Why does America Support Israel?
Why does America Support Israel?

In the United States and around the world, many are questioning why, despite some mild rebukes, Washington has maintained its large-scale military, financial, and diplomatic support for the Israeli occupation in the face of unprecedented violations of international law and human rights standards by Israeli occupation forces.

As Israel again wields brutal military power on a captive Gaza, trapped Palestinians seem numb with resignation. Tweets from the ground reveal Palestinians preparing for the worst, scrambling to gather their entire families so they can all die together. They read less like cries for help and more like goodbyes.

It can be hard to tell from the United States, but Israeli occupation and apartheid are highly unpopular across the globe. That’s been true since Israel was established in 1948.

Yet Israel today has diplomatic relations with most of the world, due in large part to the maneuverings of the United States. Washington worked hard to normalize Israel and integrate it into the world economy. The United States has a “special relationship” with the state of Israel, as characterized by the US State Department:

Israel is a great partner to the United States, and Israel has no greater friend than the United States. Americans and Israelis are united by our shared commitment to democracy, economic prosperity, and regional security. The unbreakable bond between our two countries has never been stronger.

US and Israel Relationship History

The United States was the first country to recognize Israel as a state in 1948, and the first to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017. Israel is a great partner to the United States, and Israel has no greater friend than the United States. Americans and Israelis are united by our shared commitment to democracy, economic prosperity, and regional security. The unbreakable bond between our two countries has never been stronger.

A long-standing U.S. priority is to promote a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The United States is also committed to encouraging increased cooperation and normalization of ties between Israel and Arab and Muslim majority states, as exemplified by the Abraham Accords and normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

When did the US start supporting Israel?

From the beginning. Former US President Harry Truman was the first world leader to recognize Israel when it was created in 1948.

What were the strategic stakes at the time?

This was right after World War II, when the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was taking shape.

The Middle East, with its oil reserves and strategic waterways (think the Suez Canal), was a key battleground for superpower hegemonic influence. The US was taking over from severely weakened European powers as the primary western power broker in the Middle East.

But even then, support for Israel was not unequivocal.

So when did it become unequivocal?

That is partly rooted in the aftermath 1967 war in which Israel defeated the poorly led armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan and occupied the rest of historical Palestine – as well as some territory from Syria and Egypt.

Since then, the US has acted unequivocally to support Israel’s military superiority in the region and to prevent hostile acts against it by Arab nations.

What role has public opinion played?

American public opinion has long tilted in favour of Israel and against the Palestinians, in part because Israel had a superior PR machine. But headline-grabbing, violent actions by pro-Palestinian groups such as the 1972 Munich Massacre in which 11 Israeli Olympic athletes were killed also generated sympathy for Israel.

Why is Israel so popular among Americans in the first place?

Photo: washingtoninstitute
Photo: washingtoninstitute

One big reason is a perceived sense of "shared values." According to Barnett, the American moral image of Israel — "the only democracy in the Middle East," for example — is the "foundation of US-Israeli relations." Of course, as Barnett hastens to add, this leaves Israel vulnerable if Americans comes to believe that Israel has strayed from those shared values (more on that in the last section).

Religious groups are two other critically important factors. American Jews and evangelical Christians are two of the most politically engaged groups in the United States. They're major constituencies, respectively, in the Democratic and Republican parties. And both are overwhelmingly pro-Israel.

There are nuances here: evangelical support for Israel tends to be more uncritical than Jewish support. For instance, a majority of reform and secular Jews — 65 percent of the American Jewish population — disapprove of Israel's expansion of West Bank settlements. And Jews under the age of 35 are the least likely to identify as Zionist (though a majority still do). On the other hand, the older and more conservative Jews who aren't entirely representative of the more liberal body of Jewish-American public opinion toward Israel, have a lot of clout with national politicians. They express strong desire to vote based on the Israel issue and are clustered in Florida and Pennsylvania, large swing states in presidential elections.

54 percent of American Jews think the US supports Israel the right amount — and 31 percent say it doesn't go far enough. By contrast, 31 percent of white evangelicals think the US has reached the right level of support, while 46 percent want the US to support Israel more.

Add evangelicals, Jews, and broad public support together, and you get consistent, bipartisan support for Israel.

The United States-Israeli Partnership is Rock Solid

The United States and Israel are strong partners and friends. Americans and Israelis are united by our shared commitment to democracy, economic prosperity, and regional security. Our partnership has never been stronger.

The United States is unwavering in its commitment to Israel’s security, and regional stability. The FY 2022 appropriations act includes an additional $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system consistent with the Administration’s request. The U.S. strongly supports the expansion and deepening of relationships between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries under the Abraham Accords.

Our relationship is deep and enduring, we have a strong bilateral relationship and support Israel in strengthening peaceful relations with its neighbors. We believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy.

The United States is firmly committed to Israel’s security. This includes addressing Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region and never allowing Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Strategic Reasons for Continuing U.S. Support

There is a broad bipartisan consensus among policymakers that Israel has advanced U.S. interest in the Middle East and beyond.

  • Israel has successfully prevented victories by radical nationalist movements in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as in Palestine.
  • Israel has kept Syria, for many years an ally of the Soviet Union, in check.
  • Israel’s air force is predominant throughout the region.
  • Israel’s frequent wars have provided battlefield testing for American arms, often against Soviet weapons.
  • It has served as a conduit for U.S. arms to regimes and movements too unpopular in the United States for openly granting direct military assistance, such as apartheid South Africa, the Islamic Republic in Iran, the military junta in Guatemala, and the Nicaraguan Contras. Israeli military advisers have assisted the Contras, the Salvadoran junta, and foreign occupation forces in Namibia and Western Sahara.
  • Israel’s intelligence service has assisted the U.S. in intelligence gathering and covert operations.
  • Israel has missiles capable of reaching as far as the former Soviet Union, it possesses a nuclear arsenal of hundreds of weapons, and it has cooperated with the U.S. military-industrial complex with research and development for new jet fighters and anti-missile defense systems.

Could US support for Israel change?

It's hard to know where one driver of America's Israel policy ends and another begins. For instance: early in his administration, President Obama pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt settlement growth in the West Bank; Netanyahu resisted this in part by rallying his allies in Congress. Netanyahu's allies in both parties, who are always eager to appear pro-Israel, pressured Obama to drop his anti-settlement push, which he did.

The question here is whether, in this case, and others, US foreign policy interests or US domestic politics were ultimately more consequential in driving the US-Israel relationship. For example, would Obama have pushed harder against settlements had Netanyahu not been able to call up so many allies in Congress? Were those members of Congress primarily driven by pure domestic politics, which do favor pro-Israel policies, by an earnest concern that Obama's approach was bad for Israelis, or by a belief that Obama was hurting US foreign policy interests?

In thinking about the future of US-Israel relations, it's much more helpful to examine what might cause these broad-brush factors to change. In simpler terms: is there a scenario under which the US and Israel drift apart?

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