US-Israel Relations : Part 1: Why is the US so pro-Israel?

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.

Table 1

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.

Table 2

Table 3

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?

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Time to Work With Assad? : Will We See a Return to the Policy of Dictatorial Support?

My latest article has been published on International Policy Digest:

http://www.internationalpolicydigest.org/2014/08/24/will-we-see-a-return-to-the-policy-of-dictatorial-support/

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The World Must Act Now

It has been reported today that 130 US marines and special operations troops have been flown into Iraq to help mastermind a rescue mission for the thousands of Yezidis trapped on Mount Sinjar facing genocide at the hands of the Islamic State (IS, formally ISIS).  The decision may have come just in time following weeks of innumerable atrocities and crimes against humanity with the killings, beheadings, live burials, kidnappings and enslavement carried out by IS forces.

 

The US, France and United Kingdom have all been providing humanitarian aid to those trapped atop the mountain in the form of food, water and medical supplies. The US and France have also started to provide weaponry to Kurdish forces, locally known as the Peshmergas, in addition to the US military carrying out a number of air strikes on IS positions in Iraq which has helped to slow their advances in recent days. The question on a lot of people’s lips before today has been, is this enough, and are we going to sit back and watch another genocide pass us by when we could have acted? Thankfully after days of idle preoccupation with talk of change in the Iraqi government and the now seemingly entrenched fear and apprehension of the potential fallout of another Western military intervention following the previous campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, world leaders have finally begun to realise that something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

 

Intervention in Libya in 2011 did not prevent a civil war from breaking out, but it can be convincingly argued that it prevented the slaughter of thousands at the hands of the Gaddafi army. Failure to act in Syria has led to the deaths of over 150,000 and the deplorable utilisation of poisonous gases. What would be the preferred scenario? The slaughter of thousands and continued rise of IS, or the halting of such reprehensible actions and the demise of IS forces. No intervention is going to be perfect, and there are no guaranteed results, but surely in this case intervention is better than the alternative? It is not often millions in the Middle East let alone the world, would welcome a Western military intervention; and if the fear of committing “boots on the ground” is so profound amongst certain leaders then surely this is the time that the UN needs to show the world that it has the teeth to resolve military conflicts.

 

I believe it highly unlikely that the US and other nations will tolerate the existence of an Islamic Caliphate ruled by IS as it would pose an extremely real and constant threat to all other nations in the surrounding regions let alone the rest of the world. Therefore, surely it becomes logical to take strong and decisive action sooner rather than later, to strike a pivotal blow to the advance of IS forces and disallow them to cement their presence as any form of nation. The world does not want another Iraq or Afghanistan war, but the world also in no way wishes to witness the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents and the continued rise of IS while we still have the opportunity to act. We hope that the rescue plan being formulated by US and Kurdish forces currently is a highly successful one and the thousands of Yezidi’s can be delivered to safety and following this, that the Iraqi people can be freed from the incessant fear of the IS forces for good.

Every Grim War Torn Cloud Has A Political Silver Lining

Over the course of the past week, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has swept across large swathes of Iraq and seized several cities including Iraq’s second city Mosul. The Sunni militant group, which has been disowned by Al Qaeda, is now bearing down on the capital of Baghdad.

The situation in Iraq has rapidly deteriorated with reports of Iraqi soldiers and security forces abandoning their posts and fleeing with civilians and ISIS releasing photographs depicting the massacre of scores of Iraqi soldiers.

The Iraqi army has now managed to coordinate some form of resistance and pushed the militants out of the town of Baquba, just 60km from Baghdad and are holding ISIS at bay in a number of provincial towns surrounding the capital.

While the war torn cloud hanging over Iraq darkens, a political silver lining presents itself for the U.S and Iran.

Barack Obama has ruled out the possibility of boots on the ground but is openly considering the option of coordinated air strikes and most surprisingly, the option of collaboration with Iran to curb the ISIS advance.

Information has been conflicting with Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby stating “There are no plans to consult Iran on military actions inside Iraq”, whilst Secretary of State John Kerry has said that Washington is “open to discussions” with Tehran and on the subject of military cooperation with Iran said he would “not rule out anything that would be constructive”. Additionally, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has indicated that he is willing to cooperate with the U.S in Iraq and said he has exchanged letters with President Obama.

With both Tehran and Washington indicating their willingness to cooperate due to their mutual interests of maintaining a relatively stable Iraq, cold relations emanating from Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions could start to be thawed. The crisis provides the Obama administration the chance to show Rouhani a level of trust and respect for his government, and importantly for Iran, the opportunity to demonstrate its ability to act as a responsible regional power acting to keep stability in an increasingly hostile part of the globe.

The U.S, unwilling to commit troops to Iraq again, could use Iran to spearhead a coordinated resistance against ISIS on the ground whilst itself providing intelligence and possible support via drone strikes; thus minimal but meaningful response in the eyes of the international community. Obama will of course be wary of working too closely and asking too much of Iran as Rouhani will most defiantly utilise his perceived willingness to cooperate as leverage in the upcoming nuclear talks with the US.

Any form of military collaboration between Washington and Tehran would be unprecedented and impossible to conceive just a matter of months ago. Now, this horrific crisis is providing an essential opportunity for both the U.S and Iran to form some sort of preliminary foundation for mutual relations to develop. One that may be too good to pass up, even if long term planning has not been fully considered.

Sino-Russia Energy Deal: A Sign of Things to Come?

Last month Russia and China announced the agreement of one of the largest bilateral energy deals in history. Russia is to supply energy hungry China with 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually over a 30-year period, with the entire deal valued at $400 billion. This deal, described as an “epochal event” by Vladimir Putin, is a strong signal to the world of the burgeoning relationship between these two giant nations which has gained steam in recent years.

The reasons behind the recent warming of relations can be attributed to one key factor, the United States.

U.S foreign policy makers have been unable to leave the Cold War mindset behind them and have constantly viewed Russia as a potential threat to U.S world hegemony. Washington has been playing a zero-sum game with Moscow for years and whilst ignoring Russian objections, has been continually pushing the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe and Russia’s ‘backyard’. This has culminated in the ongoing Ukraine crisis which is playing out as an old-fashioned East vs West proxy conflict. Moscow feels that it can no longer sit back and watch the U.S and EU march towards the Russian borderlands and have decided to take matters into their own hands and forcibly stop the expansion of NATO’s sphere of influence.

To the East, China faces a strikingly similar scenario. The U.S under Barak Obama’s Pivot to Asia strategy has been shifting its economic, political and military focus across the Pacific and has gradually developed relations with multiple nations across East and South East Asia in an attempt to encircle a rising China. Along with the ever strong US-Japan alliance and Washington’s outspoken opposition to Chinese claims and actions concerning the East and South China Sea’s territories, Beijing will see these actions as a direct threat to its natural sphere of influence and dreams of becoming a truly dominant world power.

In spite of the comparable situations faced by both Russia and China, there exists mutual desire for a strong and reliable strategic partner to assist with ongoing disputes as well as support on the world stage against U.S influence.

Instances of Sino-Russian cooperation can be seen in the weeklong joint naval exercises held in May in the northern expanses of the East China Sea and labelled as the “most sophisticated war games to date”. Moscow has also been very willing to sell Beijing some of its latest military technology. Russia provides 64% of China’s total arms imports that include negotiations and deals for advanced fourth generation multi-role fighter jets and S-400 air missile defence systems. Cooperation can also be seen on the international stage with both nations vetoing three UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regimes actions in Syria along with the recent resolution to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Yet, despite this cooperation, there is still potential for fracture in the relationship. Mutual historical suspicions remain arising mainly from the border war they fought in 1969, along with more current ones including the fact that Russia provides India, China’s largest potential regional threat, with three times more arms supplies than it does China. In addition, the fact that both nations share the aim of becoming a regionally dominant power puts them at odds as they operate in within the same region of the world and will thus bring them into natural competition.

It is likely then that the recent gas deal between Russia and China and the strengthening of ties it brings is a sign of things to come in the near future. Moscow and Beijing, due to the current shared and pressing threat of Washington’s attempts at balancing against both nations, are likely to deepen ties in their attempts to solidify their own aspirations and global influence. However, owing to the potential fracture points in this still developing partnership, it is unlikely that any formal alliance will arise which will be welcomed by Washington.

U.S foreign policy makers are going to have to be very smart in the way they play their cards so as to avoid driving Russia and China continuously closer. They will have to focus upon the mutual suspicions that Russia and China hold of one another and attempt to drive a wedge between them, much like what was achieved during the Cold War under the Nixon administration.

Sanctioning Russia: Will it work?

In the past few days and weeks the US and EU have been attempting to up the pressure on Vladimir Putin with a folly of sanctions targeting his allies and financers. These include asset freezes, travel bans and, following Obama’s signing of another executive order, punishments aimed at the Russian energy and banking sectors.

Sanctions have been used numerous times in international politics in an attempt to coerce a change of policy by a foreign government, some successfully, many not so. In each case the way to measure success is to first determine what success would look like. What are those states enforcing the sanctions aiming to achieve by taking such actions?

In the case of the US and the EU nations sanctioning Russia it must be assumed that they have accepted that Crimea is now part of Russia and no sanctions could convince Putin to withdraw after managing to absorb the strategically significant peninsula with such ease. What then are the US and EU aiming to achieve by sanctioning Putin and his inner circle of supporters and oligarchs? The main assumption is deterrence of further expansion and annexation of Ukraine and/or other nations.

Will the sanctions placed upon Russia work in deterring such actions in the future? The answer is that, as they stand, most likely not. Yet the potential remains for meaningful effect if sanctions were aimed to strike Russia where it would hurt most, its energy sector and exports.

There are signs that the sanctions are having some limited effects on the Russian economy including the fall in the Russian stock market along with the national rouble currency. Yet there are no signs that they are having any effect where it matters most, Putin’s mindset.  For example, Putin has placed like for like sanctions upon individuals from the US and EU and has revealed no signs of cracking under the pressure directed upon him. In fact, there have been reports by NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove that “very, very sizeable and very, very ready” Russian forces have been amassing along Ukraine’s eastern border; a scenario familiar to that seen days before the Russian invasion of Crimea.

However, sanctions do hold the potential to stimulate a change in policy of foreign powers. Iran is a case where international sanctions are widely considered to be the key factor in getting Iran to the negotiating table. The main reasons behind the success of these sanctions were that the sanctions were aimed at Iran’s energy and banking sectors and also enjoyed almost universal support across Europe and much of the world. The sanctions were also phased in in stages allowing states dependant upon Iranian exports time to source new energy suppliers. However, in the Iranian case the need for immediate effects on policy was not as necessary as with the current Russian scenario.

The only realistic way sanctions upon Russia could cause Putin to have a change of heart in his current foreign policy is to follow the Iranian example and target the Russian energy sector. Energy exports represent 70% of Russia’s total exports and reducing the amount of energy imported from Russia could force the desired change. The fact that EU nations make up a significant portion of Russia’s energy export market theoretically makes the effect of the possible sanctions much greater.

However, the possibility of EU nations reducing their energy imports from Russia in any considerable way is unlikely due to the dependence of EU nations upon Russian energy; therefore creating an interdependence of the EU and Russia for energy imports and exports. History shows that interdependence reduces the ability to apply meaningful sanctions, as it would lead to mutually negative effects on both sides. The only way EU nations could reduce their Russian energy imports causing any sort of meaningful impact on Russian policy would be over a period of years, allowing for diversification of sources, along with much wider international support which would suppress Russia’s ability to diversify its export markets.

Consequently, even though the potential for meaningful sanctions exists, the reality of the situation is that it would be too harmful to EU nations to pursue such measures and thus hold little real possibility to occur.

Without any sort of appetite for any form of military standoff with Russia, alternative options are thin on the ground. So, expect to see much more talk of ‘strong and united action against Russia’s illegal actions’ and more school ground tactics of cold shouldering as announced with the forthcoming G8 (minus Russia) meeting, no longer to be held in Sochi.

The one positive that can be taken from the scenario is that if EU nations do pursue the more effective method of reducing their energy imports from Russia this will have to be implemented in line with diversification of energy imports, either in terms of pursuing new ways to produce energy at home, or new suppliers from across the world. Either way, diversification of this sort will only be a positive move for the EU in the long run.