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

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

Authored by Dr. Lenore G. Martin.

July 2003

37 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author addresses the challenge that U.S. policymakers face in managing relations with numerous regional allies, including Israel and a host of moderate Arab states. These states often maintain differing concerns and are responding to diverse domestic and international pressures when they seek to influence the United States. These regional concerns and interests are thoroughly analyzed throughout this monograph. Additionally, the special importance of the Palestinian question is well-represented, with nuances of regional opinion carefully reflected.


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.

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