Israel’s unique relationship with the US benefits from America's passive approach toward Tel Aviv’s aggressive actions.
US Presidents have been quick to criticise allies like Turkey when they follow their own national interests, like buying air defence systems from countries like Russia for instance.
But when it comes to Israel, suddenly things change. Israel has occupied Palestinian territories for decades, killing civilians in airstrikes and are alleged to be committing war crimes against Palestinians as its recent assault on Gaza have shown.
In the face of all kinds of Israeli attacks against Palestinians, the only thing coming out of Washington is a tepid political reaction. Israel even received a supportive statement from President Joe Biden who suggested that it has “the right to defend itself”. If Israel has the right to defend itself by hitting residential buildings housing journalists and civilians in Gaza, then, are Hamas and other Palestinians entitled to hit civilian areas in Israel?
But again US criticism was aimed at Hamas’ rocket attacks rather than the Israeli assault. "We're very focused on the situation in Israel, West Bank, Gaza, very deeply concerned about the rocket attacks that we're seeing now, that they need to stop, they need to stop immediately," said Antony Blinken, during a press conference on May 11.
Experts cite different political ‘levels’ to explain America's unique closeness to Israel.
American national interests
The first level refers to vital American interests in supporting Israel.
“Many strategists, particularly in the Pentagon, think that Israel serves an important purpose. It’s like a club they can use whenever they want to discipline certain players across the Middle East. It’s part of the empire or colonisation policies of different great powers when they use it against smaller powers,” says Sami al Arian, a prominent Palestinian-American professor.
“At that level, they can pressure Israel and Israel will play its part. We saw this during the First Gulf War when the US told Israel ‘Do this! Don’t do that!’ Then, they would have to comply. These are the red lines the US will set for Israel,” Arian tells TRT World.
Matthew Bryza, a former top American diplomat, thinks that the US “enjoys a huge influence over Israeli politics and Israeli government. There is no politician in Israel who could become a national leader if the US opposed him or her.”
But Israel’s hardliner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had problematic relations with the former Obama administration, ranging from opposing the Iran nuclear deal to Washington’s past attempts to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood. Against all odds, Netanyahu is still in power.
Bryza confirms a part of the American establishment’s uneasiness with Netanyahu.
“What’s happening now is that the current prime minister is resisting Washington’s pressure for now,” Bryza tells TRT World, referring to Netanyahu’s rejection of Biden’s recent call for a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. “Netanyahu will have to stop as Biden increases the pressure on Netanyahu to do so.”
But no matter what happens on the Netanyahu-Biden front, Israel will remain “an extremely popular country in the United States,” says Bryza, citing both countries’ various connections.
“Of course, the US treats Israel favourably on issues, ranging from military aid to economic cooperation. There are a whole range of US economic development programs that fund initiatives in either technological or economic development in Israel,” Bryza informs.
“The US pays and Israel does the work. This is an enduring future of US politics” he says. “It is always going to be the case in US politics that the US will treat Israel more favourably than most other countries on the planet.”
But it does not mean that the US will support Israeli operations, atrocities and war crimes against Palestinians, Bryza adds.
Israeli national interests
According to Arian, the second political level in the relationship refers to Israeli national interests that “may or may not intersect with US interests.” As long as both Israel and the US are on the same page, obviously, there will be no problem.
“When it does conflict, then, what happens is within the dynamic in the US political system, which will give Israel a lot of leeway in pursuing policy sometimes that harms US interests across the Middle East or even the entire world,” Arian says.
But Americans “let it go” because the pressure to reverse such Israeli policies requires a high price for US politicians, according to the professor. “In this case, the (US) decision is more political than strategic. That’s what we have seen in many US policies, particularly during the last 20 years when it comes to Israel.”
The Israel lobby in the US is “so strong” that American politicians don’t want to go against it. “They don’t want to defy it,” says Arian.
In 2007, two prominent American professors, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, wrote an explosive book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, in which they argued that Washington’s support of Israel could be explained by “the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby.”
“Were it not for the Lobby’s ability to manipulate the American political system, the relationship between Israel and the United States would be far less intimate than it is today,” the professors said in the book, which was immediately accused by pro-Israel groups as anti-Semitic.
While there are some recent efforts to change America’s pro-Israeli dynamic in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, the majority of US politicians - whether they are Republicans or Democrats - are with Israel, says Arian.
In the most recent show of liberal Democratic unease over Israeli policy, the party’s leading progressives, who have recently become increasingly vocal in their criticism of Israel, released a letter last week urging Biden, a Democrat, to place “diplomatic pressure” on Tel Aviv to stop its assault against Palestinians.
They represent “a minority” while the majority is “so pro-Israel that they don’t care about their own national interests,” Arian says. If the Pentagon designates a red line, “obviously, that’s a different story,” he says. But thus far, Israelis have been mostly successful identifying their own national interests with Washington, he adds.
Arian also thinks that US military aid to Israel, whose parameters are being fiercely debated in US Congress at the moment, is not a determining factor in both countries’ relationship. The amounts of US military aid to countries like Egypt and Pakistan play a crucial role in Washington’s influence over those countries.
“The bottom line is that no amount of dollars would make Israel defy the US or in the reverse case for the US to pressure Israel. That’s not how the relationship is constructed,” Arian explains.
Bryza, the American diplomat, also thinks that current American criticism towards Israel has more to do with Washington’s uneasiness with Netanyahu than anything else. “What’s happening now is American politicians and experts understand that Netanyahu is using military operations against Palestinians as a way to rally Israeli citizens around the flag,” he says.
Netanyahu currently faces various corruption charges. He wants to remain in power and avoid jail if he is convicted over corruption charges, according to Bryza. Prior to recent escalations, Netanyahu seems on his way to losing power.
“Now it’s impossible” to conceive that another leader could come forward to form a new government “as long as military operations are going on” given the nature of Israeli politics, according to Bryza.
“Netanyahu has used military operations to consolidate his political strength when he was losing it,” Bryza says. But when a ceasefire is ensured, he will face a changed US mood toward him, he adds.
“His future will be very difficult legally and politically.”