It seems entirely bizarre to me that debates over the shape of U.S. policy towards Israel often hinge on the question of what the best thing for Israel would be. But shouldn't these policy debates hinge on what policy would be best for, you know, the United States? You'd think so, but no.
Anyway, John Judis has a good column in The New Republic today noting that, for the past forty years or so, U.S. policy towards Israel has basically swung between two polar stances: one that seeks to broker peace between Israel and its neighbors, pursued by Carter, Clinton, and Bush the elder; and one that regards Israel as a "strategic ally," as pursued by Ronald Reagan and President Psychopath. The former course appears better for U.S. interests, while Israeli officials often prefer the latter. But Judis points out that the "honest broker" role has actually been better for Israel, as well:
Of course, many Israeli officials prefer an American administration that regards Israel as a strategic ally to one that places a priority on brokering peace between Israel and its adversaries. But the United States and Israel have both fared better when an American administration has tried to broker peace. Carter oversaw the peace treaty between Israel and Egyptto Israel's enormous benefit. Support from George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton contributed to the Oslo agreements and to a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in October 1994. This strategy doesn't presume apocalyptical change; instead, it assumes that over decades, Israel could become integrated economically, if not politically, into the Middle East and that former adversaries could co-exist peacefully, if not happily.
In conceiving Israel as a strategic asset, Reagan didn't necessarily hope for a "new Middle East." He was more concerned with winning the cold war with the Soviet Union. But nonetheless, Reagan's embrace of Israel and abandonment of the role of honest broker saw the war in Lebanon (which proved to be an enormous disaster for Israel), the founding of Hezbollah and Hamas, the first terrorist attacks by Islamic groups against the United States and Israel, and the first intifada.
George W. Bush still has two-and-a-half years to go, but so far, his strategy toward Israel has seen the escalation of the second intifada (which began in the last year of the Clinton administration), the eclipse of Arafat's Fatah by the more radical Hamas, and now a two-front war in Gaza and southern Lebanon that is unlikely to achieve the results that the United States and Israel have hoped for.
Indeed, it now appears that we're about to help our "strategic ally" straight into yet another disastrous occupation of southern Lebanon, and there's no end in sight. With friends like these, etc. It's often said that shadowy lobbying groups like AIPAC have convinced the United States to abandon its self-interest in order to make things better for Israel. Perhaps the real scandal, though, is that we're not actually making things better for Israel.