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Briefing: Strains in U.S. ‘special relationship’ with Israel

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL, and BOSTON — Amid unusually high tensions between the US and its closest ally, Israel, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today addresses AIPAC – the strongest Israel lobby in Washington. At issue is just how far the United States should push Israel to make difficult choices in the name of peace.

After Israel recently announced plans for 1,600 new homes to be built in East Jerusalem, Palestinians got cold feet on renewed peace talks. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington today, the Monitor offers a snapshot of a unique friendship.

What are the friendship’s roots?
Long before the 1948 rebirth of Israel, Puritans had lobbied the Dutch government to “transport Izraell’s sons and daughters … to the Land promised their forefathers.”

That call was supported by US presidents from John Adams to Abraham Lincoln – and Americans themselves, writes historian Michael Oren in “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East.”

From Civil War officers who helped Egypt establish a modern army that later preserved its independence to missionaries who sought to free Muslims from a religion they saw as crushing “all independence of thought and action,” Americans long sought to bring to the region the ideals that today many see Israel as upholding.

Mr. Oren, who grew up in America and now serves as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, reportedly said recently that ties between the two countries are at a 30-year low.

What does Israel get out of it?
The most tangible benefits are guns and money. Annual US aid averages around $3 billion, most of which goes to weapons such as US fighter jets and components for Israeli tanks. The US also provides an annual subsidy for Israel’s defense industry, a benefit given to no other country. All this helps preserve Israel’s military advantage in the region.

“If the US were to limit the delivery of weapons, it would have a severe effect on the Israeli military capability,” says Gerald Steinberg, political science professor at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.

In addition, the US funds joint development of defense systems such as the Arrow II Missile interceptor. While Israel’s military is formidable in its own right, US support adds an extra deterrent to would-be attackers such as Iran.

US diplomatic support for Israel, such as its veto power at the United Nations, is also a strategic asset. Without such diplomatic backing, Israel would find itself often without any allies on the international stage.

What does the US get out of it?
During the cold war, Israel helped the US curb Soviet expansion. Their intelligence services worked closely, with Israel famously obtaining Nikita Khrush­chev’s “de-Stalinization” speech in 1956.

But it was Israel’s stunning defeat of Soviet clients Egypt and Syria in the 1967 war that made the United States see its ally as a real military asset, says William Quandt, a former National Security Council member who helped broker Israel-Egypt peace under President Jimmy Carter. After the cold war, however, it became unclear what the “glue” was in the US-Israel relationship, he says.

Today, Israel has strong cultural, educational, and economic ties with the US. It provides missile technology and intelligence on counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation. But its agencies were just as much in the dark as the United States (and Britain) about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. And while the two allies’ interests in fighting Islamist militants overlap, they are not uniform.

“Managing withdrawal of forces from Iraq, the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, dealing with Iran, seeing if Syria can be taken out of Iranian orbit – Israel could be helpful on that one by being engaged in the peace process,” says Dr. Quandt, now a politics professor at the University of Virginia. “[But] I would say that in most of our big strategic challenges … Israel doesn’t figure.”

What are the costs?
Shortly after Israel took on a greater strategic role in 1967, US aid skyrocketed. In the first quarter-century of its existence, Israel received a total of $3.2 billion from the US. Since the 1970s, when the US pledged several billion dollars to Israel and Egypt annually under the Camp David Accords, Israel has averaged $2.9 billion per year, making Israel the biggest recipient of US aid.

But the cozier the ties, the less Israel can act independently. With 200,000 US troops in the region, Israel must weigh the potential damage to US interests of a preemptive strike on Iran, Hamas, or Hizbullah.

The Pentagon has become so concerned about rising Arab frustration over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that in a January briefing it warned that US lives could be lost if the deadlock isn’t broken.

“There is no question that Israel is a strategic albatross for the US. The negatives far outweigh the positives,” says John Mearsheimer, coauthor of the controversial book “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.” “And this recent crisis in the wake of Vice President Biden’s trip to Israel illustrates that very clearly.”

Why can’t the US help seal a peace deal?
With Democrats’ strong Jewish constituency and Republicans’ pro-Israel Christian evangelical base, US leaders rarely push hard for concessions. And the absence of Israeli concessions makes it tough for Palestinian leaders to convince their constituents that a renewed peace process will yield positive results.

“The problem is that we’ve had this special relationship where American support is completely unconditional,” says Harvard professor Stephen Walt, coauthor of “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.” “It’s not that the US doesn’t have enormous potential leverage. … It’s that American diplomats and presidents can’t really use that leverage because of the political price they would pay back here in the US.”

The US must also be careful about not appearing to strong-arm Israel, since that can sow political instability. Israel’s coalition government gives disproportionate strength to pro-settler parties, which makes it hard for any prime minister to act boldly.

“[Prime Minister] Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] may make concessions in favor of Israel-US relations, except such concessions that may risk the life of his coalition,” says former Israeli peace negotiator Ambassador Uri Savir. “Jer­u­salem is such an issue. Yet he will make an effort to find a middle ground.”

Does Israel need the US to make peace with the Palestinians?
Not necessarily. The 1993 Oslo Ac­cords had little US involvement. But the US – which brings a formidable combination of economic and military strength to its alliance with Israel – is considered by some as critical to sealing a peace treaty, especially to guarantee the security risks of Israeli territorial concessions.

The US also has the trust of most Israelis, as underscored by a recent public opinion poll that showed that 69 percent of Israelis see the Obama administration’s Israel policy in a positive light. Despite a long-standing negative view toward other outside actors, Israeli leaders and the Israeli public have developed a profound sense of confidence and trust in the US,” wrote former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky in their 2008 book, “Negotiating Arab Israeli Peace.”

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