In trying to assess future American policy regarding a Sharon-led Israeli
government, without any clear statements of intent from the United States, one
must turn to a number of historical precedents.
First and foremost is the consistent support of the U.S. for Israel for
decades. Based on values and strategic interests, as well as on political
influence by the American Jewish community and broader public support for
Israel, administrations for both parties have maintained the special
relationship with Israel even in difficult times. This has manifested itself in
America standing up politically and diplomatically for Israel, even at times
when the rest of the world was on the other side; in massive economic and
military aid to Israel for several decades, even when Americans generally do not
favor foreign aid; and in America’s unique role as the key partner and
facilitator for moving peace forward.
Second, historically within the context of this ongoing relationship, more
problems have surfaced between the U.S. and Israel when a right-wing government
has been in power than left wing. The classic example of this difference took
place in the changes from Shamir to Rabin when George Bush was U.S. President.
During the Shamir years, Bush refused to accept loan guarantees for Soviet Jews
because he opposed Shamir’s settlement policy. When Rabin took over in 1992
and changed the approach to settlements, Bush allowed the loan guarantees to go
Having said this, there is no consistent pattern. Former President Jimmy
Carter was hard on the left-wing Rabin in 1977 just before the election of
Begin; meanwhile, the Reagan Administration developed good relations with Begin
and Shamir in the early 80’s.
Thirdly, the new administration is sending signals that the focal point of
their Middle East policy may well be the Persian Gulf and not the Arab-Israeli
issues. Here too there are mixed histories in looking at previous
administrations. On the one hand, Reagan in the 1980’s saw Israel as a bastion
of America’s strategic interests in the region and saw the alliance with
Israel as a positive factor in protecting American interests in the Gulf and the
On the other hand, the Carter Administration, through the National Security
Advisor Zbygniew Brzezynsky, saw great threats to U.S. interests in the Gulf and
access to oil because of the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict and put pressure
on Israel to agree to a comprehensive approach to the problem, which was
It is too early to say definitively how all these factors will play out in
the new administration of President George W. Bush. They have already made clear
that they will not be hands-on regarding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations the
way the Clinton Administration was, though events in the region could bring
surprises which may force them to be much more involved than they hope.
President Bush’s comment to Sharon in congratulating him on his victory
that U.S.-Israel relations are "rock solid" is true and a positive
indicator for relations in the next few years. There is good reason to believe
that the administration will see a stable and good relationship with Sharon as a
way to discourage Palestinians and other Arabs from thinking they can divide the
two nations. A stable U.S. relationship with Israel can also serve as a way to
keep Sharon looking for ways to move peace forward while ensuring national
security interests are realized.
Other traditional factors in U.S.-Israel relations continue to work in favor
of good relations under Sharon. American Jews, despite different views of Sharon
and on what Israel should give for peace, understand now that the issue is not
how much Israel offers – because Barak offered much and only got violence –
but what the Palestinians are ready to do about living in peace with Israel and
compromising. The focus of American Jews and of other supporters of Israel
should, and hopefully will, be on demanding change by Arafat.
And the new Congress of the U.S., on both sides of the aisle, also will
understand that the Israeli people elected Sharon as a message to Arafat.
In a sense, the region now has returned to basics. Israel still wants peace
and undoubtedly down the road is ready to make significant concessions to
achieve that peace. The experience of the last six months, however, has taught
the people of Israel and hopefully the new American administration that peace
can only be reached if Israel is strong, if the Arabs see Israel as strong, and
if the Palestinians finally move to accept Israel’s legitimacy and to be ready
to compromise for peace.
Many pieces have broken in recent months. Solid American support for the new
Sharon government can help to begin to put things back together.
Note: This op-ed originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on
February 9, 2001.