Stephen M. Walt

News flash: WINEP defends the ‘special relationship’

Last week the Washington Institute of Near East Policy released a brief report entitled "Israel: A Strategic Asset for the United States." Such an event is not exactly headline news, insofar as the report is precisely the sort of analysis that you’d expect a "pro-Israel" think tank like WINEP to promote. What is slightly more ...


Last week the Washington Institute of Near East Policy released a brief report entitled "Israel: A Strategic Asset for the United States." Such an event is not exactly headline news, insofar as the report is precisely the sort of analysis that you’d expect a "pro-Israel" think tank like WINEP to promote. What is slightly more interesting are the study’s authors: Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe. Blackwill was formerly U.S. Ambassador to India (and a former colleague of mine here at the Kennedy School); Slocombe is a long-time Washington insider perhaps best known for helping mismanage the occupation of Iraq.

Their report checks in at a modest 17 pages of large type, and it offers few arguments that experienced Middle East mavens haven’t heard before. It’s tempting to disregard it, except that it illustrates many of the misconceptions that still permeate discussion of the U.S.-Israel relationship and U.S. Mideast policy. I will take the bait, therefore, and offer a brief critique.

Blackwill and Slocombe (hereafter B&S) begin by rehearsing the familiar claim that the United States and Israel are bound together by shared values, and by America’s "moral responsibility" to defend the Jewish state. But they argue that there is a third justification, which they maintain is "too often ignored." That justification is the idea that Israel and the United States have common strategic interests and that Israel is a major asset for helping the United States achieve them. They offer the usual list of benefits (e.g., intelligence sharing, military technology, counter-terrorism expertise, counter-proliferation activities, etc.), in order to show what a valuable asset Israel really is. They then argue that the costs of U.S. support are not very significant, mostly because support for Israel does not preclude close cooperation with Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. They conclude by calling for increased collaboration with Israel, as a means of advancing U.S. national interests.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

For starters, Blackwill and Slocombe do not consider whether the alleged benefits of U.S.-Israeli cooperation require the unprecedented "special relationship" that now exists between the two countries. The real debate is not whether the United States should cooperate with Israel or support Israel’s existence: even prominent critics of U.S. policy (including myself and John Mearsheimer) agree that the United States should support Israel’s existence (within the pre-1967 borders) and should come to its aid if its survival were ever in jeopardy. Rather, the real debate is whether the United States should have a special relationship with Israel, in which the United States gives Israel generous economic, military, and diplomatic support no matter what it does, and where U.S. politicians cannot offer the mildest criticism of Israel’s conduct without facing a torrent of abuse and political pressure from the Israel lobby.

Today, Israel is the only country in the world that mainstream U.S. politicians (and most members of the foreign-policy establishment) cannot openly criticize. It is the only country in the world that U.S. presidents cannot pressure in any meaningful way. The United States does not have this sort of relationship with any other country in the world — not with Great Britain, or Japan, or South Korea, or Canada, or France, or Denmark. But it does with Israel, which is a key reason why Israel’s settlements have been expanding for more than forty years, even though every president since Lyndon Johnson has formally opposed such actions. The "special relationship" is also a major reason why the Oslo process failed, and why Barack Obama’s efforts to achieve a viable "two-state solution" have foundered. (B/S wrongly state that the United States and Israel share a common desire for a two-state solution; Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party is formally opposed to a Palestinian state, and Israel’s current government has made it clear that the only "Palestinian state" that it would countenance would be a set of disconnected, unviable Bantustans under permanent Israeli control.)

So the real question is not whether the United States derives certain benefits from cooperating with Israel, just as it derives benefits from cooperating with other allies. Rather, it is whether the current "special relationship" of unconditional U.S. support is in America’s national interest.

The answer is no. For one thing, B&S overstate some so-called benefits — such as military technology developed in Israel — by failing to mention that U.S. military aid paid for lots of it instead of being given to U.S. firms. But more importantly, many of the strategic benefits that B&S describe would still be available if the United States had a normal relationship with Israel. After all, if our interests are as closely aligned as B&S maintain, it would still be in both countries’ interest to share some types of military technology, to share some intelligence information, and to coordinate responses to common problems like WMD proliferation or counter-terrorism. But if we had a normal relationship, then U.S. leaders would also be free to criticize Israeli policies that don’t make sense and that are not in the U.S. interest, like the continued expansion of settlements and the denial of Palestinian rights. And in a normal relationship (i.e., akin to those we have with other democracies), U.S. leaders would be free to use U.S. leverage to try to get Israel to change policies with which we disagreed.

Second, B & S understate the costs of the special relationship by a wide margin. They do this in part by ignoring or downplaying issues such as Israel’s sale of advanced U.S. technology to adversaries such as China, and by its extensive espionage efforts inside the United States. But their main error is to dismiss the impact of the special relationship on our terrorism problem. They devote a single sentence to this crucial issue, saying that "U.S. support for Israel is not the primary-and probably not even the dominant-reason Islamist terrorists target the United States." This line of argument has been a familiar lobby talking point since 9/11, but it is at odds with the enormous body of evidence suggesting that U.S. support for Israel was a key cause (though not the only one) of our terrorism problem.

For example, the architect of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Ramzi Yousef, mailed letters to several newspapers taking credit for the deed and demanding that the United States terminate aid to Israel. According to Steve Coll’s prizewinning book Ghost Wars, Yousef also told the U.S. agents who flew him to the United States after his arrest in Pakistan that his reservations about killing innocent civilians were "overridden by the strength of his desire to stop the killing of Arabs by Israeli troops." According to Coll, Yousef "mentioned no other motivation during the flight and no other issue in American foreign policy that concerned him."

Similarly, an abundance of evidence confirms that the issue of Palestine was important to the late Osama bin Laden, and from very early in his political career. Family members have testified that he was troubled by this issue as a young man, and it is a prominent theme in his earliest political statements. As Max Rodenbeck of the Economist wrote in a review of two books on bin Laden’s writings: "the notion of payback for injustices suffered by the Palestinians is perhaps the most powerfully recurrent in bin Laden’s speeches."

As for 9/11 itself, the 9/11 Commission noted that Khalid Sheikh Muhammed — whom it described as the "principal architect of the 9/11 attacks" — was primarily motivated by the Palestinian issue. In the commission’s words: "By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel." The commission also reported that bin Laden intervened several times in the planning process for the 9/11, in an attempt to link the attacks more closely to U.S. support for Israel.

To be sure, terrorists like bin Laden and KSM had other grievances as well — such as U.S. support for Saudi Arabia and for the Mubarak regime in Egypt — but these issues are not unrelated to the "special relationship" with Israel. As both Trita Parsi and Ken Pollack have shown, the Clinton administration’s strategy of "dual containment" (itself the brainchild of WINEP co-founder Martin Indyk), was adopted in good part to reassure Israel. Dual containment led the United States to keep large numbers of troops in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s, and their presence there is one of the key reasons that bin Laden turned his attention to attacking the United States.

Thus, the special relationship contributes significantly to our terrorism problem-and to all the costs associated with the war on terror-by two separate pathways. And it is one reason why former president Bill Clinton told one audience that solving the Israel-Palestine conflict would "take about half the impetus in the whole world — not just the region, the whole world — for terror away … It would have more impact by far than anything else that could be done."

Third, B/S also overlook the fact that some of the problems for which Israel’s help is useful are also problems that Israel helped create or exacerbate. Israel has been a useful asset for some counter-proliferation activities — such as the bombing of a Syrian reactor site and the development of the STUXNET virus that infected Iran’s enrichment facilities — but Israel’s own nuclear arsenal (which it developed in defiance of U.S. pressure) is one reason why countries such as Syria or Iran are interested in WMD in the first place. And instead of putting pressure on Israel to join the NPT or get rid of its own nuclear arsenal, the United States has consistently blocked efforts to raise this issue within the International Atomic Energy Agency, even as it has been moving heaven and earth to isolate and sanction states such as North Korea or Iran. Unfortunately, the obvious double-standard displayed on this issue has made that diplomatic effort significantly more difficult.

Fourth, B&S are silent about the other burdens that the special relationship imposes, burdens that would be substantially lighter if the U.S. had a normal relationship with Israel. Just think of the amount of time and effort that U.S. presidents and their advisors have spent on this issue over the past several decades, not to mention that vast amount of attention expended on the fruitless post-Oslo "peace process." As UN Ambassador Susan Rice admitted earlier this year, dealing with Israel-related issues at the United Nations is "a significant part of my job. It’s not the majority of my time … [b]ut it is never the smallest piece. It is always there … It’s a lot." Needless to say, her ability to advance other items on the U.S. foreign policy agenda would be enhanced were she not spending so much effort to putting out fires on Israel’s behalf.

Furthermore, a normal relationship would not require the United States to veto literally dozens of U.N. Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel’s occupation, including resolutions that are in fact consistent with stated U.S. policy. Nor would it require the United States to expend political capital pressing other states to oppose initiatives such as the recent resolution permitting the Palestinians to join UNESCO. And in a classic case of cutting one’s nose to spite one’s face, that decision triggered an lobby-inspired law requiring Congress to cut off funds to any UN agency that recognized the Palestinians. Here’s what U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) had to say about that issue (my emphasis):

"This could be catastrophic for the U.S.-U.N. relationship. This could be the tipping point. . . There’s a lot of bipartisan support for cutting off funding to any political U.N. organization that would do this . . . .What you are going to do is eventually lose congressional support for our participation in the United Nations. That’s what’s at risk here. That would be a great loss. I don’t think that’s in our near-term or long-term interest, but that’s what’s going to happen, that’s where this thing is headed." 

What Graham is saying, in short, is that the "special relationship" leads to decisions that are not in America’s interest. But you wouldn’t know that reading B&S.

Fifth, B&S’s claim that unconditional support for Israel does not preclude close ties with Arab states is misleading, as well as increasingly out of date. Countless surveys of Arab opinion confirm that U.S. policy is deeply unpopular throughout the Arab world, and President Obama’s steady retreat from his original Cairo speech commitment to "two states for two peoples" has driven the U.S. image in the region to a level even lower than it was under George W. Bush in 2008. This situation does not prevent some Arab states from working with Washington, but it makes it politically costly for them to be openly associated with the United States.

Why does this matter? In the past, the United States was able to ignore Arab opinion because its primary strategic relationships in the Arab world have been with authoritarian regimes whose policies did not reflect the opinions of their citizens. The Arab awakening in 2011 has rendered this aspect of U.S. policy untenable. The final outcome of these upheavals is unknown, but most Arab states are likely to become significantly more responsive to public sentiment than heretofore. This is obviously true in the case of any new Arab democracies, but even surviving autocrats are likely to govern with a greater fear of mass upheavals and with greater responsiveness to the views of their citizens. If the United States wants the policies of Arab states to be congenial to its core interests, therefore, it will have to make its own policies more congenial to Arab peoples, and not just a handful of potentates.

Although the recent demonstrations in the Arab world were inspired primarily by local concerns and not by anti-Israel or anti-American sentiment, U.S. support for Israel and its tolerance of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians remains a powerful source of popular Arab animus. Nor should we forget that leaders such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were despised in part because they were seen as subservient to Washington and complicit in Israel’s blockade of Gaza. As Turkey’s behavior under the AKP government illustrates, governments that become more sensitive to public opinion are likely to favor policies more at odds with traditional U.S. policies. In particular, we can expect these states to be less willing to accept the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza and to be less deferential to Washington’s preferences. And that means that the cost of the "special relationship" is going to go up, not down, and B&S’s call for ever-closer cooperation with an increasingly isolated Israel is a recipe for the progressive erosion of U.S. influence.

Finally, B&S never ask where this whole situation is headed, and whether the "special relationship" is good for Israel itself. The window of opportunity created by the Oslo Accords in 1993 has closed, and it is now abundantly clear that the United States cannot be an effective steward of the peace process while maintaining a "special relationship" with one side. So there isn’t going to be a two-state solution, and once this reality becomes unmistakable, the United States will have to figure out which of the available alternatives it is going to support. Should the United States bind itself ever-more-tightly and unconditionally to an increasingly hardline Israel, even if that state continues to treat its Arab minority as second-class citizens and denies its Palestinian subjects on the West Bank all political rights? Should Washington instead press Israel to adopt the principle of "one person, one vote" throughout the territory it controls, thereby hastening the end of a "Jewish state?" Or should it continue to turn a blind eye to the steady expansion of settlements and the continued evictions, home demolitions, and coercion that this policy requires?

It is hard to see how unconditional U.S. support for this approaching train wreck is in Israel’s interest, let alone America’s. A better approach would be to treat Israel like a normal country and have a normal relationship with it. In other words, make U.S. support conditional on Israel’s conduct and limited to those areas where our interests are genuinely aligned. In other words, deal with Israel the same way we deal with other democracies around the world. Unfortunately, organizations like WINEP were created to keep the special relationship alive and to prevent U.S. leaders from pursuing a more sensible course, even when our current approach is increasingly harmful to the United States and Israel alike.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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