Israel’s special relationship with the United States is in hot water “largely because of Israeli actions,” according to a scholar on Middle East politics.
“This poses a major, possibly existential threat to Israel,” said Professor Steven David to an audience this week at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. David, a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University, believes the root causes of the relationship’s erosion are continued settlement expansion and the proposed reforms intended to limit the power of the judiciary.
Israel’s relationship with the United States is indeed special, according to David. Economically, Israel has been the largest recipient of US foreign aid since the end of World War II, which has helped to solidify Israel’s military edge over neighboring countries.
The US has also provided significant support to Israel in the international arena, departing from Security Council peer nations to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, as well as the sovereignty of the Golan Heights in 2019.
America’s might and audacity to support the Jewish state has prevented Israel from being “a global pariah, isolated, scorned and sanctioned… So the special relationship is a big deal,” David told the audience.
According to David, developments within both American and Israeli borders are threatening the relationship, but American developments are a reaction to Israeli actions.
From the US perspective, the special relationship with Israel exists for three reasons, all of which are crumbling: the strategic benefits Israel provides, the presence of the pro-Israel lobby, and the shared values between the two nations.
First, allying with Israel has historically posed tactical advantages to the US, said David: “Israel is the strongest military power in the region… It’s pro-American alignment is not dependent on this or that government. It provides good intel on a wide range of issues; terrorism, missile defense, drones, urban warfare.”
But Israel’s strategic importance has diminished in the past few decades, with the US now addressing other geopolitical issues, according to David: “America is focused on Ukraine, it’s focused on the rising challenge of China.”
“The last thing [the US] wants to have to do is trying to put out fires in the Mideast, and if Israel starts those fires, there’s going to be a lot of anger.”
The shared enemy of Iran doesn’t help Israel’s case either, according to David: “If Israel launches an attack that the US opposes, that could certainly threaten the Israeli American relationship.”
ALAN DERSHOWITZ, Harvard Law professor, and a well-known active voice in the American Jewish community, told The Jerusalem Post that he dissents from David, believing that the relationship is “still extremely strong,” primarily due to these strategic ties. According to Dershowitz, the relationship will remain intact “as long as military intelligence relationships maintain their strength.”
Eugene Kontorovich, director of international law at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-wing think tank that developed the blueprints for the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, agreed with Dershowitz.
The special relationship currently “continues to flourish,” Kontorovich told the Post Tuesday, due to the “shared values of both countries.”
He went on to add that diplomatic friction is not unique to the relationship in question. “There is a growing politicization about Israel in the US, which is not specific to Israel– it comes as part of a growing politicization of every issue,” he said.
At present, US-Israel relations seem more lukewarm than usual. President Joe Biden has yet to invite Netanyahu to Washington, a fact that White House representatives have reiterated on multiple occasions.
THE ISRAEL LOBBY cited by David was “never as important as it was made out to be,” so its reduced influence is not hugely significant. He claimed its importance has diminished due to increased factions within the American Jewish community, with some Jewish groups supporting the Israeli government and others criticizing it.
“On the supporting side, you’ve got groups like the Zionist Organization of America, AIPAC. Much more critical of Israel, you’ve got a Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), J-Street. So, you have a situation where no one group speaks for American Jewry,” David said.
Due to the fracturing of the lobby, lawmakers can justify anti-Israel actions if they are backed by any Jewish interest group, resulting in the lobby exerting much less pressure to legislate in Israel’s favor, according to David.
SHARED VALUES are the strongest tie between Israel and the US, he said. Both states are founded upon Judeo-Christian values, both are nations of immigrants, and both are liberal democracies. But this last tenet is collapsing, David said, due to the judicial reform drama and issues with Palestine.
“The effort to weaken the High Court is seen by many Americans… as destroying the liberal part of liberal democracy. It seemingly allows the majority to impose its will on the minority,” the professor remarked.
“It doesn’t help that the two-state solution is seemingly on its way out,” he said, adding that Americans are increasingly viewing Israel as an authoritarian state where half the population is not afforded the same rights as the other. “This calls into question Israel as a democracy, much less a liberal democracy.”
It doesn’t help that the lines between synagogue and state are constantly blurred in Israel. David cited many Americans’ disdain for the Israeli government’s refusal to certify marriages not ordained by an Orthodox rabbi, for example.
“The Jewish community is more hostile to Israel than at any time in my memory,” said David, all due to these eroding ties. And with diminishing support from American Jewry, the diplomatic special relationship is severely at risk.
A March Gallup poll demonstrated for the first time since the poll’s existence that Democrats’ sympathies lay more with Palestinians than Israelis. And 64% of Jews in the US are Democrats, reported Pew Research. “So the party that is the home to the American Jews is the party that is becoming much more hostile to Israel,” said David.
How can the special relationship be maintained?
“The burden is on Israel” to maintain the special relationship, David remarked, adding that fulfilling this burden requires the cessation of settlement expansion and “a genuine openness to a two-state solution or some other compromise that provides a decent future [to] the Palestinians and the territories.”
It also requires the halt of the judicial reforms because they threaten the American perception of Israel as a fellow liberal democracy, which David believes is integral to the special relationship’s proliferation.
But Dershowitz doesn’t perceive the burden as belonging to Israel. A Democrat, he thinks much of the wrongdoing has been on the part of others within the party. He acknowledged a “double standard” of diplomacy, expressing contempt for the fact that Biden has welcomed “the head of India, with open arms, while at the same time refusing to welcome the head of Israel.”
What goes without saying is that Israel’s international position will be seriously jeopardized with weakened US support. How this plays out depends on the root causes identified by David: the future of settlement expansion and of how the plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary develops.