Two to Tango, But One to Rule:
The Impact of US Unipolarity on Israel and Palestine
The end of the Cold War lead to an unprecedented rise in the influence of the United States, particularly in the Middle East. Whereas during the Cold War, superpowers checked each other and Middle Eastern states had the ability to leverage the great power support, under unipolarity, this ceased. The rise of unipolarity caused a shift in Middle Eastern power dynamics. In particular, this applies to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which, under the watchful and coercive eye of the US, became the much smaller stalled Israel-Palestine conflict. I argue that though Israel and Palestine have always been the center of this issue, the advent of American unipolarity ended the Arab dimension of the conflict; and that the US, as a realist actor and world hegemon, has no incentives to aid Palestine and many incentives to maintain the status quo, resulting in the continued and worsened oppression of Palestine with little hope for recourse.
Arab-Israeli to Israel-Palestine: The Bipolar Past
In order to explore the impact of American unipolarity on Israel-Palestine, we must question what the alternative might be. To assess this counterfactual, we can compare the present day with the bipolarity of the Cold War. Though the USSR was not dissolved until 1991, its power began to wane long before then, particularly in the Middle East. I will track how the USSR used pan-Arabism to counter American influence in the region and how the US ultimately managed to wrest influence away from the USSR. I will show how this affected the conflict in Israel and Palestine through analysis of the various deals made between the two parties in this time period.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine began as a conflict between the Arab nations of the Middle East and Israel. The creation of the state of Israel in Palestinian lands was deemed a travesty by Arabs, who saw the Palestinian conflict as their own in solidarity. Douglas Little writes, “In Palestine … civil war loomed between the Jews and Arabs” (Little 306). Little’s choice to posit that this conflict was between the “Jews and Arabs” as opposed to the Israelis and Palestinians is telling, and reflects the fact that the 1947 United Nations plan to partition Palestine was rejected “by the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states” (Slater 172). The ensuing war in 1948 was therefore fought by the Arab League, including Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. (Little 306) From the start, the conflict was transnational.
The USSR had initially supported Zionism in order to combat British influence in the region. However, the US stepped in to, as Truman’s counsel Clark Clifford put it, “steal a march on [the] U.S.S.R.” (Clifford). In response, and in order to retain influence in the region, the Soviets switched sides. Despite later concerns that “Pan-Arabism might ultimately prove incompatible with Communism” (Little 311) the USSR would support the Arab League in lieu of Israel. Though the US and Britain had intended to keep the Arab nations on their side, a positive relationship with the Arabs was proving more difficult to maintain so long as the West supported Israel. The USSR offered Egypt $400 million, along with military aid, in the summer of 1956, emboldening Egypt enough to nationalize the Suez Canal. (Little 308) Britain and France partnered with the Jewish state to retake the canal, but American concern that the USSR might take advantage of a power vacuum in Egypt and send in troops resulted in the US calling for a ceasefire on Israel’s behalf instead – hardly the unequivocal support we now expect in the modern day, and a sign of how bipolarity tempered US responses.
Likewise, in 1967 during the Six-Day War, itself a result of tensions between Israel and the newly-formed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Soviet Union supported the Arabs with arms and threatened to intervene. Egypt and Syria both attacked Israel with support from Libya and Kuwait, despite being largely pro-Western, proving once again that this was indeed an Arab conflict. (Little 313) Though the US postured more aggressively in this case, it still urged Israel to accept a ceasefire instead of helping it solidify its already-successful campaign.
The USSR used Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism to counter the West, and in doing so, forced Washington’s hand. American aims were stymied by the USSR’s decision to prop up the Arab League. The implied threat was that if the US acted against Egypt, it would incur the wrath of the entire Arab League, and thus the Soviet Union, sparking fears of World War III. Little argues that the Arab-Israeli conflict had inflamed tensions between the two superpowers, which resulted in considerations of intervention and nuclear Armageddon. The US had to mitigate its objectives and account for Soviet opposition.
Soviet influence in the Middle East, though, had an expiration date. The US outspent the Soviets and proved that capitalism and economic liberalization were more attractive than “Arab socialism”. Even those states that embraced Arab socialism continued to trade in the capitalist world, and Western-leaning nations experienced much greater economic growth, particularly oil-rich states (Halliday 13). A realization came about that individual regional states were tied to the global system through economic liberalization, and could not expect to thrive without that connection, causing money to take precedence over military power. (Hinnebusch 230) Though peace (or violence) might equally have been provided by the USSR and the expulsion of the US, only the Americans could provide global economic liberalization, given that it would have been antithetical to communism. As Raymond Hinnebusch writes,
“an early precursor of this route was Sadat’s Egypt where economic liberalisation, Western alignment and peace with Israel went hand in hand; Jordan, likewise, opted for peace with Israel to restore the economic aid it had lost for siding with Iraq in the Gulf War and to revitalize a depressed economy badly needing foreign investment.” (Hinnebusch 230)
The Soviet Union depended on Nasser’s pan-Arabism to counter the interests of the US. However, with the death of Nasser and his succession by the less ideological Anwar Sadat, pan-Arabism was struck a terrible blow, and so was the USSR. In 1972, Sadat expelled all Russian advisors and hoped for the US to take this as a sign of goodwill, and to convince the Israelis to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula. (Little 318-319) However, it would take yet another Arab-Israeli war in 1973 and an oil embargo by OPEC before Washington took the hint. Afterward, the US ratcheted up diplomacy with Egypt, and, in 1979, ultimately got Egypt to drop the oil embargo and sign a peace treaty with Israel that stipulated that the Israelis would begin negotiations with the PLO. (Little 324) The USSR was all but shut out of the Middle East, and what little power it retained would continue to wane over the next few years until its eventual collapse.
Having characterized bipolarity and how it affected US actions in the Middle East, we can turn to unipolarity and its direct effect on the peace process between Israel and Palestine. Hinnebusch tells us, “Whatever the US might have wished to do … it was the collapse of bi-polarity that gave it the opportunity to act” (218). A series of accords and deals were made concerning Israel and Palestine during the period covered above, and after. I argue that under bipolarity, the Palestinians were able to get more out of each deal than they did in any instance post-1979, and that even those terms agreed to pre-1979 were violated without consequence under American unipolarity.
In 1947, UN Resolution 181 stipulated that both Israel and Palestine would be recognized as states, yet the resolution was shot down. Israel tentatively accepted it, but the Palestinians rejected it. Some accounts posit that Israel only ever accepted the plan so that it might backtrack later, However, Palestine’s consistent policy of maximalism, wherein they would accept no partition of land or any Israeli state in Palestine, suggests that Resolution 181 died at the hands of the Arabs. (Slater 174) Despite the fact that private letters from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, show that he intended to expel all Palestinians from the Holy Land, Israel at least seemed outwardly willing to accept a two-state solution early on. UN Resolutions 242 and 338, passed in 1967 and 1973 respectively, were vague, but demanded the recognition of all states in the region, that Israel and Palestine begin negotiations for a lasting peace agreement, and, most importantly, that Israel return to its pre-1967 borders. It was not until the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988 that Palestine officially recognized Israel and showed willingness to negotiate a two-state solution – well after the decline of the USSR’s influence in the Middle East. (Slater 176) Both the Palestinians and Israelis were betting that their side would ultimately come out on top, and gambled that they would be able to strike a better deal as they gained primacy, and the Palestinians lost.
Thus, we have seen the Palestinians become more willing to make concessions as the Israelis have become emboldened by US support and therefore more intransigent. Resolution 242 called for Israeli withdrawal from territories conquered in the Six-Day War, but this was largely ignored – Israel had already won a major victory in 1967, and the pan-Arab front was already slipping. Israel agreed to honor 242 in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords, but again, Israel violated the agreement; then-PM Yitzhak Rabin continued to colonize Palestinian territories, since this was not expressly prohibited (though clearly outside the spirit of the agreement), and two years later announced a plan for a permanent settlement that nullified basically the entire 1993 deal. (Slater 177) Under bipolarity, Israel had at least been outwardly agreeable; under American unipolarity, they feel untouchable, and have flouted every major agreement with Palestine. Meanwhile, Palestine had been maximalist and unwilling to compromise or recognize Israel at all, but changed its tune radically under the specter of American unipolarity. The peace process since 1993 has seen Israel either refuse to negotiate, offer completely unacceptable terms, or violate their own agreements.
Rashid Khalidi points out that Palestine should not have to negotiate or concede anything to get Israel to respect basic human rights guaranteed by the UN charter, such as the end of an illegal occupation, national self-determination, and the ability of refugees to return home (Khalidi 67). However, Israel views foreign policy through the lens of realism: it does not matter what rights the Palestinians claim so long as they lack the military or economic power to take those rights for themselves. Palestine no longer poses a serious security threat to Israel: “the end to the Arabs’ Soviet patron, the defeat of Iraq and the grave weakening of the PLO in the Gulf War reduced the conventional security threat to Israel” (Hinnebusch 225). Palestine has been forced to resort to guerrilla tactics and terrorism – the tools of the weak and oppressed – to make any sort of stand at all. The intifadas and rocket attacks perpetrated by Palestine are tragically violent, but insufficient means to enact policy change on Israel’s behalf. The Iron Dome keeps Israel safe from the most devastating attempts, and the slow-burn violence we see in the form of random stabbings serves only to justify Israel’s systematic militaristic policing in Palestinian territories. The rise of American unipolarity and the absence of a balancing superpower has denied Palestine the luxury of powerful allies. This has created a power imbalance in Israel’s favor. Israel receives billions of US dollars in military and economic aid, along with “assiduous U.S. diplomatic protection for these and other egregious Israeli violations of international law” (Khalidi 68). Hinnebusch tells us, “conflict resolution was more likely to succeed when a relative power balance inflicts a certain symmetry of costs on the parties, giving each the incentive to accommodate the others’ interests” (238). This might have existed during the Cold War, but no longer bears any semblance to the reality of the situation. Khalidi succinctly explains:
“The conflict is a highly asymmetrical colonial struggle between, on the one hand, a militarily dominant and economically powerful Israeli state acting with the full support of the greatest power in world history, and, on the other, a divided, dispersed, and oppressed Palestinian people living either under occupation or in exile, and enjoying very limited external support.” (62)
Palestine has no one in its corner. The Arab nations that once promoted pan-Arabism are either in the pockets of the US, or themselves too weak to risk confrontation with a superpower. Meanwhile, Israel can flout international law with little fear of retribution. The conflict has become completely unbalanced as a result of American hegemony, as the US continues to support Israel with nearly unequivocal support in general, and certainly with regards to Palestine. Unipolarity has deprived Palestine of power and any hope for a just and fair settlement any time in the near future.
(Dis)Incentives: The Unipolar Present
We know, then, how the US ousted the USSR from the Middle East, broke down the front of pan-Arabism, and ultimately isolated Palestine, relegating it to pseudo-state status. However, up to this point, we have scarcely examined the incentive structure behind these decisions. Why does the US isolate Palestine, and why does its position as a superpower make it uniquely positioned to do so? I will explain that the US has little incentive to truly resolve the conflict in a way that would be acceptable to the Palestinians and that the US in fact benefits from Palestine’s lack of sovereignty.
I begin, briefly, with an exploration of the lack of incentives for the US to make a genuine effort to bring about Palestinian statehood, suggesting possible incentives and explaining why they are either unrealistic or insufficient. Palestine’s demands are not extravagant: they ask for the most basic human rights, like self-determination, control of and access to clean water, and freedom from illegal occupation. One might posit that the US ought support Palestine out of moral obligation. However, states rarely act on morals alone – particularly neo-realist or neo-liberal states, like the US, whose policy is driven by self-interest. Additionally, the US has no greater nation to hold it to such standards, and can thus promote the same moral standards it violates. One might argue that it would indeed be in the interest of the US to abide by some greater moral code for the sake of prestige, insofar as other states would admire the moral quality of the US for having stepped in to protect Palestine. However, this conflates the individual with the establishment. Every American president for the last 35 years, including Barack Obama in the present day, has tried his hand at the peace process, and with good reason: should a president oversee the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, such a leader would secure their legacy and almost certainly win the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the establishment receives no such benefits from altruism. Congress would be paid no dividends, and in fact would suffer the ire of the Israel lobby should the deal be less than ideal for the US ally. The government of the US is much more than its president, which explains why Obama, despite making strong promises on the issue of Palestine, was forced to backtrack on all of those promises just two years into his presidency (Khalidi 66). One might respond that the US loses face as a trustworthy and altruistic actor, and thus damages its credibility in other scenarios. However, the solution of the Palestinian problem is not necessary to maintain American credibility; all that is necessary is the appearance of effort on behalf of the US to solve the problem. So long as the world believes the US is trying to solve the problem, it maintains its veneer of sincerity. Due to American unipolarity, the narrative the US puts forth holds more sway than that of Palestine – in this case, that Palestine is intransigent and unwilling to come to the table in earnest. It is not the fault of either the US or Israel – it is Palestine’s.
One could point out that other Arab nations disapprove of American support for Israel on the issue of Palestine, and argue that the US would garner benefits in relationships with those nations were it to defend Palestine. However, Khalidi points out that there is no united Arab lobby to counter the Israel lobby, and that
“U.S. alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia are not contradictory in any way; indeed they are complementary. The United States can thus have its cake and eat it too, aligning itself firmly with basic Israeli aims where Palestine is concerned without jeopardizing its far-ranging vital interests in the Arab petro-monarchies.” (69)
Furthermore, I posit as above that the US is a neo-realist/liberal self-interested actor whose primary concern is its geostrategic and economic security. To this end, it has two goals in the Middle East: to maintain its allies and its access to Arab oil. Palestine serves neither of these in a unipolar world, unlike the bipolar world of the Cold War: to assist Palestine would indeed damage its relationship with Israel, and Palestine is not an oil rich state.
From the previous point, the argument in favor of incentives to maintain the status quo wherein Palestine exists as a sub-state under Israel’s thumb begins to construct itself. First, the US has an enormous incentive to maintain its special relationship with Israel. Though one might point to American disregard for Israeli policy and opinion during negotiations with Egypt in the 1970s or on the Iran nuclear deal passed in 2015, the fact is that this is all the more reason for the US to let Palestine be. Both the Egypt and Iran deals served American geostrategic interest – Palestine does not. Therefore, it makes no sense to anger Israel over something they care very much about and for which the US cares very little. The US must appease Israel on the issue of Palestine in order to be able to act freely in other arenas while retaining Israel’s trust. Even so, tensions have risen in the last few years, making US support for Israel on Palestine more important than ever. Second, the Pentagon “identified the main potential threats to Pax Americana as militaristic Third World nationalist regimes … especially Islamic pariah states” (Hinnebusch 217). Palestine has no real statehood, and thus is not a threat; to open the Pandora’s box of Palestinian statehood would be to invite the possibility of yet another failed state in the region, which would make US aims even more difficult to achieve and would certainly become an American problem as there exists no other great power to take on the burden of shielding nearby states (particularly allies) from spillover effects. Third, even if the US were to help Palestine achieve statehood, the Palestinian people would be unlikely to forget or forgive nearly seventy years of complicit oppression. This would result in the creation of a newly independent belligerent state on the doorstep of Israel. Washington has ample incentive to prevent this from happening.
As such, the US has little incentive to help Palestine, and none that cannot be served by the appearance of helping, and many incentives to prevent Palestine from achieving sovereignty. Thus, the US has not only refused to help Palestine, but has in fact aided Israel’s settlement efforts, silenced Palestinian voices by propagating the myth that the US is acting as an ‘honest broker’, and in cases, been even less flexible than Israel itself. (Khalidi) All this serves US interests, and there exists no power to check American belligerence. Unipolarity gives the US the freedom to serve its own interests with little consideration for others. Were there a balancing great power, either globally or in the region, the US would be unable to serve these interests outright and without opposition, as in the Cold War.
Israel and Palestine, locked in conflict since the 1940s, have been subject to the whims of great powers. The bipolar world of the Cold War gave each side an advocate. The USSR propped up pan-Arabism in an effort to counter the US, but the implication for Palestine was united militarized Arab support for their cause. With the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the US, which had long supported Israel, became the sole superpower. However, American advocacy on Israel’s behalf, was not merely motivated by anti-Soviet strategy, but by a complex array of geostrategic incentives. Unipolarity, then, allowed the US to support Israel unchecked, resulting in a worsened situation for Palestine and further colonial pressure from Israel with little hope of a just and fair resolution.
Clifford, Clark, quoted in George Elsey’s memorandum of conversation, May 12,1948, US Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1975), vol. V, 976.
Halliday, Fred. ‘After the Cold War: The Maturing of the Greater West Asian Crisis,’ ch. 5, The Middle East in International Relations, pp. 130-166, 2005.
Hinnebusch, Raymond. ‘The Middle East in a Decade of Globalisation (1991-2001) Ch. 8 in The International Politics of the Middle East, 2003, pp. 204-239.
Khalidi, Rashid. ‘The United States and the Palestinians, 1977-2012: Three Key Moments’ Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. XLII, No. 4 (Summer 2013), pp. 61–72.
Little, Douglas. ‘The Cold War in the Middle East: Suez Crisis to Camp David Accords,’ Ch. 15 in Leffler, Mark and Odd Arne Westad, The Cambridge History of the Cold War, vol. 2, pp. 305-326.
Slater, David. ‘What Went Wrong? The Collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process,’ Political Science Quarterly, vol. 116, no. 2, pp. 171-199, 2011.