PHILADELPHIA — It's time for a drastic change in US policy toward Israel. Since about 1967, the United States has pursued a fairly consistent policy toward Israel in its conflict with the Arabs: Help Israel be strong while pressuring it to make concessions to the Arabs. So ingrained has this dual approach become, it is barely even noticed.
But it hasn't worked. Those concessions - mainly, the handing over of territory - were supposed to win a reciprocal goodwill from the Arabs, thereby ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, they have been seen as a sign of Israeli weakness. Not only have Israel's concessions not achieved the expected harmonious peace, but they have actually harmed Israel, making it less scary to its neighbors. The result has been a spike in Palestinian and Arab ambitions that culminated in the round of violence that began in September.
If Israel's concessions have had precisely the wrong effect on Arab attitudes toward the Jewish state, they have won goodwill for the US. The Oslo process softened some of the anti-Americanism endemic to the Middle East, thereby rendering oil sources slightly more secure, terrorism a bit less likely, and political harangues less long and impassioned.
It would therefore be convenient for the US if the burgeoning hostility toward Israel were Israel's problem alone. But the point has now been reached where Israeli concessions entail greater dangers than benefits to American interests.
Israel's perceived weakness is now an American problem: The aggressive anti-Zionist euphoria being expressed by Arabs poses a direct danger to the United States.
Were the excitement of the Arab "street" and its fury at Israel to lead to war, the US could experience enormously harmful repercussions in terms of the oil market, relations with Muslim-majority states, and terrorism against American institutions and individuals.
Worse, were that war to go badly for Israel, implications for the US could become truly dire. Like it or not, the US serves as the informal but very real ultimate security guarantor of Israel. It is hard to conjure up a prospect that American policy planners would relish less than coming to the aid of Israel.
What is Washington's best course, given that concessions by Israel increase the prospects of an Arab-Israeli war that it urgently does not want?
It should take steps that discourage potential enemies from starting a conflict with Israel, something best done by helping rebuild Israel's deterrent capabilities. Washington should urgently adopt four policies:
1. No more Israeli territorial concessions. This shift is needed, at least for some years, to help stanch the Arab perceptions that Israel is a weak state, pleading for terms. The short-term goal is not to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to enhance Israeli deterrence capabilities.
2. Encourage Israel to appear fearsome. It would have a huge impact, were American leaders to call on Israel to reinstate its tough old policies, whereby it punished enemies for assaults on its persons and its property. The goal, again, is to prove that it is not demoralized.
3. Maintain Israeli's military edge. While US politicians glibly repeat this mantra, their willingness to sell arms to some of Israel's potential enemies (notably Egypt, but also Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and several Persian Gulf emirates) vastly enhances Arab military capabilities and so makes war more likely.
4. Bind Israel more tightly and consistently to the United States. Washington from time to time permits an ugly, one-sided anti-Israel resolution to pass the Security Council.
Another problem concerns the US government's sometime treatment of Israel and its opponents as moral equals. This sends a signal of Israeli isolation and might encourage warmongers. This approach of bucking up the Jewish state may sound like an unlikely one for Washington to pursue, but a dramatic reversal in policy usually seems unimaginable before it actually happens. It also bears note that some important American politicians (notably Sens. Charles Schumer (D) of New York and Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina) already have expressed their wish for such a change.
Israel's unwillingness to protect its own interests presents its principal ally, the US, with an urgent and unusual burden: the need to firm up its partner's will. Never before has a democratic state presented an ally with quite the dilemma that Israel now does.
Daniel Pipes is director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society