Time for “Constructive Disengagement” from the Middle East

February 7, 2000 • Commentary

The dominant U.S. role in the talks between Israel and Syria creates the mistaken impression that core American interests are at stake. The United States may be asked to pledge more than $50 billion to cover the costs of Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights, including the relocation of the some 15,000 Israelis who have settled in the area since 1967. And there are indications that a peace agreement between Jerusalem and Damascus may require a U.S. military presence on the Golan, perhaps as part of an international monitoring team.

Most of the debate in Washington over U.S. involvement in the Israeli‐​Syrian negotiations has focused on the potential costs to American taxpayers and the risks to U.S. soldiers that could result from new financial and military commitments by the Clinton administration. It will be difficult to sell to the American people the proposal that Israel, the largest beneficiary of U.S. military and economic aid, should be further compensated for agreeing to dismantle the settlements on the Golan that U.S. administrations have described for years as “illegal.” And at a time when Congress and the public seem weary of U.S. military interventions overseas, especially in the Balkans, the Clinton administration may find little support for placing U.S. troops in yet another province of the former Ottoman Empire, where ethnic and religious rivalries are bound to entangle the United States.

Yet even Americans who contend that new U.S. commitments to support a peace accord would not be cost‐​effective rarely question the underlying assumption that the United States should continue playing a dominant role in the Middle East. That Israel and Syria have decided that it is in their national interest to settle the dispute between them should not be used as an excuse to deepen U.S. military and diplomatic involvement in the region. Instead, Washington now has an opportunity to reassess its entire Middle East policy and start a process of “constructive disengagement.”

All three major factors that have drawn the United States into the region since the 1950s — the superpower rivalry, Western access to oil resources and the security of Israel — have changed beyond recognition. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and Russia plays a marginal role in the Middle East. The collapse of the oil cartel in the 1980s, the transformation in the global energy markets and the political disunity in the Arab world have made the notion of the “Arab oil weapon” a distant memory. Finally, Israel, with its advanced economic and technological infrastructure, including a nuclear capability, is the undisputed military power in the region.

Those dramatic strategic changes suggest that the Arab‐​Israeli peace process has been “de‐​internationalized.” The region has lost its geostrategic importance, and that provides incentives for the local players, including Syria and Israel, to end their conflict. America’s national interests are affected only marginally by the status of the negotiations. In contrast to 1956, 1967 and 1973, any Israeli‐​Arab crisis can now be “localized.” It would not lead to a superpower confrontation, ignite an oil embargo against the United States or threaten the existence of Israel. If crises in the region have any wider impact, they affect the nearby countries of the European Union far more than they do the United States. If Israel and Syria insist on the presence of foreign troops to monitor their agreement, the EU, which is developing its own EU Corps for peacekeeping missions, not the United States, should be ready to provide that type of assistance.

Hence, while the United States should be ready to play the role of honest mediator in the talks, it should not provide pay‐​offs to the two sides, in the form of either financial aid or military commitments. Nor should Washington try to encourage Syria to become more “democratic” in exchange for American economic or military aid. The only “reward” Syria should expect is peace with Israel and normal diplomatic and trade relationships with the United States.

A peace accord between Jerusalem and Damascus also should not become an excuse to shower Israel with more U.S. aid and security guarantees. The United States needs to take advantage of the new developments in the region to lessen Israeli dependence on Washington. Peace with Syria and other neighbors will permit Israel to start forming political and military relationships with other Middle Eastern players and create a new regional balance of power that could help deter potential aggressors. Normalizing its relationship with the United States, including an end to U.S. economic and military aid, will not only encourage Israel to adapt its long‐​term security to new regional realities but will also pressure it to continue reforming its statist economy.

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