Despite a rocky start with the Obama administration, Israel could be poised to reassume its role as a strategic partner of the United States in the tumultuous Middle East.
However, for Israel to again be a strategic player, it will have to find a resolution to the Palestinian issue, according to an author and educator who has researched Israelis, Palestinians, and the United States-Israel alliance.
Joel Migdal, the Robert F. Philip Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington, spoke on April 14 at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
His talk at the Cook Campus Center was sponsored by the university’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
Migdal said the 2002 Saudi plan, in which Israel would pull back to pre-1967 borders in exchange for peace and full diplomatic relations with much of the Middle East, is apparently back on the table as a result of American pressure on the Saudis. The plan was initially rejected by Israel, revisited in 2005, and was assumed to be dead.
Migdal, who is spending the year researching the strategic United States-Israel alliance at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, said the “special bond” between the two countries has been lost in recent years as the United States has courted alliances in the Arab world.
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, touching off the Gulf War, Israel went from “strategic asset to strategic liability.” The United States built a fragile coalition in the Middle East against Saddam Hussein that would have fallen apart had Israel been allowed to take part.
Ever since, “Israel has had no place in the strategic alliance,” said Migdal. When it came to U.S. national security, the view among presidential advisers has been that there is nothing “Israel could do for the U.S. that we couldn’t do ourselves.”
But in recent years, as Hizbullah and Hamas have gained influence and Iran has become a threat, that assessment may be in for an overhaul.
“The Middle East has changed in critical ways, but the United States has been slow to see this may open a new strategic alliance between Israel and the United States,” said Migdal.
While under George W. Bush, American Middle East policy was focused on Iraq, Obama has refocused it on Iran, which was dealt “a clear blow” by Israel in last year’s Gaza war with the Iranian-backed Hamas. Indeed, many Arab states gave unofficial approval to the invasion. That changed when critics began to characterize it as an assault against the Palestinian people, “which made it repulsive to the entire Arab world.”
With the United States realizing in recent years it “could not come into the Middle East as a single cowboy” and with so many Arab states fixating on Iran, Migdal said, it has become clear to the Americans that only a coalition that includes Israel makes sense.