America has given a lot to Israel. Since the end of the 1970s, Israel has received more American aid than any other country, in excess of $100 billion, and U.S. citizens have offered consistent public support for Israeli muscle-flexing in the name of security, democracy and free markets. But while Israel is now the most important promoter of the values Americans hold dear in the Middle East, Israel is also America's worst liability in the region. Sustainable peace in the Middle East, with increased American influence, will only emerge when Israeli, Palestinian and other leaders make and enforce real concessions, but that is easier said than done.
American support has probably made Israel stronger, but it has not served the interests of our country. Our influence has declined because no one believes Washington can fairly mediate regional conflicts, as it did during the years when Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter were president. The United States is now so close to Israel that it cannot reach out credibly to countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia that are eager for reform. Washington's presence appears one-sided and anti-Islamic. This negative image is exploited by America's opponents, and it pushes potential moderates, including the protesters who drove the Arab Spring, to look upon Islamic extremist groups as more authentic voices for Muslim men and women. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories are vicious terrorist groups, but they benefit from appearing more attentive to Muslim concerns than a U.S. government that spends so lavishly on Israel. Every new Israeli settlement in the disputed territories turns more residents of the region toward the extremists and against Washington.
Regional stability requires that the U.S. rethink its aid policies and not remain so unconditional. In Israel, as in other countries, American leaders have an obligation to make certain that every taxpayer dollar spent serves the nation's interests. The present arrangement encourages Israeli leaders to believe that they will receive Washington's assistance even if they disregard the most reasonable calls for limitations on new settlements and military force. Like his predecessors, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responds strongly to the demands of domestic groups for expansion, and he ignores the calls for moderation from the U.S. We are simply not gaining leverage from our spending.
Each side must make concessions. The Palestinians must have a viable state and economy, free from Israeli arbitrariness. The Palestinians and their regional allies must, for their part, accept the existence of Israel and denounce terrorism against Jewish citizens. The U.S. can only encourage this outcome when it holds both sides, not just the Palestinians, to account for their actions. That means Washington must offer worthwhile incentives to all actors, and it must exact painful penalties for aggression and intransigence. Lavishing money on Israel without conditions, while doing far less for others, undermines influence in all directions. Sending military aid to Israel, while we intervene in other countries, encourages widespread resistance to American power. Despite the prominence of terrorist networks, the Middle East is a region filled with numerous groups Muslim, Jewish and Christian seeking better living conditions. Americans need to work effectively with as many of them as possible.
What Washington needs is more balance. The U.S. should continue to support Israel, and it should maintain its opposition to all forms of terrorism. We should also continue to speak out against the hateful anti-Semitism expressed throughout the Middle East, Europe and other parts of the world. The alternative to unconditional support for Israel is not abandonment. Jews confront mortal threats around Israel and far beyond. Israel has legitimate claims to security, but so do the Palestinians and other peoples of the region. Israel has a right to defend itself, but so do others.
Our government must show that it recognizes all of these facts and that it will act on them. American aid will serve our nation's interests when it is tied directly to the compromises all parties must make for peace. Once we stop financing aggression and playing favorites and start spending taxpayers' dollars targeted to specific outcomes, we will find that it works better than lavish grants of sympathy.
Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and holds a joint appointment in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.