It's time for a drastic change in US policy toward Israel. Since about 1967, the US has pursued a fairly consistent line: helping Israel to be strong while pressuring it to make concessions to the Arabs. So ingrained has this dual approach become, it is barely even noticed.
But it has not worked. Those concessions - mainly the handing over of territory - which were supposed to win reciprocal goodwill from the Arabs, thereby ending the conflict, have been seen as a sign of Israeli weakness.
Not only have concessions not achieved the expected harmonious peace, they have actually harmed Israel, making it less fearsome to its neighbors, and resulting in a climaxing of Palestinian and Arab ambitions and violence. If concessions have had precisely the wrong effect on Arab attitudes, they have won goodwill for the US. The Oslo process softened some of the anti-Americanism endemic to the Middle East, thereby rendering oil sources slightly more secure, terrorism a bit less likely, and political harangues shorter and less impassioned.
It would therefore be convenient for the US if the burgeoning hostility were Israel's problem alone. But the point has now been reached where concessions entail greater dangers to American interests than they bring benefits.
Israel's perceived weakness is now an American problem: the aggressive anti-Zionist euphoria being expressed by Arabs poses a direct danger to the US.
Were the excitement of the Arab "street" and its fury at Israel to lead to war, the US could experience enormously harmful repercussions in terms of the oil market, relations with Moslem-majority states, and terrorism against American institutions and individuals.
Worse, were that war to go badly for Israel, implications for the US could become truly dire. Like it or not, the US serves as the informal, but very real, ultimate security guarantor for Israel, and it is hard to conjure up a prospect that American policy planners would relish less than coming to its aid.
What is Washington's best course, given the prospects of an Arab-Israeli war that it desperately wishes to avoid?
Washington should take steps that discourage Israel's potential enemies - by helping to rebuild Israel's deterrent capabilities.
As I argue at greater length in the December issue of Commentary magazine, Washington should urgently adopt four policies:
- No more Israeli territorial concessions. This shift is needed, at least for some years, to staunch the Arab perception that Israel is a weak state pleading for terms. The short-term goal is not to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to enhance Israeli deterrence capabilities.
- Encourage Israel to appear fearsome. It would have a huge impact were American leaders to call on Jerusalem to reinstate its tough old policies, whereby it punished enemies for assaults on its persons and its property. The goal, again, is to prove that it is not demoralized.
- Maintain Israel's military edge. While US politicians glibly repeat this mantra, their willingness to sell arms to some of Israel's potential enemies (notably Egypt but also Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and several Persian Gulf emirates) vastly enhances the latters' military capabilities, and so makes war more likely.
- Bind Israel more tightly and consistently to the US. From time to time Washington permits an ugly, one-sided resolution to pass the Security Council; most recently, it abstained from UN resolution 1322 on October 7. Another problem concerns the US government's sometime treatment of both Israel and its opponents as moral equals. This sends a signal of Israeli isolation that might encourage warmongers.
This approach of bucking up Israel may sound unlikely for Washington to pursue, but a dramatic reversal in policy usually seems unimaginable before it actually happens. It also bears note that some important American politicians (notably Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Jesse Helms of North Carolina) have already expressed their wish for such a change.
Israel's unwillingness to protect its own interests presents its principal ally, the US, with an urgent and unusual burden; the need to firm up its partner's will. Never before has a democratic state presented an ally with such a dilemma.