Israel: U.S. Inadvertent Tripwire in the Middle East

Tripwire: refers to a U.S. foreign policy strategy whereby a small contingent of troops is stationed in a foreign country whose security Washington considers vital. The primary objective is to make the enemy aware that an attack on its troops would automatically trigger a swift and large scale military response. The key to a successful tripwire strategy is to intentionally create a situation from which the government cannot back down from retaliating without seriously damaging its credibility and leadership. US forces stationed in South Korea is one example of this strategy.

The United States faces a very different tripwire situation in the Middle East. It does not involve the stationing of U.S. forces, and yet it could bring about an unintentional, although similar, military response. Israel has become so politically, militarily, historically, religiously, and culturally embedded in the American psyche that Washington would have no choice but to come to Israel’s defense if its security becomes existentially imperiled. This tripwire has been inadvertently created, and it remains dangerously active due to Israel’s impasse with its enemies and because of Washington’s unwillingness to engage in more assertive diplomacy. While supporting Israel– a strong friend and ally–is and ought to be a moral and political imperative, the U.S. faces the possibility of being forced into a military conflagration it may likely wish to avoid if it should take place for the wrong reasons.

The Israeli tripwire already has forced Washington to acquiesce and–through its failure to bring an end to the conflict–to support a bloody struggle that has lasted over six decades and offers no end in sight. As conditions in the Middle East worsen, Israel seems undaunted by the fact that it is not winning the political relations battle. For decades the Israelis have sought to play the role of victim in the conflict. Although this is partially true, given the disproportionate number of civilian fatalities, injuries, and physical destruction suffered by its enemies in previous encounters, worldwide public opinion has shifted against Israel. Even Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of U.N. Watch, and a strong supporter of Israel, has acknowledged the gains of anti-Israeli sentiment in the United Nations by making reference to the, “The U.N.’s disproportionate assault against the Jewish state…”

Against this background, attitudes on both sides are becoming increasingly rigid. Israelis have long adapted to a defensive mindset and seemingly resigned to a collective sense of self-pity–‘the world is unfair to us’. The government continues to expand its settlements defying pleas by the United Nations and the U.S.; news that half of Israeli Jews (48%) today feel that “Arabs should be transferred or expelled from Israel” is disquieting. On the side of Israel’s enemies, individual Palestinians have resorted to a deadly “knife intifada”; Hamas continues firing rockets against Israeli communities; Hezbollah has stockpiled more than 100,000 rockets and missiles for a future war against Israel; and Iran continues to increase its threatening rhetoric.

As both sides seem incapable or unwilling to resolve their differences on their own, the conflict is inordinately contributing to worldwide instability by fueling the radicalization of Arabs and Muslims frustrated by their incapacity to prevail. Adding to the problem, many of these nations realize that Israel is not their only stumbling block, for behind Israel stands its protector: the US.

Israel maintains a special politico-military status inside Washington. A small democracy surrounded by enemies wishing its non-existence and armed with one of the most efficiently organized political lobbies in Washington, Israel is the largest recipient of US military aid; it enjoys overwhelming protection from criticism inside the UN Security Council; and already has been named a major non-NATO ally by Congress.

To accentuate these relations both governments signed the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014 recognizing that “the people and the Governments of the United States and of Israel share a deep and unbreakable bond forged by over 60 years of shared interests and shared values.” Given the rapid deterioration of conditions in the region, both governments agreed that Washington would continue “to provide Israel with robust security assistance.”

The partnership act is not just a matter of political correctness; it entrenches relations between the two nations on diverse issues such as energy, water, homeland security, agriculture, alternative fuel technologies, trade, cybersecurity, and the Visa Waiver Program. The sections dealing with security are so forceful they guarantee “Israel’s qualitative military edge” over other regional powers. And, while the act does not formally require the Washington to come to Israel’s aid if attacked, it reinforces the dangerously unplanned and inadvertent tripwire that has kept the U.S. involved in a treacherous blind alley for decades.

Washington has held on to the belief that Israel’s image of invincibility will deter its enemies forever. While this lore has paid off so far, today it is heading toward a dangerous policy of hopeless procrastination. The question is not whether Israel’s enemies present an existential threat. They do. The question is rather, what has Washington accomplished in the last fifty years? By supporting Israel’s external security Washington has inadvertently created a state of internal insecurity among the Israeli people. The U.S. has proven incapable of stopping decades of bloodshed. Through its irresolute posture it has engendered obduracy and hatred on both sides, and has contributed to mounting anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. feelings worldwide that has energized Muslim ire and the expansion of extremism.

Consequently, if it is evident that negotiations have reached a dangerous dead-end, is it not time that the U.S.—as Israel’s older sibling and protector—assume a more serious responsibility to bring the conflict to an end?

Although the Gordian knot surrounding Israel’s conflict in the region is directly tied to its security, Tel Aviv has muddled the argument by insisting that its right to exist as a nation-state first be explicitly recognized by its enemies. Once such recognition is granted, Israel has indicated it may consider the return of lands occupied since the 1967 War until present time, as well as consent to the right of the Palestinians to establish their own state. Israel, however, has been unwilling to indicate what the boundaries of a Palestinian state would be, as it deems all seized lands (including settlements inside UN-declared Palestinian territories) to be security posts necessary to protect the Jewish state.

A more assertive American diplomacy, however, would help solve the core of Israel’s dilemma. First, Tel Aviv surely understands that any agreement, whether signed or carved in stone by the Palestinians and witnessed by the U.N., would be just words. While bilateral or multilateral accords are always welcomed as indications of good will and intentions, they can be—and have been—rejected if and when it suits any of the parties, leading, ironically, to the same conflicts that initially demanded them. Hence, such realism tells us there are no compelling reasons that should keep Israel from contributing to the peace process by allowing the Palestinians to establish their own state.

Second, Israel’s reluctance to return all seized territories, including settlements, becomes a non-issue if the U.S. would step in and guarantee Israel’s security by establishing a planned tripwire strategy. If the U.S. truly cares for the state of Israel, and wishes to match words and deeds, stationing U.S. forces inside Israel would contribute to the resolution of the conflict. As the U.S. already has military installations inside Israel–more like ‘forward’ bases–the presence of U.S. troops ready to defend Israeli citizens sends a deliberate deterrent signal to Israel’s enemies.

Assuming the retention of seized territories–including the settlements and East Jerusalem–has no hidden religious component (that would pose an extraordinary stumbling block to resolving the conflict), their return to the Palestinians would crush the ideological narrative of Israel’s enemies and diffuse the existential basis for the conflict. Such policy would allow the Palestinians to invest energy and resources in building their own state rather than continuing to fight. Certainly, this approach might not guarantee that recalcitrant individuals or nations will continue to threaten Israel; however, now they would be publicly told that they have to deal with Israel’s older, stronger sibling.

It would be difficult for Israel to object to Washington’s unambiguous support. Its refusal would discredit Israel’s official intentions, increase the international community’s enmity, and expose the futility of U.S. continued support. Meanwhile, Washington’s resolve in addressing Israel’s security would give new life to the peace process and restore its credibility in the region and worldwide.

Washington’s continued failure to recognize that a more assertive policy in the region is necessary to de-escalate tensions simply prolongs the conflict and creates unnecessary instability. Besides increasing the odds of an even deadlier war, this conflict is exponentially increasing unrest among Arab and Muslim nations. For some time now, we have been witnessing the expansion of hostilities as well as concrete traces of an incipient ‘clash of civilizations’. This is a clash no one wants.

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