As long as the Middle East controls the majority of the worlds accessible energy reserves, U.S. foreign policy in that region should be an instrument used to guarantee Americans fair and regular access to affordable petroleum products. Instead of a unified policy aimed at ensuring cheap and accessible foreign oil, the United States currently has two major foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, the concrete and tangible goal of oil access and the dubious and counterproductive goal of protecting Israel, a nation with no oil reserves, to the detriment of the United States oil goal. Given the large Arab oil supply and American dependence on oil imports, one might reasonably predict a formidable alliance between the United States and the Arab states, especially considering the contentious relationship between Israel and the Arab nations. On the contrary, the United States has formed a special relationship with Israel, the terms of which are not formally delineated, but that is marked by massive amounts of economic and military aid, favorable loan guarantees, and diplomatic protection in the United Nations Security Council. Without even considering the war on terror, it would seem likely that strongly supporting Israel is not in the United States best interest.
Defining the Problem
The most ready argument currently used to defend the American-Israeli relationship stems from the Holocaust and the horrifying atrocities Jews suffered from the Nazis. Certainly, the Holocaust was a horrific tragedy beyond description and European Jews suffered terribly. At the same time, it seems naive to continue to base foreign policy on events that are over 60 years old. If the Middle East is truly as important to the American economy and lifestyle as is apparent, it makes little sense to back the one nation whose actions inflame the Arab world. This historical circumstance, no matter how tragic, should hold little consideration for modern U.S. policy-makers whose decisions have both immediate and long term effects. Arab-Israeli conflicts started soon after the State of Israel was formed in 1948 and continue to this day, as Palestinians and Israelis still struggle to coexist. Various terrorist groups, including Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization, view the United States as Israel’s enabler in the conflict, and have killed thousands of American citizens in response. Terrorists admit their motivations for both the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks have roots in American support for Israel. The War on Terror, a result of these attacks, is the chief security problem for the United States and represents an incredibly high price for Americans to pay for supporting a nation of such geopolitical insignificance.
The most practical political model for guiding nation-state interactions is the realist school of thought. Realists stress maximizing the power of the nation-state as the highest priority in international relations and predict how nation-states might behave in given situations. Political scientist Dr. Robert McCollister describes the realist concept of the world as one where “nation-states exist in an anarchic international system in which there is no central authority to make the rules, enforce the rules, or settle disputes. Therefore, wars are always possible, and nation-states must seek power; they do so militarily, economically, and through alliances. And nation-states are always self-interested.” In short, realists view nation-states as aggressive, power-seeking entities that should aim to preserve and empower the nation above all else. Given this model of the international system, the ultimate rule of realist political theory is clear: in every international endeavor, nation-states will seek to maximize power through self-interested actions. As the father of the modern realist school, Hans Morgenthau, said, “Interest is the perennial standard by which action must be judged and directed.”
In regard to American-Israeli relations, it is important to note the suggested absence of emotion in international relations. According to realists, nation-states form alliances, not personal friendships, and act on that basis. In his book The United States and Israel, Nadav Safran describes the ties between the United States and Israel as “emotional and ignorant.” This essay will show that the United States, at great cost, astonishingly violates the power principles of realism through its special, emotive relationship with Israel and that, from a realist perspective, it is absolutely necessary for the United States to redefine that relationship in order to increase its security and improve relations with the rest of the Middle East.
Defining the Actors
Before delving into the details of the current U.S.-Israeli relationship, it seems important to define the two actors as they exist in the international scene. The United States has a population of approximately 300 million people; by contrast, Israel has a population of 6.5 million people, 20 percent of which are Arab Palestinians. The United States has a GDP of $13 trillion, roughly one-third of the total world GDP; Israel has a GDP of $155 billion. Israel possesses no strategic resources on which the United States depends—cut diamonds are among Israel’s major resource exports. American trade exports to Israel amount to only a few billion dollars per year. Israel is a tiny nation, smaller than the state of New Jersey. Moreover, Israel commands no waterways or land features of any benefit to the United States and, in turn, no geographic feature of any strategic importance. Simply based upon a cursory analysis of comparative power, it is unclear, logically, why the United States invests so much in Israel. At best, Israel should be a junior partner in any relationship with the United States, and, at worst, a disposable ally. If the United States were to withdraw its support for Israel immediately, the United States would remain the world’s lone superpower and Israel’s position would be incredibly weakened. It is clear Israel needs the United States; it is unclear why the United States truly needs Israel.
The United States, on the other hand, certainly needs the Middle East. Since the end of World War Two, America’s primary interest in the Middle East, which holds the worlds richest known supply of the lifeblood of modern industrial economy, has been to keep a steady supply of that oil flowing to the world market. Without oil, Western economies would suffer incredibly, as evidenced with the Arab oil embargo following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the Arab states placed an oil embargo on the United States, causing a severe economic shock. During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Soviet encroachment proved a constant threat in the region, imperiling American access to oil. In accordance, keeping the Soviet Union out of the Middle East became the cornerstone of American strategy in the region and the United States forged alliances to meet this strategic end. After Israel routed the Soviet-equipped Arab armies in 1967, American strategists began to view Israel as a state that could help meet the anti-Soviet strategem. As the United States State Department claims, “From the beginning, Americans saw in Israel a nation sharing its commitment to democracy, basic human freedoms, and the pioneering spirit.” Whether or not this is enough to continue such a special relationship is the basis of this project.
Defining the Relationship
For the last 40 years, stemming from their Cold War alliance, the United States has maintained a unique relationship with the state of Israel, marked by a closeness not shared with any other ally. The relationship is most notably marked by the shocking amount of foreign aid the United States provides to Israel. According to figures compiled by the Washington Report for Middle East Affairs, total cumulative direct aid to Israel through the fiscal year 2006 is conservatively estimated at $108 billion , the majority shaped by economic and military grants. No other nation receives such generous benefits from the United States. In fact, this amount is greater than the huge grants given under the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Western Europe at the end of World War II.
In addition to direct economic assistance, the United States offers Israel various indirect forms of aid. For example, the U.S. government lends Israel approximately $2 billion annually for military purposes. Although Israel has never technically defaulted on a U.S. loan, this is likely due to an understood, yet peculiar, agreement by which the United States agrees up front to forgive Israel from its loan repayment obligations, and converts the loans to grants. The United States also provides annual economic aid, in a lump sum payment, to Israel in an amount greater than Israel’s annual debt obligations to the United States. This lump sum payment is unique to U.S. foreign aid distribution, as it allows Israel, rather than the United States, to accrue interest on the money that for all other countries is disbursed in three or four annual increments; in this way, the United States is essentially giving Israel more aid than meets the eye. To further support Israel’s already prosperous economy, the United States also gives tax deductions to its own citizens who donate private capital to Israel, a benefit otherwise afforded to only domestic charitable contributions. According to one 1997 estimate, these indirect forms of assistance cost the American treasury approximately $10 billion annually.
As a U.S. partner in the war on terror, the U.S. government portrays Israel as being an extension of America in the Middle East. Under this characterization, Israel is a mighty military machine, capable of preventing Islamic terrorists from destabilizing the Middle East, and protecting America from potential terrorist attacks. However, these Islamic terrorists happen to belong to the same Arab regimes from which Israel, if continuing American aid is any clue, is incapable of defending itself alone. When viewed through the scope of the daunting numbers of American aid, it becomes easy to portray Israel as tiny and weak, and in need of U.S. assistance in subsisting despite its Arab neighbors. These two characterizations of Israel’s capabilities represent a contradiction which should be considered when evaluating the usefulness of Israel’s American-subsidized military apparatus through a realist view. If Israel is weak, it stands to reason the U.S. could find better allies in the region. On the other hand, if Israel is strong, a relationship seems justified but certainly not at current prices. These are questions no American administration has adequately answered.
In order to secure continued assistance to Israel, pro-Israel lobbies portray Israel as weak and surrounded by hostile enemies, who would destroy the Jewish state without American help. On the other hand, Israel is also touted as America’s rock-solid ally in the war on terror, capable of helping defeat the onslaught of vast terrorist networks. These two characterizations of Israel are contradictory. Either Israel is weak, in which case it should be of little help in the war on terror, or it is strong enough to wage the war on terror, in which case it should not need foreign aid for its very survival. In addition to heavy subsidization, the United States is also Israels chief diplomatic ally. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United States is one of five countries which has veto authority over any resolution that goes before the Council. The UN has struggled to condemn Israel for its actions against Palestine because of this veto power. The United States has vetoed 36 draft resolutions critical of Israel. Perhaps the most important aspect of this part of the relationship is its continuing alienation of Arab states to the detriment of American self-interest.
When trying to define exactly why the United States continues to support Israel despite the obvious conflict to its best self-interest, it becomes important to look at all aspects that keep the United States interest in aiding the tiny nation. Although their theory is controversial, John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt have produced a credible account which suggests pro-Israel lobbies within the United States work to advance government policies that are in the interest of Israel, regardless of the impact on the United States and its security interests . If Mearsheimer and Walt are correct, their thesis reveals a tremendous potential weakness that allows foreign lobbyists to steer the American government against its self-interest. In the context of the Israel lobby and the war on terror, historian Paul W. Schroeder said that “this would be the first instance I know where a great power would do the fighting as the proxy of a small client state.” (cite this quote) These words are a direct reference to the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, which, if current threats towards Iran are any indication, may represent only the first stage of a larger war to be waged in the Middle East, ostensibly fought to destroy America’s enemies in the war on terror but that would also defeat Israel’s enemies in a far older conflict. A growing number of intellectuals primarily attribute this war to powerful pro-Israel lobby organizations within the United States and the neo-conservative policy-makers within government itself—groups with an attachment to Israel so passionate they are willing to sacrifice American blood and treasure for its advancement . (Also cite Buchanan’s “Whose War?”)
Consequences of the Relationship
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Israel is a “strategic ally” to the United States in the Middle East. (cite Jewish Virtual Library, too) Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this meant that Israel worked as a bulwark against the expansion of Soviet communism in the Middle East. Since September 11, 2001, however, Israel has ostensibly been battling a new threat for the United States—Islamic terrorism, a problem which proponents of the special relationship claim both nations share in common. The fact that both nations suffer from Islamic terrorism is unquestionable. This brand of terrorism, however, would most likely be far less of a problem for the United States if no special relationship with Israel existed. Osama Bin Laden has announced publicly that one of the main reasons for terrorist attacks against American interests is because of U.S. support of Israel. If Americans take Osama Bin Laden at his word, the United State has a terrorism problem in large part because of its overwhelming support of Israel. In multiple public statements, Osama Bin Laden urged the United States to remove its troops from the Arabian Peninsula and to stop supporting Israel (cite the many statements, especially from Holy War, Inc. and the 9/11 Commission Report) In the realist perspective, the United States should absolutely reconsider its position with Israel if it weakens Americas standing in the Arab world and increases the threat of terrorism on its soil.
Beyond the recent effects of Islamic terrorism, the special relationship with Israel has undoubtedly had devastating consequences to the American economy. According to former Harvard economist Thomas R. Stauffer, damage to the U.S. economy through the year 2003 is conservatively estimated at $3 trillion. This represents a wide range of events triggered mostly by the American re-supply of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the subsequent oil embargo placed on the United States by the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in a bid to recapture the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank, lands lost to Israel during the Six Day War of 1967 that Israel had refused to return. This offensive caught Israel off-guard and probably would have routed Israeli forces had the United States not re-supplied Israel with billions of dollars worth of American military equipment, saving Israel from defeat and setting a new benchmark of U.S.-Israeli solidarity. The Arab world viewed the re-supply as an egregious act of American interference as they not only were on the verge of recapturing land lost in 1967 but also in restoring their pride lost during the “catastrophe” of 1948 that saw Palestine split into a Jewish State, Israel, and an Arab state, Palestine, against the wishes of the Arab League (cite with either IPE, Smith, or ME Patterns). The economic consequences, mainly from the embargo, lasted for years. Many Arabs still view the United States as Israel’s impartial protector to this day.
The Arab oil embargo that followed the Yom Kippur War caused an oil shortage on the world market which made oil prices quadruple almost overnight (IPE book, Introduction to International Political Economy Second Edition by David N. Balaam and Michael Veseth, 2001, Prentice-Hall, Inc. or WRMEA) Stauffer claims the embargo itself cost Americans one trillion dollars due to lost economic output, the increase in oil prices, and the government investment in a strategic oil reserve to be used in the event of another oil embargo. The effects of the American partiality toward Israel caused an economic recession in the United States, hardships on the American public in the form of fuel rationing and long lines at gas stations and high inflation (cite IPE book). This aftermath in America allowed the public to feel that their financial problems were caused by the Arabs who initiated the embargo, while the observation that the incredible support of Israel during the Yom Kippur caused the embargo was left somewhat unstated. The economic crisis began, however, because of American support for Israel. Arabs and Israelis were fighting, and the United States, strangely, sided against the group which possessed all the oil, causing widespread economic problems for itself.
Israel may not be entirely pro-American
If the conflict between America and Islamic fundamentalists and the negative economic impact of the relationship with Israel are not enough, the fact that Israel is not always a good friend to the United States should push the discussion towards a resolution where Israel does not receive such favorable treatment from the United States government. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of U.S.-Israeli relations is Israel’s unapologetic espionage activity against the United States. Jonathan Pollard, an American who worked as a naval intelligence officer and had access to some of the most sensitive U.S. intelligence information, began spying for Israel in June 1984 after the Israeli government enticed Pollard with jewelry and money to steal top secret documents. In 1985, U.S. authorities arrested Pollard for these activities, which Israeli authorities at first denied, before finally admitting to its involvement in 1998. Experts claim that the secrets Pollard delivered to the Israelis represent the most damaging case of foreign espionage in U.S. history.
Former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger said that “it is difficult for me to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by Mr. Pollard.” In a year and a half, Pollard managed to pass over one million top secret documents to Israel, some of which divulged all of America’s signals gathering data and techniques. These secrets ended up in the hands of the Soviet Union, although how they got there remains unclear: Israel either traded them in return for increased immigration of Russian Jews to Israel or Soviet spies within Israel stole the information unilaterally. Either way, as former CIA director William J. Casey points out, “the Israelis used Pollard to obtain our attack plan against the U.S.S.R—all of it. The coordinates, the firing locations, the sequences. And for guess who? The Soviets.” To this day the Israeli government refuses to divulge what information it obtained and for what purposes it was used. Beyond its policy implications, the Pollard Affair and the Israeli government’s reaction to it speaks volumes to the American public about Israel’s dedication, or lack thereof, to its patron-protector, a point which is further hammered home when one looks at Israels sharing of American military technology.
If passing along American strategic plans and endangering Arab-American relations were not enough, Israel has also found ways to share American military technology with nations the United States does not share them with. For example, Israel has sold China the Python-3 air-to-air missile, which contains technology from the American Sidewinder, in addition to “cruise missile technology, accuracy modifications for ballistic missiles, and massive amounts of hardware, technology and guidance for China’s F-10 fighter, which is strikingly similar to Israel’s failed Lavi light fighter. The Lavi project, funded almost exclusively by U.S. taxpayers, received more than $1.5 billion from the United States before it was canceled in 1987.” (quote from WRMEA) Typically, the United States jointly funds Israeli defense industry research projects, in addition to whatever annual money the U.S. gives Israel for non-research military purposes, such as the Lavi ground-attack airplane, which has stealth characteristics, and the Arrow missile defense system designed to shoot down missiles that threaten Israel but not the United States. Neither of these programs was ever intended for use in the American defense arsenal and one of them ended up in the hands of the Chinese. Not only are these programs of little specific use to the United States, but Israel actually transferred the technology to a potential American foe, China. The United States has security commitments to Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion and certainly faces a greater threat now, if the invasion were to happen, because of Israeli military trade to the Chinese.
Israel is simply a lone wolf
Beyond anything else, closer examination of Israel shows that Israel is profoundly self-interested and does not mitigate that self-interest to appease other nations. It is no secret that Israel is the only state in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons, and the fact that they do hold nuclear weapons leaves the region at uneasy détente. During the 1960s, Israel clandestinely developed a nuclear weapons in order to assume a better balance of power in the Middle East; most frustratingly, it has since refused to sign the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whose signers promise to limit the spread of nuclear weapons across the globe.
Although it has been U.S. policy to deny the proliferation of nuclear weapons, particularly in the Middle East, Washington has largely ignored Israel’s nuclear situation. Additionally, two other American partners, India and Pakistan, have developed nuclear weapons and have refused to sign the NPT, without any outright American condemnation. In fact, the U.S. has provided billions in aid to both Israel and Pakistan, and have recently struck a deal to provide India with light-water nuclear reactors for peaceful energy purposes. On the other hand, the rest of the international community, including the Arab nations threatened by Israel’s nuclear arsenal, have clearly taken an interest in Israel’s nuclear holdings. Under the NPT, signatories are allowed to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, such as electricity generation. Yet Iran, an Arab nation that is often seen as the most anti-West of Arab nations but that has signed the NPT, is currently under intense scrutiny for its nuclear program that it started under the NPT. It seems certain that America is playing favorites, allowing those with which it has struck alliances with to act with latitude while providing significant barriers and restrictions to those nations that are not on the best of terms with the U.S.
The effects in the Middle East of this policy decision are not hard to fathom. By allowing only one nuclear power in the region, the United States has allowed the region to be broken into a Israel versus everyone else framework. This certainly alienates the Arab states who are denied access to nuclear technology but live under the cross-hairs of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. While it is likely that Israel’s arsenal acts as a strong determent against its Arab enemies, it also fuels the hatred held by their enemies. In a way, this makes the region that much more dangerous, allowing anti-Israel sentiment to grow while greatly lowering the chances of any sustained Arab backlash against Israel itself. In short, Israel is given the discretion to act as it chooses, to the detriment of American interest and prestige in the region.
If the actions of Israel as a nation do no paint it well enough as a lone wolf, the actions of some of its leaders can certainly lend credence to the picture. Israel’s first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion was a member of a Jewish terrorist organization and was responsible for helping blow up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing some British soldiers and civilians. In the 1930s, there were “Wanted” posters throughout Palestine offering rewards for Jewish terrorists who saw themselves as “Freedom Fighters,” including David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion’s actions before the Jewish people received their nation are somewhat emblematic of actions by many of its leaders. Menachem Begin, Prime Minister from 1977 to 1983, also belonged to a terrorist group which had innocent blood on its hands. The 1982 massacre of Sabra and Chatilla during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon killed between 750-3,500 civilians; future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was found responsible for the massacres. Despite outward appearances, the willingness by Israel to spill Arab blood makes the two more similar than one would otherwise assume, not including the areas where the United States gives Israel an advantage despite the fact that Israeli misbehavior often stands in contradiction of stated U.S. values. Moreover, members of the Arab world, like Osama bin Laden, do not forget the economic and military aid given by the United States to Israel when Israel punishes Arabs, especially since Israel often uses advanced U.S. weaponry. In effect, the United States is backing a country it does not and cannot control but that does have the ability to act strongly in its own interest; an argument for continuing this one-way relationship seem untenable.
The fact that Israel is a democracy in an undemocratic region is clearly not sufficient enough to warrant the continuation of the present Israeli-U.S. Relationship. While the U.S. state department makes the suggestion that one of the cornerstone’s of the relationship is Israel’s commitment to democracy, the United States has shown the ability to ally itself with countries that do not practice similar politics. For example, until recently, Pakistan was ruled by military dictator Pervez Musharraf and has received a sizable amount of American aid. Realists would legitimately argue that American support for Pakistan was justified because of its substantial help in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in the global war on terror but those arguments have little to do with the general make-up of Pakistan’s government. The dichotomy between the stated goal of U.S. policy in terms of global democracy versus the practical application of policy shows that the United States has international interests beyond the simple spread of democracy. If the spread of democracy is truly the U.S.’s international intention, they would give more support to India, the world’s largest democracy, as opposed to its greatest enemy, the nuclear-armed, dictatorial, Pakistan, which the U.S. supports because its an Islamic ally in the War on Terror. Clearly the U.S. can act in the realist perspective. Why it refuses to do so in regard to Israel is unclear.
In the end, it is obvious that Israel is doing a better job of being foreign policy realists than the United States. Israel is undoubtedly strengthened by its relationship with the United States economically, militarily and diplomatically. On the other hand, this relationship has little current value to the United States. It does not seem far-fetched to say the US has been weakened militarily, economically, and in terms of global prestige. Undoubtedly, Israel was an important democratic ally in the Middle East during the Cold War. However, the Cold War is over and, as such, it is imperative that U.S. policymakers reanalyze the Israeli-American relationship. Such an analysis would surely show that continuing the relationship as it is presently constructed will continue to cause both military and economic problems. The United States will need to continue to prop up Israel with foreign aid, be forced to spend more money in the region on military action, and suffer the economic consequences, in both military expenditures and uneven oil production, of a continued Arab backlash. This does not necessarily mean the United States needs to totally abandon Israel. In fact, as long as the echoes of the Holocaust continue to remind the West of its failure to protect Jewish people during World War II, it seems unlikely that the United States will ever completely abandon Israel. What is important is that the United States begins to re-evaluate, and hopefully significantly lessen, its blind support to the Israeli state. Israel is surely Americas strongest ally in the War on Terror as it is presently construed, but the construction of that conflict seems to be one that will not be easily won. While it may seem wishful thinking, it seems possible that the War on Terror could be won not by dropping bombs or firing M-16s, but merely by a logical re-evaluation of Americas interests in the Middle East, specifically in a re-evaluation that lessens American support for Israel. Israel should not necessarily be viewed as villain in a world where most international actors have blood on their hands; it should simply be viewed as what it is, another democratic nation with specific interests that should be helped, but not to the detriment of the United States.
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