David Rodman: American National Interests, Israel, and the Middle East

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David Rodman is the author of two books: Arms Transfers to Israel: The Strategic Logic Behind American Military Assistance and Defense and Diplomacy in Israel’s National Security Experience: Tactics, Partnerships, and Motives. He has also published articles in a number of scholarly journals, including Middle Eastern Studies, The Journal of Strategic Studies, Israel Affairs, MERIA Journal, and Air & Space Power Chronicles.

A strong American-Israeli patron-client relationship has shaped the contours of Middle Eastern affairs for more than four decades.[1] Why the Jewish state has favored this relationship is rather obvious. Israel has depended upon its superpower patron to bolster its prospects for survival amid an Arab world that has lusted for the Jewish state’s destruction, an Arab world that has employed its considerable diplomatic and economic clout to mobilize much of the international community on behalf of its political agenda. Why the United States has desired this relationship has not been nearly so obvious. Israel, most certainly, has never been in a position to affect America’s fortunes to a comparable extent.

The raison d’être of the American-Israeli patron-client relationship, therefore, has never been clear-cut in the minds of many Americans. Indeed, why Washington has supported Jerusalem has often been the topic of furious debate between proponents and opponents of the relationship. The former tend to stress the liberal democratic values that each nation is built upon as the glue that cements them together.[2] The latter tend to emphasize the influence of the American Jewish community and the pro-Israel lobby that serves as its voice on Middle Eastern affairs as the crucial fastening agent. Despite their different foci, however, these perspectives have one important trait in common: neither offers a convincing explanation of the development and persistence of the American-Israeli patron- client relationship.[3]

The trouble with these perspectives is that they resort to historical constants to account for a historical variable. If either shared values or ethnic advocacy has been the primary propellant behind American support for Israel, then it follows that Washington should have forged a strong relationship with Jerusalem from the moment of the Jewish state’s birth in 1948. Shared values and ethnic advocacy, after all, are as old as Israel itself. The historical record, though, tells a very different story. The American-Israeli patron-client relationship did not fully emerge until the mid-1960s. Hence, it is necessary to turn elsewhere for a convincing explanation of the development and persistence of the relationship.

A careful look at the historical record reveals that American national interests hold the key to unlocking the mysteries of the relationship. While the United States recognized the existence of Israel immediately upon its establishment in 1948, Washington has not always believed that its national interests in the Middle East dictated a strong patron-client relationship with Jerusalem. During the early Cold War years, Washington thought that protecting the West’s oil supplies and preventing the spread of Soviet influence in the region demanded that the United States cultivate a close relationship with the Arab world, frequently at the expense of the Jewish state. Thus, though Washington provided some money to Jerusalem, the United States steadfastly refused to give Israel either arms or a security guarantee. Moreover, Washington often took the side of the Arab world on such contentious issues as land, water, and refugees. In fact, the United States viewed the Jewish state as a hindrance to the defense of American national interests in the Middle East during these years.

In the aftermath of Israel’s victorious 1956 Sinai Campaign, however, Washington gradually began to reassess how best to protect its national interests in the region. Despite coming down very hard on the Jewish state for its cooperation with France and Great Britain in an assault on Egypt (even proposing to impose crushing political and economic sanctions on Jerusalem at one point), Washington could not help but be impressed by the battlefield prowess displayed by Israel. The United States recognized that the Jewish state had become the foremost Middle Eastern military power. The assistance given by Jerusalem to the United States and Great Britain in their efforts to preserve pro-Western governments under threat from anti-Western, pro-Soviet radicals in the Arab world during the Lebanese and Jordanian crises of 1958 further contributed to Washington’s emerging change of heart. The Israeli role in these crises instilled the notion in the United States that Jerusalem could promote American national interests in the region by acting as a bulwark against radical Arab adventurism. The United States, as a matter of fact, concluded that fear of an Israeli military response deterred Egypt from taking a more direct and active part in fomenting instability in Jordan.

Concomitantly, Washington realized that keeping Jerusalem at arm’s length did not win it any special praise in the Arab world. Indeed, the United States suffered repeated diplomatic setbacks in the Middle East during the 1950s, with Egypt, Syria, and Iraq all moving into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. Furthermore, Washington’s effort in the mid-1950s to encourage an anti-Soviet alliance of regional nations in the form of the Baghdad Pact collapsed. Later, from the 1960s onward, the United States would also learn that a strong relationship with Israel did not translate into weaker ties with pro-Western Arab states. Complain as they might about Washington’s connection to Jerusalem, states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia did not gravitate away from the American orbit as a result.

Still, the path taken by the Middle East from the mid-1950s onward did not result in an overnight breakthrough in ties between Washington and Jerusalem. It would be years before the United States lifted it arms embargo against Israel and abandoned its policy of wooing the Arab world at the Jewish state’s expense. Nevertheless, trends in the 1950s did herald a new era in ties between the United States and Israel, eventually leading to the institutionalization of a strong patron- client relationship during the 1960s. This change is perhaps symbolized most dramatically by Washington’s decision to become Jerusalem’s principal source of arms.

The patron-client relationship forged during the 1960s grew largely out of Washington’s desire to manage the Arab-Israeli conflict more effectively in order to protect American national interests. Washington feared that an existentially threatened, but militarily potent, Israel might act in ways that could harm American access to oil, facilitate further Soviet penetration of the Middle East, and even embroil the United States in a regional war. At the core of this patron-client relationship sat a “security-for-autonomy” bargain. Washington would provide Jerusalem with security assistance in the form of arms, money, and diplomatic backing, thereby greatly enhancing America’s commitment to the Jewish state’s survival. In exchange, Washington would demand that Jerusalem surrender a significant amount of its autonomy in the realm of foreign policy decision making. The United States, in other words, sought influence over Israel’s foreign policy in order to channel it in directions consistent with the protection of American national interests. Contrary to the belief of many opponents of the American- Israeli patron-client relationship, Washington has never given Jerusalem a “blank check.” The Jewish state has consistently had to pay a considerable price for American arms, money, and diplomatic backing.

Since the 1960s, the United States has shown particular interest in manipulating Israeli foreign policy in two specific “issue areas”-(1) policy on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and (2) policy on war and peace. Traditionally, preventing the spread of nuclear arms and ballistic missiles has been a high priority for Washington, which has considered the proliferation of these weapons to be a very destabilizing trend in foreign affairs. With respect to the Middle East, the United States has been concerned that a “nuclear Israel” would make an already unstable region into a truly volatile one and, possibly, would trigger an Arab-Israeli war. Washington, therefore, rescinded its ban on arms sales to Jerusalem as the Jewish state developed the capability of producing nuclear arms and ballistic missiles in the 1960s. Indeed, State Department, Defense Department, and White House documents that describe negotiations about the major arms deals consummated between Washington and Jerusalem during this decade reveal unambiguously that Israel’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs were at the center of American decision making. Washington agreed to furnish the Jewish state with ample quantities of conventional weapons in return for a promise by Jerusalem to keep its nuclear arms and ballistic missiles hidden “in the basement” as weapons of last resort. Washington ultimately could not compel Jerusalem to part with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, but the United States did acquire a measure of control over them. Washington has retained this control to the present day through the continued supply of generous quantities of conventional arms to the Jewish state.

Washington has also used its security assistance to Jerusalem to mold Israeli foreign policy during Middle Eastern wars. Before the 1967 Six-Day War, the United States put pressure on Israel to hold its fire in order to give American diplomats time to defuse the prewar crisis peacefully, suggesting that Washington would abandon Jerusalem if the Jewish state acted unilaterally. Israel unleashed its air force only after the United States conceded that the crisis could not be solved diplomatically and gave Jerusalem a tacit “green light” to embark on war. During the 1969-1970 War of Attrition, Washington twice held up weapons shipments to Jerusalem-initially, to compel an end to “deep-penetration” bombing raids against Egypt and, later, both to compel Israel to acquiesce to a cease-fire and to remain quiescent in the face of Soviet-Egyptian violations of the cease-fire agreement. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Washington demanded that Jerusalem not strike the first blow, cautioning that the Jewish state would not receive any arms from the United States if it ignored this “advice.” Washington then delayed weapons shipments to Jerusalem and, late in the war, coerced Israel into releasing its grip on Egypt’s Third Army. In the wake of the war, Washington forced Jerusalem to return slices of Sinai and the Golan, respectively, to Egypt and Syria, implying that security assistance would be cut off if the Jewish state did not comply with America’s démarches. During the 1982 offensive in Lebanon, which the United States backed at the outset, Washington eventually put pressure on Jerusalem to end the fighting. In the 1991 Gulf War, the United States insisted that Israel not respond to Iraqi ballistic missile attacks against its cities. In 1982 and 1991-as in 1967, 1969-1970, and 1973-the Jewish state’s dependence on American security assistance gave Washington decisive leverage in sculpting Jerusalem’s conduct.

The United States manipulated Israeli foreign policy in these wars in an effort either to stop a deterioration in the existing regional status quo (1967, 1969-1970, and 1982) or to shift the existing regional status quo in America’s favor (1973 and 1991). In 1967, Washington knew that the Arab world would hold the United States responsible for a defeat in war, and it judged that Israel would win a swift victory; thus, to maintain access to oil supplies that might be threatened by an anti-American backlash and to prevent an expansion of Soviet influence in the region, Washington sought to avoid a war. When this proved impossible due to Arab and Soviet intransigence, coupled with its own unwillingness to get involved in a direct clash with the Arab world, the United States finally conceded that it could not stop the Jewish state from defending itself, even if doing so would undermine the existing status quo. In 1969-1970, Moscow’s military intervention on behalf of Cairo opened up the prospect of a direct American-Soviet clash if the war were to turn against Israel; hence, the Jewish state’s operations against Egypt had to be curbed immediately and then halted entirely, albeit on terms that did not harm Israel’s basic national interests, so as to sidestep a superpower confrontation, especially at a time when the United States remained bogged down in Vietnam.

In 1973, Washington spied an opportunity to roll back Soviet influence in the Middle East and advance its own; however, American diplomats thought that such a scenario would not materialize if Israel were permitted to achieve another overwhelming victory as in 1967, particularly against Egypt. Washington, therefore, worked to limit the magnitude of the Jewish state’s triumph in order to win praise in the Arab world, so that the United States could channel postwar peace negotiations to its own advantage, which it did with the consummation of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. In 1982, the United States pressed Israel to end the fighting once it concluded that, far from delivering a sharp blow to two Soviet clients in the Middle East, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the war was actually facilitating the spread of Moscow’s influence in the region. And, in 1991, Washington believed that an Israeli response to Baghdad’s ballistic missile attacks would interfere with-and, perhaps, cause the collapse of-the allied coalition’s campaign to wrest Kuwait (and its oil fields) from Iraqi occupation.

Lest it be thought that the rationale behind American support of Israel has consisted solely of extracting foreign policy concessions in exchange for security assistance, Washington has reaped other benefits from the patron-client relationship with Jerusalem, too:

· On occasion, Israel has acted as a surrogate for American power projection in the Middle East. A notable example occurred during the 1970 Jordanian civil war, when the Jewish state deterred Syria from launching a full-scale invasion of Jordan in support of Palestinian insurgents fighting to overthrow the kingdom’s pro-Western regime. Consequently, the Jordanian army was able to defeat the Palestinians and preserve Jordan’s pro-Western regime.

  • Washington has known that, in a real pinch, it can count on Israel to furnish backing in the form of military bases, consumables and, possibly, troops for American forays into the Middle East. Clearly, because of Arab sensitivities about “collaborating” with the Jewish state, Washington would take advantage of Jerusalem’s assets only in a worst-case scenario-for instance, if the Persian Gulf nations and Saudi Arabia were to be taken over by radical Islamist regimes, and other Arab (or Muslim) nations in the region refused to answer America’s call on behalf of “liberation.” A powerful Jewish state in a strategically vital part of the globe, in other words, has been a valuable insurance policy for the United States.
  • Israel has accumulated a vast reservoir of experience in conventional and counterinsurgency warfare as a result of its long-standing conflict with the Arab world, and it has passed on the tactical and technological fruits of this experience to the United States, which has put this information to use effectively in its military campaigns from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The Jewish state has passed on copious amounts of high-quality intelligence data to the United States, not only with regard to the Arab world, but also with regard to Washington’s past and present non-Arab foes, such as the Soviet Union and Iran.
  • Israel has occasionally served as an American “beard,” providing arms and training to nations and organizations, like Iran and the Contras in the early 1980s, with which Washington has not wanted to associate openly.

Recently, the argument has been floated that, since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the American-Israeli patron-client relationship has not contributed to the defense of American national interests in the Middle East. Rather, it has been alleged that the relationship has damaged those interests by embroiling the United States in a bloody war in Iraq, as well as by making it the target of Islamist terrorism through its association with a “brutal” Jewish state that oppresses “innocent” Palestinians. A vulgar variant of the ethnic advocacy perspective, this line of thinking holds that a sinister pro-Israel lobby, both inside and outside of government, has pulled the strings of American foreign policy to advance the national interests of the Jewish state.[4] The plan to go to war in Iraq in 2003, claim this “theory’s” proponents, was originally hatched by a nefarious cabal of pro-Israeli neoconservatives within the government, and then abetted by organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in order to remove Baghdad from the anti-Israel camp. The foreign policy prescription that flows from this analysis, of course, is that the United States ought to distance itself from Israel.

Not only does this line of thinking rest on dubious evidence and spurious reasoning, but it also misconstrues the historical basis of the patron-client relationship. So long as the Middle East remains an unstable region-as it most certainly has in the post-Cold War era, with Islamist nations like Iran and Islamist organizations like al-Qaeda and Hizbullah replacing the Soviet Union as regional troublemakers- American national interests dictate a strong patron-client relationship with Jerusalem for both “positive” and “negative” reasons.

On the positive side of the ledger, Israel has retained its status as the foremost military power in the Middle East during the post-Cold War era. The Jewish state, therefore, has continued to be both an important bulwark against anti- American troublemaking in the region and a valuable insurance policy in a worstcase scenario in which the United States must project its military power into the Middle East without the support of Arab (or Muslim) nations in order to keep oil flowing to the West. And the lessons derived from Israeli military experience, as well as the information gleaned from Israeli intelligence-gathering operations, have continued to benefit the United States, too.

On the negative side of the ledger, Washington has sought to maintain its influence over Jerusalem’s foreign policy in the post-Cold War era to ensure that the Jewish state acts in ways that are consistent with the protection of American national interests. In order to keep the peace process moving forward, Washington has frequently pressured Jerusalem to make concessions to the Palestinians-for example, in the form of the Wye accord of the late 1990s-that Israel has felt were not in its national interests. The assumption in Washington is that the peace process has promoted American national interests by bringing a measure of stability to an unstable region. Similarly, throughout the years of the so-called al-Aqsa intifada, Washington has made sure that Jerusalem closely coordinates its major military and diplomatic initiatives with the United States in order to minimize damage to the relationship between America and the Arab world. In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, the United States pressed Israel to back the American drive toward hostilities, even though Jerusalem considered-and still considers-Iran to be the greatest threat to Middle Eastern peace and stability. And, during the 2006 Israeli-Hizbullah clash in Lebanon, Jerusalem consulted with Washington about Israel’s military and diplomatic moves, again at American insistence.

Performing a simple “thought experiment” is an efficient means to understand why maintaining a strong patron-client relationship with Jerusalem has been a prudent move on the part of Washington. For the sake of the experiment, assume that the United States decides to scale back drastically, if not entirely abandon, its relationship with Israel. What would be the likely consequences of such a decision?

Israel would immediately feel that its survival was once more in jeopardy, and the Arab world would be emboldened in its desire to erase the Jewish state from the Middle Eastern map.[5] The peace process, therefore, would completely fall apart, Islamist nations and organizations would surge in influence throughout the region, and the prospect of war would rise immeasurably. Given that both Arabs and Israelis boast weapons of mass destruction in their arsenals, not to mention immense quantities of ultra-sophisticated conventional arms, the death and destruction caused by a future war would most likely dwarf anything witnessed in past Arab-Israeli wars-and the fighting could well spread beyond the relatively narrow geographical confines of previous rounds of hostilities. Would a Middle East rocked by a devastating Arab-Israeli war really be in America’s national interests?

Even if a parting between Washington and Jerusalem were to improve the relationship between the United States and the Arab (and Muslim) world (a far from definite outcome based on the historical record), and even if a catastrophic war were not the result of this parting, the consequences for American national interests would still most likely be quite negative. No longer able to count on the United States, Israel would no longer be obligated to take American wishes into account in regard to its foreign policy decision making. The Jewish state would most likely try to align itself with another great power, Russia or the People’s Republic of China. While the formation of a full-fledged Russo-Israeli or Sino-Israeli patron-client relationship would be unlikely in view of Russian and Chinese national interests in the Arab (and Muslim) world, it would surely not be out of the question for Jerusalem to forge more intimate links with Moscow and/or Beijing. Such ties could take the form of trade agreements in which the Jewish state bartered its advanced military and civilian technologies in exchange for Russian and/or Chinese arms.[6] Additionally, Jerusalem could grant Moscow or, less likely, Beijing basing rights on its territory. Would it really be in America’s national interests to have by far the most militarily powerful state in the Middle East-one that possesses nuclear weapons and one that sits not too far from the region’s oil fields-in league with Russia and/or the People’s Republic of China? Would the potential gain in the American-Arab (and Muslim) relationship be worth this potential cost?

Although the results of this thought experiment are purely hypothetical, diplomats, in contrast to professors and pundits, whose prognostications do not affect American national interests, cannot afford to consider only one dimension of “what if” scenarios when making foreign policy decisions. These diplomats have not had the luxury of pondering the possible benefits of a break with Israel without considering the possible costs of such a course of action. Consequently, they have consistently arrived at the same conclusion-the potential costs outweigh the potential benefits.

The United States has strongly supported Israel for more than four decades because doing so has promoted American national interests. To affirm as much is not to claim that shared values and ethnic advocacy play no part in the explanation behind the strong patron-client relationship. The United States has been committed to the Jewish state’s survival in part because both nations are built upon liberal democratic values. And ethnic advocacy has, on occasion, affected American foreign policy toward Israel, mostly in fiscal matters decided by the Congress. But at the end of the day, neither shared values nor ethnic advocacy has been of more than secondary importance in cementing what has mainly been a strategic relationship between the United States and Israel.


[1] Observers of foreign affairs often use the term “alliance” to describe the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. An alliance, however, is a formal arrangement between (or among) nations where each one’s obligations to and entitlements from the other(s) are codified in a treaty. No such treaty has ever bound Washington and Jerusalem to each other; consequently, the relationship is more accurately defined as one between a patron, the United States, and a client, Israel.

[2] Atonement for the Holocaust is commonly cited in the same breath as liberal democratic values as another ingredient in the ideological paste that binds Washington to Jerusalem.

[3] This article examines the relationship from the American point of view; hence, neither Israeli behavior nor the reasons for it are probed in any depth.

[4] John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, two well-known and, formerly, well-regarded political scientists, are the most high-profile proponents of this line of thinking. Ironically, they are associated with the Realist school of international relations, which argues that domestic politics do not determine a nation’s foreign policy.

[5] Despite the fact that both Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel, and despite the fact that the rest of the Arab world may one day do the same, the Jewish state has never had any legitimacy in Arab eyes. To put it bluntly, the Arab world would gladly destroy Israel if it could do so, regardless of any peace treaties.

[6] The fact that the United States has put pressure on Israel over the past decade to cancel arms- and technology-transfer agreements with the People’s Republic of China out of fear that these deals would harm American national interests in the Far East shows that diplomats would not at all be enthused about the prospect of a closer relationship between Jerusalem, on the one hand, and Moscow and/or Beijing, on the other.

David Rodman: American National Interests, Israel, and the Middle East

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