Diagnosing the Latest US-Israel Relationship Woes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry, Wikimedia Commons

By Jamie Geller, Associate Editor for the Middle East


A widespread notion assumes amicable US-Israel relations that are both eternal and inevitable.[1] Both countries indeed share democratic aspirations materializing in strong bilateral coordination in areas like defense, security, and trade.[2] However, realist security concerns trump such shared democratic values, and the US-Israel alliance actually emerged primarily out of strategic calculations during the Cold War.[3] As American anxieties surged over Arab alignment with the Soviets, the United States viewed Israel as a legitimate proxy to counter communist influence in the region.[4] In exchange for weaponry and legitimization, Israel pledged to both maintain American influence and neutralize regional security threats to the West. Israel’s 1967 military victory only cemented the foundations of this security-driven, mutually beneficial alliance.[5]

Ever since the relationship’s founding in 1967, the US-Israel alliance has weathered petty disagreements. However, none of these skirmishes existentially challenged the relationship until recently. With a potentially nuclear Iran and decades of failed peace negotiations with Palestine, Israel’s actions and policies antithetically oppose contemporary US objectives in the region, and complicate unilateral US support for Israel in the post-Arab Spring context.[6] Public disagreements and threats between the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and American President Obama underscore the seriousness of recent skirmishes.

Both contemporary events and inherent democratic differences explain recent bilateral tensions and its root causes.[7] In fear of a nuclear Iran, Israel takes on provocative deterrent postures that threaten regional stability and in turn strain relations with the United States. For years, Netanyahu and his cabinet threatened to preventatively strike Iranian nuclear facilities. The Obama administration initially saw Netanyahu’s threats as credible, fostering American anxieties about regional stability.[8] Experts tend to compare Israel’s Iranian threats to Menachem Begin’s June 1981 attack on Iraqi nuclear facilities in Osirak.[9] Unlike Begin and Osirak however, Netanyahu has yet to strike Iran and the Obama administration no longer assumes credibility in Netanyahu’s threats.[10] This shift indeed offers Obama maneuver room in negotiations, but elucidates differences in the countries’ regional calculations and overall security objectives.[11]

Israel’s lacking commitment to negotiations with Palestinians also strains the bilateral relationship. In particular, the United States interprets Israel’s continued settlement expansion and recent nationality bill as indicative of a broader lack of commitment to negotiations and, by extension, regional stability.[12] Since Israel’s territorial gains in 1967, Palestinians – and the international community – believe Israel pursues peace through force, rather than meaningful concessions in negotiations.[13] The recent April 2014 peace negotiations broke down partially due to Netanyahu’s announcement for settlement expansion.[14] This action indeed indicated an attempt to secure his domestic political base, but more importantly highlighted Netanyahu’s disregard for American investment in final-status agreements with the Palestinians and broader regional stability.[15] In another jab to the United States, the Netanyahu government recently approved the draft legislation on the nationality bill. This bill “emphasizes Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic nature in a move that critics said could undermine the fragile relationship with the country’s Arab minority at a time of heightened tensions.” [16] Such policies complicate American support on the international stage, as it fosters international opprobrium, delegitimizes Israel, and in turn garners international support for Palestinian self-determination.[17]

Shifting generational attitudes in America also elucidate contemporary tensions in US-Israel relations. An October 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that “just 17% of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security; 44% say that settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interests.”[18] Indicating a generational shift in such assessments, a July 2014 Gallup poll also found that baby-boomers tend to still view Israel as “David standing up to Goliath” but younger Americans only see “powerful Israel occupying the West Bank and battering Hamas.”[19] The younger American generations only know Israel as an occupying force and could significantly influence American policy should this attitude grow in the future.

In addition to such generational shifts, polls indicate diminishing Democrat support for Israel while Republican backing remains solid.[20] Though such shifts have yet to materialize in policy changes, some experts predict weakened US-Israel relations if partisanship deepens; others see the forthcoming Republican-led Congress as a positive indicator of repairing the relationship damage.[21] Although such political shifts are significant, they have yet to manifest in policy changes and only superficially explain the current tensions troubling US-Israel relations.

However, such examples only superficially diagnose the existing tension; instead, differences in democratic prototypes – liberal and multicultural versus ethnic – generate a chronic tension that undermines the relationship overall. Initially founded as an individual liberal democracy, the United States evolved to become a more multicultural democracy as it adapted to globalization. Conversely, Israel clings to its ethnic democratic underpinnings to maintain the nation’s Jewish character at the expense of the Palestinians and broader Arab world. Though such democratic differences have always been present, leadership personalities on both sides influence how wide – or how narrow – the schism appears. The existing Netanyahu government in Israel clings to ethnic democratic ideals. This manifests in hardened policies vis-à-vis the Arabs that exacerbate tensions with US leadership.[22] As such, contemporary tensions are symptomatic of the inherent democratic differences and the leadership personalities that deepen the schism between the two countries.

To reconcile the existing Obama-Netanyahu tensions, this analysis recommends a return the security foundation of this relationship rather than attempting to reinforce secondary – and perhaps nonexistent – shared democratic values. To the United States, Israel symbolizes Western influence in an Eastern world so long as Israel adheres to the American democratic ethos. To Israel, the United States provides invaluable assistance to maintain peace and security in a somewhat hostile region. However, Israel is much stronger than it was back in the 1960s and no longer relies solely on America for its security and prosperity. As such, Israel currently fosters relations with countries like India and China to fulfill its needs without being beholden to America and its chosen democratic prototype.[23] If this bilateral alliance were to return to something similar to the Bush-Sharon days, it requires new leadership that narrows the inherent democratic disparity and in turn harmonizes bilateral relations.


Jamie Geller is an MA candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the GSSR Associate Editor for the Middle East.


[1] Warren Bass, Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the US-Israel Alliance (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 6.

[2] Harold H. Saunders, “The Middle East: A Turning Point?: An Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” Foreign Affairs, Fall 1982, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/36812/harold-h-saunders/the-middle-east-a-turning-point-an-israeli-palestinian-peace. For a good overview of US-Israel coordination and broader relations, please see: Jim Zanotti, “Israel: Background and US Relations,” Congressional Research Service, July 31, 2014, RL-33476, see pg. 39-64 for coordination. See also Robert D. Blackwill and Walter B. Slocombe, “Israel: A Strategic Asset for the United States,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 2011, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/israel-a-strategic-asset-for-the-united-states.

[3] Bass, Support Any Friend, p. 6.

[4] Jordan Chandler Hirsch and Sam Kleiner, “Israel Fighters America’s Battles: Why the US-Israel Alliance may be returning to its Cold War roots” Tablet Magazine, May 13, 2013, http://tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/131868/israel-fights-americas-battles. See also Steven Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict (University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 118-19.

[5] Hirsch and Kleiner, “Israel Fighters America’s Battles.” See also Steven Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict (University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 118-19. In June of 1967, Israel’s army “devastated the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria – a victory so swift that the war was dubbed the ‘Six Day War.’ The loss alone was painful to the Arabs, but the victory was so lopsided that it humiliated Arab regimes.” Please see Daniel Byman, A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism, (Oxford University Press: 2011), p. 33. For a description of the war and the effects it had on the Arab psyche. See also “Israel and the United States: The Special Bond Between Two Nations and Two Peoples,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[6] A good example of this is Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak on June 7, 1981. Please see Malfrid Braut- Hegghammer, “Revisiting Osirak: Preventative Attacks and Nuclear Proliferation Risks,” International Security, Vol. 36, Number 1, Summer 2001, pp. 101-132. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/international_security/v036/36.1.braut-hegghammer.pdf. See also Hirsch and Kleiner, “Israel Fighters America’s Battles.”

[7] For some polling data on this, please see: “A Portrait of American Jews,” Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/ and Jeffrey M. Jones, “Americans’ Reaction to Middle East Situation Similar to Past,” Gallup, July 2014, http://www.gallup.com/poll/174110/americans-reaction-middle-east-situation-similar-past.aspx.

[8] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Crisis in US-Israel Relations Is Officially Here,” The Atlantic, October 28, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/the-crisis-in-us-israel-relations-is-officially-here/382031/.

[9] Braut- Hegghammer, “Revisiting Osirak.” pp. 101-132.

[10] Goldberg, “The Crisis in US-Israel Relations Is Officially Here.”

[11] Goldberg, “The Crisis in US-Israel Relations Is Officially Here.”

[12] “Israel and the United States: The Special Bond Between Two Nations and Two Peoples.”

[13] Saunders, “The Middle East: A Turning Point?”

[14] Ali Sawafta, “Abbas signs international conventions; Kerry cancels visit,” Reuters, April 1, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/01/us-palestinian-israel-usa-idUSBREA301ZE20140401.

[15] Goldberg, “The Crisis in US-Israel Relations Is Officially Here.”

[16] Kershner, “Israeli Cabinet Approves Nationality Bill.”

[17] In October 2014, United States Department of State officially stated: “’[I]f Israel wants to live in a peaceful society, they need to take steps that will reduce tensions. Moving forward with this sort of action [settlement expansion] would be incompatible with the pursuit of peace.’” Goldberg, “The Crisis in US-Israel Relations Is Officially Here.”

[18] “A Portrait of American Jews.”

[19] “Us and them,” The Economist, August 2, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21610312-pummelling-gaza-has-cost-israel-sympathy-not-just-europe-also-among-americans. For the primary source for the Gallup polling results, please see Jeffrey M. Jones, “Americans’ Reaction to Middle East Situation Similar to Past,” Gallup, July 2014, http://www.gallup.com/poll/174110/americans-reaction-middle-east-situation-similar-past.aspx.

[20] “A Portrait of American Jews.”

[21] Kaveh Waddell, “US-Israel Relations Will Improve With a Republican Congress, Security Insiders Say,” National Journal, November 11, 2014, http://www.nationaljournal.com/defense/insiders-poll/u-s-israel-relations-will-improve-with-a-republican-congress-security-insiders-say-20141111.

[22] A stunning example of political moves that underline this hypothesis is Israel’s recent approval of draft legislation on the nationality bill. Isabel Kershner, “Israeli Cabinet Approves Nationality Bill,” New York Times, November 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/24/world/middleeast/israeli-cabinet-backs-nationality-bill-that-risks-wider-rift-with-arab-minority.html?_r=0.

[23] Suhasini Haidar, “Modi to Meet Netanyahu, marks shift in India policy,” The Hindu, September 29, 2014, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/prime-minister-narendra-modis-visit-to-us/article6454837.ece. As far as China, there is a less an official shift in relations but more focused on polarized public opinions. Please see: Dan Levin, “Israel Increasingly Courting China as an Ally,” New York Times, November 12, 2013, http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/12/israel-increasingly-courting-china-as-an-ally/?_r=0.

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