Since the early 1980s, if not before, American administrations have been torn between two very different approaches to U.S.-Israel relations. The first, which dates back to the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, conceives of the United States as an "honest broker" between the Israelis and their Arab adversaries. The second, which dates from the Reagan years, conceives of Israel as a "strategic ally" of the United States amidst the Arab Middle East. Presidents and their policy advisors have often wavered between the two conceptions, but the Bush administration has come down squarely on the side of the latter--with disastrous results for the United States and for Israel.
America's role as an honest broker was most recently put forward by the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. This does not mean, as is sometimes charged, ascribing moral equivalence to the particular actions of Israelis and Arabs, but rather acknowledging that, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Jews and Arabs in Palestine had equal moral claims to a homeland in that area. As Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, put it, "The conflict between ourselves and the Palestinians is not a conflict of justice against injustice, but a conflict between two equal rights."
America's commitment to serving as an honest broker was based originally on a combination of moral obligation to the Jews of Palestine, domestic pressure from a powerful Jewish lobby, and concerns about political stability in the oil-rich Middle East. The United States was initially worried about Arab governments being driven into the arms of the Soviet Union. As they became more powerful in their own right--as evidenced in the oil boycott of 1973--the United States worried pure and simple about alienating them.
Initially, the United States encouraged negotiations between Israel and neighboring states over refugees (about 700,000 displaced by the 1948 war), borders, border security, and water rights. Later, with the founding of the PLO in 1964, the United States increasingly acted as a broker between Israel and a Palestinian leadership. Since the 1990s, however, the priorities of diplomacy have become reversed. Whereas, before, an agreement between Israel and its neighbors carried the hope for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has become a prerequisite for an agreement between Israel and its neighbors.
Some historians have dated Israel's status as a strategic ally as far back as 1958, when the United States sent the Marines to Lebanon to quell what was feared to be a regional revolt against pro-Western regimes. But as late as 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger could tell Jewish leaders that "the strength of Israel is needed for its own survival but not to prevent the spread of Communism in the Arab world. So it doesn't necessarily help the U.S. global interests as far as the Middle East is concerned. The survival of Israel has sentimental importance to the United States."
It was the Reagan administration, prodded by Israel and by the American-Israel Political Affairs Committee, that began to think of Israel as primarily a strategic asset in the cold war. In November 1981, the United States and Israel agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Cooperation to "deter all threats from the Soviet Union to the region." Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander Haig also backed off from the Carter administration's effort to initiate talks on Palestinian self-rule, and Reagan repudiated his predecessor's opposition to the Israeli settlements. "As to the West Bank and the settlement there, I disagree with the previous administration as they referred to them as illegal," Reagan said in a news conference in February 1981. "They're not illegal--not under U.N. resolutions that leave the West Bank open to all people, Arab and Israeli alike."
By the end of his second term, however, faced with the first intifada and the PLO's willingness to accept Israel's existence, Reagan and Haig's successor, George Shultz, had returned to seeing the United States as honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians--a position that would be reaffirmed by the next two administrations. But with some zigs and zags, George W. Bush has moved American diplomacy back to where it stood during Reagan's first years. He has envisioned Israel as a strategic ally in the United States' war on terror, and Israel's adversaries as America's.
Bush's move away from being an honest broker began soon after he took office. Author Ron Suskind has reported that Bush announced at his first National Security Council meeting, "We're going to tilt back toward Israel." When then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, fearing that Bush would encourage the Israeli army in the West Bank, warned that "the consequences of that could be dire, especially for the Palestinians," Bush responded, "Sometimes a show for force by one side can really clarify things." While endorsing a Palestinian state, Bush backed then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's refusal to deal with Yasir Arafat and held out hope that elections could remove the Palestinian Authority leader from power.
When Hamas won the elections this year, Bush, instead of pressuring the government independently, endorsed Israel's strategy of undermining the new government through sanctions and the withholding of tax revenues. A series of attacks from Islamic groups were met with sharp Israeli reprisals, but the conflict escalated after Hamas's military wing kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Bush might have tried to drive a wedge between Hamas government officials, who had edged toward recognizing Israel, and Hamas's military leadership in Damascus, but, instead, he treated the two as one, fully backing Israel's offensive in Gaza and its imprisonment of Hamas government officials. When Hezbollah entered the fray and the Israelis responded by holding the Lebanese government responsible, bombing Lebanon's infrastructure and killing hundreds of civilians, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected a cease-fire and heralded the war, which had plunged Lebanon into chaos, as the "birth pangs" of a "new Middle East." According to the administration's logic, Israel, in attempting to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah, is fighting the war on terror on behalf of the United States. If Israel really succeeds, it will also accelerate regime change in Syria and weaken Iran--two parties to the conflict with whom the Bush administration, relying on magic and the Israeli military, refuses to talk.
Again, it's not a question of whether Israel should have responded to provocations from Hamas's military wing and from Hezbollah, but the role that the United States, the principal outside power in the region, should be playing in trying to resolve the resulting crisis. Will the Bush administration's strategy of urging the Israeli government on work? It's very unlikely--indeed, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be backing away from it. Bush's vision of change in the Middle East is apocalyptic. It presumes the transformation of the Middle East through the fire of violence into a simulacrum of the United States. This strategy hasn't worked in Iraq, and it's not likely to work here either. More likely, the Israeli and American actions will simply fuel existing hostility toward both countries in the Middle East and, after a period of rebuilding and recruiting, strengthen the hand of Hezbollah and its champions.
Of course, many Israeli officials prefer an American administration that regards Israel as a strategic ally to one that places a priority on brokering peace between Israel and its adversaries. But the United States and Israel have both fared better when an American administration has tried to broker peace. Carter oversaw the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt--to Israel's enormous benefit. Support from George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton contributed to the Oslo agreements and to a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in October 1994. This strategy doesn't presume apocalyptical change; instead, it assumes that over decades, Israel could become integrated economically, if not politically, into the Middle East and that former adversaries could co-exist peacefully, if not happily.
In conceiving Israel as a strategic asset, Reagan didn't necessarily hope for a "new Middle East." He was more concerned with winning the cold war with the Soviet Union. But nonetheless, Reagan's embrace of Israel and abandonment of the role of honest broker saw the war in Lebanon (which proved to be an enormous disaster for Israel), the founding of Hezbollah and Hamas, the first terrorist attacks by Islamic groups against the United States and Israel, and the first intifada.
George W. Bush still has two-and-a-half years to go, but so far, his strategy toward Israel has seen the escalation of the second intifada (which began in the last year of the Clinton administration), the eclipse of Arafat's Fatah by the more radical Hamas, and now a two-front war in Gaza and southern Lebanon that is unlikely to achieve the results that the United States and Israel have hoped for. To be sure, there are complications that this survey of the two strategies ignores--feckless or reckless leaders and unforeseen provocations, as well as ancient hatreds--but it is certainly worth pondering as Bush's "new Middle East" has begun to look even less hospitable than the old.
JOHN B. JUDIS is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.