On the international arena it is no secret that the US and Israel are the closest of allies. They have stood side by side through most of the Cold War, and the US administration has continuously supported and protected Israel in its actions against its surrounding neighbours.
In the first part of this two part article series I will be asking: Why is the US so pro-Israel? The first part of the article will scrutinise some of the most notable factors influencing US foreign policy decisions over Israel. In part two of the article series we will go on to examine the question: Will US support for Israel ever wane?
So, why is the US so pro-Israel? The answer, as always in politics is not as straight forward as some would have you think. It is a combination of factors from various sources both domestic and foreign which influence decision makers at the highest levels to be so pro-Israel.
The first factor influencing US pro-Israel foreign policy is a crossover of strategic interests between the US and Israel which started during the Cold War. Prior to 1967 the relationship shared between the US and Israel wasn’t so rosy with the Eisenhower administration ordering the withdrawal of Israel, Britain and France from Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis. In addition, for years the US opposed Israeli pursuits to develop nuclear weapons for fear of it starting an arms race in the Middle East.
However, since 1967 and in the context of the Cold War environment, US-Israel relations flourished as mutual support for one another provided strategic benefits for both states. The US saw Israel as tool to counter growing Soviet influence in the Middle East, whilst Israel saw the US as a strong political, economic and military power able to provide the support and equipment required to cement its existence on the world map.
Following the end of the Cold War this kind of strategic crossover has endured. The US has remained a principle player in Middle Eastern affairs in its attempts to maintain a certain level of regional stability and favourable relations to, amongst other things, guarantee the steady flow of energy exports out of the region. Israel also continues to be a tool that the US can utilise in the face of regional instability. Israel can pose a counter threat to any perceived threat to regional security and in a sense carry out any ‘dirty work’ which may be required whilst allowing the US to stay at arm’s length from any direct involvement. In return for acting as a bulwark for Washington in the Middle East, the US maintains its strong political, economic and military support for Jerusalem allowing Israel to maintain its standing as the Middle East’s number one military power and guarantee its existence.
Washington’s support of Jerusalem is not all about strategic considerations and international interests though. Many argue that a greater influence on pro-Israel policy is from domestic sources. One of the more contentious domestic influences upon Washington’s pro-Israel stance is the infamous Israel Lobby.
Long debated is the fact of how influential the Israel Lobby, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, actually is in US foreign policy with arguments ranging from the ‘irrelevance of the lobby’ to the ‘unmatched power of the Israel Lobby’ lauded most famously by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy.
On the one hand, AIPAC has been ranked the second most powerful lobbyist group in Washington by Fortune Magazine in 1997 and National Journal in 2005. Yet, the studies were based upon asking members of Congress and their staff which groups they considered the most powerful lobbies of which only a small percentage actually responded. This raises serious questions over how useable these findings are and how much they represent the reality of the Israel Lobby’s power in influencing US policy.
However, this may be missing the point. Many may overstate the actual tangible power of the Israel lobby, but power lies in the perception of power and the Israel lobby is perceived to wield a great deal. This façade of power will hold influence over members of government as it could be seen that opposing the lobby could mean the end of a political career, and thus the Israel Lobby is essentially twisting the arm of politicians. This perception of power of the Israel Lobby is also aided by the more tangible fact that support of Israel is very popular amongst the US electorate further adding pressure to members of government to back pro-Israeli policy. This point leads us on to the next reason behind US support of Israel, public opinion.
One of the most crucial factors in Washington’s continued support for the Israeli administration is the overwhelming support for Israel amongst the American populous illustrated in the table below.
This table demonstrates the vast support for Israel amongst US citizens with an average gap between those more sympathetic to Israel or Palestine at 37 percentage points. This disparity has a clear impact on US members of government when it comes to policy making and voting which are notably one sided across both major political parties. The most recent example of this being Resolution 498 which reaffirmed Senate support for Israel and its right to defend itself in the face of Hamas rocket attacks which was passed unanimously on the day Israel announced its ‘Operation Protective Edge’ ground offensive into Gaza.
However, as the tables below illustrate it’s not just as straight forward as there being more American citizens sympathising with Israel than Palestine.
There a number of crucial points we can take from the two tables above. The most notable include the fact that on average the older the American, the more highly educated and those that follow the current Gaza conflict ‘somewhat closely’ and ‘very closely’ are more likely to feel Israel’s actions are justified. These figures have a crucial bearing on US government policy as the Americans that are the most politically engaged are on average older, more highly educated and more likely to diligently follow political news. Twinned with this, those of higher education and of an older age are currently more likely to be in positions of influence and power than those who are less educated and of a younger age.
The tables also demonstrate some important factors which hold the potential to shift overall public opinion in years to come. These points will be examined in detail in part two of this article: ‘Will US support for Israel ever wane?’
This considerable public support for Israel makes it good politics for members of government to support pro-Israeli policy as they face a potential backlash in electorate support if they are seen to be anti-Israel.
While it is evident that the American public are highly supportive of Israel in general it is important to understand the reasons behind this support. What makes American citizens feel they have such an affinity with their Israeli counterparts? One of the most important factors here is the sense of shared values and culture between the US and Israel. There are between 5.5 – 5.8 million self-identifying Jews in the US which includes a number of prominent Jewish figures in US culture who have imprinted themselves within US cultural history. There is also the image of Israel being the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ which breeds a sense of moral duty to support the state of Israel which is surrounded by a ‘multitude of tyrants’.
These shared values and cultures make it easy for Americans to sympathise with Israeli’s who are in many cases perceived to be the victims of intimidation and aggression from surrounding states who share little in terms of history and culture with the US.
The combination of strategic crossover and shared interests at the international level and lobbyist groups and strong public support for Israel at the domestic level help to decipher why the US is so pro-Israel. It has historically as well as presently made sense for the US to support Israel in the aim of achieving its international strategic goals whether they be combatting the spread of communism and the reach of the Soviet Union or securing energy supplies in a far off region.
It is likely that US support for Israel will continue for as long as the US continues to be strategically interested in the Middle East and US politicians are unlikely to change direction on their pro-Israel policy whilst the US public is so supportive of such actions. However, US interests in the Middle East can be seen to be winding down slowly as Washington turns its focus towards Asia and cracks have started to appear in the US-Israel relationship during the Obama administration. There are also certain indicators within US public opinion which hint at a change in the public support of Israel and pro-Israel policies. These developments will be looked at in detail in the second part of this article: Will US support for Israel ever wane?