Israel and the US: Is the Special Relationship Still Special?

Nadav Tamir June 2020
Op-eds / Strengthening Israel's Foreign Policy

What would a change in the US administration in January 2021 bode for Israel? Does the symbiosis in the relationship between Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu attest to a historic high in relations between their countries and did Netanyahu’s cool relations with Barack Obama signal a historic low? The media generally examines ties between countries according to relations between their leaders, but the overall array of relations between Israel and the US is far broader than the identity of their leaders and long-term trends bear scrutiny. To examine the “special relationship”, it is common to break it down into three main components that I like to dub “VIP” – Values, Interests, Politics.

The values underpinning the relationship: The Puritan pilgrims that arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620 Americas regarded themselves as the builders of the New Jerusalem envisioned by the biblical prophets. This theme and ethos were adopted by the founding fathers in writing the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. Over a century later, the spirit of the US revolution and principles of the Constitution would inspire the founders of Zionism. Many Americans still regard Israel as a sister state peopled by immigrants who established a just, democratic, liberal society after the removal of the English control

Shared interests: Since President Truman’s recognition of Israel 11 minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared its independence, Israeli leaders have aspired to close ties with the US as leader of the free world and the strongest global power. Energy deposits in the Gulf critical to the American and global economy would soon turn the Middle East into a strategic target of US foreign policy. Israel was a US partner in the Cold War and in its war against terrorism, enabling the US to avoid boots on the ground unlike those it deployed in defense of other partnerships in South Korea or West Germany.

Israel’s political influence: Israel enjoyed bipartisan US support for years, with Democrats and Republicans both treating it as an issue transcending their political divide. The pro-Israel forces were and still are well organized and politically strong, deeply involved in US politics and the media. The American Jewish community is only two percent of the population (more than 70 percent Democrats) but to an extent beyond their numbers in donations and influence in politics. The pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, with its professionalism and determination, buoyed by the myth of Jewish influence, became the most powerful and effective foreign policy lobbying group in Washington. As for Israel’s Christian evangelical supporters, they are almost all Republican voters but their large numbers, some 80 million, and organizational capacities are impressive. They believe that support for Israel is a religious imperative that will result in resurrection.

It would seem, then, that all is well and the “special relationship” is robust and deeply rooted. In fact, not all is well because of troubling trends in all three areas.

Values: Based on Donald Trump’s election and policies as President, one might assume that the US shift toward conservative values and its disdain for liberal democracy are similar to Israel’s. Demographics prove otherwise. In Israel, they are in fact pulling to the right given the high ultra-Orthodox birthrate and other factors, such as late marriage age of liberals. In the US, on the other hand, the percentage of minorities leaning to progressive values is growing.

Interests: The US is losing interest in the Middle East, to a large extent justifiably so. It is no longer dependent on the region’s energy resources and all its major interventions in the Middle East have failed – full-scale military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, “leading from behind” in Libya and avoiding action on Syria.

Politics: Israel has become a partisan issue in US politics. The sense among large swathes of the Democratic Party base is that Israel has tied its destiny to the Republicans. The distancing by progressive liberals from Israel is beginning to manifest itself in Congress. Unprecedented criticism of Israel and calls to condition US aid on Israeli policies have also emerged in the Democratic presidential campaign. This trend includes the Jewish community which mostly identifies as liberal and votes for Democratic presidents. Israeli annexation in the West Bank sometime between July 1 and the November elections would further exacerbate things given Democratic voters’ vehement opposition to unilateral moves and violation of international law.

How can Israel remedy the problem?

Israel must return to bipartisan diplomacy with the US and build bridges to progressive and minority elements. Israel must embrace the US Jewish community regardless of political views and streams of Judaism. Israel’s ties with the world’s largest Jewish Diaspora are not only vital to the relationship between states, they stem from Israel’s very mission as the nation state of the Jewish people.

In order to keep the Americans in the Middle East, Israel must promote a contractual defense pact with the US anchored in legislation. Contrary to prevailing views, a defense pact would advance peace by deterring military adventurism. It will increase the US commitment to Israel’s defense, but also incentive to promote peace in the Middle East, and increase the US interest in determining Israel’s borders (diplomacy is far less expensive than wars).

Should the US administration change hands in January 2021, Israel must return to the security plan formulated by Gen. John Allen together with the IDF’s Planning Directorate for the defense of Israel’s Eastern border. The plan drafted at the behest of then-Secretary of State Kerry includes technological means and a US presence in the Jordan Valley and would help cement the US commitment to the region and to Israel’s security.

Israel should also advance civil society links with progressive American individuals and organizations who are unaware that many Israel share their worldview and are engaged in promoting justice regardless of the administrations in either state. A bi-national foundation to promote Tikkun Olam, if formed, could support cooperation between non for-profit organizations and between USAID and Israel’s foreign aid arm, MASHAV.

Israeli public diplomacy should engage with US civil society in a positive manner rather than in detrimental useless arguments and hasbara (public diplomacy). Israel has much to offer the US but our defensive approach makes us appear less relevant and less attractive.

In conclusion, Israel’s relations with the US are more important than its ties with any country in the world and their value is nothing short of strategic. Despite the deep and robust nature of the relations, current trends are greatly troubling and unless we work quickly to address them, Israel’s strategic posture would suffer a fatal blow.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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