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The U.S.-Israel Relationship: Charting a New Path Through an Uncertain Future

By: Rand H. Fishbein, Ph.D.
Presented at The Jerusalem Conference, Jerusalem, March 17, 2004.

It is indeed a pleasure to be here today in Jerusalem among so many old and new friends and to be participating in a forum devoted to an exploration of the state of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship.

Today, with your permission, I would like to discuss two aspects of this relationship.

The first of these being: "Managing disagreements among friends." And the second: "Charting a new, self-reliant course for U.S.-Israeli policy."

There is much that can be said of the U.S.-Israel partnership - an alliance forged not only in the blood of numerous Middle East wars, but in the brilliant accomplishments of both of its peoples. As we sit here today we can look back proudly upon what we have built together and know that despite numerous difficulties in the past, our democratic partnership has withstood the test of time.

But time is not on our side. Great changes are now gripping the Middle East - changes that are forcing both of our countries to reexamine their national priorities. Increasingly, these priorities are diverging. The signs of strain are everywhere.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me be more precise.

Today, American policy in the Middle East is driven by four powerful, but flawed notions.

I would argue that each of these misguided core tenets of American foreign policy represents the triumph of hope over experience.
None are supported by the facts on the ground or the turbulent history of this region over the course of the last century.

Frankly, there is little evidence to suggest that the U.S. will have any more success in transforming the Arab World and in bringing peace to the Middle East than did Britain and France during their days as imperial powers. The Oslo debacle should have made that fact abundantly clear to everyone.

Our victory in Iraq was a great triumph, to be sure. But we must temper our expectations about what is possible to accomplish in the region.

America's experiment in nation-building in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories is a high risk gamble that no self-respecting odds maker in Las Vegas would take.

Yet, as the clock plays out, all eyes are on Israel and the price IT will have to pay to accommodate the national aspirations of others.

For many in the U.S. State Department, a roll back of Israel's borders is the clearest possible demonstration to the Arab World that the U.S. has NO colonial designs in the region and is prepared to pressure an ally to make that point.

For many Israelis, this approach is nothing more than a sell-out - a vain attempt by Washington to buy Arab acceptance at Israel's expense.

To the shock of many in this room, Israel appears to have acquiesced in America's call for Palestinian lebensraum by proposing not only a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, but also a myriad of changes to its own security barrier - changes that call into question its very purpose.

But there are other, equally disturbing signs of trouble in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Among the most glaring is the problem of the double standard.

As everyone here knows, when Al Qaeda or one of its surrogates takes the life of an American citizen anywhere in the world Washington declares it an act of "terrorism." However, when a Palestinian blows up a bus of innocent Israelis, the act is called a political killing and is excused by the State Department as an unfortunate, albeit natural, consequence of the ongoing Arab-Israeli struggle.

The issue is significant because it points to a fundamental divergence in how the U.S. and Israel view terrorism. It also signals the continuing drift of U.S. policy away from its unequivocal support for Israel two decades ago and towards a position of moral and political equivalence between Israeli and Palestinian claims to sovereignty.

The message that this double-standard broadcasts across the Arab World is clear - terrorism DOES pay. It earned Arafat a platform at the United Nations in 1974 and a seat at the White House in 1993. In the time frame of the Middle East that is but a blink of an eye.

There are points of divergence in the way the U.S. treats Israel:

- There is the discriminatory way in which export licenses often are denied to Israeli companies while approvals are granted almost effortlessly by Washington to companies operating in non-democratic countries like China and Saudi Arabia.

- There are the regular denunciations of Israel by the State Department for its use of preemption to stop imminent attacks on its population. Yet, the doctrine of preemption is what now guides the U.S. military in the war on terrorism.

- In Iraq, all of America's allies in the liberation of that country have been invited to participate in its reconstruction and to have their companies bid on prime contracts - all allies, that is, except one. The ONLY country barred by name from making such bids is Israel.

Yet, as everyone in this room and in the Bush Administration knows, Israel contributed mightily to the U.S. victory in Iraq by providing extensive intelligence and logistical support to American forces.

And then there is the matter of American arms sales to the Middle East, an issue of growing tension between our two countries.

While decrying the quickening arms race in the region, the Bush Administration, like its predecessors, has shown little interest in curbing its OWN excesses. The result has been an exponential rise in recent years in both the quality and quantity of high tech weapons provided to Arab countries -- countries which the U.S. ITSELF considers unstable and free of any external danger.
A case in point is Egypt. In just the last three years the U.S. has approved the sale to Cairo of an extraordinary array of state-of-the-art offensive weaponry that includes, among other things:

And the list goes on and on?..

According to the Center for Defense Information, since September 11, 2001 there have been at least 16 major U.S weapons sales to Egypt.

It is enough to make a supporter of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship wonder what has become of Washington's longstanding commitment to ensure Israel's qualitative military edge.
How is it possible to fulfill that pledge when every arms sale to the Arabs is justified to Congress as being in the U.S. national interest and not upsetting the balance of power in the region?

Curiously, the U.S. is providing all of this firepower, and more, to a country - Egypt -- that:

When Israel runs afoul of Washington, the Administration shows its displeasure by immediately docking a portion of foreign aid to Israel as it did when it slashed $289.5 million from the $9 billion loan guarantee package approved by Congress last year.

Not so with Egypt, which continues to receive its annual allotment of $2.3 billion in U.S. foreign assistance come rain or shine.

A thinking person might reasonably ask: "Why would Egypt ever want to side with the U.S. against its more hawkish Arab and Islamic brethren if it can obtain the same rewards by opposing Washington?"

At the same time, I stand baffled, as many of you no doubt are, by the Prime Minister's recent invitation to the Egyptian Government to have its military police Gaza following an Israeli pull out?

And then there is President Bush's Road Map for Middle East peace?..

Here is but another dramatic example where America's short term political interests and Israel's long term survival interests would appear to diverge.

Let there be no doubt as to the genesis of the Road Map. It is being brought to you by the same people in Washington who gave us the Mitchell Plan, the Tenet Plan, the Zinni Plan and all of the other plans predicated upon Israeli retreat and hollow Arab promises.

The Road Map is a plan cloaked in reasonableness, but calculated to appease Arab sensibilities at Israel's expense.

The Road Map is not a serious initiative because the Palestinians are not serious about peace, and Administration officials know this - and yet they press forward with this dangerous plan.

I have NO optimism that the Palestinians will be ready in my lifetime to live side by side with Israel. They've been given their chance and proven time and again that their leadership is not up to the challenge of making peace.

For the moment, the American People largely stand behind Israel. But beware; the incessant drumbeat of anti-Israel rhetoric on college campuses, in the media and across the internet is taking its toll.

Winning the hearts and minds of the American public is one battle Israel cannot afford to lose. Sadly, it is an increasingly uphill fight.


Having spoken about American policy towards Israel, I would like to turn now to the question of Israeli National policy.

It is a policy which for years has been shaped by an inaccurate view of U.S. intentions, political motivations and budget realities.

At a time when Israel's margin of safety has diminished dramatically, the country's leaders continue to make the same mistakes. The consequences can, and have been, catastrophic.

Misreading America in recent years has led, in my view, to Israeli policies which often appear ad hoc, ill-conceived, short-sighted and reactive rather than pro-active.

Sometimes the problem is one of language and culture. Often it is simply a naive willingness to take Administration promises and positions at face value.

Amazingly, after nearly 56 years of interaction, Israeli policymakers still exhibit a remarkable lack of sophistication about how the American political system actually operates. And as my colleagues on this dais can attest, there is often a defiant, if not arrogant unwillingness to be open minded, challenge a pre-existing world view, and accept the advice of those with a more complete knowledge of American politics.

I am sorry to say that many of the wounds suffered by Israel today in its relationship with the United States are self-inflicted.

In these increasingly dangerous times, it is incumbent upon the Israeli leadership to make sure it is accurately assessing signals and understanding the context in which U.S. policy is made.

A number of the assumptions which now appear to be driving Israeli policy could very well be wrong.

Assumption one: Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza and portions of the West Bank will make the Bush Administration more favorably disposed towards Israel than it was before.

Rubbish! If anything, the Administration is bemused by Sharon's decision, seeing it as an act of desperation not, as the Prime Minister apparently believes, an act of high statesmanship. Israel should not expect a "thank you" from the State Department, only more pressure for unmatched concessions.
Of greater importance is the fact that the planned Gaza retreat has undercut Israel's strongest supporters in the Congress who believe that any retreat in the face of terrorism only encourages more terrorism. Not surprisingly, the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have declared as much.

I would remind Israel's leaders that they have NO GREATER FRIEND than the U.S. Congress.

As House Majority Leader Tom DeLay recently stated:

"Israel's liberation from Palestinian terrorism is an essential component of victory in the war on terror. It's a 'liberation' we're talking about, not a mutually-agreed upon cease-fire."

And he's right!!

Assumption two: Altering the security barrier to avoid olive groves and gopher holes will make the entire project more palatable to its opponents in Washington.

Again - Rubbish! -- Those who oppose the security barrier will ALWAYS oppose the security barrier.

While many people can question the barrier's effectiveness or even its political wisdom, what can't be denied is Israel's right to self-defense by all appropriate means.

As President Bush is fond of pointing out, a government's first obligation is to protect its citizens. Israel is no exception.

The democratically elected leaders of the State of Israel are under no obligation to reflexively bow to State Department pressure.

You can say NO! You can say NO! You can say NO!

There are many diverse views within the American Government on the issue of what Israel can and should do to defend itself.

When was the last time the State Department ever forcefully advocated for an Israeli position against an Arab position? Certainly not in my lifetime, and I've been tracking these issues for nearly 30 years.

Let's be clear, Israel says it needs a security barrier to protect its citizens from the incessant murder and mayhem of Palestinian terrorists living on the other side. Without a workable alternative, Israel has no choice but to forge ahead.
Americans, with THEIR pioneer heritage, understand that sometimes on the frontier it is necessary to circle the wagons.

Assumption three: Israel can afford to under-fund its national security because the U.S. can be persuaded to pick up the tab for any shortfall. Not so. Not any more. The era of rising grant assistance is over.

Israel must come to terms with the fact that its spending on national defense has been falling in real terms for many years. The U.S. has neither the ability nor the inclination to make up the difference between Israel's requirements and Israel's budgetary allocation.

America's military obligations have expanded dramatically and so too have its capital requirements. There simply are not enough funds to go around.

At the present time it is just not possible to imagine where the U.S. would find the funds to compensate Israel for any withdrawal from Gaza. Israel certainly would not want them to come out of the Pentagon's budget. This would only harm an institution with which it has deep and cordial relations.

Nor would Israel want to accept the conditionality that would most likely be attached to any aid new package.

Israel's founders were right when they declared that the country would be better off the more it was able to rely on its own defense capabilities.

Frankly, I was shocked, as were many American observers, to read in the press that in the coming year Israeli reserve units will NOT be issued live ammunition for training purposes simply because the government can't afford the expense. I understand that the same is true for the Air Force and the Navy, which have had to cut flying hours and cruising hours due to a lack of funds.

Along these same lines, I would not expect the U.S. to step forward with a more cost effective armor option for the IDF should the Government decide to scrap the Merkava tank.

In my view, Israel should not stop production on what is arguably the finest tank in the world and a cornerstone of its national defense. If anything, Israel should be expanding its defense industrial base to protect the jobs of its workers, maintain a robust technology base in the country, and retain the greatest possible flexibility in the exercise of its national policy.

This is good for Israel and it is good for the United States.

As the world becomes ever more complex, Israel must work that much harder to remain relevant to America's strategic vision.

This means that Israel should do whatever it can to enhance America's strength overseas by providing the technology, logistical assistance, training and of course intelligence the U.S. needs to fight the global war on terrorism.

After all, we both share the same enemy.


Ladies and gentleman, Israel's future will only be secure once there are fundamental changes in the way it conducts its national policy.

It saddens me to have to say it, but the events of recent years have left many of Israel's supporters wondering whether the country has lost its will to survive.

This is the impression that is left when, after nearly every deadly provocation by the Arabs, the Government of Israel finds itself in retreat - first in Lebanon, then in negotiations with the Palestinians, then from Hebron, from Jerusalem and now in Gaza and Yesha.

This can only have a negative effect on the way in which the U.S. views Israel and consequently on the vitality of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

If the Israeli Government believes that retreat will earn it points in Washington or in the capitals of the world, it should think again.

In the Middle East, weakness in the face of adversity never breeds respect. Neither does a national policy mired in vacillation, confusion and doubt.

These are troubling signs which only the citizens of Israel can remedy.

Those of us who work tirelessly on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship grieve, as you do, for every soldier and civilian lost to terrorism. Like you we yearn for the day when peace is possible. But in my estimation that day is a long way off and may not arrive for generations to come - if ever.

In the meantime, Israel must continue to stand tall and resolute. It must continue to command the respect of the world through its tenacious defiance of its enemies, never being lured into believing their seductive pleas for peace when they are not back by deeds.

Today, the challenge for Israel is to remain true to its Zionist spirit and relevant to the U.S. as it pursues the war on terrorism.

Israel would be wise to identify with the words of President Bush when he declared, just after the 911 attacks, and later in his June 24, 2002 address, that the U.S. would give no quarter to those who would harm the American People or America's vital interests abroad.

Yes, Israel is a democracy and a humane democracy at that. But nowhere is it written that democracies are obliged to commit national suicide to appease either friend or foe. Survival is the first order of business for free nations as it is for all living things.

As the war on terrorism heats up, the U.S. and Israel must remember that their common interests far outweigh their differences. In fighting an enemy that makes no distinction between our respective countries we would be wise to heed the words of Winston Churchill who, in the midst of his country's darkest hour, declared:

"Never give in--never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

This must be the guiding precept for Israel and America as they chart their future together. For nothing less than their mutual survival is at stake.

Rand H. Fishbein, Ph.D. is President of Fishbein Associates, Inc., a public policy consulting firm based in Potomac, Maryland. He is a former Professional Staff Member (Majority) of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and a former Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to Senator Daniel K. Inouye.