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Gaza war is latest test of US-Israel bond

April 4, 2024

From liability to asset to liability again: For the United States, Israel has been a close, but difficult, ally over several decades. The Gaza campaign brings long-existing issues to the surface.

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv in October 2023
US President Joe Biden's visit to Israel, where he met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas was a signal of putting aside political differences in the interest of Israeli securityImage: Miriam Alster/UPI Photo/imago images

In hyperpartisan Washington, DC, there has long been one policy point that Democrats and Republicans could agree on: the sacrosanctity of the US-Israeli relationship. Power has oscillated between the two parties over the decades, but commitment to Israel has not.

Leaders from both parties have stuck to the refrain that Israel has no closer ally than the United States and that  the country's security is nonnegotiable.

Since 1948, Israel has received nearly $300 billion (€280 billion) in assistance from the United States, most of that for military means, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. That's about double the aid to the second-highest recipient, Egypt, which has a population of 111 million people compared with Israel's 9.5 million. 

"This is an incredible relationship," Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser who now teaches at Columbia, New York and Tel Aviv universities, told DW. "It doesn't have many precedents."

"Shared values," strategic interests and a strong lobby that keeps Israel in Washington's good graces are the "pillars" of the relationship, Freilich said. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), for example, is one of the most effective lobby groups in the US capital, advocating strong ties no matter the political season.

'A strategic asset'

After the US faced criticism for not doing enough to save Jews in Europe from the Holocaust, it was swift to recognize the state of Israel when leaders of the Zionist movement declared independence in May 1948. Since then, Israel has promoted itself as a like-minded liberal democracy that projects US interests in a region not always friendly to them. 

"In the old days, Israel was considered to be a pure liability," Freilich said, because regional conflict with Israel's Soviet-leaning Arab neighbors during the Cold War risked escalation between the nuclear superpowers. "Since the '90s, it came to be viewed as a strategic asset by the Pentagon." 

With the USSR gone, Israel became a way for the US to keep lesser adversaries, such as Iran and its nonstate proxies, in check. 

That commitment triggered the "closest strategic cooperation in US-Israeli history," Freilich said.

In response to the Hamas terror attack on October 7, the United States rushed weapons to Israel, sent carrier battle groups to the region and vetoed ceasefire resolutions at the UN Security Council. 

"Biden responded I think absolutely magnificently from Israel's perspective," Freilich said.

The US president set aside disagreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the interest of Israeli defense.

An Israeli military column during the Yom Kippur War in Golan Heights
The October War in 1973, a surprise Arab attack on Israel, was one of several major conflicts between Israel and its neighbors.Image: Keystone Press Agency/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

The mounting toll

Over nearly six months Israel's campaign has killed more than 33,000 people in Gaza, prompting global condemnation. Now, the Biden administration speaks of not conflating "the Israeli government with the Israeli people," as Vice President Kamala Harris recently told the US broadcaster CBS. 

"That's what you say about banana republics," Freilich said, concerned by the change in tone. "If Netanyahu doesn't change his approach very soon, if there isn't a new government very soon, it will have a lasting impact." 

For some observers of the US-Israeli relationship, soon is not soon enough. 

"This has been an agonizingly slow process by which the United States has been moving from green light to yellow lights and now orange lights," Ian Lustick, an Israel specialist and political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told DW. 

"Orange lights" refers to the recent US abstention during a UN Security Council vote, which allowed a resolution calling for a temporary ceasefire to pass after earlier attempts failed. In protest, Netanyahu pulled the plug on an upcoming trip of Israeli officials to the US. 

Still, the Biden administration has approved more than 100 military sales to Israel since October 7, as first reported by The Washington Post, including 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) bombs that can level city blocks. 

"It's surprising to me how slowly the administration has moved toward the red light," Lustick said. That is a risk, he added, both to US interests elsewhere and to Biden at home in an election year.

The state of Michigan, for example, is home to a sizable Arab population and considered a must-win in November. In its primary in February, 13% of Democratic voters chose no candidate over Biden — an "uncommitted" protest that has spread to other states. 

"It's the first time I can remember when the political clout of critics of Israel has become a newsworthy, politician-attention attracting force in American politics," Lustick added. 

Tensions between friends

Israel has been drifting further to the right for decades, and religious extremists have gained more political power, largely under different kinds of Netanyahu-led governments. Creeping Israeli efforts to normalize the occupation and cement control over Palestinians have put Israel at odds with Democratic administrations, especially. They have clashed with him over key issues like Iran, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Palestinian statehood.

Biden's public comments on Israel are themselves a reflection of an evolving US position. On one hand, he is a self-described committed "Zionist," who has repeated the trope that global Jewry is only safe thanks to Israel. Critics like Lustick call that logic outdated.

“If anything, Israel is now endangering Jews throughout the world," he said. "This rise in antisemitism directly connected to Israeli policies right now, especially when Israel says, 'We are the Jewish state.' It portrays itself as acting as Jews act. This is a terrible threat."

Increasingly, the US administration has criticized the enormous civilian toll. Its position more broadly is "equal measures of freedom, opportunity, and democracy" for Israelis and Palestinians. Israel's expanding occupation undermines that vision. 

The charred remains of a World Central Kitchen vehicle targeted in an attack by Israeli military forces, in which several humanitarian aid workers were killed
Seven staff members of the humanitarian organization World Central Kitchen were killed in an Israeli attack in GazaImage: Ali Jadallah/Anadolu/picture alliance

Evolving US public opinion of Israel may eventually force a course correction in the relationship. Polls suggest a growing divide between older voters — who remember the Israel of the Oslo Accords days, when a path to two states appeared possible — and younger voters, who have only known an Israel that uses its lopsided military advantage to avoid a political settlement with Palestinians. 

That includes a growing number of American Jews, who identify as secular and liberal and thus feel increasingly estranged from an Israel they see going in the other direction.  That split presents not only cultural but also national security implications.

"In the long run, the values that the younger generation embraces will become stronger and stronger in the United States. Israel will keep running right into them, and American politicians will find, 'Wait a minute, although 25 years ago this used to work, we actually get into more trouble by trying to cater to AIPAC," Lustick said. 

Edited by: M. Gagnon