Crisis in the Middle East

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U.S. Must Keep Strong Ties with Israel
By Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

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 through.

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 region overall.

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 unacceptable.

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.

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