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America’s Middle East policy has been a haphazard blend of hard-headed realism, idealism and dispensationalist theology. The result has not served US interests well.

When John Kerry was sworn in as US secretary of state in early 2013, he faced a daunting world. The war in Afghanistan was in its twelfth year. Civil war in Syria was threatening to destabilise the Middle East – already reeling from the after-effects of the Arab Spring uprisings. The inexorable rise of China and renewed Russian assertiveness were ever-present challenges. Kerry could easily have devoted the bulk of his tenure to any one of these problems. Instead, his first major initiative dealt with none of them: he worked for months, successfully, to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Such behaviour is not atypical for American officials. During the 2012 presidential election campaign, Republican nominee Mitt Romney travelled abroad, as has become traditional among candidates seeking to burnish their foreign-policy credentials. But Romney visited neither US troops in Afghanistan nor the leaders of rising powers such as India. Instead, between stops in the United Kingdom and Poland, Romney went to Israel. The prioritisation of Israel on his itinerary was mirrored throughout the campaign in his rhetoric. He criticised President Barack Obama for failing to support Israel and said that ‘I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security – the world must never see any daylight between our two nations.’1

Officials from both parties treat Israel as a major concern in US foreign policy, and candidates from both sides, but especially the Republican Party, have been voicing their support for the country as a matter of course for decades. (According to a Gallup poll taken in early 2013, 78% of Republicans said that they sympathised more with Israel than with the Palestinians, compared to 55% of Democrats.2) This baffles international observers: Israel, it seems, should hardly be among the most pressing concerns to Americans struggling with a weak economy and deeply divided over immigration, gun control and gay marriage. Even among foreign-policy concerns, it can be hard to understand why Israel merits more attention than the Arab Spring, the rise of China or the stability of Pakistan. But during the presidential debate on foreign policy in October 2012, the two candidates spent more time on Israel than on any of those issues.

One standard explanation is that candidates support Israel to win Jewish votes because of their supposed influence through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. That explanation is unconvincing. The organisation is certainly powerful, but American Jews do not appear to be Israel’s strongest supporters, nor do they count US policy towards Israel among their top concerns. They are hardly a large enough constituency to explain such persistent pandering. According to a 2012 exit poll, Jews made up 2% of the electorate and 69% of them voted for President Obama – which was actually the lowest percentage of the Jewish vote won by a Democratic presidential candidate in at least a dozen years. A 2012 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 4% of American Jews said support for Israel was the issue they were most concerned about, while 51% cited the economy and 15% income inequality.3

In fact, the American constituency most supportive of Israel is not Jews but fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. The support of this caucus stems from a distinctive reading of the Old Testament and a unique eschatology (that is, a belief about death, judgement and the end of the world), in which Israel plays a pivotal role. They believe that because God’s promises to Abraham were literal and unbreakable, they still hold today. Therefore, nations friendly to Israel stand to be blessed by God, while those opposed to it court His wrath. In 2013 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 82% of white evangelicals believed that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God – more than double the percentage of American Jews who held this belief – and almost half of them thought that the US was not sufficiently supportive of Israel.4 These voters make up a major part of the Republican base. White evangelicals accounted for 23% of the electorate in 2012, according to the Pew forum, and voted in exactly opposite proportions to Jewish voters: 69% for Romney and 30% for Obama.5 The religious beliefs of evangelicals and fundamentalists are a driving force in the Republican Party’s stance on US foreign policy towards Israel. There really is an Israel lobby that influences US foreign policy, but it is made up of more Christians than Jews.

By itself, the fact that religious beliefs are influencing political convictions is neither wrong nor unwelcome. This is hardly the first time religion has affected public policy, and it has often been a force for good – as it was in motivating abolitionism and the civil-rights movement. Fundamentalists’ religious beliefs led them to be among the first gentiles to advocate a Jewish homeland and press the US government to recognise the new state in 1948, at a time when the Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, generally opposed Zionism. But uncritically using religion for political purposes can have drawbacks: religous belief tends to be inflexible – being, by definition, dogmatic – and can blind one to the weaknesses and faults of the agenda one is advocating. In particular, the religiously grounded pro-Israel viewpoint distorts American policy towards the country with an unhelpful inflexibility and exaggerates its political importance – and, indeed, that of the whole Middle East – to the US. The time, attention and resources that the US brings to bear on the region have become disproportionate to the political interests that the country has there.

Fortunately, American policymakers can recognise that there is more theological disagreement on this issue than is widely acknowledged. The fundamentalist viewpoint does not have strong support in older Christian theology, and emerging evangelical leaders tend not to agree with it. Policymakers should thus feel freer to develop alternative approaches to US policy in the Middle East based on more traditional grounds, such as American security interests and humanitarian ideals. Although the US should always support Israel’s right to exist, it need not support every Israeli initiative and policy; sustain the high amount of US foreign aid to the country; nor even spend much time worrying about what is, in reality, a minor dispute in a strategically secondary region of the world.

The origins of dispensationalism

For most of their history, Christians have believed that God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament should be understood figuratively. His pledge of a special land for Abraham’s descendants was understood as the guarantee of heaven – the ultimate Promised Land – for all of the faithful. Christians generally did not believe that Israel or the Jewish diaspora continued to bear God’s special favour, nor did they look for the re-establishment of the state of Israel or signs of the end of the world in geopolitical developments in the Middle East. Probably the most significant engagement of Christendom with the Middle East between Constantine and Napoleon was the First Crusade (1095–99), the goal of which was to establish a Christian kingdom, not a Jewish one, and to secure Christian access to the holy places of Jesus’s birth and death. The Crusaders were not known for their concern for Jewish rights.

Dispensationalism, a school of theology that gradually arose by the early nineteenth century, eventually introduced the idea of Israel’s unique significance into Christian circles, especially American evangelicalism and fundamentalism. It remains a minority view among practising Christians worldwide, as neither the Roman Catholic nor Orthodox churches agree with it. Dispensationalism had roots in the Reformation but only came into focus in the teaching of an Irish preacher named John Nelson Darby (1800–82). Darby began his career as an ordained clergyman in the Anglican Church of Ireland but became a founding member of the Plymouth Brethren, an independent, pietistic and anti-hierarchical Christian group that bears some similarity to the Anabaptists of the Reformation era and present-day Mennonites.

Darby and his dispensationalist descendants argued that, throughout history, God had related to humanity through several distinct ‘dispensations’ of grace. God made a different promise to Noah (to save him from the flood) than he made to David (to establish his kingdom). The main distinction that dispensationalists made was between the promises made to ancient Israel and those made to the Christian Church. The Brethren’s insistence on reading the Bible plainly and literally led Darby to observe that the book nowhere clearly said that God’s promises to Abraham in the Old Testament had been voided or transferred to the Church (although other theologians argued that Romans 9:8 does exactly that). If those promises were still valid, they applied to Abraham and his descendants: Jews, not Christians. This led Darby to make a firm distinction between Israel and the Church, where older theologians had stressed a greater degree of continuity between the two. Dispensationalists interpret the Bible as stating that Israel and the Church are separate bodies; that the dispensation given to Israel was not cancelled or dissolved by the advent of Christianity; and that God’s promises thus apply to Jews around the world today.

That includes all the promises God made to Abraham in Genesis. In the book, God promises, at various points, to bless Abraham, give him offspring, make him the father of many nations, bless all peoples through him and, quite explicitly, give him a specific piece of land:

The LORD said to Abram ... ‘Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.’ (Genesis 13:14–17, English Standard Version)

In the nineteenth century, dispensationalists regularly predicted that God would fulfil his promise to Abraham by re-establishing a literal state of Israel in the Holy Land, a remarkable claim to make several decades before the First Zionist Congress in 1897. Some even became actively involved in founding the Zionist movement to hasten the Second Coming; one, William Blackstone, was honoured by Israel in 1956 for his devotion to its cause. Timothy Weber, a former professor of Church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written that ‘dispensationalists at that time seemed more eager for Jews to move back to Palestine than did Jews themselves.’6 After Israel was established in 1948, dispensationalists understood the event to be a fulfilment of Biblical prophecy and the new state to bear God’s special favour. Dispensationalists, then and today, ‘maintain that Israel is still a unique national and ethnic group in the sight of God. National Israel is still expected to enjoy the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises of the land,’ according to Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament interpretation at the Westminster Theological Seminary.7

Such favour has straightforward implications for the other nations of the world: if you want to be on God’s side, be nice to Israel. God told Abraham that ‘I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse’ (Genesis 12:3). Poythress has criticised this view: ‘people who believe that the political state of Israel will be vindicated [by God] ... may erroneously conclude that their own government should now side with the Israeli state in all circumstances’.8

The rise of dispensationalism in America

Darby tried unsuccessfully to disseminate his views in the US during several missionary trips in the 1860s. Dispensationalism only became a mainstream phenomenon, with tens of millions of followers, in the twentieth century through two authors and one event. The first author was Cyrus Scofield, an American Presbyterian theologian, whose Scofield Reference Bible was first published in 1909. The book disseminated a dispensationalist interpretation of the Bible in simple terms that made it accessible to millions of readers in the newly assertive fundamentalist churches around the country. (The first volume of The Fundamentals, from which fundamentalists proudly took their name, was published the following year.) The Scofield Reference Bible taught generations of laymen and preachers to read their Bibles through a dispensationalist framework. It is still in print today.

The second author is Hal Lindsey, a Christian writer and conservative commentator. Lindsey’s 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, sought to interpret global developments through the theological framework of dispensationalism. Taking the establishment of Israel in 1948 as the start of the final countdown to Armageddon, Lindsey offered readers a tour d’horizon of world events, placing the Cold War, the Six-Day War, 1960s counterculture and the Vietnam War, among other events, within a single, coherent vision.9 The book was appealing because it purported to explain both obscure passages of the Bible that have long stumped theologians and equally baffling world events that were clearly beyond the grasp of American policymakers. In Lindsey’s framework, Israel will have the misfortune of hosting the battle of Armageddon, with all its attendant destruction, but Jews can take heart in the knowledge that, if they survive, they will be saved by converting to Christianity. The book was the bestselling non-fiction book of the 1970s and has sold, according to some estimates, 35 million copies in 54 languages, founding a genre and spawning scores of copycats.10 Lindsey continues to offer his theological reading of world events on his television show, The Hal Lindsey Report. In 2008 he suggested that Senator Obama, as he then was, might be the Antichrist.11

Dispensationalism continues to be a popular topic among readers. It provided the framework for the Left Behind series: 16 fantastically popular books, published between 1995 and 2007, which depicted the end of the world, played out according to a dispensationalist script. In the novels, Israel is supernaturally protected from a Russian invasion, duped by the secretary-general of the United Nations (who is also the Antichrist) and hosts the (literal) battle of Armageddon and the millennial kingdom of Jesus upon his return. The books sold over 63m copies worldwide.12

Between Scofield and Lindsey was, of course, the founding of Israel. The unlikely return of a political entity called ‘Israel’ to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean nearly 2,000 years after the abolition of the Roman province of Judea seemed nothing short of miraculous, and was taken as a clear confirmation that those who had predicted Israel’s return long before it was remotely possible had been right. ‘The one event which many Bible students in the past overlooked was this paramount prophetic sign: Israel had to be a nation again in the land of its forefathers,’ Lindsey wrote.13 The establishment of the modern state of Israel gave dispensationalism a major boost to its credibility and brought it into the mainstream. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 44% of Americans, including 82% of white evangelicals, believe that Israel was given to the Jews by God.14

Dispensationalism continues to have a following among pastors and serious fundamentalist theologians. John MacArthur, who has served as pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, since 1969, is a self-proclaimed dispensationalist. He is the president of the Master’s College, a reputable undergraduate university, and the Master’s Seminary, a graduate school that specialises in theology and grants doctorates. His sermons, talks and writings are widely distributed through a variety of media, and include scores of books of Bible study and Biblical commentary. Like Scofield, MacArthur has published his own study Bible. MacArthur has been less politically engaged than were fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Chuck Colson, but for that reason his influence and reputation have endured, and even grown, in fundamentalist and evangelical circles.

MacArthur’s website includes a sermon series on the future of Israel, which ‘looks at highly detailed prophecies about Israel that came true, prophecies yet to be fulfilled, and the unique measures God will take to preserve His chosen people during the explosive, deadly period known as the Great Tribulation’.15 In October 2012, MacArthur reiterated his long-standing belief that the nation of Israel continues to exist by providential decree because

God has determined a future day in which he will save the nation [of] Israel, he will bring salvation to that nation. That’s why they still exist. God made no such promise to other ancient nations that surrounded Israel. You’ve never met an Amalekite ... [But] there are 15 million Israelites in the world because God has a promise to fulfill in the future.16

MacArthur explained that Biblical prophecy (in Zechariah 12) indicates that the world will turn against Israel in the end of days, ‘so we aren’t surprised that Israel suffers and struggles’. In what is probably a reference to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory in Egypt, he added, ‘nor are we surprised that there is an amassing force in the Middle East setting its target towards Israel’.17

Declining support for dispensationalism

It would be wrong for policymakers to ignore such claims simply because the reasoning is religious. The separation of Church and state does not mean that religiously informed arguments are banned from public debate; such a rule would have destroyed the civil-rights movement in its infancy. Similarly, it may be tempting to say that American policymakers are unable to discern the truth of dispensationalist claims and, therefore, should lay them aside when calculating the national interest. That response is too clever by half: many policymakers are themselves faithful believers in one religion or another and regularly consult their religious convictions in formulating conceptions of justice and equity. Those who sincerely believe that America will be safer if it is friendly to Israel can, and should, continue to make the argument in the public sphere.

Of course, they should do so openly, with the understanding that most Americans do not share their theological convictions. Critics may be alarmed that 44% of Americans believe God gave Israel to the Jews, but in a democracy the majority have their say. And all Americans should at least be aware that dispensationalism is an aberration in the history of Christian thought and does not have strong support from that religion’s greatest thinkers. Neither Saint Augustine nor Thomas Aquinas – nor Martin Luther nor John Calvin – read scripture the way that Darby and his followers did. Augustine argued that the Church was the heir of God’s promises to Israel, and that those promises should be understood figuratively rather than politically:

If we hold with a firm heart the grace of God which has been given us, [then] we are Israel, the seed of Abraham: unto us the Apostle says, ‘Therefore are you the seed of Abraham.’ Let therefore no Christian consider himself alien to the name of Israel.18

Thomas Aquinas made the same argument in his commentary on the Romans nine centuries later. (Their view is not without its critics, however, who argue that it is disrespectful towards Judaism by contending that the Church has in effect replaced Israel.) Neither Augustine nor Aquinas read Biblical prophecy as anticipating the re-establishment of an earthly state of Israel, nor would they have believed that such a state had any theological implications for Christians.

Dispensationalism, at any rate, may have passed its prime. Dispensationalists have never agreed on how to interpret world events, who the Antichrist is or when the Second Coming is to happen. Too many of their conflicting predictions have been falsified by the passage of time. The establishment of Israel was a boon for the prophecy-interpretation industry and spawned an entire genre of books, but it has not been succeeded by the sequence of events that dispensationalists expected. ‘Progressive’ dispensationalist theologians, such as Craig Blaising of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, have recognised the weaknesses of earlier formulations of their framework and inched closer in recent decades to the traditional Christian view.19

Prominent Christian spokespeople no longer make support for Israel a major part of their pitch. Rick Warren, founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, is a leading figure in the evangelical megachurch movement. He hosted a ‘Civil Forum on the Presidency’ with both presidential candidates in 2008 and was later invited to give the invocation at President Obama’s first inaugural. Warren is not a dispensationalist and has publicly criticised the tendency to focus too much on the interpretation of end-times prophecies. Similarly, Russell Moore – a Southern Baptist theologian and pastor who was recently named as the new head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy advocacy and lobbying arm – has criticised the dispensationalist framework and its implications for US foreign policy:

The impact of dispensationalism on fundamentalism and evangelicalism has often resulted in an almost unqualified support for Israel, spurred on by popular apocalypticism among the evangelical grassroots constituency. Believing that the nation’s reestablishment in Palestine in 1948 was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many in the new Christian right political movement have translated their theological understanding into support for Israel as a key component of their political worldview.20

Moore’s predecessor at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Richard Land, regularly espoused the pro-Israel dispensationalist viewpoint during his 25 years representing Southern Baptists in Washington DC.21 Moore does not share such views. His theological work does not, in his own words, ‘give such a blanket endorsement of the present Israeli state, at least not on the basis of Biblical prophecy’.22

A chance to debate US policy on Israel?

Since the 1970s, support for Israel has become an article of faith in conservative Christian and Republican circles. Major figures of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition of America and their broader movement – including Falwell, Colson, Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson – echoed similar views on Israel and its central place in Christian theology and US foreign policy. The US needed to support and protect Israel to stay on God’s good side and ensure national blessing, they argued. Through the substantial number of voters following them on television and in print, they sought to influence political attitudes in the Republican Party and eventually set the agenda for Republican candidates seeking their endorsement.

Their strategy worked. Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid in history. Since 1951, the US has given Israel around $193 billion in economic and military aid – the vast bulk of it since the Camp David Accords in 1978.23 That is not simply more than any other country; it is more by a very wide margin. The second-highest recipient, Egypt, has received $118bn over the same period, just 61% of Israel’s total. Israel has received more money than Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan combined; more than Vietnam during the decade-long US reconstruction and counter-insurgency effort there; and even, astonishingly, more than all of Europe under the Marshall Plan.24 There are good strategic and moral reasons to support Israel, but it is unclear if this extent of unhesitating diplomatic, military and economic assistance to the country is proportionate to the United States’ interest there.

It is politically difficult to even raise the subject, as Texas Governor Rick Perry discovered during a Republican presidential-campaign debate in 2011. He claimed that ‘the foreign aid budget in my administration, for every country, is going to start at zero dollars,’ and that he would approve aid on a case-by-case basis only when US interests were directly at stake. He won strong applause for his flinty stance, but was immediately challenged by a questioner, who asked if he would include Israel in that reassessment. Perry haltingly said ‘yes’, before assuring the audience that Israel would continue receiving aid from a Perry administration. Afterwards, Perry was severely criticised by the conservative media for suggesting that the US cut aid to Israel.25

Among gentiles, Israel policy has become a cultural wedge issue that signals one’s tribal loyalties; it is a proxy for one’s broader world view. Being pro-Israel conveys sympathy for the conservative, evangelical agenda. In this environment, questioning US policy towards Israel means risking one’s credentials as a conservative, a foreign-policy hawk or even a Christian. This sort of environment causes public debate to stagnate: even conservatives and evangelicals should recognise that it is unhelpful for their intellectual vibrancy to wall off an entire policy position from examination and scrutiny. As Weber has written, ‘when evangelicals force all the complicated issues in the Middle East through the tight grid of their prophetic views, they can lose the ability to think critically and ethically about what is really going on there.’26

Fortunately, the environment appears to be changing. If dispensationalism is fading as a force among evangelicals and fundamentalists, and therefore within the Republican Party, foreign-policy professionals have an opportunity to ‘think critically and ethically’ about US policy towards Israel. Given this chance, what should US foreign policy towards Israel be, as it gradually comes unmoored from its theological heritage?

A beneficial alliance

Firstly, the US should continue to recognise that Israel has an ironclad right to exist. The principle of self-determination has been enshrined in international law since the end of the First World War. Jewish efforts to achieve self-determination naturally emerged from the community of Jews who had immigrated freely and (mostly) legally to Ottoman Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Jewish people’s ancient connection to the land and, after the Holocaust, their indisputably precarious position gave their efforts further credibility and urgency. The UN recognised Israel’s right to exist when it approved a partition plan for British-controlled Palestine in 1947 and, again, when it accepted Israel’s application for membership of the organisation in 1949.

The US is also right to support Israel’s continued political and economic development. Israel is rated ‘free’ by Freedom House, with the highest possible score for political rights and the second-highest for civil liberties. Washington has long recognised the value of supporting democracies abroad as a key element of fostering a stable, peaceful international system. Israel is the only truly stable democracy in the region stretching from Gibraltar to Islamabad (Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq, Libya and Pakistan may, or may not, take advantage of their opportunities to build on new democratic institutions in coming years). Israel is thus a uniquely valuable partner for American efforts to support democracy.

The US should recognise that Israel’s value as a trading partner is disproportionate to the relatively small size of its economy. Although its GDP is only around $250bn, it has a rich-world GDP per capita, a highly educated workforce and a sophisticated, knowledge-based economy that specialises in industries such as aviation and medical electronics. As such, it is more economically integrated with the West than its neighbours. The United States’ trade with Israel reached $36bn in 2012 – more than that with Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Tunisia combined – and almost one-third of Israeli exports head to the US market.27 Israel is the United States’ third-largest customer for weapons sales, accounting for $36.2bn of purchases since 1950, according to the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency.28 Although the Israeli market is too small to count for much in the United States’ massive, $14-trillion economy, its position as the economic bright spot in a generally stagnant region makes it worthy of US investment.

Finally, Israel is a natural ally in the United States’ efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability, limit Tehran’s influence and deter or respond to Iranian aggression. Israel is more directly endangered by Iran’s bellicosity than is the US, and perceives a much higher degree of threat from Tehran’s growing regional power. Israel is probably, therefore, a more active and reliable ally against Iran than the United States’ European partners. US and Israeli intelligence reportedly collaborated on efforts to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities through cyber attacks in recent years – which seems to have been an economical and low-risk means of slowing (albeit temporarily) Iran’s enrichment of uranium. Israel is almost certainly the country with the strongest interest and political will to contribute to such efforts.

Reassessing US support for Israel

None of these benefits suggest that the US should overlook the disadvantages of its current policy towards Israel. The US can and should maintain support for Israel’s existence; its efforts to defend against terrorism and Iranian nuclear blackmail; and its good-faith diplomatic efforts to reach peace settlements with Syria and the Palestinian Authority. But supporting Israel in these ways does not require unconditional support for the country or a blanket endorsement of Israeli behaviour. In particular, the US does not need to sustain its high levels of foreign aid to Israel; tolerate Mossad’s long history of espionage against American targets; play a direct role in brokering agreements between the Israelis and their neighbours; or even care very deeply about the Israel–Palestine dispute.

The level of US aid to Israel is out of all proportion with the country’s place among American strategic interests: Israel is important, but not more important than all of Europe in the wake of the Second World War. The US certainly has interests in the Middle East – including those relating to counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism and the stability of world energy markets – but they do not outweigh American interests in Europe or East Asia. Those theatres are home to the United States’ largest trading partners, most powerful allies and strongest competitors. Even South Asia may be of greater importance than the Middle East; contrary to the typical narrative, the former rather than the latter is the locus of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation. In the twenty-first century, US security will be enhanced or threatened in the European and Asian theatres to a far greater degree than it will be in the Middle East.

Within the context of US policy towards the Middle East, it may be that US aid to Egypt and Israel is the price that the US pays for regional stability, but surely it is aid to Egypt that contributes more to this goal. Israel has little incentive or desire to provoke conflict with its neighbours; it does not need American money as a national bribe to keep it from invading other states. Most American assistance to Israel – an average of 70% since Camp David, but rising to 98% in 2011 – is military aid, specifically the waiving of payments for foreign military-financing contracts.29 In recent years, much of this has helped to build Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defence system.30 The US should simply stop issuing waivers and accept payment, converting aid into trade. Israel is, after all, the richest country to which the US gives foreign aid. As the third-largest buyer of US weapons, Israel has demonstrated that it can afford to pay. Increased payments from abroad will provide a needed fillip to the US defence industry, which has been weakened by sequestration and is threatened by future US defence cuts. Washington, meanwhile, should reserve foreign aid for poorer states.

Israel also has a long record of spying on the US. American officials do not openly discuss this uncomfortable aspect of the US-Israeli relationship, and official documents rarely cite Israel as a counter-intelligence threat. Nonetheless, reports occasionally surface (as they did last summer) of American officials’ private frustrations with Israel’s alarmingly aggressive espionage, both in the US and against American targets abroad.31 Such espionage is probably motivated, firstly, by a desire to discern American policymakers’ true intentions towards Israel because Israeli officials are insecure about whether the US would stand by its ally in an all-out war with its neighbours. Secondly, Israel may undertake industrial espionage to help its small economy stay commercially competitive, particularly in the defence-technology sector. That it is fairly normal for states to spy on one another is true but beside the point: Israel is one of the worst offenders, after China and Russia, in stealing American secrets. Nor is Israel’s espionage excusable because it means no harm to the US: Israeli intelligence may be penetrated by Iranian or Chinese agents who know that they can get American secrets without the hassle of hacking into the CIA. And, on grounds of principle, the US should insist that the largest recipient of its foreign aid refrains from stealing secrets, lest this undermine other allies’ confidence in American competence.

Finally, American policymakers’ time and attention seems disproportionately taken up with worrying about a region that is, in truth, secondary to worldwide American interests. Some critics argue that US policy towards Israel is unfair and hypocritical because the country flouts the liberal principles that the US professes to care about in its dealings with the Palestinians. Whether that is true is irrelevant: many political relationships are characterised by unfairness, but not all of them are relevant to US national security. The question is not whether the Israeli-Palestinian situation is fair – the US is not the global umpire of fairness – but whether Washington needs to care about it at all.

Some foreign-policy analysts have concocted a convoluted explanation that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict poisons relations with the rest of the Arab world, which takes out its frustration on America. Peace between Israel and Palestine is the master key to unlocking regional stability across the Middle East, they argue, and the US must become directly involved as an honest broker. But, as Aaron David Miller argued in a piece recounting decades of attempts to be that honest broker in high-ranking positions at the US Department of State,

in a broken, angry region with so many problems – from stagnant, inequitable economies to extractive and authoritarian governments that abuse human rights and deny rule of law, to a popular culture mired in conspiracy and denial – it stretches the bounds of credulity to the breaking point to argue that settling the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most critical issue, or that its resolution would somehow guarantee Middle East stability.32

Israel is not the only US ally to have a territorial dispute with a neighbour or a separatist movement within its (de facto) borders, but Washington did not so extensively involve itself in the disputes between the UK and the Irish Republican Army; Spain and Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna (ETA); Canada and Quebec; or Greece and Turkey over Cyprus. It seems baffling that the president of the United States must become personally involved in the minutiae of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. President Bill Clinton’s intensive effort to broker peace in the final months of his presidency was noble but also, perhaps, un-presidential. Americans tend to read something unique, portentous and epic into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is time for US policymakers to see the conflict for what it is: a fairly typical territorial spat between a micro-sovereignty and a failed state that Americans can safely ignore.

American policy towards the Middle East has often been a haphazard blend of hard-headed realism about oil, idealistic humanitarian concerns and dispensationalist theology. The result has not served American interests well. As the popularity of dispensationalism wanes, policymakers can and should continuously re-evaluate the US stance towards Israel and the broader Middle East. There is no easy solution to the difficult set of problems in the region, but in coming years the debate should move closer to the typical conflict between realists and idealists. In other words, the US can start treating Israel and the Middle East as a normal country and region of the world, and develop its foreign policy accordingly.

Notes

1 Harriet Sherwood, ‘Romney on Foreign Policy: View from Israel and the Palestinian Territories’, Guardian, 8 October 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/08/romney-foreign-policy-israel-palestinian.

2 Lydia Saad, ‘Americans’ Sympathies for Israel Match All-Time High’, Gallup, 15 March 2013, http://www.gallup.com/poll/161387/americans-sympathies-israel-match-time-high.aspx.

3 ‘2012 Fox News Exit Polls’, Fox News, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/elections/2012-exit-poll; Public Religion Research Institute, ‘Survey: Chosen for What? – Jewish Values in 2012’, 3 April 2012, http://publicreligion.org/research/2012/04/jewish-values-in-2012/.

4 Pew Research Center, ‘A Portrait of Jewish Americans’, 1 October 2013, Chapter Five, ‘Connection With and Attitudes Toward Israel’, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/chapter-5-connection-with-and-attitudes-towards-israel/. See also a 2005 poll on the same subject, Pew Research Center, ‘American Evangelicals and Israel’, April 2005, http://www.pewforum.org/2005/04/15/american-evangelicals-and-israel/.

5 Pew Research Center, ‘How the Faithful Voted: 2012 Preliminary Analysis’, 7 November 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/11/07/how-the-faithful-voted-2012-preliminary-exit-poll-analysis/.

6 Timothy P. Weber, ‘How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend’, Christianity Today, 5 October 1998, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/october5/8tb038.html.

7 Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1993), p. 12.

8 Ibid., p. 32.

9 Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970).

10 Rapture Ready, ‘Hal Lindsey’, http://raptureready.com/who/Hal_Lindsey.html.

11 Amy Sullivan, ‘An Antichrist Obama in McCain Ad?’, Time, 8 August 2008, http://content.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1830590,00.html.

12 Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1995).

13 Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth, p. 43.

14 Michael Lipka, ‘More White Evangelicals than American Jews say God gave Israel to the Jewish People’, Pew Research Center, 3 October 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/03/more-white-evangelicals-than-american-jews-say-god-gave-israel-to-the-jewish-people/.

15 John MacArthur, The Future of Israel (Panorama City, CA: Grace to You, 2012).

16 John MacArthur, ‘John MacArthur on the Middle East and the Future of Israel’, Grace to You, 11 October 2012, http://www.gty.org/blog/B121011.

17 Ibid.

18 Saint Augustine, ‘Exposition on Psalm 114’, New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1801114.htm.

19 Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). Chapter Two summarises the history of dispensationalist theology and concludes that the new wave of ‘progressive’ dispensationalist theologians have moved far closer to traditional ‘covenant’ theology.

20 Russell D. Moore, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 72.

21 Deborah Caldwell, ‘Why Christians Must Keep Israel Strong’, Beliefnet, www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2002/06/Why-Christians-Must-Keep-Israel-Strong.aspx.

22 Moore, The Kingdom of Christ, p. 72.

23 US Agency for International Development, ‘U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants, Obligations and Loan Authorizations’, http://gbk.eads.usaidallnet.gov/.

24 The Marshall Plan disbursed $13.3bn between 1948 and 1952, according to the George C. Marshall Foundation. That is equivalent to about $130bn today, according to the US Department of Labor’s inflation calculator. George C. Marshall Foundation, ‘European Economic Cooperation Countries and Marshall Plan Payments’, http://www.marshallfoundation.org/library/documents/European_Economic_Cooperation_Countries_Marshall_Plan_Payments.pdf.

25 ‘Perry: Start Foreign Aid at Zero Dollars; Newt: Sometimes Stay There’, Talking Points Memo, 12 November 2011, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/perry-start-foreign-aid-at-zero-dollars-newt-sometimes-stay-there.

26 Weber, ‘How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend’.

27 CIA, The World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/; US Census Bureau, ‘Trade in Goods with Israel’, http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5081.html.

28 Historical Facts Book (Washington DC: US Department of Defense, 2012), http://www.dsca.mil/sites/default/files/historical_facts_book_-_30_sep_2012.pdf.

29 Ibid.

30 William J. Broad, ‘Weapons Experts Raise Doubts about Israel’s Antimissile System’, New York Times, 20 March 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/world/middleeast/israels-iron-dome-system-is-at-center-of-debate.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&.

31 Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, ‘US Sees Israel, Tight Mideast Ally, as Spy Threat’, Associated Press, 28 July 2012, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/us-sees-israel-tight-mideast-ally-spy-threat.

32 Aaron David Miller, ‘The False Religion of Mideast Peace’, Foreign Policy, 29 April 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/19/the_false_religion_of_mideast_peace#sthash.VPoK4sGU.dpbs.

Paul D. Miller is a Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation and an Assistant Professor of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington DC. He previously served on the National Security Staff in the White House for both the Bush and Obama administrations. He is currently studying for a Masters in Theological Studies at the Reformed Theological Seminary. The views expressed here are his own.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

February-March 2014

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