Israel initially had a special place for Americans because of the Holocaust and the unique story of its resurrection. Then it served as an ally in the cold war. What is the key to the future of the U.S.-Israel alliance? Is there a common security need? To explore these topics, Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, led a discussion on September 24, 1998, with Jonathan Jacoby, executive vice president of the Israel Policy Forum; Charles Krauthammer, columnist for The Washington Post and Time; Samuel W. Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel; and Steven Rosen, director of foreign policy issues at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
ISRAEL A STRATEGIC ASSET?
Middle East Quarterly: Let me open by asking the question that was hot in the 1980s but less so today. Is Israel a strategic asset to the United States and if so, why?
Steven Rosen: Strategic asset? What's the strategy? In the 1980s the existence of a clear and definable threat made it easier for Americans to think in strategic terms. You could more readily say that Israel, or for that matter Germany, was a strategic asset than today when we don't have an agreed-on national purpose or strategy, and people don't think in strategic terms.
That said, if you believe, as I do, that the world remains a dangerous place, you're looking for reliable allies in pivotal parts of the world. Israel has all the qualities it had yesteryear.
And it's not just my opinion. A brand new Harris poll about close allies just came out1 and Israel continues to score very highly with the American people. In terms of closeness as an ally, it's ranked number six among all countries (after Canada, Britain, Australia, France, and Mexico). Obviously, what people mean by ally is different in each case. Also interesting is the trend line, which is essentially slightly upwards in Israel's case.
MEQ: With the cold war over, is it fair to say that the very concept of strategic asset is gone, that we're back to a different type of relationship?
Samuel Lewis: I always thought the whole argument was largely phony. There's something to be said for talking about a "strategic ally"; ally implies cooperation in different senses-diplomatic, sometimes military. "Strategic asset," is the wrong word, for it implies that Israel provides the United States with military help for undefined threats, presumably Soviet. It was cooked up in the era of the Soviet threat, in 1981 when a "strategic cooperation" agreement was first signed. That was done under the rubric of an anti-Soviet alliance. We were very careful never to talk about Arabs.
Israel is an asset to the United States that we've never found a way to utilize effectively. I've never taken seriously the notion of it being a military asset against third parties. In the Middle East, we face the problem of conflict between our Arab and Israeli interests limiting its utility; elsewhere in the world, it's hard to see how Israel can militarily be an asset. It cannot even help with international peacekeeping troops in places like Bosnia, for multilateral politics prevents such an Israeli role.
This said, Israel can and does help significantly in intelligence and the counterterrorism efforts, as well as in military-to-military exercises. Being able to exercise our Marines on Israeli landing beaches, as has been done in recent years, is of some value.
Charles Krauthammer: Steve is right that with the end of the cold war, the notion of Israel being a strategic asset in the old sense has passed. Sam is right that in some ways that notion was never really operational. For instance, in the Gulf War we couldn't use Israel's strategic assets because doing so would have contaminated our relationship with friendly Arabs whose friendship was more important to us at the moment.
But Israel certainly could be a strategic asset in three areas. First, if and when Israel and the Palestinians reconcile-if our early hopes for Oslo were to come to pass and Israel is accepted as legitimate in the Arab world-Israel could become a true strategic asset for the United States. It's not hard to conceive Israel as the cornerstone of a front including Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey against Islamic fundamentalists. So it's highly dependent on the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.
Second, there's the Israeli-Turkish relationship. Turkey is clearly the linchpin of American interest and policies in many areas, and the fact that it sees its interest as leading to a fairly tight strategic alliance with Israel argues for Israel's limited but concrete usefulness to the West.
Finally, if the notion of a "strategic asset" was a bit artificial in the 1980s vis-à-vis the Soviets, it is not at all artificial in the 1990s, when Israel and the United States share threats in common, from weapons of mass destruction and missiles at one end to terrorism at the other.
Jonathan Jacoby: Israel clearly is an asset or strategic ally in the area of counterterrorism, and probably, too, in some technological areas. But the degree to which Israel is an asset to some extent depends on Israel. How much Israel wants to fit into America's overall strategic approach depends to some extent on its own decisions.
Rosen: If you accept that the threats increasingly come at either the high end of the scale of violence (weapons of mass destruction and long range missiles) and the low end (terror), then the principal areas of U.S.-Israeli cooperation precisely fit these two ends of the spectrum. Israel is the number one country in the world working with the United States on missile-defense issues; it is probably the number one country in the world working with the United States on terrorism issues. Only in the middle range of violence (conventional armies, artillery, infantry and the like) are there larger countries in Europe that may be more important than Israel.
Krauthammer: But Israel's very existence is one of the reasons that the United States faces a low-end threat. The fact of Israel in part provokes Islamic extremist threats to the United States. So, while yes, Israel is an ally in this struggle, it is also part of the problem. I am not saying that conflict between radical Islam and the West exists only due to Israel, but the existence of Israel certainly makes Western dominance, arrogance, etc.-those key words of the Islamic extremist lexicon-far more concrete, acute, and painful.
Jacoby: How then, Charles, would you as an American policymaker compute Israel's value? How do you factor in both its positives and negatives?
Krauthammer: For a policymaker the negative value doesn't come into play; you can't calculate a world without Israel. So, as a policymaker you accept Israel as a given. You recognize that in some ways it's a lightening rod for Islamic extremist feelings, and you go on from there. I am merely bringing up a historical and philosophical observation, that it's odd to see Israel only as an asset since it's in some ways a source of the problem.
Lewis: The Pentagon has, in fact, over the years tried all sorts of dodges to conceal or downplay the nature of its strategic relationship with Israel. It keeps this out of the press because it sees the net trade-off rather differently than the political leadership.
Rosen: The Pentagon views the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship very differently today than fifteen years ago, when Ronald Reagan launched it. Then, the Pentagon not only tried to hide it, but to prevent it. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs John Vessey strenuously opposed it, as did Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, to the point that even after being ordered to do it, they didn't implement orders. Nowadays things are very different. Israel has earned its place as a real asset, not something the politicians are forcing on them, but a partner with real day-to-day value. In the Pentagon, in office after office, you see that Israel now has an organic place.
Lewis: Agreed: the greatest change in the U.S.-Israel relationship over the past twenty years is the way the uniformed military has come to regard it. It's light-years different than in the 1970s or early 1980s.
MEQ: Can you foresee the day when U.S. forces fight with or for Israel beyond the manning of Patriot batteries in the Gulf War?
Rosen: Absolutely. Had Saddam Husayn moved from Kuwait into Saudi Arabia, preventing us from using Saudi bases, and we were really under duress to place an enormous expeditionary force in the region, we would have been forced to use Israel. In such a dire situation, the reluctance of Gulf Arabs to accept Israeli participation might have faded. We weren't that far from this scenario. Just because it did not actually occur in the one historical case of a major aggression in the Gulf is not reason to dismiss Israel as an asset in all Gulf scenarios.
There are also Iraq-Iran scenarios, North African scenarios, Mediterranean scenarios, Northern Tier scenarios for closely working with Israel.
Krauthammer: Don't forget 1970, when the United States used Israel as a very concrete strategic asset to prevent a Syrian invasion of Jordan.
Lewis: I can imagine air forces operating together much more easily than ground troops side-by-side in the same war. It's not impossible, but not easy to conjure up a scenario.
THE PEACE PROCESS
MEQ: How far should the U.S. government try to move the peace process forward? How much should it pressure an Israeli government to do things that it does not want to do? What guidelines should the United States have for itself?
Rosen: The U.S. government faces an inherent dilemma in its dual role as mediator and as ally of Israel. In the role of mediator, it is required to be neutral, evenhanded. But the United States is also Israel's principal ally in a dangerous world. The Arab side has many supporters, many allies, as we can see readily in the United Nations and lots of other places. Israel has one reliable ally, the United States. The tension between these two roles is brought to a head in the peace process.
Krauthammer: The United States in its role as mediator even goes beyond neutrality. The role of a mediator requires agnosticism about the content of the settlement. A labor negotiator mediating a strike doesn't really care what the wage level is at the end; he just wants whatever the two sides will agree to so he can walk away with a settlement. A pure negotiator does not have a strategic interest in one party or the other. Our intervention in Northern Ireland is close to this; we really don't care about the structure of the All-Ireland Parliament, just so long as it is agreed to by the two sides.
But, as Steve points out, once you're a strategic ally of one party, it alters your calculation, and renders impossible that kind of agnosticism about the outcome. So the word "mediation" is an odd one; we're not like labor negotiators just trying to find a neutral midpoint. We're trying to balance interests.
Lewis: In fact, the United States has no intrinsic interest in the exact location of Palestinian Authority borders or whether Jerusalem is divided or not, or any of the other key issues. In these and other cases, its interest is only in the outcome being accepted by both sides. At the same time, it's clearly in the U.S. interest to have peaceful Arab-Israeli relations; we have some important interests in the Arab world and a very special interest in Israel. These parties being in conflict with each other makes our overriding interest-managing our policy in the region-a lot harder.
MEQ: Should the U.S. government in fact be agnostic about the outcome of a settlement?
Jacoby: As mediators, it is appropriate for the U.S. to be agnostic and let the parties themselves decide the outcome. This doesn't necessarily mean tension with Israel, which occurs only if Israel is not interested in mediation. It disappears in a situation where Israel says, "We cannot on our own reach an agreement with the Arabs. We need a mediator. If the Arabs accept the United States as mediator, we are happy to have the U.S. play that role, because we trust it." If, however, Israel doesn't want the United States to serve as a mediator, then the question facing American policymakers will be whether resolving the conflict is a U.S. interest. If it is, then the U.S. may be agnostic about the specific outcome but it will want to do something to bring about an outcome.
Lewis: Everybody knows we are Israel's ally and very special friend-far more than a strategic ally. We have an unwritten alliance that runs across the whole gamut of our relationship, not just in the strategic area. All the Arabs know that. They have accepted us as the best mediator for decades, not because they think we're not biased-they think we are biased, and we are-but because they think we're the only party that can influence Israel to be more forthcoming than a pure mediator, totally objective, could do. This is a calculus which great power mediation always reflects. That's why you want a great power to be a mediator and not the United Nations, because it can add chips on one side of the table or the other to help push the game along, whether it's sticks or carrots, or sometimes both.
What is really essential is not that we be agnostic, or be seen to be agnostic. What's really essential is that we be seen to be procedurally fair in the way that we conduct the mediation, that we understand who we are, why we're there, and we don't make the mistake of so obviously advantaging Israel in the process itself as to make it impossible for the Arabs to have us there. They have a perception problem in their publics. They have to be able to say, "Well, the United States is biased, yes, but they're treating us fairly in this mediation." So the word is really fairness, not neutrality. That's different than the situation was in the Irish case.
MEQ: Israel has a set of views that it would like to see as the formula for peace. Does the United States, as its special friend and ally, have a responsibility to adopt those views?
Jacoby: Only if its peace process function were strictly limited to being an ally. But if, as part of its role as ally, it agrees to serve as mediator, then as mediator it has to be fair. Otherwise it's not being a good ally.
Krauthammer: The role of the United States as mediator is vastly overplayed. Sam put his finger on what our role is. It's not that we are particularly skilled at getting people in a room and getting them to talk, it's that we're the most powerful nation on the earth. The Arabs want us in the room because we can put pressure on Israel in a way that nobody else can. The Israelis want us in the room because we have a unique capacity to compensate it for the risks it undertakes. It's always been the American objective for the negotiations to be bilateral with nobody in the room. It was the hope of Camp David and Oslo, too, but ultimately it failed in both cases.
In one sense Oslo was entirely bilateral. It produced an agreement which was done in the absence of real mediators. The government of Norway provided a house, but it didn't apply pressure. So bilateral talks can happen. The U.S. role is not so much to bring the parties together as to issue guarantees to one side or the other in order to enable concessions.
Rosen: The problem is still more complicated if you look at Arab motives for including the United States. Yes, sometimes they want Washington to take up a mediatory role to bridge differences; but they also want to use the United States as an alternative to negotiations with Israel. The Americans are supposed to use their leverage to deliver Israel on Arab terms.
Krauthammer: But the Arabs surely would prefer almost any other country to do this.
Rosen: They do, and so long as the Soviet Union enjoyed rough parity with the United States in world affairs, it was the preferred state. From 1973 until 1993, the Arabs' model was the so-called international conference. Their motive then was not to facilitate negotiations with Israel but to substitute for such negotiations.
With the Soviet Union no more, the Arabs today must look to the United States. Even now, at least some in the Arab world are not at all seeking success in the peace process but rather to drive a wedge between the United States and Israel, hoping to weaken Israel in this way. For them, negotiations are a mechanism to create a distance between the United States and Israel, not a way to reach a negotiated settlement.
Right now, I think that the majority in the Arab world are trying to achieve a genuine peace agreement and to use American mediatory influence toward this end; but at times the Arab camp reverts to the other two approaches: trying to use the U.S. to substitute for negotiations or trying to drive a wedge between Israel and its principal ally.
Jacoby: You are drawing false distinctions. It is conceivable that the Arabs want to use the United States as an alternative to negotiations and also have peace as an objective. For that matter, Israel sometimes would like the United States to serve as an alternative to negotiations.
There are two questions. First, "Do both parties agree to bring in a third party as a mediator?" If yes, then they ought to agree on certain terms and stick to those terms-which they often have not, leading to the recent impasse. If they do not agree, then we have to ask the second question: "What should the United States do when Israel doesn't want the United States to play an active third-party role but Americans see it in their interest to play just that role?"
Krauthammer: I would pose the question a bit differently. Look at the extraordinary depth to which the United States is involved in the minutia of implementing the agreements, in monitoring Palestinian performance, and the like. It's no longer a matter of Israel not wanting the U.S. to play a role but the two governments disagreeing on policy.
Lewis: This third-party role is quite fascinating; it changes like a kaleidoscope. One day we do genuine mediation. The next day we do hand-holding. Then we provide an alibi so one party can accept a politically unpopular proposal and blame it on us. The next day we're offering carrots so one side or the other will take more risks. This confusion about our role makes it hard for people not immersed in the process to understand it. It's unique for a major power to do all this over a thirty-year period as we have done.
Krauthammer: One of the oddest events in American diplomatic history took place in early 1997 when the U.S. government installed concrete planters along some streets in Hebron to satisfy one side or the other on a demarcation line. Now, that's not exactly on the same scale as accepting the Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri!
Actually, the Hebron agreement marked an interesting and not widely noted transition in the U.S. role. As I understand it, the Likud government having signed onto Oslo with the Hebron agreement, decided to involve Washington actively in a new role-as enforcer. Likud apparently concluded it could not enforce reciprocity on Yasir Arafat by itself. By bringing the United States into the minutia, Prime Minister Netanyahu sought a way to have reciprocity delivered not to Israel but to the United States. It turned out to be a failed policy, but I would argue that the Hebron agreement marks the start of the latest phase of the U.S.- Israeli relationship-intensive American involvement in the details.
Lewis: It may be a mistake to get so deeply involved with the minutia. Look how things have changed: When the Oslo process was born in 1993, Israel had a prime minister in Yitzhak Rabin who had a strategy that we thought made good sense. This meant the U.S. government supported his strategy and helped minimize the risks. When the government changed hands in June 1996, we were faced with a choice of jumping into the details or to back off and allow the stalemate to grow deeper and reach the point that the parties themselves decide to break it. The latter was judged too risky, so we went the former route.
This is the dilemma we have faced repeatedly over the decades. Except perhaps in Henry Kissinger's era, when the preference was to be chess master, every administration tries to get the parties to take steps by themselves. We stand on the sidelines, pushing and prodding and helping, but not more. When things break down, as they did after Camp David and again after Oslo, we face the same old question: back off and let the parties stew or get in and try to force a third-party solution, not of the problem but of the process. Each time we've done that we've almost inevitably also paid a price in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Krauthammer: The breakdowns occurred both after Camp David and Oslo for the same simple reason. Once Israel gave up tangible assets, it lacked a way to enforce the reciprocity that it had been promised. For Camp David it got non-belligerency instead of the normalization it was promised. Oslo did not even win it that much. The strategy of Israel changed not because the government changed, but the reverse: the government changed because the strategy failed. There was a recognition in the country that the process had become a one-way street. Binyamin Netanyahu's election was not a rejection of the process but a signal that lacking reciprocity, Israel could not continue. The U.S. was then invited in as a way to improve things.
Jacoby: You are oversimplifying a very complex situation. Post-Camp David and post-Oslo do have in common that both were concerned with returning land. But returning land in the West Bank is very different strategically and ideologically for Israelis than the Sinai. Also, Camp David was very different than Oslo; the United States didn't impose a solution there but it certainly imposed a process, which it did not do in Oslo. The geographical locations (Camp David, Oslo) symbolize this distinction.
I would like to turn the perspective around and ask, "How is the United States a strategic asset to Israel?" That's as relevant as the reverse for U.S.-Israeli relations.
THE UNITED STATES AS STRATEGIC ASSET?
MEQ: Interesting question. How do Israelis value the U.S. as an ally? What will Israel do to ensure the depth of this alliance?
Rosen: Israel is one of the clearest cases in the world of a country looking at the United States as a protector and an ally of the first importance. Israelis almost entirely across the political spectrum agree on this. Although the usual tensions of a small power dependent on a great power exist-a certain resentment, a fear that the great power won't be there-unambiguously, Israelis do not want to sacrifice in any way their close relationship with the United States. They're grateful for it.
MEQ: But does the United States have a right to expect certain actions from Israel in the peace process in recognition of the great contribution it is making to Israel's security?
Lewis: Every American president thinks so, but not one of them has been able to demonstrate it.
Krauthammer: You use the word "right," but it does not apply to international relations. The United States clearly makes demands on Israel but there's something paradoxical here. It is self-defeating for the United States to push Israel into a position where it gives up so many assets to secure an agreement that it places itself in jeopardy. Being the last line of defense of Israel, the United States must realize that this in some way jeopardizes the United States by compelling us to act in defense of Israel, perhaps even having to engage our own forces, something we obviously would prefer not to do, something we have never done. We therefore have a self-interest in not wanting to undermine an ally.
Rosen: Of course, any relationship requires giving as well as taking, but in what currency is the giving denominated? We cannot ask Israel to pay for its relationship with the United States in assets that are vital to it but of only passing concern to the United States. Far better for both sides is for Israel to make payments in a different currency-one that brings large benefit to the United States and comparatively little cost to Israel. By the way, this is what we do in providing aid to Israel.
Jacoby: Here's an interesting angle: polling in Israel shows a high degree of trust for American involvement in the peace process and a concern that American Jews should not interfere with U.S. diplomatic initiatives. I suggest that because the United States is clearly such a critical strategic asset for Israel, Israelis have a special responsibility to take American interests into account-and not just as they relate directly to Israel.
Lewis: I'd say that 95 percent of Israelis would really like to be a member of the 51st state and also completely independent at the same time. That sums up the uniqueness of the U.S.-Israel relationship; you cannot say that about any other people.
And another point, which I find intriguing: Israel views itself as a much smaller country than does the rest of the world by now. Though they're wealthy and quite powerful, Israelis still see themselves as a small, embattled, and threatened people. Therefore, when you want them to be more cognizant of American interests, you invariably hear back, "The United States is a gigantic superpower that can afford to do anything. We can't. So don't ask us to take risks for you. What you do for us-a few billion dollars in a budget of trillions is trivial; what you want from us is too risky."
Krauthammer: Israel is a very small and embattled country. If it makes one major error, the results could be fatal in a way that other countries around the world, and especially the United States, cannot imagine. We see here an incredible asymmetry of stakes between the United States and Israel, and this in turn creates an asymmetry of perceptions and interests.
MEQ: How reliable are American guarantees to protect Israel?
Krauthammer: While we tend to remember the fighting of October 1973 and think of the United States as Israel's guarantor, there's another filter, that of May 1967. I'm thinking of the buildup to the war that took place in June, when the United States was nowhere to be seen, despite the solemn guarantees it had given in 1957 (along with France and Britain) to keep open the Straits of Tiran. We tend to forget that Israel has had an experience when its existence was on the line and Americans abandoned it. Had the war gone badly, as it did in 1973, would the United States have stepped in? No one knows.
The lesson is clear; an American guarantee is not blanket and automatic. That's why, in making calculations and looking for compensation for the strategic assets it gives up, Israel is far more interested in things on the ground than in pieces of paper.
Lewis: You're absolutely right. And it's more than just the memory of 1967; it's the memory of two thousand years, the memory of the Jewish people who so many times have been welcomed by rulers only later to be expelled from their countries. It's the memory of all the times that gentiles have betrayed them. A lot of Israelis I know think about this, one way or another, almost every day, and they bring it back to exactly your point, Charles, that no matter how good a friend America is, some day under some circumstance, it, too, might prove less than faithful.
Rosen: If you get up in Washington and announce, "Israel took a risk for peace today," people say, "Great!" But announce in Jerusalem, "Israel took a risk for peace today," people say, "You're kidding. Who did it? Find him and fire him!"
Jacoby: Granted that Israel's taking risks for peace means something very different there from here, I also know that Prime Minister Rabin understood well, as do many other Israeli leaders, that peace cannot be achieved without taking risks, just as war cannot be won without taking risks. Israelis neither rejoice in these risks nor do they ask that the risk-takers be fired. They have a heavy feeling about it.
Jewish history is obviously a reality-Jews are acutely aware of the fragility of their existence-but it is difficult to factor it into current policy. Sam is right that the Jews of Israel are acutely aware of this, and it is with them daily, at least subconsciously. But that awareness can sometimes be an obstacle for which we need to show more than just understanding. There is no historical precedent for the current situation. Jews have not for two millennia had an independent state; nor ever a country like the United States which is a superpower and in which Jews exercise as much power and enjoy as much freedom as they now do. This means that the Jewish collective memory and history need to be treated somewhat differently than would have been the case seventy-five years ago-or even thirty years ago.
Lewis: You're making an argument for Jews treating their memory and history differently. You're not saying it is treated differently.
Jacoby: Right, I'm suggesting it ought to be treated differently.
Lewis: Fine, but we're talking here about the reality of the Israeli perception today, not what we think it should be.
Krauthammer: Overemphasizing the Jewish sense of persecution means viewing it as a neurosis. It's far more concrete than that; which is why I pointed to May 1967. The Jews' very long history of abandonment reaches up to very recently. The most dramatic, obviously, happening in the Holocaust.
By the way, I am not talking about antisemitism, but about great powers pursuing their interests. In May 1967, American leaders perceived it not to be in U.S. interests to fulfill its international agreements and break the blockade of the Straits of Tiran. In 1973 they made a (fairly belated) calculation to re-supply Israel because that forwarded the U.S. interest. Israelis understand how dependent they are on such perceptions of the United States, and how unpredictable and unreliable these are, particularly in a crisis. This uncertainty makes it extremely difficult for Israelis to accept anything less than concrete assets on the ground. If there is to be a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians or the Syrians, that's why it will involve something far more enduring than the observers in Sinai who monitor the Egyptian-Israeli peace.
Jacoby: This is no longer 1967 or 1973 but an era of weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, the danger of Israel falling out of the sphere of vital U.S. interests is much greater than back then. This means that Israel needs to take these new realities into account when taking actions that might affect its relationship with the U.S.
ATTITUDES OF THE AMERICAN PUBLIC
MEQ: What about U.S. public opinion regarding Israel? The New York Times ran an interesting poll in May that showed that non-Jews have an even higher regard for Israel than do American Jews. Is American public opinion likely to continue its consistent support for Israel over the foreseeable future? Are there clouds on the horizon that might significantly erode this support?
Krauthammer: If American public opinion can withstand the last thirty years of the media's bias against Israel and still retain such a high degree of support and affection for Israel, it can withstand almost anything.
Lewis: It's hard for me to see how the U.S. relationship with Israel can be significantly weakened by anything on the horizon in the next decade; if anything, I see it strengthened. Two things have changed dramatically since the 1970s: the transformation of what was a quasi-secret but arms-length military relationship into a nearly open strategic alliance; and the growth of genuinely fervent support for Israel among Christian conservatives in the United States. This latter has become a major factor in American politics; it goes far to explain why the Republican Party, which has little Jewish support, is so pro-Israel.
Rosen: Survey results are very, very clear on this. Only one (oddly worded) question has been asked consistently for fifty years, and it permits longitudinal comparisons. "In the situation in the Middle East, are your sympathies more with Israel or with the Arab nations?" The results have always shown Israel preferred, from 3 to 1, to 5.5 to 1. Right now, the ratio is about 4.5 to 1. Not much has changed; attitudes have been extraordinarily stable through thick and thin. In general, the American population has shown less variance than Jewish opinion.
Less stable for both are replies to more specific questions about issues of the day. Interestingly, Israel consistently does a lot better when it has problems with the United States than when it has problems with the Palestinians-who are seen as another small people with rights.
Jacoby: I am less sanguine. Yes, the relationship will remain positive, even in a crisis, over the next decade; but what about beyond that? A crisis resulting from diverging interests could drive a wedge between the American public and Israel. Once such a wedge exists, even a small one, all kinds of other factors come into play, such as Jewish political power, Jewish relationships with other domestic ethnic groups, the state of the economy. Policy toward Israel will be driven not only by sympathy for that country but by attitudes towards Jews here.
MEQ: Are there any serious areas of dispute?
Krauthammer: Over time, I see three factors that could diminish support for Israel. First, is the demographic increase in the Muslim population in the United States. By some accounts it's the fastest growing religious minority in the country, and it's recently acquired a political self-consciousness. Contrarily, if Jewish demographics continue on their present course, there will be fewer and fewer Jews.
Second, the rise of the Christian fundamentalists brings a political intensity to the issue. When Binyamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington early in 1998, he first stopped at a Christian Coalition meeting, highlighting the importance of this very pro-Israel constituency.
Third, there's American isolationism in general and reluctance toward foreign aid in particular. A fairly internationalist atmosphere now prevails, thanks to the tremendous success of the last fifty years. An internationalist consensus is accepted-but remember, in the mildest of recessions in 1992, a frankly isolationist candidate, Pat Buchanan, ran and did very well considering. There's no telling what might happen in a comparably difficult crisis-ridden time, economically or internationally. Americans could well revert to an isolationist stance and active support for Israel would suffer.
Lewis: There is one other issue that can affect things negatively over the longer term-a total collapse of the Palestinian-Israeli relationship and the eruption of widespread violence, with many deaths on both sides. This would immediately have a very large impact on the relationship, both governmental and public. I don't know how long it would last. It does not counter my belief in the basic strength of the relationship, but it can sure cause a hell of trouble.
Krauthammer: That's right. A good example was the Lebanon War of 1982, which saw a dramatic drop in support for Israel and a concomitant alteration of American policy. After it was over, however, there was a return to the norm.
MEQ: Do other important ties link the two countries?
Lewis: The growing connection between the highest-tech part of the American society and its counterpart in Israel provides links between our economies that were never there in the past. Within the decade, tie-ins between Silicon Valley and Israel are likely to be truly extraordinary. That offers a new safety net for the overall relationship and is thus relevant to the future of the overall relationship.
Jacoby: But technology, which is about the only successful sector of the Israeli economy right now, is also portable. It can be moved easily if circumstances are not right. In that sense, this safety net depends greatly on a successful diplomatic process that leads to some kind of an agreement.
MEQ: But portability depends much less on the peace process than on good old-fashioned wages. These things are fairly immune to the political situation. Intel hasn't lost one day of its operations in Israel since the start of the Oslo process; it only lost a half a day throughout the Gulf War. On the other hand, an Israeli technician who isn't getting enough money in Israel will pick up and leave for Silicon Valley.
Jacoby: They may be immune now, but they may not be immune as we enter a new era of weapons of mass destruction.
MEQ: Is financial aid a necessary component of the U.S.-Israel government-to-government relationship?
Lewis: Not at all. It's not a necessity at all, and it has not been for about five years.
Krauthammer: It should be entirely eliminated. Israel has a per capita income roughly equal to England's.
Rosen: It is being phased out. As a practical matter it will soon go to zero.
Lewis: But not for another ten years.
Rosen: I would say friends of Israel are, like the people in this room, deeply divided about whether it would be good if it went down faster.
Krauthammer: But as a goal, it's absolutely essential to put on the record.
Rosen: As a percentage of our national budget, it should be noted, aid to Israel is microscopic. As a percentage of military assistance to countries around the world, what goes to Israel is dwarfed by many other programs (such as the Greek one) or to many small countries. Aid to Israel is not a burden to Americans, and Israel's payments should also not be in things vital to Israel.
Lewis: Steve, you did not point out that, due to the overall shrinkage of U.S. foreign aid, the percentage going to Israel and Egypt has ballooned to nearly half of the entire amount.
Rosen: True, but there would be no foreign aid budget but for the support of the American people for Israel.
Lewis: You cannot argue that because it is a small part of the Federal budget that makes it a minimalist issue. Many Americans, not involved with Israel, are greatly annoyed that the Israelis are only belatedly accepting some reduction in their economic aid.
Krauthammer: Economic aid has been the Achilles' heel of American public support for Israel; it is in many ways offensive to many Americans, who see this as money out of their pockets. My hate mail about Israel usually starts with the $3 billion a year that I am sucking out of "his tax money" to give to "my compatriots" in Israel. Reducing and eliminating that sum is extremely important for Israel in terms of securing its position in American public opinion.
MEQ: What will Israel's per capita income be when the U.S. economic aid comes to an end? It's about $17,000 now.
Krauthammer: $20,000 a year.
Lewis: Higher, perhaps $25,000.
MEQ: Is military aid also controversial?
Krauthammer: In terms of public opinion, it's much less of an irritant.
Lewis: Military aid has been carefully subsumed in various ways under the U.S. defense budget, and in other ways. I don't think it's nearly as provocative.
Rosen: We're at the beginning of the era of weapons proliferation. It's been talked about, lo, these many years, but it is actually happening in 1998. It begins a new situation in which the stresses on Israel multiply exponentially. The cost of developing effective defenses, responses and counters to the threats are going up exponentially. The past five years have witnessed a one-sided arms race in which the offense has been growing much more rapidly than the defense. I would not be surprised if some event in the next few years triggers a much more alarmed response among the Israeli public, possibly the American public, too, forcing expenditures on defense measures at far higher levels than anybody today discusses.
A PALESTINIAN STATE
MEQ: Will the United States recognize a Palestinian state that the Israelis do not recognize?
Rosen: Tacit acceptance is more likely than formal recognition.
Jacoby: Full recognition is likely. If you listen to what Sam said a few minutes ago, depending on when it happens and what else is going on there, it could be a consequence of that kind of guerrilla warfare.
Lewis: Recognition will take place. We wouldn't be the first but we wouldn't hold out very long if everybody else in the world had full diplomatic relations with a Palestinian state.
Krauthammer: It would be a terrible mistake, but it's likely. I don't believe the United States will recognize a Palestinian state in response to a turn in American public opinion but in response to diplomatic pressures abroad. If it does happen it ought not to be given away for free; we should hold out in return for certain conditions.
Jacoby: We can all agree on that. If it does happen, it shouldn't be given away for free.
Lewis: It's the main reason why the United States has so carefully over the years never expressed a preference about this. We wanted to keep it as a negotiating card.
Krauthammer: Until Mrs. Clinton spoke the other day.
Lewis: Well, she doesn't really represent the United States, Charles.
Krauthammer: Do we know that?
Lewis: Yes, I know that. I don't know if you do.
Krauthammer: I'm not sure that anyone knows that.
KEYS TO THE RELATIONSHIP
MEQ: What individual or what institution would you cite as being the most essential today to maintaining the strength of a U.S.-Israel relationship? For example, Bill Clinton or the Democratic Party.
Jacoby: When it comes to the American government, the legislative and administrative branches are equally important.
Lewis: That's right. In fact, there is no one critical person or institution. Very many individuals and institutions contribute to the support mechanism for this very broad and pretty deep relationship.
Krauthammer: I would answer, unfortunately, the American Jewish community. If America had 500,000 Jews instead of 5 million, this relationship would be significantly different.
Jacoby: I agree that, outside of the American government, the American Jewish community is most important. But why "unfortunately"?
Krauthammer: Because right now, as opposed to the way it's been over the last fifty years, it's confused and unreliable.
MEQ: Any final thoughts?
Jacoby: U.S.-Israeli relations have changed more than once since 1948. With Israel entering its second fifty years, the relationship is changing again-this time largely due to the impact of globalization and the advent of nonconventional weaponry. Strategies to maintain the special U.S.-Israel friendship will also change; in this light, the current debate about the U.S. role in the peace process is a testing ground.
Lewis: Israel and the United States will remain close allies for the indefinite future-with lots of episodic turbulence between leaders to provide plenty of material for Charles and his colleagues to mull over.
1 "Top List of Nations Seen as Close Allies of U.S," Harris poll #45, Sept. 2, 1998.