What Can Account for the Strong Relationship Between Israel and the US

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The special relationship between the US and Israel can be shown to stem back all the way to Harry Truman’s administration. Over the years the relationship has increased in strength with support being highest during President Raegan’ tenure. His administration waived loans by giving them as grants, assisted in research and development and supplied financial aid to the highest amount of all time (Koplow: 2011).

This essay will try to explore the reasons behind this. By special we mean the maintenance of a strong relationship regardless of the presidency, with military cooperation and ‘extensive and intensive interaction on various social, political and cultural levels’ (Saltzman: 2017: 51).

There are three factors that will be looked into: Israel as a strategic asset, the Israel Lobby, and domestic politics. First, the notion of a strategic asset will be examined, many scholars believe the strategic asset of Israel to have declined after the Cold War. This is not the case however and is still a largely important explanation into the strong relationship between the two. The Israel Lobby will follow on from this. However, this is not a reasonable enough argument, and the role of domestic politics provides a greater explanation. Through domestic politics, the essay will look into the role of public voting and campaign funding to show the US’ support for Israel how this is supposed to influence foreign policy on Israel.

This essay will finish by looking into the relationship under the Obama administration, to show how domestic politics and strategy are an important explanation for the strength of the US-Israel relationship.

Throughout the period of the Cold War Israel was deemed a client state, with it being seeing as a strategic asset to counteract the encroachment of the USSR’s influence upon the Middle East (Mansour: 1994). Israel was deemed the ideal country for this strategic relationship due to their similar democratic values, military power and geographical position within the Middle East. Under Reagan, this was expanded with the collaboration of defence initiatives and economic and military aid (Bar-Simon-Tov: 1998, Mansour: 1994). These factors will now be looked at in more detail. The geographical location of Israel was crucial to the US. According to Kemp (in Mansour: 1994: 2), a member of the National Security Council through Raegan’s administration Israel provided for an ideal base for military operations throughout the Cold War. This is down to its ease of access, with many gulf channels leading to the country from the Mediterranean.

As the majority of Israel’s military equipment was manufactured by the US, it made sense for operations to be carried out there, so if needed they could service and repair equipment. As the rest of the Middle East used predominantly Soviet manufactured equipment (Mansour: 1994, Koplow: 2011). Raegan’s collaboration of military defence systems meant research and development in Israel was a crucial strategic asset to the US. Their collaboration not only acted as a deterrent to the Soviet forces but saved on the US’ economic budget due to the lower cost of development in the Middle East (Mansour: 1994, Bar-Simon-Tov: 1998). All the factors created a strong strategic partnership that benefitted each other. Many theorists argue this strategic relationship should have declined after the Cold War as it was no longer relevant. However, this is not the case. It was stated under the Clinton administration in 1993 by Clinton himself that he believed the relationship with Israel still benefitted America’s interests and was moving to new strategic levels. (Bar-Simon-Tov: 1998).

This essay argues that there is still a semblance of a strategic partnership between the two countries, important in explaining the relationship. Two examples will be discussed: the role of oil, research and development, and intelligence capability. The US is still very much strategically interested in the oil supply in the Middle East, with half of its own supply being important from there. The instability of the Middle East currently and in the past with the two Gulf wars, shows how important the protection of oil rigs is. The previous wars impeded oil production and imports to the US, and with the rise of terrorism in the Middle East, oil is used as a resource for funding (David: 1996). Thus, the US can make a strategic argument for making sure Israel has a military edge over the rest of the Middle East. They can use this military advantage to protect and deter the looting and destruction of oil rigs by unstable governments and terror groups within the Gulf (Mansour: 1994, Lipson: 1996, Koplow: 2011). Furthermore, research and development processes still play a large role in the relationship between the US and Israel.

In 1993, well after the end of the Cold War, President Clinton created the US-Israeli Science and Technology Commission. It aimed to upgrade satellite technology and pledged to renew the US’ supply of military equipment (Bar-Simon-Tov: 1998). This shows that the strategic relationship did not end after the Cold War. As the boost in funding to research institutes such as the Arrow missile project and the Iran Dome anti-rocket system is still being funded. $500 million was said to be provided in 2016 along with joint involvement in missile testing (Zanotti: 2018: 20). This proves Israel’s role as a strategic asset still, explaining the strong relationship between the two. Meanwhile, intelligence capability has increased predominantly over the years. There has been an increase in the sharing of modern technology and covert military intelligence operations by Israel on behalf of the US. This has led to information regarding potential threats to the US and its allies being uncovered. At the same time benefitting the US’ economic budget, as the immense capability of the Israeli forces has meant the US has not had to deploy as many resources and operatives to the Middle East (Koplow: 2011).

While we have seen the importance of strategy in explaining the strong relationship between Israel and the US, it fails to explain the deep-rooted support and consistent election of pro-Israel candidates to the Presidency. Therefore, other factors need to be examined further. The Israel Lobby is widely known to be a critical and influential explanation to account for the strong relationship. However, while this essay acknowledges this it argues it is not a fulfilling explanation. To examine why this is, a basic explanation of the Lobby theory is needed. Mearsheimer and Walt (2007) founded the theory and believe Israel to be a strategic liability and the Lobby thus explains the relationship. ‘The Lobby can be defined as a number of individuals and organisations that work together to attempt to influence and shape the US’ foreign policy initiatives in Israel in its favour’ (Mearsheimer and Walt: 2007: 112, Aridan: 2019).

This is a very basic, broad definition, however, with many individuals not actually directly participating in lobbying itself. While Mearsheimer and Walt (2007) do recognise this, it counteracts the extent of the lobby and its reach across America. At the same time completely ignoring the support for Israel that was in place before the Lobby was founded (Slater: 2009). The lobby is said to shape policies through a variety of factors including money, voting, and public discourse, just to name a few. They fund electoral campaigns and have the deciding votes in close electoral campaigns and thus have influence over the executive branch of government as it is their votes that put a pro-Israel candidate into power (Mearsheimer and Walt: 2007). These candidates are backed by lobbyists through the funding of their campaigns and therefore are influenced to have a pro-Israel view in order to gain votes and likelihood of election (Lieberman: 2009). However, this has been proven an overstatement.

Throughout the 2004 presidential election candidate, Kelly had the main backing of the Israel lobby. It was mathematically proven however that even with all votes going to Kelly, President Bush still would have won, and did (Lieberman: 2009: 247). However, this is an overly exaggerated explanation, with the lobby only playing a supportive role in policy making, they do not actually have control over congress with many policies going against the lobby (Slater: 2009). This is seen multiple times during the Carter administration. One example is that of the US’ arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the withdrawal of Israel from Egypt (Slater: 2009: 27). These two examples were majorly contested by the Lobby and yet had no influence. Therefore, one could state they help influence pro-Israel ideas in public discourse and through elections of pro-Israel candidates, but, do not directly influence policy decisions. With the US’ Middle Eastern policies reflecting those countries around the world (Lipson: 1996). Furthermore, there is a flawed methodology within their explanation, with the majority of sources being second hand and without government policy documentation, or accounts from governmental individuals it is very hard to prove the influence the lobby actually has (Slater: 2009). There is no denying the strong role the Israel Lobby has had in academic literature in explaining the strength of the relationship between Israel and the US. Yet it fails to take into account other factors that could explain the relationship before the Lobby (Koplow: 2011).

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Therefore, an alternate explanation is needed in the way of domestic politics. Domestic politics is argued to play a crucial role in influencing voting and foreign policy attitudes towards Israel. This can be explained through a pluralistic model. Milner (in Koplow: 2011) theorises that when a large amount of public opinion regarding a policy issue leans towards a particular side, politicians read these as cues and respond favourably. This is likely to occur in countries such as the US where there is a fragmented political system, as seen through the US’ decentralised institutions and dominating societies. These societies can put increasing pressure on electives to forward policies favourable to the public (Koplow: 2011). Thus, highlighting the impact public discourse can have on the policymaking process. As mentioned, domestic politics plays a critical role in influencing voting narratives. In the US the large Jewish population is a vast number of important votes to gain in an election. If a candidate is pro-Israel and implements foreign policies to Israel in their favour the likelihood of re-election is feasible (Koplow: 2011). A prime example of this is during the 2008 election race involving Barack Obama. He delivered a speech to the AIPAC claiming to back Israel fully, believing Jerusalem to the capital of Israel, and again in his re-election campaign. However, once elected he came out as a Palestine sympathiser that took a neutral middle ground approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict (Saltzman: 2017, Reubner: 2016).

Another crucial element to domestic politics is the role of Evangelic Christians, in which the Lobby fails to explain (Lieberman: 2009). The Evangelical’s hold deep-rooted support for Israel stems from the Bible, and God’s promise to Abraham that the Holy Land belongs to the Jewish. To this day they claim this promise is still ongoing and needs to be fulfilled (Rosensen et al: 2009, Millar: 2014, Baumgartner et al: 2018). The Evangelicals make up over a quarter of the population with the majority being Republican supporters. Due to the large proportion of the populations they can heavily influence voting and candidates aware of this should exploit their pro-Israeli stance in their election campaigns to garner votes (Rosensen et al: 2009, Koplow: 2011). This is seen during George W. Bush’s election campaign, as the Evangelicals had a profound impact on the voting outcome (Durham: 2004, Saltzman: 2017). George W Bush’s 2000 and 2004 election campaigns voting results showed 68% and 78% to be made up of Evangelicals according to Pew Research (Koplow: 2011: 279).

However, a study by Rosenson et al (2009: 83-84) found that while there is strong support for Israel and they make up a large proportion of the votes, they do not have much legislature influence. Bush again shows us an example of this. He was a strong Christian himself, and while being pro-Israel garnered him the votes, public discourse did not have much of an effect on his foreign policy towards Israel and therefore his exploitation of the voter’s beliefs gained his Presidency. His policy for the ‘road map’ for peace in regards the Israel/Palestine conflict resulted in an outcry from the Evangelicals for being too kind on the Palestinians. This was due to it involving the erection of a Palestinian state and land swaps. Many Evangelicals sent letters to President Bush in angst condemning the move. However, although public discourse was predominantly against the policy Bush did not change his stance (Dulk and Rozell: 2011).

While it has sway over presidential elections it does not seem to have that much effect on general policy. Therefore, it explains the deep-rooted support for Israel but not the foreign policy aspect, further supporting the notion that Israel as a strategic asset is still one of the main reasons behind the ongoing strong relationship. The Obama administration will now be looked into to further support this argument. Many academics have agreed that the Obama administration put a strain upon the Israel/US relationship, with noticeable tension between President Obama and President Netanyahu. However, the relationship between the two Presidents only made it appear so, in actual fact the relationship between the US and Israel has remained strong. We can see that this is down to domestic politics but more important strategic interests.

There are two main examples that will be focused upon here to show how although the relationship between the two Presidents made the relationship appear threatened, in actual fact it remained strong. They consist of the settlement freeze for Israel/Palestine negotiations and military aid. Throughout these examples we will see how despite Obama’s personal feelings the US remained pro-Israel in all accounts, proving the influence domestic politics and strategy have in US foreign policy.

In a speech made in Cairo to the Palestinian Authority (PA), Obama pledged the creation of an independent Palestinian state to be crucial to his campaign (Saltzman: 2017). However, as his tenure evolved it was clearly seen that although he sympathised with Palestine, the US’ foreign policies remained heavily favourable towards Israel. The rising tension over the buildings of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has been a spot of contention through the administration of many Presidents before Obama. Yet Obama has been more clear-cut and forceful over his stance on the matter. This is not down to him being against Israel as many have contended, but purely his belief it will move along peace process negotiations with Palestine (Waxman: 2012), This thus led to a call for a ten-month settlement freeze to be imposed upon Israel in late 2009, much to the outcry of President Netanyahu.

While he begrudgingly agreed, he never planned on following through. In his agreement, Netanyahu placed many stipulations the Palestinian Authority deemed impossible to accept. These included the recognition of Israel as the land of the Jewish. It also called for Jerusalem to be the sole capital of Israel, along with a complete disbarment of the Palestinian state (Saltzman: 2017, Xu and Rees: 2018). In 2010 Netanyahu announced further settlement construction to occur, infuriating Obama (Saltzman: 2017, Xu and Rees: 2018). A leaked tape of a conversation with the French Prime Minister at the time came to light after this in which Netanyahu has deemed a liar and difficult to deal with (CNN: 2011).

However, while his personal feeling towards President Netanyahu was far from positive, he failed to sanction Israel over abandoning the settlement freeze, thus discarding academic claims the relationship between the states deteriorated. In fact, it seems to just be the deterioration of personal relations between the two Presidents. This is supported by Obama’s appointment of appointed Dennis Ross from the National Security Council to oversee dealings concerning the Middle East (Reubner: 2016, Saltzman: 2017). This was also due to his reluctance to go against the public discourse in the US. 76 senators and 328 representatives signing petitions to back off the settlement freeze (Reubner: 2016: 52). This thus shows domestic politics to be a strong explanation for the relationship between the two countries.

As a neutral player Obama still vied towards public discourse, no matter his personal opinion. This is further seen throughout his second term as President. The appointment of Martin Indyk as special envoy to the Israel-Palestine negotiations showed a more pro-Israel approach, as he was a former AIPAC researcher and ambassador to Israel (Reubner: 2016). Obama further vetoed sanctions against Israel for breaking UN resolutions in regards the settlement freeze, therefore showing a continuation of support for Israel. It is further seen again in 2011, whereby the US vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution proposing settlements along the West Bank and in East Jerusalem illegal. Even though Obama was opposed to settlements and had asked for a freeze on their construction, he was still willing to support Israel against the UN. This is again furthered by a trade and customs legislation P.L 114-26 and P.L. 114-125 was signed. These legislations opposed economic measures against Israel (Zanotti: 2018: 31). We can see a move towards an interest-based relationship, supporting the idea strategy and security is still a major player between the two. This is seen through the new ten-year military aid plan being implemented. It increased annual aid to $3.8 billion that counteracts the argument that the US under Obama is not supportive (Saltzman: 2017).

This is again furthered Obama’s message to take on the responsibility to ‘preserve Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge’ (Reubner: 2016, Zanotti: 2018). This allows the US to assess weapons sales in the Middle East to make sure that Israel always has the most capable military assets compared to other Middle Eastern countries. It further justifies the argument that the relationship with Israel is largely based on its capacity as a strategic asset. $500 million was earmarked for missile defence programmes as earlier mentioned (Zanotti: 2018). Furthermore, a clause was added stating they could only spend a certain amount on arms from its own defence industry. Thus, potentially increasing the sales of military weapons to Israel by the US (Freedman: 2017). Therefore, highlighting the idea that potentially the issue was not the relationship between the two countries but in fact the relationship between the two presidents. The US’ relationship with Israel under the Obama administration confirms the US’ position to be in favour of Israel in terms of negotiations and the UN. While the increase in military aid signified the importance of Israel a strategic asset and the influence of domestic politics.

The strong relationship between Israel and the US stems back to the Cold War, with many factors explaining the strength of the relationship. No one factor can fully explain the cause of this, and three factors were used to explain this. Beginning with Israel as a strategic asset, this essay has shown how in contrast to existing debate Israel is still of existing importance to the US. It has a high stake in oil, research and development, and intelligence capability. This was further proven under Obama’s administration. The Lobby, however, has been shown, although to be relevant to an extent an insufficient explanation that disregards the role of domestic politics. Domestic politics is crucial in influencing a pro-Israeli candidate to the presidency, however, does not always have much influence over the actual policymaking.

The essay has shown how even under President Obama, who was neutral against Israel and sympathised with Palestine, the policies towards Israel were still favourable. It was the interpersonal relationship between President Obama and President Netanyahu that deteriorated, not the relationship between the two countries.

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