The United States’ condemnation of Israel’s establishment and expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories while at the same time funding Israel’s military occupation is, to say the least, hypocritical. It is true that various administrations have tried over the years to halt the construction of said settlements and to influence the behavior of Israel’s security forces in their frequent abuses of the human rights of Palestinians living under occupation. But without questioning the will or sincerity of the officials who have engaged in such attempts, it is important to note that even assuming the best intentions, it has become virtually impossible to significantly alter the relationship between the United States and Israel—at least not in a way that would afford American officials the leverage needed to alter Israel’s behavior.
Ever since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israeli has enjoyed a special relationship with the United States. In a press release issued by the White House on the day that Israel declared itself a sovereign nation, May 14, 1948, the US government formally recognized Israel, mentioning by way of justification then US President Harry Truman’s “belief that, as a result of the Holocaust, Jewish people were oppressed and also in need of a homeland.” The same document also mentioned other issues that informed the United States’ policies and position prior to the founding of Israel, including concern over possible restrictions on exports of oil from Arab countries, Soviet interest in exploiting the issue, and the establishment of a commission to study the potential conflict between Arab and Jewish aspirations in Palestine. Thus, while recognizing the complex issues associated with the formation of the State of Israel and the diversity of views expressed within US government circles, the press release was ultimately a commitment to the state of Israel, from which successive administrations have not wavered.
Some have posited cultural and religious reasons for the United States’ initial and ongoing support for Israel, citing a common Judeo-Christian culture, shared values, and joint interests. History and culture are certainly part of the story, but in the final analysis, successive US administrations have predominantly seen Israel as a friend and ally against enemies (both perceived and real), which has led to a policy of support for Israel regardless of circumstances.
US support over the years has been evident in military and economic assistance, with total military aid amounting to $146 billion (not adjusted for inflation), and with a current ten-year commitment for $3.3 billion per year in place, with an additional $5 billion promised for air defense. More telling evidence of US commitment, however, is America’s speedy supply of materiel to Israel during its conflicts with Arab states and its unflinching political support for the country at the United Nations, particularly in warding off criticism and UN Security Council resolutions that are unfavorable to Israel. Beyond this obvious support, however, the relationship has deepened over the years, becoming totally institutionalized, both in the private and public sectors.
US support over the years has been evident in military and economic assistance, with total military aid amounting to $146 billion (not adjusted for inflation), and with a current ten-year commitment for $3.3 billion per year in place, with an additional $5 billion promised for air defense.
US-Israel collaboration on advanced technology development in both military and civilian ventures has been so great that the two governments and their private sectors have become thoroughly intertwined. From climate challenges and artificial intelligence development to the exchange of intelligence at the highest and most sensitive levels, the relationship has become a proverbial Gordian knot—very hard to disentangle and practically impossible to sever. A bill was even introduced in Congress in 2021 that would establish a joint committee for ensuring and boosting military technological cooperation between Israel and the United States. No such commitment for this purpose currently exists with any other country.
Israel’s designation as a major non-NATO ally has been further strengthened in a 2021 Department of State document detailing the depth and breadth of cooperation and assistance in military and security matters, all part of the American commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge so it can prevail in any military confrontation with any enemy or enemies that might threaten it.
Israel is not part of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, but its relationship with both US intelligence agencies and with other members of the Five Eyes community makes the exclusivity of the club meaningless. The history of US-Israel intelligence sharing is a long one, but controversy has abounded as to how much information should flow, and how fast. Raw data, for example, is normally only shared within the Five Eyes group, despite longstanding Israeli requests for the same privilege. A 2013 Guardian report (based on admittedly unverifiable leaks by Edward Snowden) described the tension within the US intelligence community over responding to Israeli requests that circumvent the otherwise obligatory filtering of information involving American citizens.
The history of US-Israel intelligence sharing is a long one, but controversy has abounded as to how much information should flow, and how fast.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also noted the depth and breadth of US-Israel intelligence sharing out of concern over lines being blurred between foreign and domestic information gathering. And in 2017, Privacy International and Yale Law School filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence regarding the rules and regulations covering the sharing of information with the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand by agencies such as the NSA and the potential impact on citizens’ right to privacy from government spying. But the sharing of raw and metadata with foreign governments also blends domestic and foreign information in ways that make it practically impossible to protect the privacy of domestic electronic communications.
In 2014, then President Barack Obama expressed his desire to limit the extent of information gathering by the NSA that infringes on US citizens’ right to privacy, but was unable to effectively change intelligence gathering practices during the rest of his term in office. Where Israel was concerned, the Obama administration bent over backwards to avoid the accusation that it had diminished the relationship in any way, touting Obama as the president who had done more to augment assistance, collaboration, and intelligence sharing with Israel than any previous president.
Over the past decade, the largesse and unquestioning support the US provides to Israel has come under increasing scrutiny from members of Congress, particularly from independents and those in the progressive wing of the Democratic party who stipulate that the US, which provides the bulk of Israel’s weaponry, should have more influence over how its military aid is used. The same weaponry used in foreign conflicts is also used internally against Palestinians, especially in the case of Israel’s repeated aerial attacks on Gaza.
Public opinion polls have been increasingly pointing to critical views of Israeli forces’ treatment of Palestinians and the declining influence the US has over Israel in relation to its abuses of Palestinians’ human rights.
Public opinion polls have been increasingly pointing to critical views of Israeli forces’ treatment of Palestinians and the declining influence the US has over Israel in relation to its abuses of Palestinians’ human rights. The Netanyahu government and subsequent Israeli governments of the last 15 years have also been criticized for the little regard they have given to the peace process and to the two-state solution that has been advocated by successive US administrations. Several polls, while noting a continuing overall support for the State of Israel, have also noted rising sympathy for Palestinians and an awareness of their status as a people under occupation.
The Evangelical Church in the United States has traditionally provided a huge support base for Israel. Evangelicals’ support is rooted in their interpretation of the Bible and in their belief that God gave the holy land to the Jewish people. Among white evangelical Protestants, 46 percent say that the US is not providing enough support for Israel. While their support continues to this day, the younger generation of evangelicals—as is the case with younger Americans in general—are increasingly questioning the morality of this policy and are sympathizing with Palestinians as deserving of at least more humane treatment, if not full political rights.
Prospects for Change
Popular sentiment and a nuanced shift in public opinion—even if increasingly reflected in actions taken by the left wing of the Democratic Party—are not enough to lead to a significant policy change. Israel’s incoming, right-wing dominated government will test the limits of the United States’ tolerance of extremist rhetoric and behavior, which is no longer only carried out predominantly by Israeli settlers, but also comes from within the government itself. US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price recently described prospective Israeli minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s attendance of an event honoring an ultranationalist rabbi who urged his followers to attack Palestinians and Arab Americans as “abhorrent.” And US officials have hinted that they may refuse to cooperate with the ministries of National Security and Defense if they are headed by extremists. Tough language, however, is not a substitute for policy options. Much as has been the case with Saudi Arabia, harsh words can actually impede communication and make for awkward protocol during official visits, even while military, security, and general coordination continue.
US law provides conditions regulating arms sales and military assistance that the US provides to foreign militaries. Indeed, US embassies must provide annual reports ensuring that military aid and training are being used for foreign governments’ legitimate self-defense and not against their own populations. And the secretary of state is tasked with reporting on “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
The thrust of US laws is that Congress can suspend or eliminate aid if embassies are unable to provide the necessary assurances that human rights are not being suppressed by the recipients of US weapons and training.
The thrust of such laws is that Congress can suspend or eliminate aid if embassies are unable to provide the necessary assurances that human rights are not being suppressed by the recipients of US weapons and training. Unfortunately, embassies to friendly nations often engage in pro forma assurances that are not based on hard-nosed assessments of the behavior of the armed forces in question. Israel in not unique in this regard; it is simply one of many states that automatically receive a pass when it comes time to write the required reports. Members of Congress who raise concerns about abuses of Palestinian human rights, as well as civil society groups that monitor and lobby Congress must insist that congressional committees investigate and ensure that US laws are being respected, not least of all by US diplomats whose job it is to monitor and accurately report on human rights abuses in the countries to which they are credited.
Senator Bernie Sanders and progressives in Congress who have been critical of the Biden administration for its neglect of action on limiting abuses against Palestinians are uniquely placed to apply much-needed pressure on the administration and to push the issue in budget debates, and in funding the defense budget in particular. Critics of Israel who advocate an all-or-nothing approach to US-Israel relations are battling windmills, especially given how inextricably intertwined the two countries’ institutions have become. Congressional hearings over embassy human rights reports and the reports of NGOs monitoring Israeli military and police behavior are precisely the tools that could—and indeed should—be more effectively used on a case-by-case basis so that more Palestinian lives are not lost, and so that peace can be given a real chance.