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Assessing the Impact of U.S.-Israeli Relations on the Arab World

Authored by Dr. Lenore G. Martin. | July 2003

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Pro-Western Arab regimes fear the backlash from their populations who are angered by the harsh Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the failure of the United States to compel Israel to create a viable Palestinian state. Does the U.S. special relationship with Israel therefore jeopardize American interests in maintaining good relations with the moderate Arab states that are critical to secure the availability of reasonably priced oil from the Gulf? Or can Washington discount popular anger in Arab states that depend heavily upon American military assistance for their security against potentially hostile regimes and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East? This monograph explores the interplay of the national interests of the United States, Israel, and the Arab world. It analyzes the challenges to current American policies in the Middle East created by the interrelationships of radical Arab regimes, Israel, and the moderate Arab states.

Prior American administrations have been more balanced in their relations with Israel and the Arab world. Even though during the Cold War Israel was an important strategic asset in the containment of Communist influence in the region, Washington regulated its arms sales to Israel, restrained Israeli military superiority during the wars with its Arab neighbors, and attempted to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to balance U.S. relations with moderate Arab regimes. The current Bush administration, with its focus on combating radical Islamic terrorism and stabilizing Iraq, has tilted the balance towards Israel. This has serious consequences for America?s relations with Egypt, Jordan, and the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Although these moderate Arab states all depend on the United States for their security from external threats, they all confront internal challenges to the legitimacy of their regimes. Saudi Arabia in particular faces intense criticism from radical Islamists who resent America?s support of Israel and have demanded the complete expulsion of infidel forces, as well as facing the calls for more political participation from sectors in the Saudi elite. Moreover, Washington has downplayed the Saudi peace plan in favor of a peace process described by the ?road map to peace.?

The road map has no direct Arab involvement, stretches over a 3-year period, and faces serious challenges to its implementation without a sustained American commitment to pressure a reluctant Israeli administration.

What can the Arab states do to get Washington to implement the road map specifically and generally adjust America?s strong tilt towards Israel? Using the threat of an oil embargo is too much of a double-edged weapon because of its potentially adverse impact on Gulf state economies. The more subtle threat of refraining from using excess capacity to regulate oil prices is more credible but still potentially economically self-defeating. On the other hand, Washington should remain concerned that radical Islamists could manipulate Arab anger and succeed in overturning friendly regimes in the Gulf. Radical Islamist regimes would be more willing to risk the adverse economic effects and undermine American interests in the supply of reasonably priced Gulf oil. What are the American options to forestall this outcome? Of the four most salient options, the first one of stepping down the Israeli relationship would jeopardize a strategic asset. The second option of supporting political reforms in the Middle East holds promise, but reform needs to proceed in a deliberate manner to avoid being undermined by radical Islamists. The long-term strategy of reducing American dependency on Gulf oil imports will certainly enhance U.S. energy security. Nonetheless, the most effective short-term strategy of seriously promoting Palestinian-Israeli peace represents the best option for maintaining the complex balance of American relationships in the Middle East.


The fundamental problem of the close U.S.-Israeli alliance for the moderate Arab states is that, at times of conflict between Israel and an Arab country (or in this instance, during the Intifada involving a proto-Palestinian state), it is very difficult for moderate Arab states to sustain their alignment with the United States which they need for their own external national security, and at the same time maintain their domestic political legitimacy in the face of popular hostility to Israel and the United States It therefore makes no sense for any U.S. administration to tilt so much towards Israel that it risks compromising the U.S. national interest in securing access to reasonably priced Gulf oil by furthering that hostility and increasing the chances that radical Islamists may come to power in one or more GCC states. All of the principal options for the United States to consider in resolving this dilemma carry substantial risks and costs. The option of stepping down the U.S. relationship with Israel jeopardizes a strategic asset. The long-term option of supporting political reforms in the Middle East holds promise but requires implementation in a deliberate manner to avoid being undermined by radical Islamists. Certainly reducing American dependency on Gulf oil imports will, over the long run, enhance U.S. energy security. Nevertheless, it is necessary for the United States to restore a balanced Middle East policy of supporting Israeli security while maintaining good relations with the moderate Arab states. To do this, the United States needs to engage in a determined effort to implement the Road Map and achieve a fair and effective Palestinian-Israeli peace.