international analysis and commentary

How differences over Gaza will not break US-Israel ties

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Far from being unprecedented, the current dispute between the Biden Administration and the Netanyahu government over the Gaza war is simply the latest twist in a long history of bilateral frictions over strategy. This is not to minimize the prevailing differences or to dismiss the potential for further critical measures emanating from Washington. But as in past disagreements, the fundamental American commitment to Israeli security will endure. There is simply too much at stake for both sides.

Joe Biden and Bibi Netanyahu

 

IT’S COMPLICATED. The bilateral relationship has been built on affinity and overlapping – but not always shared – interests. Neither aspect has been immune to stress. The Jewish state has never been uniformly popular with the American foreign policy establishment. Arabists in the Cold War era State Department were famously critical of what they perceived as a dismissive approach to Arab sensitivities. Concerns over energy security and personal ties drove closer relations with the Arab Gulf during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, to the detriment of relations with Tel Aviv. As seen from Washington, the popularity of successive Israeli governments has waxed and waned, driven in large measure by progress in the Middle East peace process, or the lack of it.

 

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At a more fundamental level, support for Israel has been a touchstone in American politics, driven at least as much by the interest of evangelical Christians and national security elites as by the American Jewish community. The latter group has been sharply divided and often highly critical of Israeli government policy, mirroring the polarized debate in Israeli society.

THE DAYS AFTER. The current bilateral dispute over the the Gaza war echoes earlier disagreements and episodes of American pressure. One common thread has been the Israeli focus on operational success and the American interest in a strategic approach. At base, this is the natural difference in perspective between a small highly capable state and a global power. The Israeli perspective is structurally different. In 1956, Washington pressed Israel (and Britain and France) for an end to the Suez conflict lest it trigger a wider war with the Soviet Union. In 1973, American resupply was critical to the reversal of fortunes in the Yom Kippur War. But Henry Kissinger (as US Secretary of State) pressured Israel to halt its offensive in the Sinai after the encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army, fearing Israeli operational success would scupper the prospects for a post-war settlement. From the Israeli intervention in Lebanon in 1982 to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-2009, American officials and observers have not hesitated to critique Israel’s strategy while remaining essentially supportive of the bilateral relationship.

Beyond concern over the scale of civilian deaths and a pressing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Washington worries that the duration and intensity of Israeli operations will complicate the establishment of a new political order in Gaza and possibly in the West Bank, fuel Palestinian rage and add to an already immense challenge of reconstruction. American observers see Israeli political and operational imperatives posing longer-term obstacles to stability. It is not a new story (and one that the US itself experienced over two decades in Afghanistan).

Israelis have had their own concerns about the US. The Begin government was highly critical of the Reagan administration’s proposed sale of airborne warning and control aircraft to Saudi Arabia in 1981. After a protracted and contentious debate, the deal went through, but with a tacit American commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative edge in the regional military balance. The Netanyahu government was highly critical of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program and its support for the 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), as well as the Biden administration’s attempts to revive the agreement.  But as Iran and its proxies have loomed large in the strategic concerns of both partners, there has been close cooperation on air and missile defense. If anything, this aspect of bilateral security cooperation has deepened even against the backdrop of sharp differences over the conduct of the Gaza war.

WHAT HAS CHANGED. To be sure, new political dynamics are at work on both sides. Israel’s current right-wing cabinet is deeply unpopular with the Biden administration and not a little of Washington’s tougher critique of the Gaza war and its immense human cost reflects the President’s own frustration with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his circle. Even among Israel’s staunch supporters – and President Biden certainly fits this description – there is a feeling that America’s almost $4 billion worth of annual military support to Israel entitles Washington to a say in how this support is used.

Netanyahu has apparently rebuffed American arguments on limiting the use of force in Gaza, expanding the provision of humanitarian aid, and a more flexible stance in the hostage and ceasefire negotiations. His intransigence draws on a long tradition of Israeli unilateralism and self-reliance in defense policy. After seven decades of close security ties and a multitude of specific cooperative agreements, there is still no formal “alliance” between the US and Israel. There is no equivalent of NATO’s Article V mutual defense commitment in US-Israeli relations. The commitment is fundamentally tacit and potentially conditional. The Biden Administration’s recent decision to pause the delivery of 2,000 pound bombs to Israel is both an expression of frustration and a reflection of this conditionality. For all the geopolitical logic of the relationship, shared values also matter. The extremist voices in Israel’s current cabinet complicate this equation.

Without question, the scale and vigour of the protests against Israel on American university campuses and elsewhere are unprecedented. The extent to which sympathy for Israel in the wake of the brutal Hamas attack on October 7th has turned to outright condemnation, even overt antisemitism in some quarters is striking.

 

Read also: Le proteste universitarie su Gaza e le prospettive del voto di novembre

 

For all the political dilemmas this presents for the Biden Administration in a very close election year, it has done little to undermine mainstream support for Israel among Democrats or Republicans. It might re-ignite Washington’s interest in a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian settlement – the ultimate diplomatic prize for any American administration – whatever the outcome in November 2024. But that is a different question.

WHAT STAYS THE SAME. What holds the bilateral relationship together? Several elements stand out, and they are likely to endure despite differences over Israel’s conduct of the Gaza war and the prevailing opposition to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

First, outside of some progressive circles, the commitment to and affinity with Israel remains deeply embedded in American society and politics. Second, there is a longstanding and important relationship between the military establishments in both countries who tend to see each other as peers in terms of technical and operational capacity. This military-to-military relationship transcends the highly variable politics on both sides. Third, the strategic interests of both countries are not always aligned, but they do converge in critical areas. These include counterterrorism, non-proliferation, and the pursuit of further normalization between Israel and the Arab world as whole. Notably, these are also areas of likely continuity in American and Israeli policy over the coming years regardless of election outcomes. It all adds up to a difficult but enduring relationship.