It has long been gospel (appropriately enough) in the State Department and American academic circles that the United States has paid a terrible price for its relationship with Israel.
But for Israel, the argument goes, America would be popular in Arab lands and able to work more effectively with Arab leaders.
In 2006, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, not anti-Semitic kooks but foreign policy mandarins, elaborated on the gospel by explaining why America was willing to jeopardize its own national security through its slavish devotion to Israel. The culprit, they argued — cue the drumroll — was the "Israel lobby." Washington's unwillingness to separate its own interests from those of the Jewish state was responsible for the Arabs' reluctance to work closely with Washington and for the host of other problems stemming from the Muslim world. Even terrorism.
"The United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel," Walt and Mearsheimer opined.
American Jews and other supporters of Israel fulminated. But it took a while, predictably, for foreign policy aficionados to examine these premises systematically. Two senior national security gurus finally have done so, and have shredded the argument. "Israel, a Strategic Asset for the United States," written by Robert Blackwill, who served in four White Houses, most recently as George W. Bush's deputy national security adviser, and Walter Slocombe, a senior Pentagon official in the Carter and Clinton administrations who worked as a defense adviser in Iraq in 2003, concludes that America's close ties to Israel have advanced, not jeopardized, its national security interests.
The 17-page essay, published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, lists numerous ways in which the U.S. has benefited from its relations with Israel, especially in the defense and intelligence sectors. It also argues America should reject the notion of Israel as a strategic liability and openly embrace it as a strategic asset.
But the essay's even more interesting argument is its attack on the widely held belief, not only in Washington, that America's closeness to Israel weakens its effectiveness in the Arab world.
"Since 1973, we can't find a single example of tangible actions by Arab governments for which the U.S. paid a price for its relationship with Israel," Blackwill told me at the Council on Foreign Relations last week. "Not one," Slocombe agreed.
"Would Saudi Arabia's relationship with Washington be different if relations between Washington and Israel went into decline?" the authors argue.
"Would they lower the price of oil? Would Riyadh view American democracy promotion in the Middle East more favorably? Would it regard U.S. Afghanistan policy more positively? Our criterion in this report was to check how the Arab governments act; not what they say," Blackwill said.
None of the really smart people at the council's session offered an example that contradicted the authors' premise. Not one.
Blackwill and Slocombe conceded that they confined their analysis to the actions of Arab states, not the views of Arab citizens. Nor did they focus on the extent to which terrorist groups may be motivated by hatred of Israel and America's alliance with it. The 9/11 Commission, after all, concluded that resentment of American support for Israel was partly responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Even the terrorism argument, however, can be pushed too far. While al Qaeda often cites American Middle East policies in Internet postings to justify anti-American terror, Osama bin Laden's earliest pronouncements rarely mentioned Israel, but rather, concentrated on U.S. support for the corrupt Saudi regime as justification for his jihad.
Arab leaders, of course, have usually been able to disregard the views of their people to pursue policies in their national interest. America's support for Israel, for instance, did not stop Saudi Arabia from stationing American-supplied early warning stations and defensive missiles on its soil to defend Gulf Arab states from an Iranian attack.
But could this be changing? The Arab Spring uprisings have already changed the political face of the Arab Middle East. Could the emerging new Arab governments eventually be forced to factor in their people's disdain for America's closeness to Israel far more than our friendly Arab autocracies ever did? And if so, will America eventually pay a price for what Arabs see, inaccurately, as America's blind devotion to the Jewish state? Could the emergence of more responsive, if not conventionally "democratic," governments in the region complicate American foreign policy by imposing true "costs" on Washington's alliance with Israel?
Perhaps, say Blackwill and Slocombe. But they remain skeptical. Egypt, for example, may refuse to sell Israel gas or issue visas to Israeli journalists thanks to the crowds in Tahrir Square. But Cairo is unlikely to abandon the peace treaty with Israel that has kept Egypt out of war and provided billions in American and international aid — no matter which political party triumphs in the coming elections. National interests, like facts, are stubborn things. Nations and analysts ignore them at their peril.