A Tie that Bonds or Binds?

A panel of experts weighs in on the past, present and future of America’s strategic relationship with Israel.

After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had nothing to show for her efforts save the promise of more talks. The roadmap is still stuck in neutral and perceptions of the United States throughout the Middle East are worse than ever before. Except in Israel, where George W. Bush remains popular. The past and future of America's relationship with its closest regional ally was the subject of a panel discussion hosted by The Nixon Center.

Laying the historical foundation for the debate, Geoffrey Kemp, director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center, recalled the acrimony under which President Harry Truman recognized Israel in 1948, much to the dismay of the foreign policy establishment. The Suez Crisis in 1956, the Litani Operation in Lebanon in 1978, American military sales to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and the Lebanon War in 1982 exposed tensions in a relationship that only assumed its current form following the Six-Day War in 1967. Speaking of his own work in the Reagan Administration, Kemp sought to dispel the myth of uninterrupted placidity in U.S.-Israel relations.

 The last 16 years have been comparatively squabble-free, especially under the George W. Bush Administration. But, Kemp argued America's democratization project in the Middle East, continuously expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and, most importantly, the future of nuclear weapons in the region are all potential points of contention in future relations between the allies.

Whereas during the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union competed for influence in Arab countries, the collapse of the USSR transformed Arab attitudes towards the U.S.-Israel relationship.

"Arab states believed they could no longer compete strategically with Israel", said Shibley Telhami, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

However, the potential for American-Israeli discord and diverging interests does not register in Arab public opinion polls. Seventy percent of Arabs surveyed named Israel and the United States as the biggest threats to regional peace and security, Telhami said. Projections and perceptions of power go a long way, and Israel relies on the United States to enhance its own deterrent capacity and "strategic depth." But Israeli deterrence, built on a Cold War model, suffered a major setback in last summer's Lebanon War, as did the United States with its diplomatic foot-dragging. Telhami argued that America's identification with Israel prohibits the United States from being taken seriously as a peacemaker. Recent polls in Arab countries even show George W. Bush as the most reviled world leader, a title traditionally reserved for Israel's prime minister.

Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Robert Satloff rebutted Telhami's claims, asserting that discussing the U.S.-Israel relationship as part of a cost-benefit paradigm was unhelpful and not how other international alliances are evaluated-a claim panel moderator and former Department of Defense Comptroller Dov Zakheim challenged. Furthermore, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict's negative repercussions for American Middle East diplomacy are exaggerated, Satloff said.

"What [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] isn't, is an incubator for regional conflict", Satloff said, citing the absence of a regional conflagration during the Second Intifada. One audience member questioned Satloff's logic, suggesting that the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict is akin to termites in a home, their damage hidden until the structure collapses. Furthermore, in recent years sub-national and transnational groups like Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda have attracted popular support from citizenries angry about their own governments' failures to resist America and Israel.

Far from a handicap, Satloff argued that, as compared to U.S. financial and diplomatic investments in the Persian Gulf, America's relationship with Israel is "a bargain", offering significant benefits. And in response to Telhami's assertion that America cannot be taken seriously as an honest broker, Satloff said that it is precisely America's closeness with Israel that makes the United States a unique actor in peace negotiations because of its unmatched influence over Israeli policy.

While America maintains its focus on Iraq, Israel's paramount concern is Iran's nuclear program. Kemp argued that spelling out Israel's retaliatory capability towards Iran-similar to Robert McNamara's second-strike curves and charts during the 1960s-would illustrate the cost of an Iranian first-strike and enhance deterrence's efficacy.

"We have to put this nuclear issue on the agenda", Kemp said.

But Satloff maintained that deterrence, no matter how clearly defined, may not deter cliques within the Iranian regime, for whom "attaining martyrdom is an objective."

A nuclear Iran would have regional implications beyond Jerusalem's security concerns, with region-wide proliferation foreshadowed by recent Jordanian interest in acquiring nuclear energy capability, Kemp said.

To address these security threats, high-level summits might make for nice photo ops, but more informal, candid, private and lower-level dialogue is necessary to bolster the relationship and ensure its mutual advantageousness, a former U.S. ambassador in the audience said.

Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest