Understanding U.S.-Israel relations | Explained

What event brought about a paradigm shift in the way Washington looked at the Jewish state? What is the basis of the ‘the special relationship’ between the two countries?

November 01, 2023 10:33 pm | Updated November 04, 2023 12:14 pm IST

U.S. President Joe Biden with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

U.S. President Joe Biden with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: Within days of the October 7 attack by Hamas inside Israel, killing at least 1,400 people, President Joe Biden travelled to Israel to declare solidarity with the Jewish state. Mr. Biden described Hamas as “unadulterated evil” and stated that America “stands with Israel”. Since the October 7 attack, Israel has been bombing Gaza relentlessly and is currently carrying out a ground invasion in which at least 8,700 Palestinians have already been killed. The U.S. has been careful not to criticise Israel even in the face of the latter’s disproportionate attack on the tiny enclave of 2.3 million people. The U.S. has also vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that called for a humanitarian pause to Israel’s attacks and voted against a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling for a humanitarian truce, which was passed with a landslide. This is not surprising given the history of the U.S.-Israel relations. Barring minor personality clashes between leaders, the U.S. has stood solidly behind Israel, irrespective of the latter’s actions, at least since 1967.

What are origins of U.S.-Israel ties?

The U.S. had supported the idea of a Jewish homeland even before the state of Israel was declared within historical Palestine in 1948. On March 3, 1919, two years after the Balfour Declaration, in which the British government declared its support for the creation of a “Jewish homeland in Palestine”, President Woodrow Wilson said, “The allied nations with the fullest concurrence of our government and people are agreed that in Palestine shall be laid the foundations of a Jewish Commonwealth.” In 1922 and 1944, the U.S. Congress passed resolutions endorsing the Balfour Declaration. The U.S. was the first country that recognised Israel in 1948. The recognition came in 11 minutes after the proclamation. “I had faith in Israel before it was established, I have faith in it now,” President Harry Truman said on May 26, 1952.

Though the U.S. offered the state of Israel support right from the latter’s birth, the initial two decades of their relationship had not been very smooth. The Eisenhower administration was unhappy when Israel, along with France and Britain, launched the Suez war. Washington threatened to cut aid to Israel if it did not withdraw from the territories it had captured. The Soviet Union also threatened to fire missiles unless Israel withdrew, and finally Israel had to pull back from the areas it seized. Similarly, in the 1960s, the Kennedy administration had voiced concerns about Israel’s secret nuclear programme.

However the 1967 war, in which Israel defeated Jordan, Syria and Egypt, all in six days, and captured swathes of territories, brought in a paradigm shift in the way Washington looked at the Jewish state. The U.S. at that time was bogged down in Vietnam. Israel defeated the Arab countries without any major help from the U.S., and the war was wrapped up quickly. Also, two of the Arab countries Israel defeated — Egypt and Syria — were Soviet allies. From then on, the U.S. started seeing Israel as a stable ally who can check the expansion of Soviet influence in West Asia.

What is the current status of the U.S.-Israel ties?

Today, Israel is an exceptional ally of Washington. The U.S. offers practically unconditional financial, military and political support for Israel, which has been occupying Palestinian territories since 1967. Israel is an undeclared nuclear power but has never faced any global scrutiny or pushback, thanks to the protection offered by the U.S. Israel is also the largest recipient of America’s aid — it has received $158 billion in aid from the U.S. since the end of the Second World War. Currently, Israel gets $3.8 billion in military aid every year from the U.S., which accounts for about 16% of Israel’s total military budget.

The U.S. is also Israel’s largest trading partner, with annual two-way trade hovering around $50 billion. Both Israel and the U.S. also have a deep defence partnership, which involves joint research and development and weapons production. For example, the Iron Dome, Israel’s famed missile defence shield, uses parts built in the U.S. and the system is financed in part by the U.S. With U.S. help, Israel has built a highly advanced defence manufacturing base, which has made the country the world’s 10th largest military exporter. Since 1972, the U.S. has used its veto power over 50 times to strike down resolutions critical of Israel in the UN Security Council.

From the 1973 Yom Kippur war onwards, the U.S. has also offered solid military support to Israel in its conflicts. In 1973, after Israel was taken aback by the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, U.S. supplies proved vital for Israel to push back the enemy troops from the occupied Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. In 1982, the U.S. sent Multinational Forces to Lebanon after Israel’s invasion of the country. After the first intifada, the U.S. supported the Oslo process and the two-state solution, but without compromising its relationship with Israel. Now, the running theme in Washington is that it supports “Israel’s right to defend”. The previous U.S. administration, of Donald Trump, recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved America’s embassy to the disputed city. The Trump administration also recognised Israel’s annexation of Golan Heights, a Syrian territory it captured in 1967 and held under its occupation ever since.

Were there ever tensions between Israel and the U.S.?

While there were personality clashes between American Presidents and Israeli Prime Ministers, such clashes never led to a breakdown in what President John F. Kennedy called “the special relationship”. In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter heaped pressure on Israel to make peace with Egypt and give concessions to the Palestinians. Israel would finally agree to sign the Framework for Peace Agreement as part of the Camp David Accords, which would set the stage for the Oslo process. During the second intifada, President George W. Bush pressed Israel to show restraint in the occupied West Bank, and in return Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused him of appeasing the Arabs. Israel ‘will not be Czechoslovakia’, Sharon said, indirectly drawing parallels between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s surrender before Hitler in the 1938 Munich agreement and Mr. Bush. Sharon later apologised for the comparison. In 2002, Mr. Bush asked Israel to pull back from the West Bank and end a military operation “without delay”, but the Israelis never obliged. Sharon had Bush “wrapped around his little finger’, Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser, said in October 2004.

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also clashed over the Iran nuclear deal. Mr. Netanyahu had visited the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress and attacked Mr. Obama over his Iran policy. But the same Mr. Obama vetoed all resolutions at the UN Security Council critical of Israel except one during his eight-year term. Mr. Obama, during his last months in office, also cleared a $38 billion aid package for Israel. The Biden administration had earlier criticised the Netanyahu government’s plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary. But after the October 7 attack by Hamas, the U.S. has thrown its full weight behind the Netanyahu government’s war on Gaza.

Why does the U.S. always back Israel?

One explanation is that Israel’s strategic value in a volatile yet critical region makes it appealing for Washington. During the Cold War, the U.S. saw Israel as a powerful bulwark against possible Soviet expansion in the Arab world. After the Cold War, when the U.S. started becoming more and more involved in West Asia, it continued to see Israel as a force of stability, along with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Strategic value explains a close partnership or alliance, like America’s relationships with Japan, South Korea or Germany. A host of other factors, including America’s public opinion, electoral politics and the powerful Israel lobby in the U.S., play a role in shaping the country’s Israel policy.

Historically, Israel has enjoyed near unanimous support in the U.S. Congress, and a vast majority of Americans have favourable views about Israel. American Jews and evangelical Christians are two powerful, politically active groups in the U.S. They are important constituencies for both parties and they are both pro-Israel. Then there’s a powerful Israel lobby in the U.S., which according to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, heavily influences U.S. policy towards Israel. The lobby helps amplify pro-Israel voices, backs pro-Israel politicians and works toward playing down or neutralising voices critical of Israel, they argue in their 2006 essay “The Israel lobby”, in London Review of Books.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, hosts top leaders from both countries, including Presidents, Senators and Prime Ministers, for its annual gatherings. Pro-Israel groups also support both parties in the U.S. financially. For example, during the 2020 campaign, pro-Israel groups contributed over $30 billion (63% of which went to the Democrats and the rest Republicans), according to OpenSecrets.org. Besides, there are strong ties between the military industrial complexes of both countries. Therefore, all these factors together — Israel’s strategic value, America’s domestic politics, the presence of the pro-Israel lobby and military-industrial interplay, make sure that there’s an institutional consensus in the U.S. about its relationship with Israel, irrespective of which party or President is in power in Washington D.C.

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