’s loss.
Demystifying the relationship between America and Israel and redefining it in terms of mutual interests will help Israel mature into a “normal” nation-state. Its real security concerns after 1948, and especially after 1967, were aggravated by subjugation to a traditional Weltanschauung predicated upon the premise that the world is inherently hostile. Over-dependence on the United States in the past three decades has postponed the squaring of this complex circle. The United States must understand the causes of that insecurity from without—by scrutinizing the underlying structure of the Middle Eastern conflict—rather than pander to its symptoms from within by an undissenting acceptance of a “moral” burden. One consequence would be the termination of our unhealthy, costly, open-ended, and practically unconditional financial support for Israel.
The new U.S. national-security team needs to quit thinking about the Middle East in terms of the “peace process” and start viewing it through the lens of conflict analysis. They should be aware that there are problems that may not have a solution, that long-term management is perhaps the best we can hope for, and that the desirability of any possible solution depends on how well it serves clearly defined American geopolitical, economic, and diplomatic interests.
This long overdue reexamination of strategy demands not only new substance but also new style and personnel. Our pretense of neutrality must be discarded in favor of cool evenhandedness, in the Middle East and everywhere else. Emotional commitment to one of the parties in the dispute, and difficulty distinguishing between one’s personal and professional involvement, is unhealthy in American diplomats. It would be deemed poor form, and even poorer politics, to send Serbian-Americans to negotiate for the United States on Kosovo and Bosnia, or Greek-Americans to negotiate on Cyprus. Upholding the Golden Rule means that America should come first to Americans, Israel to Israelis, and Palestine to Palestinians. Beyond that, there can be no inherent “special relationships,” only special-interest groups and special agendas.