How to End the Special Relationship With Israel

The peace process died of natural causes. Washington’s most extraordinary alliance should too.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a dinner at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a dinner at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. Pool/Getty Images

Anyone who has ever spent time in Washington is sure to have heard a panel moderator ask: “If you were sitting next to the president, what would be your policy recommendation?” It is a tough question, especially because analysts are often better at the art of the thoughtful critique than generating genuinely new policy proposals that have not already been litigated in various government agencies.

The ideas industry is hardly irrelevant; there are manifold examples of how it does contribute policy-changing ideas (for good and bad). The Center for Strategic and International Studies, to cite just one example, laid the intellectual groundwork for the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act—an important reform that changed the way the armed forces conducted operations. But it’s a challenge for outside analysts to break through with innovative ideas, especially when—like their counterparts in the bureaucracy—they become too heavily vested in a particular issue to see a clear way forward.

The paradigmatic case of this problem is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It should be clear by now that the United States needs a new approach to this issue—one that recognizes that there is no two-state solution or any solution to the conflict and that treats Israel as a normal country. All the sturm und drang about the conflict in Washington (and Europe) serves no purpose and only delays reckoning with reality.

I am not sure I understand why officials, former officials, and analysts continue to invest so much time in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even if we assume that both sides want peace, it remains the case that: 1) Israel cannot satisfy the Palestinians’ minimal demands for peace, 2) the Palestinians cannot satisfy Israel’s minimal demands for peace, and 3) the United States does not have the resources or political will to alter the interests of either the Palestinians or Israel. The many analysts and officials who continue to work toward a two-state solution, however admirable their tenacity, can’t do much to clear this fundamental impasse.

The next question is whether the impasse much matters for the United States. Through the last seven decades, Washington has had several core interests in the Middle East: the free flow of energy resources, helping to ensure Israeli security, and U.S. predominance so no state or combination of states could threaten the other two interests. (There was also counterterrorism and nonproliferation, though a case could be made that they were—at least until 9/11—derivative of the other interests.) U.S. policymakers have long believed that a two-state solution was the best way to ensure Israel’s security, and U.S. presidents from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama to Donald Trump himself have repeatedly pursued that goal. But the mostly unacknowledged fact about the two-state impasse—and perhaps the reason Washington hasn’t summoned the political will to overcome it—is that it has helped the United States achieve one its core interests in the region: helping to ensure Israeli security.

That’s not to doubt the sincerity of U.S. officials and analysts when they argue that they believe an Israeli annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank would be bad for Israeli security and offend the sensibilities of many Americans. But what should the United States do about it? There will be a chorus of folks who want to punish Israel and others who will want to wring their hands but otherwise shield Israel from opprobrium and carry on as business as usual. The latter seems more likely than the former, but neither seems appropriate for the moment. The combination of Israel’s success and its annexation provides an opportunity to alter the terms of the bilateral relationship in ways that disentangle Washington from peacemaking.

By any measure, Israel is an advanced country with an economy that is well integrated with the rest of the world, especially in the information technology sector. Its per capita GDP is roughly on par with the United Kingdom’s and France’s. On security, Israel has a more capable and sophisticated military than all of its neighbors, and its strategic position has never been better. Iraq and Syria are a shambles, Hezbollah is bogged down in the Syrian conflict as Lebanon crumbles around it, and the Egyptians rely on Israel to support their security operation in the Sinai Peninsula. Jordan has warned about the consequences of annexation on bilateral relations, but even so, King Abdullah is in a difficult spot given how important Israel has been to Jordanian stability.

Iran remains a threat, of course, but the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has demonstrated the ability to deter the Iranians and their allied forces, particularly in Syria but also in Iraq. Iran’s nuclear activities will continue to be a major challenge to Israel’s security, and the Israelis will need to continue to be vigilant confronting this problem both on their own and in partnership with other countries, especially with the United States.

Israel’s diplomatic relations now span the globe, including good relations with Russia, China, and India. In the Middle East, in addition to its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the Israelis have developed ties (though not normal diplomatic relations) with Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, even as it has continued its decades-long effort to tighten its grip on the West Bank. This is quite an achievement. Of course, the economy could crash, and the regional security environment could deteriorate, but even so, it is hard to make the case that Israel is an isolated and embattled ally.

Given the reality of Israel’s achievements and the coming annexation of West Bank territory, U.S. officials must communicate that it is time for the relationship to change. Israel’s security is ensured, and the country has prospered, which was always Washington’s goal. And although Israel and the United States have both benefited from the more than $142 billion Washington has invested in it, it is hard to make the case for a continuation of this generous assistance. As the United States and Israel did with economic assistance, it is time for an agreed-on path to phase out military aid. This is not punishment but rather recognition that the United States has been successful in achieving its goal, assistance is not an entitlement, and the United States does not think that annexation is in Israel’s interest and thus does not want to be associated with it.

Critics will no doubt argue that actual punishment—in the form of peremptorily cutting off assistance—is the best course of action. This policy prescription is predicated on the idea that Israel still needs U.S. military assistance and that cutting it off will bring the Israelis to heel. The evidence does not support either proposition. It also overlooks the fact that there would be little political support for their preferred approach and would only invite an ugly political fight. At least an agreement to phase out the assistance has a chance of gaining traction. The tragedy in all this is the permanent dispossession of the Palestinians, who will no doubt be outraged at Washington’s washing its hands of the conflict, sealing their fate to live forever under the boot of the IDF or shoved into Bantustans. They would be justified in their anger. They have also misread core U.S. interests in the Middle East, which really are not concerned with the Palestinians, who, against all evidence, trusted the United States.

Normalizing ties between the United States and Israel is an acknowledgement of both success and failure. Israel’s security and existence are ensured, but peace between Israelis and Palestinians, which analysts and officials made a U.S. responsibility, remains beyond their grasp—most likely permanently. At least the United States will no longer have to bear the contradictions and burdens of peacemaking that unnecessarily raised expectation that Washington could deliver the Israelis or pressure the Palestinians in the service of goals neither side shared. That is not normal.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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