The Break-Up?

Posted June 6, 2024

Categories: Articles, Featured, US Foreign Policy

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Critics of Israel once occupied the fringes of the debate in the United States. Then, in 2007, J Street was founded as a loyal opposition to the kind of Israeli politics that received uncritical support from the U.S. mainstream. By organizing “pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy Americans” in favor of a more enlightened U.S.-Israel relationship, J Street has opposed policies of the Israeli government without challenging the foundational principles of that country.

A more radical view, however, has been taking shape, thanks largely to the extremism of the Netanyahu government in Israel and the intransigence of a succession of U.S. governments. In 2020, influential Jewish intellectual Peter Beinart published a piece in The New York Times that effectively renounced the notion of a Jewish state in favor of a “one-state solution” in which Jews and Palestinians live together with equal rights in a single state.

Given a choice between liberalism and Zionism, many Americans are giving up on the latter. What started as a trickle has now become a noticeable stream, as Beinart writes in an article last month in the Times. The polling supports his analysis. Last year, Gallup revealed that sympathy among Democrats now favored Palestinians (49 percent) over Israelis (38 percent), a reversal never seen before in the polling. The gap within the Democratic Party is sharply generational. Among Democrats under the age of 35, 74 percent side with Palestinians compared to only 25 percent of those 65 and over.

Here’s an even more startling Ipsos poll, from last year. When asked about a situation in which the West Bank and Gaza remained under Israeli control, a majority of Republicans (64 percent) and Democrats (80 percent) said that they would favor Israeli democracy over its Jewishness. Without really knowing much about Zionism—most respondents in the poll either didn’t know about or were unfamiliar with the ideology—a majority of Americans have already gone down Beinart’s path.

U.S. politics hasn’t quite caught up with U.S. public opinion. In March, Senator Majority Leader Charles Schumer delivered a 44-minute speech on the floor of the Senate that called on Israelis to hold an election and essentially get rid of Netanyahu and his ruling coalition. Even though Schumer expressed his love for Israel and denounced Hamas, he still came in for considerable criticism from Republicans as well as from those who were aghast that he didn’t call for an immediate ceasefire in the conflict.

Like Schumer, the Biden administration has been shifting its position on Israel, but not enough to satisfy younger voters on the left. Together with Arab-Americans, these voters have made their voices heard in the primaries in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Hawaii where the “uncommitted” slate has picked up 25 delegates so far. It may not be enough to tip the election—voters who are uncommitted in the primary are still likely to vote for the Democrats in the face of a potential Trump second term—but it still worries the Biden camp, which is behind in most head-to-head election polls.

The Biden administration has altered its policies toward Israel over the last months, though it might not seem like much of a change given that those policies haven’t ultimately made an impact on the course of the war in Gaza. However, combined with evolving public opinion, these incremental changes may well mark the beginning of a major course correction in U.S. foreign policy. After decades of military assistance and policy coordination, the United States is facing up to its irreconcilable differences with Israel, which could prompt one or both parties to file for divorce.

The Biden Shift

The deaths of over 30,000 Palestinians during Israel’s prolonged assault on Gaza—which was launched after the Hamas attacks of October 7—has certainly concerned the Biden administration. The president and his emissaries have tried to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu to be more “targeted” in his onslaught so that Israeli forces don’t kill quite so many non-combatants. Around 70 percent of Palestinians casualties so far have been women and children.

The Biden administration has also tried to persuade the Israelis not to launch a ground attack against Hamas in the southern city of Rafah, where so many Palestinians have sought refuge. And it has been pushing for a temporary ceasefire that could provide an opportunity for Israel to retrieve some of the hostages that Hamas and its allies still hold and for Gazans to get more humanitarian assistance to stave off serious food and medical crises.

The Israeli authorities have shrugged off U.S. criticisms and suggestions, often angrily, which has basically been the Israeli approach all along.

The most recent Israeli strike on a World Central Kitchen convoy of three vehicles, which killed seven aid workers, has prompted even more soul-searching within the Biden administration. The humanitarian organization provided the Israeli authorities with full information about its intentions and its route. Still, Israeli armed forces struck all three vehicles with pinpoint accuracy, even though the lead vehicle and the one at the back were separated by nearly a mile and a half. Nor were these isolated deaths. At least 196 aid workers have been killed in Gaza and the West Bank since October 2023.

Netanyahu apologized for the “tragic incident.” But it’s hard not to conclude that “more precise targeting” is not the issue in the Gaza war, given how precisely that convoy had been targeted. The issue is that Israel kills indiscriminately and with impunity. The issue is that the Netanyahu government is engaging in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Gaza and, with the assistance of armed settlers, in the West Bank as well. The Israeli government seems determined to remove the material basis for a Palestinian state.

In the face of this policy, the Biden administration’s response is obviously inadequate. In addition to the failed effort to minimize civilian casualties, Washington has pushed for more humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza. Here it has had more success in changing Israeli policy—though the policy hasn’t been implemented at all crossings and, as Oxfam points out, “It is a drop of water in an ocean of need.”

The administration has not stopped supplying Israel with military assistance or attached any conditions on that aid, despite some congressional pressure. More than 30 House Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, recently sent a letter strongly urging Biden “to reconsider your recent decision to authorize the transfer of a new arms package to Israel, and to withhold this and any future offensive arms transfers until a full investigation into the airstrike is completed.” The distressing part is that it took the killing of international aid workers, not the tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians, to prompt such a letter.

As for the administration’s attempt to forestall an Israeli attack on Rafah, the Netanyahu government has announced on many occasions that it fully intends to “finish the job.” In this context, providing humanitarian assistance so that people don’t starve to death before they are killed in a military operation is a morally dubious position.

So, at what point will the Biden administration—or any U.S. administration—decide that its relationship with Israel is a net negative?

Best Friends?

The boosters of the alliance between Israel and the United States like to note that Israel is a democracy, one of the most prosperous countries on the planet, and “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk,” as former Secretary of State Alexander Haig once put it. President Obama was even blunter, “The United States has no better friend in the world than Israel.”

All of these statements are at best half-truths.

After various autocratic moves by the Netanyahu administration—the judicial “overhaul” designed to weaken the Supreme Court, the various corruption cases—Israel’s democratic credentials have become significantly tarnished. Meanwhile, the Palestinians who make up 20 percent of the population don’t enjoy the full citizenship rights of Israeli Jews. The same can be said about the country’s prosperity: half of Arab families in Israel qualify as poor compared to one in five Israeli Jewish families.

Nor is Israel America’s aircraft carrier. There is only one clandestine U.S. military base in Israel—a radar surveillance site with an unknown number of U.S. soldiers. Most U.S. soldiers based in the Middle East are in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar (with other U.S. forces located in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria). On top of that, Israel frequently engages in military conflicts that run counter to U.S. interests.

As for friendship, the relationship has rarely been all that close. In 1956, the Eisenhower administration was furious at Israel’s occupation of the Sinai peninsula and threatened to withhold aid if it didn’t withdraw. Ultimately, Israel did (though it reoccupied the peninsula a decade later). In 1967, Israel attacked a U.S. spy ship in international waters, killing 34 seamen. In 1981, Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in Iraq, which was awkward for the Reagan administration since it was then allied with Saddam Hussein against the Iranians. And Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank has jeopardized relations with several U.S. administrations, beginning with George H. W. Bush.

The Balance Sheet

So, what does Israel provide the United States?

There’s an economic relationship, with Israel investing about $24 billion in the United States. That might sound like a lot, but it doesn’t make it into the top 20 (Singapore invests $36 billion, the UK $663 billion). Meanwhile, since 1946, Israel has absorbed $158 billion in unrestricted aid from the United States, more than any other country.

On the military side, the United States has benefitted (probably) from the sharing of intelligence. On the other hand, Israel kept its own nuclear program a secret from its American friends, so it certainly can’t be accused of over-sharing. Meanwhile, Israel has launched attacks in the region—Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Syria—that have complicated (to put it mildly) U.S. objectives in the region. However, an argument can be made that Israel sometimes serves as a useful attack dog, taking more aggressive actions than the United States feels that it can make.

Israel used to be a bulwark against Soviet communism. But the Soviet Union is no more, and Israel did not join the sanctions regime against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

Israel was a more-or-less reliable ally for the United States in its various interventions in the Middle East. But that hasn’t always been the case. Israel’s anti-Iranian positions got in the way of forging a nuclear agreement with Iran. Israel’s invasion of Gaza has drawn the United States back into a military conflict with the Houthis in Yemen. And Israeli strikes in Lebanon and Syria threaten to turn the Gaza conflict into a region-wide war, which would be a nightmare for the United States (among other countries).

Then there’s the reputational issue. The United States has used its veto 45 times at the UN through December 2023 to defend Israel—which is more than half of the U.S. vetoes at the Security Council. Most of these vetoes were about Israeli settlement policy or treatment of Palestinians. In February, the United States was the only country in the Security Council to vote against the Gaza ceasefire proposal. The next month, however, the United States abstained from the vote, allowing the UN resolution to move forward, though it didn’t have any effect on Israeli policy.

The United States did a credible job rallying the world against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That it has failed to do the same against Israel’s invasion of Gaza is obviously hypocritical. True, many countries are equally two-faced for rightly protesting Israel’s actions and doing little to nothing to push back against Russia’s violations of international law. The hypocrisy of other countries notwithstanding, the United States risks what remains of its positive international reputation by its support of Zionism over liberalism.

It’s long past time for the United States to reevaluate its relationship with Israel. The era of arms shipments should end (especially since Israel makes most of what it needs domestically). The recent congressional pushback is a start. The protective cover provided at the UN must end as well, since the United States is so out of step with international public opinion. The abstention on the most recent ceasefire proposal is also a positive sign.

The U.S. ending of its support of Israel as a Jewish state is a much heavier lift. After all, the United States is also a settler state, and there are powerful Christian forces that support the U.S. alliance with Israel for religious reasons. But the process that has begun within the American Jewish community, to choose liberalism over Zionism, must ultimately be the decision for U.S. policymakers as well. Divorce can be averted, of course, if Israel also chooses liberalism over Zionism. Since that’s not very likely at the moment, it might just be time to bring in the lawyers.

FPIF, April 10, 2024

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