US-Israel Relations: Time for a Reset or Reevaluation?

As Israel’s prime minister for nearly 12 years in a row, Benjamin Netanyahu greatly shaped the US-Israel relationship in recent history. After his exit from the scene in June 2021 (at least for now), a new government seeks to chart a different course in its relations with Washington. However, much has changed over these years in the US-Israel relationship and the conditions that influenced it, which leaves open the question of what relations will look like moving forward.

The Netanyahu Legacy

It is hard to pick just one moment during his tenure that was most emblematic of Netanyahu’s abrasive relationship with American Democrats. There was the time in 2011 when he lectured President Barack Obama in the White House about supposed illusions of peace with the Palestinians, and then in 2019 when he used the video of that lecture as a campaign ad in parliamentary elections. Another was the time when he went behind Obama’s back and colluded with the Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, to lobby Congress against the president’s signature foreign policy priority, which was to reach an agreement with Iran about its nuclear program. Of course, there were then four years of embracing President Donald Trump, who provided Israel with every item on its wish list conveniently ahead of each Israeli election.

Indeed, if US-Israel relations during the Netanyahu era were remarkable for anything, it was mostly because of the unprecedented synergy between right-wing political forces in Israel and the United States, often seeming to coordinate with and complement each other in their own domestic contests. Never before had Israel become such a partisan political issue in American politics, and no single person is more responsible for that than Netanyahu himself.

Now, Netanyahu is no longer prime minister. A man farther to his right is leading a coalition government that came together specifically to bring an end to Netanyahu’s premiership. This is the political context in which Naftali Bennett, the new Israeli prime minister, came to Washington on August 25th to meet for the first time with President Joe Biden.

The Biden-Bennett Meeting

Naftali Bennett certainly had substantive agenda items he sought to discuss with President Biden, but his primary goal was to send the message that he would not handle the US-Israel relationship like his predecessor did—that is, by finding new and jaw-dropping ways to make it more partisan at every turn. He wanted to show the Biden Administration that the US-Israel relationship could once again return to business as usual, without it becoming a persistent domestic headache. To this end, his trip to Washington could be considered a success; this is not despite the fact that it did not generate many headlines, but rather because of it.

The Bennett meeting made headlines not because it was politically controversial but rather because of how unimportant it was in the moment of a major development in Afghanistan.

Significantly, however, the Bennett meeting made headlines not because it was politically controversial but rather because of how unimportant it was in the moment of a major development in Afghanistan. The day of the meeting was also the day that more than 200 people were killed and injured—in addition to 13 US fatalities—by an ISIS-Khorasan attack as the United States was withdrawing from the airport in Kabul. Biden was already mired in a storm of criticism from inside Washington, slamming his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. The United States had suffered its bloodiest day in Afghanistan in a decade, right at the waning moments of a 20-year war. The news of the attack began to break just as the Israeli delegation arrived at the White House; they were soon sent back to their hotel and the meeting was postponed until the next day.

The delay complicated things for Bennett since the meeting would then take place just as the sun was setting in Israel, heralding a religious day of rest, Shabbat. This blunted the media exposure he would have received at home had the White House meeting taken place the day before. The circumstances also complicated his agenda. Bennett aimed to convey the Israeli position that Washington should take a more confrontational approach toward Tehran instead of returning to the diplomatic track and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But if the Israeli prime minister was hoping to sell the American president on another slippery-slope argument toward war in the Middle East, this moment—as flag-draped caskets were on their way back to the United States—was the worst possible one to do so.

The End of an Era

The juxtaposition of the American debacle in Afghanistan and the visit of a new Israeli prime minister might foreshadow more about the future of the US-Israel relationship than first meets the eye. One must first appreciate just how significantly the American “war on terror” helped shape US-Israeli relations, especially by recalling Benjamin Netanyahu’s initial reaction to the attacks on September 11, 2001 to the NY Times:

Asked tonight what the attack meant for relations between the United States and Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, replied, ”It’s very good.” Then he edited himself: ”Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy.” He predicted that the attack would ”strengthen the bond between our two peoples, because we’ve experienced terror over so many decades, but the United States has now experienced a massive hemorrhaging of terror.”

September 11, 2001, which occurred during the second Palestinian intifada, ushered in the period of the American war on terror, one that significantly framed American foreign policy and, consequently, its relationship with Israel. Understanding this dynamic, the Israelis fashioned much of their messaging to Washington in war-on-terror Manichean terms. All of Israel’s adversaries—countries and leaders and movements alike, from Iran, Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and even to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions activism—were painted with a broad brush of the evil of terrorism. While this black-and-white approach might have been useful for speaking to an American engaged in a “crusade,” as then President George W. Bush put it, it often clashed with the complex and far more gray spectrum of American interests throughout the region.

The paradigm of the “war on terror,” much like that of the Cold War, put the United States and its allies on one side of a divide against its ideologically opposed enemies. Everything flowed from this divide. During the Cold War, Israel made the case that it was a like-minded ally to the United States, in a region of strategic importance during global competition with the Soviet Union. Likewise, during the war on terror, Israel made the case that it was a like-minded ally to the United States in the battle against terrorism, in a region where its wars were centered. But the period that followed the Cold War was more complicated, and as the United States began to view its interests in the region differently, its relationship with Israel began to evolve. It is no coincidence that during this time of change, the United States pushed for a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

The meeting between Biden and Bennett came at yet another historic pivot point for US foreign policy. The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for 20 years, an engagement that started in October 2001 as Washington’s response to the September 11 attacks. Now this war has ended. Like Iraq, the Afghanistan war has come to be seen as a mistake and a waste of lives and resources; indeed, Americans are now far less inclined to involve themselves in foreign wars. Support for diplomatic approaches is greater than ever before, and about 35 percent of Americans perceive domestic extremism as a serious security threat today. The United States is shifting away from a period of massive military presence in the Middle East—during which time Israel has continued to be a key security partner—and reorienting its posture in and toward the region, as it reviews the lessons of two decades of seemingly fruitless war.

The United States is shifting away from a period of massive military presence in the Middle East—during which time Israel has continued to be a key security partner—and reorienting its posture in and toward the region.

A Shift Back to Gray?

What does this moment of reckoning portend for the future of the US-Israel relationship? The black and white era of the war on terror did not mean the United States and Israel did not have disagreements; rather, those disagreements were obscured precisely because of the security-related issues created by that war itself. The extent to which the differences between Israel and the United States will give shape to the relationship will be a function of which of three different rough world views Washington follows in the future as it charts the new era of US foreign policy: human rights, realism, or white evangelical Christian identity politics

Human rights. A foreign policy that indeed centers human rights, as both US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Biden have said they want to pursue, will put the United States and Israel on a more contentious course. The latter’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank is increasingly seen as consolidating a system of apartheid against the Palestinians.

Realism. With this approach, the United States would weigh its bilateral relationships more directly through the prism of material interests. If this is what guides the future of US foreign policy, Washington might occasionally disagree with Israel in some areas, particularly around its developing relationship with China or its role in the global arms market. However, the United States is unlikely to implement major changes in the relationship.

White evangelical Christian identity politics. This is an approach that is closer to what took place during the Trump years. The relationship with Israel is part of a framework that values ethnic nationalism, nativism, and anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment. It is also underpinned by a domestic constituency that believes the relationship with Israel is part of a religious obligation.

The Biden Administration’s policy seems closest to the realist middle ground for now, even though it has paid lip service to the importance of human rights.

The Biden Administration’s policy seems closest to the realist middle ground for now, even though it has paid lip service to the importance of human rights. It is not yet clear how much of that positioning is driven by principle and how much of it is a function of evolving circumstances outside the administration’s control. The new Israeli government is still only a few months old and this most recent meeting, the first between Biden and the new Israeli prime minister, came amidst a moment of profound crisis for US foreign policy. Despite this, Biden and Bennett seemed content to move forward with an understanding that little would change in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; at the same time, Bennett would continue to conduct the US-Israel relationship differently than his predecessor who brought Democrats so much heartburn.

Prospects for Change

How long will things stay this way? While the precise answer may not be clear, there is a sense of which factors may influence US-Israel relations going forward. First is the growing shift in public opinion, especially among a younger generation of Democrats, toward holding Israel to account for its denial of Palestinian rights. Over time, that is likely to grow and continue to shape the Democratic Party’s position on the issue. It may also be accelerated at unforeseen moments, like the escalation in May when Israel attacked Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza. Second, and on the opposite side, is the possible return of a Trump—or Trump-like—administration that would usher in, once again, an American foreign policy guided by white evangelical Christian identity politics. But such an approach, while paying short-term dividends for Israel, would likely galvanize and accelerate attitudes in the human rights camp.

The back-and-forth nature of American politics could mean several short-term shifts between one or more of these approaches in the years to come. What is clear, however, is that moving on from the war-on-terror paradigm will reshape US-Israel relations and will make the seemingly middle-ground approach of the Biden Administration less tenable over time. The United States will find it harder and harder to put off a fundamental choice: to side with Israel’s project of unending domination of the Palestinian people, or to hold Israel accountable for its continuing violations of Palestinian human rights.