America and Israel

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign-policy authorities about current and future U.S. support for Israel

How would you describe U.S. support for Israel under the Bush administration?
62% Too strong

“Bush has conflated U.S. interests with Israeli interests, and while there is substantial overlap between the two, they are not identical. The result has been some bad outcomes for U.S. interests.”

“Too strong, and above all indiscriminate, placing no pressure on Israel to avoid foolish decisions.”

“Support for Israel needs to be balanced with U.S. national interests, and indeed Israeli national interests, in securing a peace settlement. The last few years have demonstrated that suicide/homicide bombing and military action have no value in solving the longer term problems of the area.”

“It has been too strong, especially in the recent Lebanon crisis.”

“In particular during the recent Lebanon War, the uncritical U.S. support for Israel’s actions has further damaged U.S. standing in the Middle East and beyond, while U.S. failure for the past three years to prosecute Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has been an abdication of responsibility, including to U.S. strategic requirements. Ironically, this uncritical U.S. support for Israel has not helped promote the latter’s legitimate security and political needs, properly understood, in terms of a settlement with Palestine on the basis of the so-called ‘Clinton parameters’ (’Geneva Accords’).”

“A more accurate characterization would be insufficiently strategic or critical. We waited too long to create a process that could lead to peace in the Middle East. By the time we did, the situation had so unraveled that problems easily turned into crises. At times, being supportive means giving critical advice. We have not done enough of that.”

“America’s commitment to the security of Israel is and should be rock solid. What needs to stop is the Bush administration’s practice of encouraging policies like the invasion of Lebanon that aren’t in Israel’s interest—or ours.”

“Our support of Israel has been much too strong; we have all too often acted as a political surrogate for Israel to the detriment of our own national interests.”

“The real question is not whether U.S. support should be ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker,’ but the nature of that support: sometimes, the U.S. needs to point out when the Israelis are making a mistake. But by the same token, it is the responsibility of the United States to give Israel—and the Arab states—better choices than just military operations, and by failing to make any real effort to create a peace process, the Bush Administration has failed the Israelis, the Arabs, and the American people, all of whom could benefit from having a ‘peace option’ and not just a ‘war option.’”

“Obviously, the U.S. must stand foursquare with Israel as one of the very few established democracies and our closest ally in the region. We have now become so closely identified with Israel, however—as the result of the Lebanon conflict and our step away from systematic negotiation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—that we may actually be hurting Israel’s longer-range interests. Hurting in the sense that our ‘honest broker’ role is diminished, and we therefore have less clout with Israel’s foes and less capability to moderate violence directed at Israel.”

“The problem is not the strength of U.S. support; Washington should support Israel unequivocally. The problem is that the Bush administration has given Israel too free a hand. Instead, Washington should be prepared to disagree with the Israeli government when it believes its actions are not contributing to the fashioning of a lasting peace with the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors.”

“Though I don’t really agree with any of the characterizations, I’d say it has been too strong. It has been too uncritical (as in Lebanon), which doesn’t help the U.S.-Israeli alliance at all—friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”

“The Bush Administration has chosen to treat Middle East diplomacy as a win/lose or zero-sum game in which Syrian, Iranian, Hezbollah, or Hamas gains are, by definition, American losses, and vice-versa. The result, of course, is the United States always loses, because if you insist that the population of the region choose between Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, on the one hand, or the United States and Israel on the other, they are going to chose the other side every time.”

“The Bush administration mistakenly believes that the only way to demonstrate America’s commitment to Israel’s security is to unquestionably back all of its policies. That’s profoundly mistaken. No one questions America’s unquestioned commitment to Israel’s security—but that does not mean that America must support Israel’s illegal settlement policy and its counter-productive use of force in the West Bank, Gaza, or Lebanon, or abandon the crucial mediating role every U.S. administration since Nixon’s has actively pursued. Ultimately, nothing threatens Israeli security more than America’s uncritical support of unwise and counterproductive Israeli policies.”

“We have lost our leverage on conflict resolution by becoming identified solely with one side.”

38% About right

“I don’t think there has ever been an administration more sympathetic and supportive of Israel than this one. Part of the reason is that 9/11 gave the president and many Americans the thought that we are fighting the same war that Israel is fighting against jihadist extremists. This is not to say that Israel’s war doesn’t also have elements unique to Israel. It does. So does the jihadist war against us have elements that don’t directly apply to Israel. But overall, there’s a sense that we’re in the same boat.”

0% Not strong enough

Other comments:

“It is not that it’s either too strong or too weak. The problem is that it is not applied to the furtherance of a consistent set of objectives.”

“It’s the wrong question. It’s not whether it’s too strong or too weak; it’s just not smart.”

Over the next decade, how do you think U.S. support for Israel will change?
68% It will stay about the same

“I think U.S. support is likely to remain more or less the same rhetorically. However, as our power and influence in the region bleed away, Israel will not find our support as reassuring as in the past.”

“Virtually across the political spectrum, U.S. politicians and the public support Israel strongly, giving a steadiness to U.S. policy. The ongoing struggle against Islamic extremism will also help align U.S. policy with that of Israel.”

“Actually, I think it will begin to diminish, but not immediately. The rate of change will depend heavily on individual U.S. presidents.”

“For the next two years it will stay the same; after that, it will depend on who is next elected President. A Democratic President may be able to lessen support slightly. We need to be seen once again as an honest broker and enforce restrictions concerning the use of U.S.-supplied military aid.”

30% It will decrease significantly

“It will decline relatively. There simply is no policy alternative to greater engagement (and I don’t mean more invasions) with the Arab world. As such, those ties will grow and expand from their present all-time low. So Israel, while remaining important, will be relatively less so.”

“What I have in mind is not a reduction in support for Israel below historic levels but a move back to, or more pronounced emphasis on, the ‘honest broker’ model. Strong support for Israel would continue as an unassailable U.S. policy but would be balanced by a restored reputation for being able to grasp the grievances of the other side and a stronger push for compromise in the interest of peace in the context of a two-state solution.”

“U.S. power will diminish globally and in the Middle East. As that occurs, we will be forced to be more critical and strategic in our relations with Israel in order to advance the broad spectrum of our interests. Today’s almost unquestioning support is not sustainable.”

“While nothing will—or should—change America’s unquestioned support for Israel’s existence and security within its own borders, there is growing appreciation that Washington’s uncritical support of unwise Israeli policies in recent years not only hurts Israel, but also America’s own vital interests. In the coming years, we will likely see a more critical attitude towards Israel emanating from Washington—one that will enable the U.S. to re-assert its crucial mediating role in trying to resolve the conflict between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab world.”

3% It will increase significantly

“American support for Israel will grow in the years ahead because the threats to Israel are increasing as the likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran continues to grow and the radicalization of the Middle East continues. The question is less the narrow issue of support for Israel as such than whether the U.S. can develop and pursue an effective strategy that contains and over time diminishes those threats—out of our own national interest.”

“It will weaken slightly as the demographics of the U.S. change, but not significantly result in a change in basic U.S. policy.”

Other comments:

“Asking about the overall level of support for Israel is the wrong question. The right question is about the nature of that support—whether it is uncritical or not, what it identifies as the precise nature of U.S. and Israeli common interests. The U.S. has a strong interest in seeing a strong and prosperous Israel at peace with its neighbors in the region. But it does not necessarily have an interest in supporting every policy that a particular Israeli government adopts in pursuit of that goal.”

PARTICIPANTS (39): Ronald Asmus, Samuel Berger, Daniel Blumenthal, Stephen Bosworth, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Daniel Byman, Warren Christopher, Eliot Cohen, Ivo Daalder, James Dobbins, Lawrence Eagleburger, Douglas Feith, Jay Garner, Leslie Gelb, Marc Grossman, John Hamre, Gary Hart, Bruce Hoffman, John Hulsman, Robert Hunter, Tony Judt, Robert Kagan, David Kay, Andrew Krepinevich, Charles Kupchan, John Lehman, James Lindsay, Edward Luttwak, John McLaughlin, William Nash, Joseph Nye, Charles Pascual, Thomas Pickering, Kenneth Pollack, Joseph Ralston, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman, Ann Marie Slaughter, James Steinberg.

Not all participants answered all questions.