The US-Israel Alliance: A Strong But Turbulent Friendship
The current conflict in Israel has brought the alliance between Israel and the United States under scrutiny. While this alliance looks strong today, the two nations have not always been so close. Read on to learn more about how the alliance began, what the two nations get out of it, and whether or not the current conflict might spell trouble for the friendship.
Has the U.S. always strongly supported Israel?
No. While it might feel like America and Israel have always been close friends, there was a time when there was debate over whether or not the United States should even support Israel as a state.
Recognition of Israel was a huge point of contention for President Harry Truman’s administration. Truman’s Secretary of State George Marshall was staunchly against the creation of a Jewish state, in part because he believed that many of the Jews immigrating to the Middle East were communists. He was so opposed the creation of a Jewish state that he threatened to vote against Truman if Israel were to be recognized. However, counsel to the President Clark Clifford urged Truman to vote for the partition, arguing that the United States could curb Soviet expansion in the Middle East by supporting a Jewish state. Truman sided with Clark, but it wasn’t just Marshall that opposed the plan. The entire American delegation to the United Nations nearly resigned when Truman eventually decided to recognize Israel in 1948.
Here is a good summary of the factors surrounding this decision:
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not much friendlier. During the Suez Canal crisis of 1957, Eisenhower told Israel to withdraw all troops from the Sinai region. If Israel did not comply, Eisenhower would withdraw all monetary aid from Israel.
When did the United States become strong allies with Israel and why?
The United States began seriously supporting Israel under the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson understood that supporting a Western-style democracy in the Middle East was vital to projecting American dominance abroad. He also understood the domestic power of the Jewish voting bloc. In 1964, Johnson increased the amount of aid given to Israel by 75 percent. He then doubled that amount in 1966. This aid continued during the Six-Day-War, a fight between Israel and Egypt. Since Egypt was backed by the Soviet Union, this conflict became a proxy war. While the United States did not give military assistance to Israel, it did give the country political support and tried to work out a diplomatic solution to the crisis. In the end, the United States benefitted from Israel’s surprising victory over Soviet-backed Egypt. As a result, Johnson broke with the precedent that Eisenhower set and did not demand that Israel return the new land which it had conquered.
After the war, American public opinion strongly shifted to support Israel. Some American Jews became Zionists (those who support the concept of a Jewish state) and America’s foreign policy followed suit. The United States has strongly supported Israel ever since.
What forces maintain this alliance?
Even after the Cold War, the United States has continued to support Israel for a few reasons.
One reason is that Israel maintains a stable status quo in a volatile region. This status quo is important in a region where the slightest amount of unrest can send shockwaves through global markets. Israel’s stable democracy is attractive to the U.S. when compared to nearly any other Middle Eastern nation.
There are also huge domestic pressures on politicians to keep supporting Israel. In a CNN/ORC poll conducted last month, 60 percent of Americans either had very or mostly favorable views of Israel. Support for Israel is even higher when they are not involved in what are seemingly becoming their regular conflicts with Gaza.
Israel’s American lobbying arm, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is incredibly influential. Fortune magazine once ranked it as the second most powerful interest group in America. The lobbying organization is known for being highly influential in Congress. Watch President Barack Obama speak highly of Israel at an AIPAC conference during the 2012 presidential campaign:
How does the alliance benefit Israel?
The most tangible benefit of Israel’s alliance with the United States comes in the form of aid. The exact dollar amount differs depending on the source, but it is estimated that the United States gives over $130 billion dollars in aid to Israel. This money allows Israel to afford and develop technologies like the Iron Dome–Israel’s rocket defense system that has kept their casualty rate so low during the current conflict.
The United States is also the only consistent ally that Israel has in the international community. America is often the only vote in favor of Israel on UN resolutions. On July 24, the United States was the only vote against a UN inquiry into potential war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza. When the UN voted to give Palestine non-member observer status, the United States was one of nine countries that voted against the measure. Watch UN Ambassador Susan Rice react to the vote:
Who else voted with the United States and Israel on Palestine’s status?
- Czech Republic
- Marshall Islands
With the possible exception of Canada, this is not exactly a list of nations that share America’s status on the world stage. The United States is the only very powerful country willing to stand up for Israel in the international community. This does not mean much in the historically weak General Assembly. However, it matters a great deal in the Security Council, where the United States has veto power over any binding resolutions.
How does the alliance benefit the United States?
Many supporters of Israel argue that the United States and Israel should continue to be allies simply because the two countries share values and ideals. Israel and America are both liberal democracies. This common trait is enough for some Americans.
However, there are more pragmatic reasons to keep the alliance around.
Israel is inarguably one of America’s best security partners in the world. Israel shares a significant amount of intelligence with America, which is then used to counter terrorist threats in the Middle East. Israel has also undertaken military action to prevent Syria and Iraq from gaining nuclear weapons.
There are also economic incentives. Silicon Valley companies utilizes Israel’s technological industry to further their own products. Watch this report on Israel’s technology industry:
Twenty-five percent of American exports to the Middle East go to Israel, making them our best buyer in the region. Israeli business partnerships are responsible for an estimated 10,000 American jobs.
The United States military also benefits from the Israeli alliance. American troops can train in Israel, American planes can refuel in Israel, and the Pentagon is constantly working with the Israeli military on new technologies.
Why do some people criticize the alliance?
There are some critics in the United States that want the alliance to end because they disagree with the policies of the Israeli government, mainly the occupation of Gaza and the settling of the West Bank.
Israel ceded the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians in 2005. Yet, they still maintain control over Gaza’s airspace and borders. Nothing comes in or out without Israeli approval, including any trade. This control has been referred to by critics as everything from occupation to apartheid, and is one of the reasons that Gaza has a 40 percent unemployment rate. The violent struggles in Gaza between Hamas and Israel have also troubled some American critics. Hamas fires hundreds of rockets into Israel with no regard to civilian life, but Israel has killed a disproportionate amount of Palestinian civilians over the past few years in retaliation. This disproportionate response is in part thanks to the Iron Dome that America helped pay for and the hefty military aid that the United States provides to Israel.
Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, also under Palestinian control, have been seen as a major roadblock towards a peace agreement. These Jewish-only communities on Palestinian land are often seen as clear violations of international law. Palestinians have cited a freeze on settlements as a precondition to any peace negotiations.
The United States has tried to sway Israeli action on both of these issues with little success. Israel has strongly rejected American ceasefire plans and has been ignoring President Barack Obama’s calls for an end to settlements since the beginning of his presidency. Critics cite this intransigence when they claim that the alliance gives the United States little to no sway in Israeli politics.
How has the current conflict impacted American attitudes toward Israel?
Even in America, Israel is losing the messaging battle in this conflict.
Jonathan Chait, a New York Magazine writer who has almost always been pro-Israel, recently wrote an article titled “Israel Is Making It Hard To Be Pro-Israel.” In the piece, Chait expresses a frustration shared by many liberal American Jews that Israel, specifically Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has abandoned any hope of a two-state solution with Palestine and has no plan to deal with the current conflict. To Chait, constant military conflict is an unacceptable option.
Chait is not alone in this criticism. Many pro-Israel elites have begun to express similar qualms.
Ezra Klein, founder of Vox and one of the most prominent voices in online journalism, recently penned an article largely agreeing with Chait. Klein is quick to point out that he is pro-Israel, but has “become much more pessimistic about its prospects, and more confused and occasionally horrified by its policies.”
Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist and self-proclaimed Zionist, recently lambasted the Israeli government for creating an environment for Hamas to thrive in, and ended his column with this particularly powerful sentence:
This corrosive Israeli exercise in the control of another people, breeding the contempt of the powerful for the oppressed, is a betrayal of the Zionism in which I still believe.
To be clear, these are people who usually strongly support Israel. Something about this conflict, whether it is the death toll or the lack of a coherent strategy, has caused them to rethink their support of Israel in a way they never have before.
Even the government of the United States is criticizing Israel. The State Department released a statement on August 3 referring to Israel’s shelling of a United Nations school in Gaza as “disgraceful” and stated that “Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.” This is the strongest language the United States has used against Israel during this conflict.
This report from The New York Times showcases other sources in the White House and State Department that are frustrated with Netanyahu’s government.
Yet, it is important to note that none of these commentators take Hamas’s side. They all agree that Hamas is employing disgusting tactics (firing rockets from populated areas, using human shields, etc.) and that they are a terrorist organization. The criticism of Israel seems to stem mostly from Netanyahu’s leadership.
This elite criticism has not translated into public support for Israel significantly dropping. As noted earlier, a plurality of Americans still support Israel and few Americans support Hamas. While support is dropping among younger Americans, the shift is slight and has not yet permeated the larger American population.
America also has not seen the same kind of anti-semitic rallies that Europe has been plagued with in recent weeks. This indicates that American support for Israel is still higher than support abroad.
Is the alliance at risk?
No. This tweet shows why:
Classic: CNN reports Obama expresseing concern to Israel about dead civilians–while also shipping new weapons. http://t.co/iUfvorw1NI
— Greg Mitchell (@GregMitch) July 30, 2014
Obama would not continue to arm the already lopsidedly powerful army if an immediate ceasefire in Gaza was really the primary concern of the United States. Yes, Obama would like a ceasefire to happen, but Israel’s safety and security is much more important.
Regardless of what critics say, America’s alliance with Israel provides significant military, security, and economic benefits. It is hard to imagine a scenario where America forgoes the significant advantages Israel offers while taking on the political behemoth that is the Israel lobby. Like it or not, the America-Israel alliance is probably here to stay, at least for now.