Is the US-Israel alliance doomed?

Throughout the Gaza conflict, President Joe Biden has been about as supportive of Israel as its leaders could have hoped. He has issued statements supporting its “right to self-defense,” blocked UN Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire, and even chose to move forward with a previously approved US arms sale to Israel worth $735 million.

In short, it seems like the US-Israel alliance is as strong as ever. But beneath the surface, there are signs that the relationship isn’t what it once was. Despite Biden’s firm stance, the US and Israel may be heading for a divorce in the long run.

The most visible of these signs is the rising discontent with Israel among progressive Democrats in Congress. The left flank of the party, represented by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been unsparingly critical of Israel — with Ocasio-Cortez and her allies in the House, like Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib (who is of Palestinian descent), calling Israel an “apartheid state.”

But even some more centrist Democrats with strong pro-Israel bona fides are taking a harder stance. Rep. Greg Meeks (NY), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, initially called for a pause on the new arms sale; Sen. Robert Menendez (NJ), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has suggested Israel is not taking enough care to avoid killing civilians in Gaza.

“If you don’t follow congressional statements on this stuff over time, it is really hard to explain how remarkable this is,” writes Yousef Munayyer, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Center think tank in Washington, DC.

The Democratic position on Gaza reflects a long-running process of partisan polarization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The US-Israel alliance, which has its origins in Cold War geopolitics, has been a bipartisan endeavor for decades. But a series of factors — including the actions of specific leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and deeper political trends in both countries — has created a partisan imbalance. Republicans have become more pro-Israel than ever, while Democrats are becoming more and more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

“People are becoming increasingly aware of the indefensible human rights situation on the ground in Gaza,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) told me via email. “This includes a diverse coalition of progressive Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans and others who see our humanity as directly tied to one another.”

Historically, the cornerstone of the US-Israel alliance has been bipartisan support — both on Capitol Hill and among the American public. You need both parties to continue approving US aid to Israel in Congress; you need policy continuity in the White House to ensure unchanging US support in international forums like the UN. The more partisan Israel becomes, the weaker the alliance gets.

Unless something fundamental changes, it’s easy to see how the US-Israel alliance could continue to unravel in the long term. Biden may be the last Democratic president to give Israel a blank check during a war.

How the US and Israel became so close

The US and Israel weren’t always close allies.

When Israel (along with France and Britain) invaded Egypt in 1956, the United States condemned the Israel attack. And the US actively worked against Israel’s clandestine nuclear program for years.

Even when the US did come to support Israel, it was more about cold strategic calculation than anything else. American presidents and strategists came to see Israel as a useful tool for containing Soviet influence in the Middle East, which was significant among Arab states, and used its diplomatic and military support to weave Israel firmly into the capitalist bloc.

This strategic justification came down with the Berlin Wall. Yet US aid to Israel kept flowing after the Cold War, as did diplomatic support — propelled largely by US policy toward the Middle East and American domestic politics.

In the post-Cold War era, the US saw itself as a guarantor of regional peace and stability in the Middle East — even, and perhaps especially, when it upset that stability through actions like the invasion of Iraq. In its self-appointed role as Middle East manager, Washington cultivated alliances with some of the region’s status-quo-oriented powers — places like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel.

Moreover, every post-Cold War president through Barack Obama saw solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a priority for Middle East policy, believing (to varying degrees) that solving the conflict was both a moral imperative and important for improving regional political dynamics. America’s alliance with Israel was supposed to help, positioning the US as one of the only international brokers Israelis felt like they could trust.

But US domestic politics was equally important. Polling data shows that, for the past several decades, supporting Israel has been popular with a clear majority of American voters. Key constituencies in both parties — Jews on the Democratic side, evangelicals on the Republican side — have been especially vocal in Israel’s defense, willing to devote resources and activist demonstrations to support pro-Israel policies.

Historically, Israel’s image as “the only democracy in the Middle East” has been especially important in cementing the American pro-Israel consensus — giving a sense that America wasn’t just justified in supporting Israel, but obligated to do so in order to defend a beleaguered democracy. “It is the existence of a shared identity and transnational values that is the foundation of this relationship,” Michael Barnett, a professor at George Washington University, wrote in 1996.

But in recent years, these foundations have started to crack.

At both the elite and public level, Americans have become skeptical of the strategic wisdom of deep involvement in the Middle East. The Biden administration has sought to deemphasize US involvement in the region, reflecting the rising consensus that it’s been a quagmire distracting America from the more pressing challenges posed by a rising China. Simply put: Maintaining strong relations with Middle Eastern allies like Israel is seen as less important to America than it was in the recent past.

At the same time, the public consensus that the US should take an unconditional pro-Israel stance has weakened.

A March 2021 Gallup poll found that, for the first time in nearly 15 years of polling, a majority of Democrats favored “putting more pressure on Israel” to make compromises for peace with the Palestinians.

It’s this last trend that should particularly trouble policymakers in Jerusalem: They need Democratic support to keep the aid flowing and ensure strong diplomatic support in bodies like the UN.

But there are deep reasons behind the growing Democratic skepticism about Israel — ones that are likely to widen the divide rather than narrow it in the coming years.

Why Democrats and Israel have started to drift apart

The most significant reason for a widening gap between Israel and the Democratic Party is also the easiest to grasp: The center of Israeli politics has moved far to the right as Democrats have moved to the left.

The Israeli left’s public support plummeted in the early 2000s, after the peace process it had championed collapsed into the violence of the Second Intifada — the bloodiest conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in decades. When Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, he and his Likud party continued to move to the right — reflecting fundamental changes in Israel’s political center of gravity.

The center-left Labor party, historically the dominant force in Israeli elections, now holds a mere seven of 120 seats in the Knesset (parliament). The left is so weak that, prior to the Gaza war, it was ready to agree to a deal that would hand the premiership to Naftali Bennett — a far-right firebrand who wants to annex parts of the West Bank.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has deepened significantly under Netanyahu, with settlements expanding at rapid rates in the past 10 years. The justification that shielded Israel from charges of operating an “apartheid state” — that the occupation was temporary, to end with the creation of an independent Palestine — has become harder to maintain.

All of these developments have undermined the traditional values-based argument for US support for Israel that has been crucial to maintaining the alliance in the post-Cold War era.

“We’ve always been for two states. Still are,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) wrote on Twitter. “The defining ‘shift’ has been that the Netanyahu government and the Republicans have effectively abandoned the idea of a viable Palestinian state.”

But it’s not only Israel that’s changed: Democrats are also considerably more progressive than they used to be.

The median Democrat is more left-wing across the board than they were even 10 years ago. And there’s some evidence that the constituencies that make up an increasingly large share of the Democratic Party — African Americans, Latinos, and younger voters — are less sympathetic to Israel than the general population. Jewish Democrats, that traditional bastion of American pro-Israel sentiment, have soured on Israel under Netanyahu: A Pew survey released in May found that nearly twice as many Jewish Democrats believe the US is “too supportive” of Israel than believe it’s “not supportive enough.”

J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby that supports increasing pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian territory, regularly attracts leading Democratic politicians to their annual conference. Many also boycott a similar event by AIPAC, J Street’s more powerful and more rigidly pro-Israel cousin.

Moreover, two political tendencies with pro-Palestinian bents — democratic socialism and social justice activism — have become more ideologically influential inside the party. In left-wing circles, support for Israel is often described as support for imperialism and white supremacy.

There’s a reason critics of Israel in the House like Omar have used the phrase “Palestinian lives matter” in discussing the current crisis: It’s pressing on the Democratic attachment to Israel at of one its weakest points. Democrats and Israel are just in drastically different political places, and it makes a once-natural connection much harder to sustain.

What an unraveling alliance looks like

The notion of a weakening US-Israel alliance might sound fuzzy, maybe even fanciful. How can you describe an alliance that still leads to billions of military aid every year as one under stress?

Yet a closer look at the past 10 years reveals places where the bipartisan consensus on Israel has started to crack. And much of the blame, ironically enough, can be laid on two of Israel’s most prominent advocates — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Donald Trump.

The two men have worked deliberately to polarize the US-Israel relationship, identifying Israel’s cause with the Republican Party’s. Their behavior was both cause and consequence of the alliance’s weakening: consequence in the sense that they were partially reacting to a perceived Democratic drift away from Israel; cause in that they significantly exacerbated said drift — which would not have happened at the same pace without them.

Netanyahu clashed with Obama repeatedly throughout their mutual time in office, frequently on the peace process and settlement construction. Their personal relationship was famously icy; one senior Obama aide once told a reporter that Netanyahu was a “chickenshit.”

Of course, allies disagree with each other on policy all the time, even bitterly: Think about the bitter spat between the United States and France in the run-up to the Iraq war. But Netanyahu escalated his feud with Obama far beyond normal disagreement, taking actions that functionally aligned the government of Israel with Obama’s domestic opponents — the Republican Party.

During the 2012 election, Netanyahu all but openly endorsed Republican Mitt Romney in his bid to unseat President Obama. In 2015, Netanyahu worked with congressional Republicans to orchestrate a speech to a joint session of Congress opposing the Iran nuclear deal — an effort to help Republicans whip votes for legislation undoing Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishment.

From Netanyahu’s point of view, the strategy of meddling in US politics on the Republican side made sense. He thought Obama’s efforts to limit settlement growth and bargain with Iran was damaging to Israel; allying with Republicans was his best bet for countering what he saw as hostile behavior.

But at the same time, picking sides so aggressively in your ally’s domestic politics shows a lack of confidence in the alliance itself: a sense that the relationship’s health is conditional on which faction is in power. Netanyahu’s actions reflected not only specific disagreements with Obama, but a feeling that the Democratic Party as currently constituted couldn’t be trusted to safeguard Israel’s interests.

Democrats, for their part, have viewed Israel far more negatively in opinion polling after Netanyahu’s meddling than before it. If the structural trends pushing Democrats and Israel apart were a low-grade fire, the prime minister dumped gasoline on it.

“I think [rising partisanship on Israel] had a lot to do with the prime minister playing a critical role in lobbying the US Congress on the Iran deal,” Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies American attitudes toward Israel, told the Times of Israel in 2018. “You have a right-wing government in Israel, and that government is seen to have embraced the Republican Party in the US.”

During the Trump presidency, the identification of Israel with the GOP accelerated further. Netanyahu embraced Trump, going so far as to put up giant campaign posters in Israel with his face on them. Trump, for his part, publicly embraced the Israeli right — appointing a far-right ideologue ambassador to Israel, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, leaving the Iran nuclear deal, and proposing a “peace plan” that gave the Israeli right everything it wanted.

While this may have seemed like a deepening of the US-Israel relationship, it actually served to factionalize the alliance further: to make “supporting Israel” into something that Republicans do, a position aligned with the most hated man in Democratic politics. It helped open the floodgates for the congressional criticism we’re seeing now.

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“Donald Trump politicized US support of Israel,” Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told my colleague Alex Ward.

Partisanship is the most powerful force in American politics today. Once an issue becomes understood in two-party terms, partisans of each faction feel powerful psychological pressures to line up on opposite sides.

Netanyahu and Trump made conscious choices to reframe Israel in these terms, thinking that it would benefit their own political positions and advance their own policy priorities. But now we’re seeing the longer-term consequences. A Democratic Party already set up to be skeptical of an alliance with Israel is growing rapidly more skeptical of Jerusalem’s good intentions.

So far, it looks like Biden is the most significant short-term force standing in the way of this realignment. It’s not exactly clear why he’s coming down so firmly on Israel’s side, but so far the gap between him and congressional Democrats is fairly striking.

Then again, Trump’s early Israel policy was much more moderate than the right-wing position he embraced later in his term. It’s possible that, down the line, Biden will adjust to the new Democratic consensus on Israel in the way that he’s adjusted to the party’s more progressive stances on race and economics.

But even if that doesn’t happen, policies that used to get unanimous votes in Congress — approving US foreign aid to Israel, resolutions supporting Israel’s right to self-defense — will no longer sail through without controversy. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced a bill earlier this year putting human rights conditions on US aid to Israel. It has 19 co-sponsors and has been endorsed by J Street.

When I spoke to Matt Duss, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy adviser and a veteran Israel-Palestine policy hand, he told me that this weakening of the alliance is inevitable only “if Israel continues on the current political trajectory.” It’s Israel’s leadership that has chosen to expand the settlements and respond to Hamas rockets with such overwhelming force; it’s Israel’s prime minister who chose to align his country with the factional interests of the Republican Party.

If Israel’s leadership undoes those choices and moves to a different path, the cracks in the US-Israel alliance could plausibly be repaired.

So that’s the big question: Is Israel capable of and willing to change? Or is it really willing to sacrifice its relationship with the world’s only superpower on the altar of permanent occupation?