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The future of US-Israel Alliance

The friendly and close relations between Israel and the United States have become over the years, since the sixties of the last century, a cornerstone of Israel’s national security doctrine. The security, economic and political aid that Washington provides to Israel is significant in scope and beyond that it helps to strengthen Israel’s regional and international standing and its deterrence capability in the face of its adversaries. 

Israel has always been careful to emphasize its part in the unwritten alliance established by the two countries, mainly its contribution to the United States national security – during the Cold War, but also today, when Israel stands at the forefront of the struggle against Iran as well as against terrorism and Islamic radicalism.

The close relations between the two countries have withstood the test of time and even deepened. They relied on bipartisan support of Israel (on the part of both Democrats and republicans), as well as broad support of the American public, and especially of American Jewry. AIPAC, the pro-Israel Jewish lobby in the United States, is instrumental in maintaining these close relations.

President Donald Trump’s term in office (2016-2020) undoubtedly brought American support for Israel to a peak. But at the same time cracks were exposed during Trump’s term that could affect the intimacy and the strength of American-Israeli relations. 

The awareness of Israel, its government and the general public, of the importance of the unwritten alliance with the United States and even of Israel’s dependence on it ensures that no Israeli government will act to harm this alliance, intentionally or unintentionally. And yet, the shift to the right in Israel, and alongside it, deep processes within American society, such as the strengthening of the progressive camp in the Democratic Party, may erode the strength of these close relations and require a special effort on the part of the American and Israeli governments to preserve it. 

Relations between Israel and the United States – Difficult Beginnings

The relationship between Israel and the United States has become over the years one of the cornerstones of Israel’s national security doctrine and is seen as one of Israel’s main sources of strength.

However, it is interesting to discover that in the first decades of Israel’s independence, in the fifties and early sixties, its relations with the United States were characterized by coldness and suspicion. President Harry Truman (1952-1944) supported the partition resolution at the United Nations in 1947 and was the first to recognize the State of Israel shortly after it became independent. However, he did so under the influence of some of his Jewish associates, and contrary to the position held by the Department of Defense and the State Department, which opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, because they believed that it would not be able to withstand the attacks of its Arab neighbors and that it might become a Soviet outpost due to the fact that the majority of its Jewish population originated from Eastern Europe.

Under President David Eisenhower (1952-1960), the United States refrained from selling arms to Israel, provided it with negligible economic aid, and repeatedly pressured it to agree to territorial and other concessions, such as the return of the Palestinian refugees to its territory, in order to bring the Arab-Israeli conflict to an end. During the Suez crisis in 1956, the United States stood up against Israel and against France and Great Britain, who joined forces in this war, and demanded that Israeli forces withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, which they had captured from the Egyptians. In those years, the United States hoped to mobilize Arab support in the struggle against the Soviet Union, and therefore tended to view Israel as an obstacle to Arab friendship with the West. However, many of the Arab countries, led by Nasser’s Egypt and also Syria and Iraq, chose to align themselves with the Soviet Union over the West. And yet, even when it became clear that the Arab countries were turning to Moscow, the American hesitation and reservation concerning the relations with Israel remained unchanged. Thus, Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, met President Eisenhower for the first time only in March 1960, near the end of his term in the White House, and even then in a private meeting and not as part of an official visit to the United States. 

The tension between Israel and the United States continued during the administration of President John Kennedy (1960-1963). Kennedy sought to improve Washington’s relations with Egypt and this was seen in Jerusalem as a move that could come at Israel’s expense. The tension in American-Israeli relations was however rooted in the pressure of the Kennedy Administration on Israel not to develop nuclear capabilities. Israel was forced to allow American inspectors to visit the Dimona nuclear reactor and only in the early 1970s the two states reached an understanding, according to which Israel would be allowed to maintain and develop its nuclear capabilities, but would not become nuclear power (i.e. would not conduct nuclear tests and would not declare itself a nuclear power).  

The change in the relationship between Israel and the United States took place during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency (1968-1963) and especially after the Six Day War. The Israeli victory in this war strengthened Israel’s strategic importance, due to its ability to defend itself and to defeat its Arab adversaries, who were Soviet allies. Thus, the Arab-Israeli conflict turned into a part of the ‘cold war’ between the West and the Soviet Union, and the American military establishment started to see Israel as an ally. 

Indeed, it was in the period after the Six Day War, that the foundations of the “special relations” between the United States and Israel were laid and became a central component of Israel’s national security doctrine, based on Israel’s need, as a small country with limited resources, surrounded by hostile neighbors, of an alliance with a superpower that would provide it with economic aid, political support and weapons it needed for its defense. 

The United States supplied Israel with weapons during the October 1973 war and then played a central role in the efforts to bring the Arab-Israeli conflict into its end, for example in the signing of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in March 1979 and in the 1990s, when it launched an Arab-Israeli peace process  that led to the signing of the Oslo accords in September 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians, and a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan in October 1994. 

The American-Israeli relations have also an economic dimension, since the United States gives Israel economic aid every year in the amount of about 2.5 to 3 billion dollars, and over the years has given it special grants and guarantees in the cumulative amount of tens of billions of dollars – for example after the signing of the peace agreements with Egypt; after the signing of the  Oslo Accords; and after the signing of nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. It should be noted that the United States is Israel’s largest trading partner (after the European Union), and the volume of Israeli export to the US is about a third of Israel’s total export, while the import from the United States is about 18% of all Israeli import.

It should also be noted that the rise of the high-tech industry that began in the late 1990s led to a dramatic increase in the number of Israeli companies (mostly high-tech companies) traded on the New York Stock Exchange to such an extent that they constitute the largest group of foreign stocks there.

Despite tensions that erupted in relations between the two states, the main interest of Israel’s foreign policy since 1967 has been to maintain close relations with the United States and establish bipartisan support for the special relationship between the two states.  Israel was assisted by the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States, AIPAC, which derives its strength from the commitment to Israel of the American Jewry, the second largest Jewish community in the world, which has significant weight and standing in American society and American politics.

Israel therefore attaches great importance to maintaining its special relationship with the Jewish community in the United States. However, during the last two decades, support for Israel grew among evangelical communities in the United States, although such support has provoked a backlash among liberal audiences in the American society.

Looking Ahead

The last decade was marked by several developments and processes that affected and probably will continue to affect the relationship between the two states:

On the one hand, the importance of Israel as an American asset in the Middle East increased significantly – Israel has become a regional power thanks to its economic and military strength. The contribution it provides to the United States, both in the intelligence and Cyber warfare and through the development of security and defense technologies, such as the Iron Dome and Arrow missile systems, strengthen and deepen the security ties between the two states and especially ties between the Israeli and the American military establishments. The operational and intelligence cooperation between the two countries has been proven invaluable in the struggle against terror and radicalism as well in confronting Iran’s ambitions in the region. 

On the other hand, the bond with Israel among parts of the American public and even the Jewish community has weakened – the shift to the right in Israel led to the abandoning of the of two states solution to the conflict with the Palestinians and to the efforts (at least by the Netanyahu government – 2009-2021) to preserve an Israeli presence in the West Bank, and to ensure that it would be possible in the future to annex it to Israel. 

All of these were perceived by the American administration as a development that could undermine regional stability, encourage violence and terror and thereby harm American interests in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world. As someone who considers itself a close ally of Israel, the American administration also believes that such Israeli policy harms the long-term interests of Israel itself.

In American society, deep processes of a growing rift between liberals and conservatives, alongside the strengthening of the progressive camp within the Democratic Party, are evident. This camp tends to show suspicion and even animosity towards Israel, mainly against the background of its never ending conflict with the Palestinians. However, the shift to the right inside Israeli society and within the Israeli political system, as well as the close alliance forged between the right-wing circles in Israel and the Republican Party, especially during the Trump era, deepened the gap with Israel even among the “mainstream” Democrats. These processes do not spare the Jewish community in the United States either and certainly the young generation. The Jewish community is also affected by the strengthening of the ultra-Orthodox political power within the Israeli political system (the ultra-Orthodox community is hostile to the Reform and Conservative communities that make up the majority of American Jewry).

It is worth noting that the older generation of American politicians who led the American political system in the 1980s and 1990s were influenced by the events of the Holocaust and felt committed to Israel as the state of the Jewish people. These politicians were also influenced by the cold war and tended to see Israel as a Western outpost surrounded by Arab countries, which were Soviet allies. However, the new generation of American politicians is freed from these historical memories and burdens, and therefore their commitment to Israel is not self-evident.

All of this has burst to the surface already during Barack Obama’s presidency (2008-2016). Obama repeatedly expressed his “unshakable” support for Israel, however, at the same time he also showed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and tried to promote the vision of “two states for two peoples” based on the 1967 lines. Obama was also determined to reach a nuclear deal with Iran that was perceived by Israel as dangerous. The tension between the two states reached its peak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress in May 2015 in which he challenged, with the support of Republican Party, the president’s policy. 

Relations between Israel and the Trump administration that replaced Obama (2016-2020) flourished, and there will be those who would argue that this happened due to Trump’s efforts to win the support of the Jewish vote in the Presidential elections. Trump was perceived as sympathetic to Israel, as evidenced by his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (December 2017) and the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem and the recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli sovereign territory (on March 2019). In May 2018, the United States also announced its withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and imposed additional sanctions on its economy. In January 2020 he presented the “deal of the century,” an American peace plan, favorable to Israel,  to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end.  Finally, the United States played an important role in obtaining the Abraham Accords, the peace agreements signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and later also Morocco and Sudan. This was part of an American effort to promote regional cooperation, and even to form a Middle Eastern NATO, to face common threats to these countries, mainly from Iran.

President Biden, who replaced President Trump, belongs to the older generation of American politicians whose commitment to Israel is deeply rooted. During the years of his tenure, the close relations between the two countries continued and even deepened. The war in Ukraine and the world need for energy resources, mainly gas, have also increased the importance of Israel in the eyes of the Americans. But it must be admitted that in Biden’s party – the Democratic Party – the voices that show suspicion and express criticism and even hostility towards Israel are growing stronger, especially in the progressive camp in the party. As mentioned, the intimate relations between former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump led to the erosion in the bipartisan support for Israel and created a rift between Israel, and at least Netanyahu’s government, and the Democrats. The establishment of a new government in Israel under Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, a “government of change”, somewhat improved the atmosphere, but the possible comeback of a right-wing government in Israel may change this trend back.

And finally, Israel’s importance in the Middle East had to do with the importance of the region in general in the American strategic view, due to its central location on the world map and the dependence of the US on its oil resources. However, in the last decade, the United States seeks to disengage from the region, as its importance in its eyes has decreased, as compared to other regions in the world. This might have repercussions on the importance of Israel in the eyes of the Americans. It seems thus that the Middle East was pushed aside by other regions, such as the Far East, where the United States maintains competition and even rivalry with China, or Eastern Europe (mainly following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine at the beginning of this year). Israel, which sought to walk between the drops and preserve its relations with China, an important economic partner of Israel, as well as with Russia, has often provoked Washington’s irritation for not standing by its side in the rivalry between the United States and these countries.

In conclusion, the relationship between Israel and the United States is deep and based on political and security interests. It still relies on broad support both among the American security and political establishment, and among large segments of the American society and public opinion.

Taking into account the interest that both countries have in preserving and promoting these relations and the benefit they see from these relations, it can be assumed that they will do all they can to preserve and even deepen these relations.

It should be noted that Israel’s great advantage in the eyes of the United States has always been that it does not need American soldiers to fight for it. And thus, the Americans were asked only to help Israel help itself rather than to send troops to help it on the battlefields, as they were required to do in South Vietnam, Korea, and later in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, an ill-considered Israeli conduct, in the case of a right-wing government coming to power in Israel – such as leaning too much on one side of the American political map or try to annex the West Bank to Israel, or even a deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian conflict, could put a strain on the relations between the two countries. These can meet the deep processes of slow but continuous erosion in the commitment to Israel that is already taking place within serval segments in the American public and thus damage the relations between the two countries.

And yet, as far as can be expected, the special relationship that Israel and the United States are establishing will continue for the foreseeable future as it is a vital interest for Israel and an major  interest for the United States, and both countries recognize this.