Is the West Bank a Vital American Interest?
by Daniel Pipes
[N.B.: The following reflects what the author submitted, and not exactly what was published. To obtain the precise text of what was printed, please check the original place of publication.]
Analysts of the Arab-Israeli conflict agree on very few issues, but there are two points in 1989 on which a consensus exists virtually across the mainstream spectrum. First, nearly everyone concurs that the riots which began in December 1987 on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (henceforth referred to as the territories) have made the status quo far less palatable than it had previously been. Among Israelis and Arabs alike, there is a new sense of urgency about the future of the territories. Second, there is widespread agreement that the Israelis face a nearly intractable dilemma with regard to the future of those territories. Moderate solutions are becoming less tenable, while extremist positions gain in strength.
These two dilemmas notwithstanding, there is no paucity of attempts to find a way out. Notable plans include Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's proposal for elections in the territories; the Palestine Liberation Organization's call for direct PLO-Israeli negotiations to establish a State of Palestine; and the Jaffee Center's proposal for interim steps toward setting up a Palestinian entity.
My intent is not to critique these proposals, much less to offer one of my own. Instead, I should like to review the role assigned to the U.S. government in these various schemes. What should Washington do at this difficult moment to forward what it calls the peace process? A close evaluation of American interests points to a rather different approach from the ones currently being tried.
Before turning to the American role, the choices need to be delineated as they appear in the Middle East. For reasons that will soon become apparent, it makes the most sense to see these from the standpoint of the Israeli electorate.
Israel acquired five distinct territories in the course of the Six Day War of June 1967. One of those, the Sinai Peninsula, is no longer under its control, having been returned fully to Egypt by April 1982 (with the last outstanding issue, Taba, finally resolved in early 1989) in exchange for a peace treaty. Should negotiations advance, two other regions, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, will one day pose diplomatic problems, but that prospect is yet distant. East Jerusalem has been annexed to Israel and so a special case that cannot be dealt with at present; nor do the Golan Heights present any diplomatic questions so long as the Syrian government shows no interest in ending its military conflict with Israel. This leaves the West Bank and Gaza as the focus of diplomacy, and especially the former.
The Israeli mainstream includes two basic positions towards these territories. One, that of the Likud party, seeks permanently to retain them under Israeli control (even while, in accordance with Camp David, it concedes autonomy to the residents). The other, that of the Labor party, seeks to return most but not all those territories to Arab rule. Each of these positions harks back to one of the two main traditions of Zionism. The two views each enjoy the support of about 40 percent of the Israeli electorate, and so they are in essential equilibrium. Such close balance creates a problem in itself, for neither approach has the chance for a full audition. Instead, each of them negates or complicates the other in a seemingly endless minuet of personnel and policy alterations.
There is another problem too, and it is far more basic and severe. This is that in their pure form, both mainstream approaches are infeasible. Likud would achieve its goal either by bringing Arab residents into the Israeli polity or by disenfranchised them. Both options are fraught with danger for Israel. Were Arabs brought in, their much higher birth rate would cause the Israeli polity to lose its Jewish nature-nullifying the entire Zionist enterprise. Were Arabs disenfranchised, the result would be a second-class citizenry for them. Many Israeli Jews would find the resulting situation so morally repugnant, they might well leave the country. Israel's foreign supporters, including international Jewry, would lose heart. In a word, disenfranchisement of the Arabs would weaken Israel at its most vulnerable points.
Labor's goal also suffers from a fundamental problem, namely the absence of a responsible Arab interlocutor with whom to negotiate the future of the territories and to whom to relinquish them. The party's long-time favorite, King Husayn of Jordan, played hard-to-get for years, tantalizing Israeli leaders with the prospect of negotiations but never going beyond clandestine meetings with them. Then, in July 1988, Husayn withdrew from the diplomatic game with Israel, at least for some time to come, by renouncing his kingdom's claim to the West Bank. As for Arab residents in the territories, they refuse to take responsibility for negotiations with Israel. Instead, they point to the PLO of Yasir 'Arafat as their spokesman. The PLO, of course, has become increasingly eager to talk to Israel in recent years, even going so far as to utter the magic words demanded by Washington, but it remains unacceptable as a negotiating party to most Israelis. It falls short by virtue of its unwillingness truly to accept Israel's existence; by its long record of duplicity and violence; and most of all by its lack of real authority.
There is a further problem with the Labor plan, one that does not get much noted at this early stage, but which would probably derail progress further ahead; any agreement Israel reached with the Palestinians would in all likelihood be vetoed by Hafiz al-Asad in Damascus, the man who repeats, mantra-like, "There is no peace without Syria." His is no idle boast, for Asad has the power to undo a weak Arab-Israeli agreement; in fact, he has already accomplished this once, causing Israel's May 1983 accord with Lebanon to be abrogated in less than a single year.
Despite these bleak prospects for diplomatic advancement, or perhaps because of them, each of the two main Israeli parties retains a nearly mystical hope in the workability of its preferred solution. Likud propaganda calls on the old Israeli virtues of resolution and toughness; if only Israelis hang in there, it seems to imply, Arab residents of the territories will become docile or, better yet, disappear. In Shamir's words, "something would happen." Without anyone taking specific steps to effect it, one and a half million individuals would either accept a restricted form of local autonomy or leave of their own volition. Never mind that they now overwhelmingly oppose both these solutions-somehow they will see the light.
As for Labor, its mysticism lies in the apparent belief that if it can just wait long enough, King Husayn will return to the negotiating table, and this time he will be ready to talk turkey. In arguing this point, Labor tends either to discount King Husayn's public renunciation of claims to the West Bank (and emphasize instead the signs pointing to a Jordanian intent to reassert that claim); or it calls on the great powers to impose a solution. But Soviets and Americans are unlikely to heed Labor's call to impose a Jordanian solution, if only because world opinion has by now so widely accepted the need for an independent Palestinian state. Indeed, if anything is going to be imposed, it is likely to be just such a state.
Neither of these Israeli expectations are based on well-founded premises. Instead, they represent the slightly desperate hopes of politicians caught in a predicament not of their own making. At best, they imply an intention to sit tight until circumstances change; at worst, they suggest illusion, not real analysis.
If ideas espoused by the mainstream Israeli parties look hopeless, the proposals of the fringe groups (each making up roughly 10 percent at either end of the political spectrum) fail even more dismally to address current problems. The far right speaks of removing the Arabs from their lands by structuring the proper set of inducements; benign as this sounds, everyone knows it would resort to force if those inducements fail to have the intended effect. More than any other schema, this one would truly jeopardize Israel's existence, for it would vastly increase communal tensions within Israel, spark deep and violent internecine fights within the Israeli policy, lead to a break in relations with Egypt, alienate world Jewry, and lose American support.
The far left does little better. It blandly accepts the existence of a Palestinian state, without intelligently thinking through the many dangerous consequences of such a step for Israel. It fails to see the military, social, and economic deterioration that Israel would almost certainly experience following the establishment of Palestine. Against all evidence, the left presumes that Israel and Palestine can co-exist in peace. It takes seriously 'Arafat's comparison of Jordan, Palestine, and Israel to the Benelux countries. No less astonishing, it earnestly works out the provisions by which Palestinians agree to renounce in advance the right to raise an army or to ally with a foreign state. Like Westerners convinced that their own unilateral disarmament would inspire the Soviets to do likewise, the left in Israel deludes itself into thinking that risk-taking by its own government will tame the enemy.
This is the Israeli predicament, and it is one of nearly total deadlock.
American Echoes of Israeli Positions
Turning to American views on the peace process, the truly striking thing is how closely they approximate the four principal Israeli approaches. In the mainstream, one finds some variant of either the Likud or Labor position (with many more choosing the latter), while the fringes opt for transfer of population or an independent Palestinian state. To take just one prominent example, President George Bush has virtually adopted the Labor position in defining his administration's goals in the Arab-Israeli domain to be "security for Israel, the end of the [Israeli] occupation, and achievement of Palestinian political rights."
What is more, Israeli priorities tend to become American ones. Most strikingly, because the intifada created a sense of urgency in Israel that the issue of the territories be resolved, this urgency has been directly felt in Washington.
It is not so surprising that American friends of Israel should echo the positions found in Israel. These are people who-either because they have relatives living in Israel, admire the state's democratic and liberal character, remember the Holocaust, or because, as fundamentalist Christians, they ascribe eschatological importance to Israel's welfare-see Israel not just in terms of potential value to the United States, but as something good and important in itself.
On the other hand, it is exceedingly surprising that Americans hostile to Israel also echo Israeli positions. In George Ball's classic 1977 phrase, they would "save Israeli in spite of herself." In 1989, for example, Helena Cobban, a passionate advocate of the PLO and its cause, endorsed Secretary of State James Baker's Middle East policy on the grounds that it "should help put the U.S. relationship with Israel on a more healthy footing.... What Israel needs from the U.S. is not to have more policy disputes swept under the carpet. It's in Israel's long-term interest that it receive firm and realistic support, in which U.S. interests are clearly defined and acted upon." Thus did Ball's creativity helped bring anti-Israel polemics from the periphery of the U.S. debate to the mainstream.
Of course, the phrasing of these comments is hypocritical, even deceptive, for those unfriendly to Israel really would like to do it harm. But they feel constrained to say so openly. Instead they adopt Ball's anti-democratic rhetoric (implying that State Department officials are better judges of Israel's interest than its own electorate) as a way to disguise their real goal, which is to override Israel's leaders and impose a solution on them. That solution, of course, is the option at the far left of the Israeli spectrum, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Ironically, all moderate Americans, even those antagonistic to Israel, implicitly accept the notion that American interests are identical with Israel's. Whether they do so unconsciously or as a way to hide their ulterior motives, the fact is that they routinely portray events in the Middle East through Israeli eyes.
In short, Americans throughout the political mainstream stake out positions more relevant to the Israeli scene than to the American one. Reasons for this peculiarity are not hard to find. The absence of the standard left/right ideological prism through which to view the Middle East makes the region the subject of unusual political confusion. Also, the extraordinary emphasis placed on Israeli politics causes it to influence the debate here. Then too, singular media interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict imbues that issue with an emotionalism lacking from most distant confrontations. Willy-nilly, the discourse in seminars at Tel Aviv University foreshadows its counterpart at New York University, and the debate in the halls of the Knesset is transported to those of the Congress.
Defining an American Approach
Transposing Israeli viewpoints to the United States, not surprisingly, obstructs vision. It has the effect of inflating some concerns (notably the morality of means used to quell the intifada) while paying too little attention to others (especially the Soviet angle). Even more fundamentally, it emphasizes the Arab-Israeli conflict out of all proportion to its actual importance while diminishing the significance of a host of other issues in the same neighborhood. The Iraq-Iran war, for example, received but a small fraction of the attention granted the Lebanon war of 1982; larger and possibly more consequential civil uprisings in other parts of the world (including Burma and Algeria) attracted far less concern than the one taking place in the West Bank and Gaza; and so forth. It sometimes seems that Israel's problems are equally much America's.
To make matters worse, the four Israeli positions have undesirable implications for the United States. Each of them requires that the U.S. government adopt a position that is either infeasible or contrary to its own interests.
Likud's request for Washington's blessing for permanent Israeli control runs counter to a host of American positions, both political and legal; worse, Washington's acceptance of this policy would poison its relations with the Egyptian, Jordanian, and other Arab governments. Labor's dream of Washington imposing some form of a Jordanian solution is unrealistic. Not only do American officials tend to sympathize with Palestinian nationalism, but they worry that Jordanian incorporation of the West Bank would further destabilize Jordan.
If Washington cannot accept mainstream Israeli positions, the extremist views are even less palatable. No American government could continue normal relations with Israel if the West Bank Arabs were expelled. All American presidents have opposed the creation of a revanchist PLO-led Palestinian state because of the obvious dangers it would pose to several American friends in the region, including Jordan as well as Israel.
These many problems point to the need for an American approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not only is this critical for the clear-headed examination of United States interests, but, because it differs from the Israeli view, it may carry the seeds of insights which could be useful for both Israelis and Arabs. Getting away from the Israeli vantage point and looking at the Middle East with American visors quickly makes a host of differences apparent. To take just one key example, while the Jewish nature of the Israeli state is of the profoundest concern to Israelis, it is not one, generally speaking, that Americans need to address or should address. To the extent that Americans do involve themselves in this issue, it is for religious, ideological, or humanitarian motives-but not out of raison d'êtat.
What are the specifically American interests in the Arab-Israeli conflict? The best way to see this is to look at American interests in the Middle East as a whole. These have consistently been reaffirmed by American leaders to include at least four elements: a secure Israel; stability in the moderate Arab states; exclusion of Soviet influence; and the free flow of oil. Translated into policies, these goals have two main implications: keep the Egypt-Israel-U.S. triangle alive and maintain the Carter Doctrine. The triangle consecrated in March 1979 with the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty on the lawn of the White House is absolutely central to what may be called the western Middle East. Similarly, President Carter's January 1980 designating the Persian Gulf an area to which the U.S. would commit military force is key to the eastern Middle East.
The passage of ten years' time has not dimmed these commitments in the slightest, in part because Mikhail Gorbachev's new thinking has affected Soviet policies in the Middle East less than in any other major region. To be sure, there have been many nods and winks hinting of a new policy (particularly toward Syria and Israel), but these are far too ambiguous and contradictory to warrant the scuttling of longstanding American policy guidelines. Further, none of the steps Gorbachev has taken in the Middle East have been irreversible; accordingly, the U.S. government needs to be prepared if he falls from power or has a change of heart.
Israeli Democracy, Arab Autocracy
Properly understood, the goals of a secure Israel and of stable moderate Arab states provide the key to developing a distinctly American policy. Working toward these goals in strictly logical fashion leads to unexpected results. It may therefore be useful to provide some background on what it means for one state to be concerned with the security and stability of other states.
It used to mean, at a time when the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign states reigned supreme, concern with external relations only. Non-interference meant that one state would not pursue a policy toward events taking place wholly within the borders of another state. Rulers could subsidize exports, spurn elections, even suppress minorities, and neighboring governments would say not a thing. But the French revolution permanently shattered this comfortable notion; and for two centuries now, a new pair of principles have increasingly dominated the old notion: nationalist ties, whose intensity overrides any scruples about non-interference; and the ideology of human rights, which makes certain types of violations everyone's business.
This latter is a particularly American passion, and it causes the U.S. government to be perhaps the most meddlesome and intrusive in the domestic affairs of other countries. This said, Americans do distinguish in a fundamental way between democratic and non-democratic states. In a word, they feel far more entitled to pressure the latter than the former. In the case of autocracies, outrage fuels activism. In the case of democracies, the assumption that an elected government will resolve matters on its own, without need for American involvement, causes a much greater reticence to get involved. This assumption is a good one, for democratic states do have self-corrective mechanisms that usually make their workings no less wise than what American expects can devise.
The rule of thumb is simple: with democratic states, American policy concerns external security alone; with non-democracies, it extends to internal matters, too. A few examples demonstrate the wide applicability of this rule. In an effort to win internal reform, Washington feels no compunctions about bearing down on such states as South Africa, Chile, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and the U.S.S.R. On the other hand, it is careful to stay clear of the domestic problems of democratic states. In the British case, this means keeping quiet about Northern Ireland. If the issue arises, Washington merely reiterates its support for the policies of the British government; at most, it quietly conveys its views to the British government. Conspicuously, it refrains from defining a distinct American position on Northern Ireland. Similarly, the U.S. government had no policy on Quebec separatism when that was a hot issue, nor did have its own position on the conflict between Walloons and Flemish in Belgium, on the Basques in Spain, or on a host of other issues.
Secure Israel. All this has important implications for Israel. In some ways, Israel presents a particularly knotty picture, for while the government is fully democratic within Israel proper, it is only partially so in the territories. Further, Israeli state behavior in the territories is a complex mix of domestic and foreign policy. This said, consistency requires that Washington refrain from formulating policies on Israel's domestic security issues and limit its policies to Israel's foreign affairs. Washington should not adopt positions on such matters as the distribution of water on the West Bank, the establishment of Jewish settlements, and the Israeli response to the intifada-unless American national interests are at stake. In the case of the territories, this means only one thing-the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. If tensions in the territories threaten to create popular unrest in Egypt, if Palestinian elements attempt sabotage in Egypt, or something else jeopardizes this agreement, then the U.S. government must actively take a direct role for itself. But so long as these prospects are remote, it should stay away.
So far, they have been remote. The government in Cairo no longer takes an active interest in Arab-Israeli affairs. To the benefit and relief of Egyptians, Husni Mubarak has not tried to emulate Gamal Abdel Nasser as a world figure or Anwar as-Sadat as an American matinée idol. Instead, he has settled in as Mayor of Egypt, concerning himself with economics, pollution, and the myriad of other problems facing the country. For him, the peace process was useful primarily as a way to facilitate a re-entry into Arab politics. Now that this has been achieved, the Egyptian government needs Arab-Israeli quiet. In Cairo, accordingly, the substance of the peace process matters less than the appearance of action and movement. From an Egyptian point of view, developments on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza matter less than that appearance being maintained.
This perspective should be kept in mind in assessing Cairo's recent ten-point proposal for furthering elections in the territories. President Mubarak offered his ideas because he needs Israelis and Palestinians to keep negotiating; it hurts him if they are reduced to nothing but violent confrontations. At the same time, Mubarak's involvement is very thin, for cares less about the specifics of an election plan than the fact that negotiations are taking place; and he has little at stake here. In short, the fate of his ten points are not about to jeopardize Egypt's relations with the United States and Israel.
Stability of Moderate Arab Regimes. The same rule of thumb about American activism has equally important implications for the moderate Arab states-Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf emirates. The key, again, lies in the form of government. Although many of these states have democratic forms, in the final analysis, all of them are autocratic. With the exception of republican Egypt and Tunisia, they are ruled by kings and amirs. In not one of them does the electorate's choice ever extend to choosing the head of state; nor does it ever include fundamental questions of foreign policy.
The moderate Arab states fit, therefore, under the rubric of those states where Americans feel entitled to get involved in internal affairs. Washington might ask in Morocco about land reform and in Tunisia about the treatment of the fundamentalist Muslims. In Egypt, what about the state of Muslim-Coptic relations and the privatization program? In Jordan, what about economic reforms, freedom of the press, and the treatment of Palestinians? In Saudi Arabia the questions would be almost without end, concerning everything from women's rights and the treatment of Shi'is to labor unions and summary executions.
The curious thing is that none of these questions figure prominently in U.S. policy. At times, the situation in the Middle East appears topsy-turvy. Every small move by the Israeli government comes under close American scrutiny, while even the largest and most harmful actions of the moderate Arab governments rouse little attention. All this is both illogical and inimical to American interests. As elsewhere in the world, the sensible thing would be to assume that a democratic government will find its own way, but that autocratic regimes should be pressured to behave in a more acceptable manner.
Restraining the Soviets. Today, no less than under Brezhnev, the Soviet presence in the Middle East relies primarily on good relations with three states: Libya, South Yemen, and Syria. Of these, Syria is by far the most important due to its geographic centrality, its deep involvement in the conflict with Israel, and the talents of its leaders, especially President Hafiz al-Asad. Were Damascus won away from the Kremlin, the face of Middle East politics would change, as would the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But there is scant prospect of this, for ties between Damascus and Moscow continue to be deep and lasting. Of course, there are new tensions due to the fact that Asad is more faithful to the old verities than is Gorbachev. Although these tensions have unsettled what for years had been an exemplary working relationship, their importance should not be exaggerated; as with Fidel Castro, the Kremlin has too many interests in common with Asad to drop him on account of differences in opinion, no matter how sensational.
Some observers hold that the route toward breaking the Soviet-Syrian alliance lies in forcing Israel to give up the Golan Heights. They are doubly wrong. Asad, it should be recalled, seeks not just the restitution of Syrian real estate but the destruction of the Jewish state. Nor is Asad's anti-Zionism a passing concern, for it is intimately connected to the domestic politics of Syria and even to his survival as president. He has worked consistently since seizing power in 1970 to prevent a resolution of the conflict with Israel. No amount of Soviet pressure is going to change his anti-Zionism, nor is there any reason to think that he can be appeased by Israeli concessions. Accordingly, the U.S. government does not gain by pressing Israel to return the Golan Heights to the current regime in Syria. Far from reducing the Soviet presence in Syria, such a deal might whet Asad's appetite for more.
Too, the Syrian-Soviet alliance goes far beyond the confrontation with Israel. Syria represents Moscow's most important ally in the Middle East, and so serves a host of other functions. It provides key naval facilities, especially in Tartus; it spearheads Soviet sabotage efforts against Turkey; it coordinates the state-sponsored terror network throughout the Middle East; and pressures the vulnerable oil states into keeping their distance from the United States. These non-Israeli dimensions must not be forgotten in considering ways to reduce the Soviet-Syrian bond.
Existing Soviet alliances in the Middle East, then, have little to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and even less to do with the territories. What about new allies? Might King Husayn or some other leader turn to Moscow out of frustration with the stalemate on the West Bank? Not likely. Again, the conflict with Israel is far from the only determinant of Jordanian policy; to change foreign policy orientation would entail too many risks. How many kings, after all, does the Kremlin patronize? Further, Arab leaders recognize that the United States alone enjoys real influence over Israel, and that clout in Washington depends on good behavior.
In sum, the American goal to restrict Soviet strength in the Middle East is hardly affected by developments in the territories.
Free Flow of Oil. Finally, the American priority to maintain the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf has virtually no connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although attempts were made in the mid-1970s to connect it to the price of oil and the security of the Persian Gulf, these were proven wrong by subsequent events (notably, the Iraq-Iran war). By now, in the era of producers fighting for customers, this thesis has less validity than ever.
Critical, long-term U.S. interests are only slightly affected by the territories. Looking at Middle East policy, this conclusion leads to three rules of thumb: (1) Assess developments in the territories in light of Egypt-Israel relations. Only if those are threatened should the U.S. government get involved. In effect, the U.S. government should downgrade the importance attached to the territories held by Israel. (2) Pay far more attention than at present to internal developments in the moderate Arab states. (3) Do not look for the Arab-Israeli conflict playing an important role either in the Soviet presence or in the free flow of oil.
The first and second of these rules run diametrically against the tide of majority opinion today, which sees the peace process at the center of America's role in the Middle East. Clearly, too, at a time when many government officials are enjoined by fine appeals in the media calling for more action by Washington, it is highly unlikely that this appeal for restraint will fall on receptive ears. To use a favorite government locution, the peace process is a train that has left the station. Anyone wanting to propose a different route will find no one to talk to but the porters.
Or, to switch metaphors, when so wide a consensus exists, there is no fighting city hall. The bases of American policy vis-à-vis the peace process are very firm at this time, and it is almost a waste of breath to work to change then. In politics, to be early is to be wrong; tactically, it is a mistake to go out ahead of the policy curve and push suggestions that have no hope of being implemented.
The existing policy will be pursued for another year or two, and those who challenge its direction simply cannot expect much to change before the effort is exhausted. Talk of special envoys, election plans, and international conferences will fill the air. Those in the opposition have little choice but to watch the current round of activism and bide their time. The present policy toward the territories must follow its appointed course. Obviously, even those in disagreement wish it to succeed. But, should it fail, there will then be an opening for spokesmen advocating alternate views. It behooves those skeptical of the current American approach to be prepared for that moment.
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes