The US Grapples with Israel as a ‘Strategic Asset’

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

An article in the journal’s new special issue argues that American mediation as an honest broker, not reflexive support, has delivered benefits for Tel Aviv.


As Israel pounds Gaza in retaliation for the horrific October 7 attacks that killed more than 1,200, the United States is protecting its ally as the UN Security Council frantically negotiates for a deal that would stop the fighting and allow for the release of more than 100 hostages seized by Hamas fighters. The American delegation has already vetoed two of the council’s resolutions despite nearly 20,000 Palestinians killed, most of Gaza’s residents forced from their homes, and much of the enclave’s infrastructure decimated—indeed, the last hospital in the northern strip has stopped functioning.

Despite its moves to shield Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right government at the United Nations, the Biden administration has been urging the Israelis to limit civilian casualties. Indeed, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has warned the Jewish state that it risks “strategic defeat” and a region-wide war if the effort does not narrowly target Hamas and create the conditions necessary to create “a future for Gaza.”

Since Netanyahu’s declaration that he is “proud” to have prevented the formation of a Palestinian state, some US senators have criticized the Israeli prime minister for having “shut the door on that effort” and labeled him an “exceptionally difficult partner.” But President Joe Biden and the American foreign-policy establishment continue a long tradition of backing Israel.

Leon Hadar, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Program, examines the development of the ties between the two countries since the early Cold War. His article, in Middle East Policy’s new special issue, The Gaza War, examines how two generations of defense intellectuals, starting in 1967, tilted US policy toward Israel.

While the hope of these American officials and influencers was that Israel would be a “strategic asset” and bulwark in the Middle East, Hadar argues, the war on terrorism in the early 2000s indicated that the country was more of a “strategic burden.”

Hadar analyzes the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah that lasted about a month before the United Nations brokered a ceasefire. After Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers, Israel responded with airstrikes and artillery fire, and it invaded southern Lebanon and imposed a blockade of the country. The guerrilla group fought on the ground and engaged in rocket attacks on northern Israel. 

Israel suffered 44 civilian deaths, with nearly 1,500 wounded. The war also claimed the lives of more than 800 Lebanese civilians and 250 Hezbollah fighters.

In the context of the American struggle to pacify Iraq after unleashing its destructive power on the country, Israel’s backers saw the war with Hezbollah as an opportunity to strike a decisive blow against Iran and Syria. However, Hadar shows, Israel was either not willing or not able to do so, leaving American neoconservatives fuming. He quotes the columnist Charles Krauthammer as lamenting Israel’s failure “to demonstrate its utility by making a major contribution to America’s war on terrorism.”

Hadar contends that the Cold War had led the United States to seek a balance in the Middle East. The first generation of neoconservatives, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, rallied behind Israel as an ideological ally and a strategic asset against the USSR. But US administrations saw the need to strengthen relations with the Arab world. This allowed President Jimmy Carter to seek peace between Israel and Egypt—and, Hadar argues, it demonstrated that Israel could benefit from US evenhandedness. 

But as time went on, he writes, the “constraints on Israel’s ability to play the role of a U.S. strategic asset in the Middle East became quite obvious,” most notably during the Reagan administration. The country’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and its role in the Iran-Contra affair “resulted in major costs.” The First Intifada followed, highlighting “the destructive consequences of the neoconservative ‘strategic asset’ formula and its operational implication of placing the Palestinian issue on the back burner.”

The 2006 war with Hezbollah, the focus of Hadar’s piece, was just one more example of the US inability, despite its hegemony, to keep Israel safe without resolving the Palestinian conflict.

More than a decade later, the Trump administration would try to achieve this by ignoring Palestine and seeking separate peace agreements between Israel and Arab states. It appears that Hamas was determined to put the Palestinian question at the center of Israeli security concerns. 

While it is not clear whether the warnings by US officials like Austin are having an effect, Hadar concludes his piece with a warning: “Washington should ensure that the Israeli tail doesn’t wag the American dog.”

Among the major takeaways readers can find in Leon Hadar’s Middle East Policy article, “Israel as a U.S. ‘Strategic Asset’: Myths and Realities”:

  • The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon forced a reorientation of the defense of Israel as a valuable US ally and partner in the region.
  • Israel’s failure to destroy Hezbollah in the conflict despite its military superiority has shifted the perspective from one of Israel as an American proxy against Iran to the US as an Israeli proxy, as Tel Aviv came to heavily rely on Western support.
  • This undermined the neoconservative dogma that Israel serves as a strategic asset in the region.
    • The belief was born of the Cold War and the idea that a democratic state in the Middle East could serve as an important US partner against the USSR, as Israel had just defeated the Soviet-backed Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War.
    • Prior to the war, Israel had been focusing on an orientation toward Europe, as both Western Europe and Tel Aviv feared a US-USSR détente meant their weakening.
  • The American reputation as an “honest broker” in the 1970s, forged through reconciliation with Cairo, allowed for its involvement in the 1979 peace deal between Israel and Egypt.
  • The 1980s saw the US revert to viewing the Israel-Palestine conflict through a Cold War lens, with Tel Aviv as the ally and the PLO as the Soviet sympathizer.
    • The failures of this approach, including the American condoning of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and then the First Intifada, pushed the neoconservative agenda out of the Reagan administration.
  • The weight of the intifada and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait meant the US had great difficulty working with Arab countries opposed to Israel to build the cooperation in the region that it desired.
  • American leaders, Hadar writes, “need to recognize that the interests of Israel—a small Middle Eastern power focused on maintaining its security—are not necessarily compatible with those of the United States, a superpower with broad global interests that require cooperation with the leading Arab and Muslim states.”

You can read Israel as a U.S. ‘Strategic Asset’: Myths and Realities by Leon Hadar in Middle East Policy’s special issue, The Gaza War. It is free for all, even without a subscription.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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