Back during the Persian Gulf War, the first question on the lips of many American Jews was what the U.S.-Iraqi conflict would mean for this country’s relations with Israel. Many feared that public support for the Jewish state would not survive heavy American casualties sustained in defense of a vulnerable ally, rather than in self-defense.
Those fears did not materialize. Thanks in part to Colin Powell’s hasty cessation of hostilities, there were no mass American casualties in the Gulf War. Yasser Arafat and the PLO sided with Saddam Hussein, damaging American sympathy for the Palestinian cause. What’s more, President George H.W. Bush cast American intervention as a rescue of Kuwait, rather than as protection of Israel, when it was in fact both of those things.
With another Bush in the White House and another Mideast war imminent, some are again asking the eternal question: Will this be bad for the Jews? This time, though, the people who seem most concerned are Israel’s familiar foes. Robert Novak’s first reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 was alarm that they might bring Israel and the United States closer together. “The spectacle on television of Palestinian youths and mothers dancing in the streets of East Jerusalem over the slaughter of Americans will not soon be forgotten,” he wrote in his syndicated column. “The United States and Israel are brought ever closer in a way that cannot improve long-term U.S. policy objectives.” By “long-term U.S. policy objectives,” Novak apparently means his own goal of jettisoning support for the Jewish state. Others unfriendly to Israel from a left-wing perspective have expressed this wish even more obliquely, suggesting that now may be an occasion to “re-examine” or “re-evaluate” our Mideast policy.
In his prognostication, Novak is probably correct. Like the Gulf War, I think the coming war on terrorism will only strengthen our relationship with Israel. The primary reason for this is not the one Novak cites–that many of the enemies of the Israeli revel in our destruction. Rather, the chief reason is something that most ordinary people understand, but that Novak cannot grasp at all: that the Arab-Israeli conflict was not the proximate, or even the underlying cause of the Sept. 11 attacks. And that means that distancing ourselves from Israel is not a logical response or part of a solution.
For the chief suspect Osama Bin Laden, as for Saddam Hussein, the existence of Israel, and of Jews, is a significant irritant. But the physically distant Zionist state seems even further down on Bin Laden’s demented litany of grievances than it was on Saddam’s. In his fine book, Taliban, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid gives an account of Bin Laden’s ideology and apparent motivation. Having helped to finance the guerrilla war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the wealthy young Saudi Islamist became obsessed with driving all infidels out of Muslim countries. When Saudi Arabia invited an American military presence during the Gulf War, Bin Laden declared war on the royal family of his own country as well as upon the United States. (For more on Bin Laden, click here to read David Plotz’s “Assessment.”)
Our abandonment of Israel might diminish one of Bin Laden’s sources of suicidal recruits. But even if appeasing him were desirable, there’s no reason to expect that cutting Israel loose would appease him. And what’s true of Bin Laden is true of Islamic radicals more generally, especially those with some geographical distance from Israel itself. As Bernard Lewis explained in his still highly relevant article “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” which appeared in the Atlantic a decade ago, radical Islam has a hatred of America that is clearly separable from its loathing for Israel and perhaps even more virulent. As evidence, Lewis notes that during the two decades when the Communist bloc was Israel’s chief backer, there was no comparable Arab animus against the Soviets.
Ditching or diminishing our alliance with Israel would also be a grave practical mistake. Israel’s military and secret service have more experience dealing with terrorism than such forces in any other country in the world. We need their help and advice in the war we’re about to start fighting. Most of all, we may need Israeli’s intelligence capacity. I’ve frequently heard it said that Israeli intelligence is strongest in dealing with threats in its immediate neighborhood, which Afghanistan is not. But according to a disturbing story in today’s Los Angeles Times, the Mossad last month warned the FBI and CIA about an upcoming, large-scale terrorist attack. The Israelis were able to connect the threat back to Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden. Tragically, we appear not to have acted on that information. In the future, we’ll be paying far closer attention. If we find Bin Laden now, we may well have the Israelis to thank. [This Los Angeles Times story was later retracted. See the note at the end of the story.]
Our military relations with Israel may also prove crucial to what lies ahead. The United States has other allies in the region, namely most of the Arab states that were part of the anti-Saddam coalition. But all of these are fair-weather friends, many of whom have been financial supporters of terror networks themselves over the last decade. The downfall of an unpopular government or wave of anti-American sentiment in the streets might make it impossible for us to stage military operations from any of those countries. Israel, by contrast, is a fast ally, the equivalent of several aircraft carriers already in place in the Mideast.
What may deter us from full or open military cooperation with Israel is the precarious position of those so-called moderate Arab regimes. Having Israel as an ally by proxy makes it more difficult for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and others to join with us in responding to radical Islamic terror. This diplomatic problem is what underlies the case for stepping up pressure on Israel to settle with the PLO. While there’s no reason to think a peace agreement at Camp David last fall would have prevented what happened on Sept. 11, a settlement could remove a thorn from the paw of the moderate Arab states, making it easier for them to maintain public support while supporting our military campaign.
There are, however, two caveats to the notion that pressuring Israel to make a deal could be helpful. This first is that in the final stage of the Camp David negotiations, Israel went about as far as it could plausibly go, offering back nearly the whole of the occupied territories. It was Arafat who either out of mulishness or fear of a backlash among his own people refused to accept a reasonable settlement. Some American pressure might be necessary to get Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to reactivate his predecessor’s best offer. But in the end it’s Arafat who needs to be pushed. The second caveat is that a peace agreement that proved unpopular in the Arab world could well have unintended consequences for our Arab and Muslim allies. These governments have long milked Palestinian grievances to create credibility with their own populations. In that sense, pulling the thorn from the paw might also remove one of the pillars holding up several unstable regimes.
Peace agreement or not, the American-Israeli alliance seems likely to emerge from this conflict stronger than it was before. In the final analysis, what sustains the relationship is not the practical benefits the United States derives from it, but morality and sympathy. As others have already pointed out, what Americans experienced last week was a concentrated version of what Israelis have been living through for decades. The experience of defending our lives and liberties puts us ever more firmly in the same boat. And in the end, the ethical and practical considerations behind the alliance come together. As Gideon Rose, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, notes, Israel provides a model of how a liberal democracy can live under siege and not sacrifice its values. It’s an example that may prove increasingly important to us in the weeks, months, and perhaps years ahead.
[Update, Sept. 21: The Los Angeles Times has retracted yesterday’s report that the Mossad warned U.S. authorities that terrorists linked to Osama Bin Laden were infiltrating the United States in preparation for a large-scale attack. Apparently, the U.S. official who told the newspaper this was getting his information secondhand from a British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph. The FBI and CIA both categorically deny it. I’m relieved that it’s (probably) not true. However, my larger point about the value of Israeli intelligence stands.]
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.