We are at the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Israel relations. While predications must always be tentative, it’s likely that the relationship will never be as strong as it once was. President Barack Obama’s decision to abstain on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 is not the cause, but only the most recent manifestation of that change.
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Today the pillars of the American-Israeli relationship are well known. Israel is a fellow democracy (however flawed) in a region crowded with autocracies and so garners more emotional and normative credit with Americans. An influential “pro-Israel” lobbying network, comprised of Jewish and evangelical organizations, keeps a positive relationship with Israel high on the policy agenda. That, plus the relative weakness of the “pro-Palestinian” lobby, convinces U.S. politicians that supporting Israel is the easy thing to do, especially during elections. Israel is also a strategic asset to Washington, through joint defense production, intelligence sharing, and military cooperation.
The relationship has been a long time in the making; it wasn’t always so close. From 1948 through the 1970s the American government was divided over the benefits of being “pro-Israel,” while anti-Semitism was widespread among the American population; the lynching of Leo Frank, opposition to Jewish immigration in the middle of the 20th century, the rantings of Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, and quotas on Jewish applicants to medical school all made Jewish Americans reluctant to become involved in political advocacy. The pro-Israel lobby was comprised mainly of prominent individuals from the religious and legal communities, whose access and ability to persuade was dependent on who was in the White House.
Military cooperation was minimal. The U.S. participated in the 1950 Tripartite Declaration, by which it, the United Kingdom, and France proclaimed they would not sell offensive military equipment to the parties of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The first advanced weapons—anti-aircraft missiles—were sold to Israel in 1962. It was only in the late 1970s that arms deals and military aid became an important component of the relationship.
In other words, there is nothing automatically close about the relationship; changing international and domestic conditions led to a strengthening of the connection. They can weaken the connection, as well.
From the beginning Netanyahu and Obama had conflicting priorities and preferences. But while the specific contours of their squabbles might be unique, they reflect the changed positions of both countries as well as a shift in their domestic politics.
Israel’s position in the international system has strengthened over time, and the country is no longer in danger of annihilation. What has changed is that the international community now firmly opposes the settlement enterprise, and is willing to push Israel hard on them. UN Resolution 2334, for example, explicitly calls on the world to “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”
Any Israeli government that promotes settlements will find itself increasingly isolated on this issue in world opinion and in international institutions. Israel’s domestic politics reinforce that type of government. The country’s electorate has shifted to the right. It’s not a permanent move. But the lack of a viable leftwing alternative to the political right and to Mr. Netanyahu specifically has facilitated the dominance of the nationalist right. That segment of the political class is committed to expanding settlements. Any international effort to push Israel to end that enterprise is a threat to both the right’s political position and to its deeply held beliefs.
America’s own global position has changed. The renewed effort by Russia to expand its control, China’s developing international respectability, and the growing confidence to assert their own interests by several regional powers have all complicated America’s role.
But most important, they mean that the relationship with Israel is increasingly seen as only one small part of a much bigger effort to exert leadership and deal with global problems. Israel’s interests are progressively diverging from America’s.
On the home front, worsening political polarization along with changes within America’s Jewish community has made Israel a partisan issue. This undermines the bipartisan consensus that since the 1980s made a close relationship with Israel an important policy goal.
The election of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump reinforces this. For his part, Trump has no real knowledge of or interest in Israel. Because he also wants to “shake things up” in American foreign policy, his Israel policy will be based more on whim than careful thinking. His focus on China, Russia, and trade will shrink Israel to an even smaller part of American’s global strategy than under Obama.
There is no reason to think any of these processes in either country will be reversed. There is no one on the horizon in America or Israel who might come to power able and willing to bring things back to the way they were. The international changes buffeting both show no signs of abating.
It’s time for policymakers and populations in both countries to come to terms with this.
Brent E. Sasley is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. Follow him on Twitter: @besasley.