Realism in the Middle East

June 18, 2003

Realism in the Middle East

The continuing violence in the Middle East puts both important American interests and Washington's credibility on the line in the aftermath of the U.

The continuing violence in the Middle East puts both important American interests and Washington's credibility on the line in the aftermath of the U.S. victory in Iraq.  But business as usual-meaning another attempt to rely solely on presidential prestige to force a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute-is not an option.  The United States has invested too much and worked too long in the present peace effort, the "Road Map," to accept failure.  

The key to success lies in separating America's firm commitment to Israel's security from its all-too-common acquiescence to provocative Israeli conduct in other areas, most notably settlement activity.  Previous U.S. policy has often sought to balance-rather than isolate-these two sets of issues.  This has led to the absurd combination of attempts to discourage Israel from defending itself with facilitation of Jerusalem's self-defeating tolerance of any and all actions by the settlers. 

The path out of this morass begins with an end to micromanagement of Israel's responses to terrorist violence.  Like the United States, Israel is seeking to combat terrorism while minimizing the danger to its soldiers and civilians.  In their intent to avoid the use of Israeli ground forces, helicopter rocket attacks on Hamas or other terrorists are not fundamentally different from American cruise missile attacks on Al Qaeda training camps.  No cause justifies organizing lethal attacks on innocent Israelis and the leaders responsible for such attacks are legitimate targets.  Needless to say, Israel is obliged to take appropriate precautions to limit civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible.  But Israel is also obliged to protect its own people.  And, in fact, one could argue that helicopter strikes are much more "humanitarian" than ground actions which can involve sustained combat over large areas and produce significant casualties and collateral damage among innocent Palestinians. 

More broadly, Israel is a sovereign state and its citizens are entitled to make essential security decisions themselves.  Israel's electoral history demonstrates clearly that its voters are prepared to tell their leaders to change course or select new leaders who are prepared to do so when they see emerging opportunities (or dangers).  They should be allowed to do so today. 

The second-and equally important-step toward peace is to use American leverage to encourage Israel to shut down illegal outposts and halt other settlement activity.  The settlements and outposts are among the visible and potent symbols of both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and America's inability to discipline Israel.  The outposts in particular are highly provocative and needlessly inflame passions in a region already almost out of control. 

Notably, public opinion in Israel broadly favors closure of both the illegal and the legal outposts which most Israelis see as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians backed only by extremists defying Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  Many would likely welcome the combination of clear U.S. support for Israel's counter-terrorism efforts with equally clear condemnation of the outposts.  Such a move would demonstrate American friendship toward Israel much more convincingly than mindless support of counterproductive policies. 

The argument that the United States should not add to Israel's troubles by pressuring Mr. Sharon as he leads the country's battle against terrorism is simply not persuasive.  The illegal outposts are illegal and Mr. Sharon has committed to closing them.  Other outposts and settlement activities do not punish terrorists but in fact rewards them by generating greater popular sympathy for violence against Israelis.  Just as the Palestinian Authority's obligation to stop terrorist attacks, Israel's settlement commitments should not be linked to any other issues. 

Failing to take a stand on the settlements will only confirm existing sentiments in the region that they United States is biased, impotent or both vis-à-vis Israel.  It is by now self-evident that such views are a major (but by no means the only) motivation for Islamic extremist terror directed against Americans. 

Of course, Israelis should be entitled to make their own decisions about the settlements and, whatever they decide, should also deserve American support in ending extremist violence.  Nevertheless, Israel's government must come to understand that it cannot indefinitely pay for provocative and self-defeating policies with American lives and dollars. 

Again, a strong U.S. position on the settlements should not imply diminished support for Israel's security, much less its existence, both of which are very important American interests.  But America's enduring commitment to Israel's survival must finally be de-linked from tolerance of its broader conduct. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is highly unlikely to be resolved without close U.S. involvement, but it is also unlikely to be resolved even with Washington's leadership if the United States is seen as a party to the dispute.  A realistic approach that clearly defines the U.S. relationship with Israel is essential. 


Paul J. Saunders is director of The Nixon Center.