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Is the US-Israel Alliance Doomed?

During the Gaza conflict, President Joe Biden supported Israel as well as its leaders hoped. He has made statements supporting his "right to self-defense," blocked UN Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire, and even resolved to close a previously approved US arms sale to Israel worth US $ 735 million. Dollar to advance.

In short, the US-Israel alliance seems stronger than ever. But beneath the surface there are signs that the relationship is no longer what it used to be. Despite Biden's firm stance, the US and Israel could get a long-term divorce.

The most visible of these signs is the growing dissatisfaction of progressive Democrats in Congress with Israel. The left side of the party, represented by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has ruthlessly criticized Israel – with Ocasio-Cortez and her allies in the house like Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib (who) is more Palestinian Descent) and calls Israel an "apartheid state".

But some more centrist Democrats with strong pro-Israel confidence are also taking a tougher stance. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Greg Meeks (NY) initially called for a break in new gun sales. Senator Robert Menendez (NJ), chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, has indicated that Israel is not exercising enough care to avoid the killing of civilians in Gaza.

"If over time you don't follow what Congress has said on the matter, it's really hard to explain how remarkable this is," writes Yousef Munayyer, a non-resident of the Arab Center think tank in Washington.

The democratic position on Gaza reflects a long process of party-political polarization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The US-Israel alliance, which has its origins in Cold War geopolitics, has been a non-partisan endeavor for decades. However, a number of factors – including the actions of certain leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and deeper political trends in both countries – have created a party-political imbalance. Republicans have become more pro-Israel than ever, while Democrats show growing sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

A pro-Palestinian rally in Detroit on May 15th.

Matthew Hatcher / SOPA Pictures / LightRocket / Getty Images

"People are becoming increasingly aware of the untenable human rights situation on the ground in Gaza," MEP Ilhan Omar (D-MN) told me via email. "This includes a diverse coalition of progressive Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, and others who view our humanities as directly related."

Historically, the cornerstone of the US-Israel alliance has been support from both parties – both on Capitol Hill and among the American public. You need both parties to continue approving US aid to Israel in Congress. You need political continuity in the White House to ensure unchanging US support in international forums like the United Nations. The more partisan Israel becomes, the weaker the alliance becomes.

Unless fundamental changes are made, it is easy to see how the US-Israel alliance could continue to dissolve in the long term. Biden is possibly the last Democratic president to give Israel a blank check during a war.

How the US and Israel got so close

The US and Israel have not always been close allies.

When Israel (along with France and Great Britain) invaded Egypt in 1956, the United States condemned the Israeli attack. And the US has been actively working against Israel's secret nuclear program for years.

Even when the US came to support Israel, it was more about cold strategic calculations than anything else. American presidents and strategists viewed Israel as a useful tool in curbing Soviet influence in the Middle East, which was important to the Arab states, and used its diplomatic and military support to firmly tie Israel into the capitalist bloc.

This strategic justification came about with the Berlin Wall. But US aid to Israel continued to flow after the Cold War, as did diplomatic support – primarily through US policy towards the Middle East and US domestic policy.

In the post-Cold War era, the US saw itself as a guarantor of regional peace and stability in the Middle East – even and perhaps precisely when it disrupted this stability through actions such as the invasion of Iraq. In his self-proclaimed role as Middle East manager, Washington forged alliances with some of the region's status quo powers – places like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel.

In addition, every post-Cold War president through Barack Obama saw the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a priority for Middle East politics and believed (to varying degrees) that resolving the conflict was both a moral imperative and important for improving the regional one political dynamic. America's alliance with Israel should help and position the US as one of the few international brokers the Israelis could trust.

But US domestic policy was just as important. Poll data shows that support for Israel has been popular with a clear majority of American voters over the past few decades. The main constituencies of both parties – Jews on the Democratic side, Evangelicals on the Republican side – have spoken out particularly in favor of defending Israel and have been ready to use resources and activist demonstrations in support of pro-Israeli policies.

Obama speaks at the 2011 AIPAC Policy Conference

President Barack Obama speaks at a conference held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), America's leading pro-Israel lobby, in May 2011.

Joshua Roberts / Getty Images

Historically, Israel's image as "the only democracy in the Middle East" has been particularly important in cementing the American pro-Israel consensus. It gave the impression that America was not only entitled to support Israel, but was obliged to do so in order to defend a beleaguered democracy. "It is the existence of a common identity and transnational values ​​that underlie this relationship," wrote Michael Barnett, Professor at George Washington University in 1996.

But in the last few years these foundations have started to crack.

At both the elite and public levels, Americans have become skeptical of the strategic wisdom of deep engagement in the Middle East. The Biden administration has sought to emphasize US involvement in the region, reflecting the growing consensus that it is a swamp that is diverting America from the more pressing challenges posed by an emerging China. Simply put, maintaining close ties with allies in the Middle East such as Israel is seen as less important to America than it has been in the recent past.

At the same time, the public consensus that the US should take an unconditionally pro-Israel stance has weakened.


A March 2021 Gallup poll found that for the first time in nearly 15 years of polling, a majority of Democrats were in favor of “putting more pressure on Israel” to compromise for peace with the Palestinians.

It is this final trend that should particularly worry policy makers in Jerusalem: they need democratic support to keep aid going and to ensure strong diplomatic support in forums like the United Nations.

But there are deep reasons for the growing democratic skepticism about Israel – ones that are likely to widen rather than narrow the gap in the years to come.

Why Democrats and Israel are drifting apart

The most important reason for the growing rift between Israel and the Democratic Party is also the easiest to grasp: the center of Israeli politics has moved far to the right, while the Democrats have moved to the left.

Public support for the Israeli left collapsed in the early 2000s after the peace process it campaigned for collapsed into the violence of the Second Intifada – the bloodiest Israeli-Palestinian conflict in decades. When Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister in 2009, both he and his Likud party continued to move to the right – reflecting profound changes in Israel's political focus.

The center-left Labor Party, historically the dominant force in the elections in Israel, now only has seven seats out of 120 in the Knesset (parliament). The left is so weak that, prior to the Gaza war, it was ready to agree to an agreement that would hand over the Premier League to Naftali Bennett – a far-right arsonist who wants to annex parts of the West Bank.

Israel's occupation of the West Bank deepened considerably under Netanyahu, and settlements have grown rapidly over the past 10 years. The justification that saved Israel from being accused of operating an “apartheid state” – that the occupation was temporary to end with the creation of an independent Palestine – is more difficult to maintain.


A Palestinian is in a fight with Israeli security forces as he protests against the removal of a temporary health unit by the army in the Palestinian village of al-Mufagara on January 27, 2021

Hazem Bader / AFP / Getty Images

All of these developments have undermined the traditional value-based argument for US support for Israel, which was vital to maintaining the alliance in the post-Cold War era.

"We've always been in favor of two states. Still," wrote Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) on Twitter. "The crucial" shift "was that the Netanyahu government and Republicans have effectively abandoned the idea of ​​a viable Palestinian state . "

But not only Israel has changed: The Democrats are also much more progressive than before.

The median democrat is more left across the board than it was 10 years ago. And there is evidence that the constituencies that make up an increasingly large portion of the Democratic Party – African Americans, Latinos, and younger voters – are less sympathetic to Israel than the general population. Jewish Democrats, that traditional bastion of pro-Israel American sentiment, pissed Israel off under Netanyahu: a Pew poll published in May found that almost twice as many Jewish Democrats believe the US "supports" Israel as it does it "doesn't support" enough. "

J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby that supports increasing pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian territory, regularly attracts Democratic leaders to its annual conference. Many are also boycotting a similar event by AIPAC, the more powerful and strict pro-Israel cousin of J Street.

In addition, two political tendencies with pro-Palestinian leanings – democratic socialism and activism for social justice – have become more ideologically influential within the party. In left-wing circles, support for Israel is often described as support for imperialism and white supremacy.

There is a reason why critics of Israel in the House of Representatives like Omar have used the phrase "Palestinian matter of life" when discussing the current crisis: He is pushing for democratic ties to Israel at one of its weakest points. Democrats and Israel are just in drastically different political locations, and it makes it much harder to maintain a once natural connection.

What an unraveled alliance looks like

The notion of a weakening US-Israel alliance may sound hazy, perhaps even fanciful. How do you describe an alliance that still leads to billions in military aid every year as one that is under stress?

However, a closer look at the past 10 years reveals places where the bipartisan consensus on Israel has begun to break. Ironically, much of the blame can be placed on two of Israel's most prominent lawyers – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Donald Trump.

The two men have deliberately worked to polarize US-Israel relations and identify the Israeli cause with that of the Republican Party. Their behavior was both a cause and a consequence of the weakening of the alliance: consequence in the sense that they partially responded to the perceived democratic exodus from Israel; The reason for this is that they have increased the drift considerably – which would not have happened at the same pace without them.

Netanyahu clashed with Obama repeatedly during his joint tenure, often over the peace process and settlement building. Their personal relationship was known to be icy; A senior Obama aide once told a reporter that Netanyahu was a "chicken shit".

Of course, the allies disagree on politics all along, even bitterly: think of the bitter spit between the United States and France in the run-up to the Iraq war. But Netanyahu escalated his feud with Obama well beyond the normal disagreement, taking measures that functionally aligned the government of Israel with Obama's domestic adversary – the Republican Party.

During the 2012 election, Netanyahu almost openly supported Republican Mitt Romney in his quest to oust President Obama. In 2015, Netanyahu worked with Congressional Republicans to orchestrate a speech before a joint congressional session against the Iranian nuclear deal – an attempt to help Republicans cast votes for laws that undo Obama's foreign policy signature.

Benjamin Netanyahu address

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks out against the Iran Agreement at a joint congress session in March 2015.

Tom Williams / CQ appeal

From Netanyahu's point of view, the strategy of meddling in US politics on the Republican side made sense. He thought Obama's efforts to limit settlement growth and negotiate with Iran were detrimental to Israel. Allying with Republicans was his best choice to counter what he viewed as hostile behavior.

At the same time, the aggressive selection by sides in your ally's domestic politics shows a lack of confidence in the alliance itself: a feeling that the health of the relationship depends on which faction is in power. Netanyahu's actions not only reflected specific differences of opinion with Obama, but also a feeling that the currently constituted Democratic Party cannot be trusted to serve Israel's interests.

Democrats, for their part, viewed Israel far more negatively than before in opinion polls after Netanyahu's interference. If the structural trends that drove Democrats and Israel apart were an inferior fire, the prime minister tossed gasoline on it.

"I think that (increasing partisanship with Israel) has a lot to do with the prime minister's role in lobbying the US Congress on the Iran deal," said Shibley Telhami, professor at the University of Maryland examines American attitudes towards Israel. told the Times of Israel in 2018. "You have a right-wing government in Israel, and that government is said to have adopted the Republican Party in the US."

During the Trump presidency, Israel's identification with the GOP accelerated. Netanyahu hugged Trump and went so far as to put his face on giant campaign posters in Israel. For his part, Trump publicly advocated Israeli law – he appointed a far-right ideologue ambassador in Israel, moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, abandoned the Iranian nuclear deal and proposed a "peace plan" that gave Israeli law whatever it wanted.

While this seemed like a deepening of US-Israel ties, it actually served to further fractionate the alliance: making "support Israel" something Republicans do, a position shared with the most hated man in is consistent with democratic politics. It has helped open the floodgates for the criticism of Congress that you are now seeing.

"Donald Trump politicized US support for Israel," said Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, to my colleague Alex Ward.

Partisanship is the most powerful force in American politics today. Once an issue is understood in two-party terms, the partisans of each faction feel strong psychological pressure to line up on opposing sides.

Netanyahu and Trump made conscious choices to reshape Israel in these terms, thinking that doing so would benefit their own political positions and advance their own political priorities. But now we see the longer-term consequences. A Democratic Party already formed to be skeptical of an alliance with Israel is growing ever more skeptical of Jerusalem's good intentions.

A pro-Palestinian rally on May 15 in Washington, DC.

Yasin Ozturk / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

So far, Biden appears to be the most significant short-term force standing in the way of this realignment. It is not entirely clear why he is so firmly on Israel's side, but so far the gap between him and the Congress Democrats is quite noticeable.

On the other hand, Trump's early Israel policy was much more moderate than the right-wing position he took later in his tenure. It is possible that Biden will adapt across the board to the new democratic consensus on Israel, just as he has adapted to the party's more progressive attitudes towards race and economy.

But even if it doesn't, policies that were previously unanimously voted in Congress – approving US external aid to Israel, resolutions in support of Israel's right to self-defense – will no longer go through without controversy. MP Betty McCollum (D-MN) tabled a bill earlier this year that lays down the human rights conditions for US aid to Israel. It has 19 co-sponsors and was supported by J Street.

When I spoke to Matt Duss, Senator Bernie Sanders' foreign affairs advisor and a veteran Israeli and Palestinian politician, he told me that this weakening of the alliance will only be inevitable "if Israel continues on its current political path." It is Israel's leadership that has decided to expand the settlements and respond with such overwhelming force to Hamas missiles. It is Israel's Prime Minister who has decided to align his country with the parliamentary interests of the Republican Party.

If the Israeli leadership reverses these decisions and takes a different path, the rifts in the US-Israel alliance could plausibly be repaired.

So this is the big question: is Israel able and ready to change? Or is it really ready to sacrifice its relationship with the world's only superpower on the altar of permanent occupation?

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