Israel, the North Star in US Foreign Policy

Pedro Soriano Mendiara

6 mins - 10 de Octubre de 2023, 07:00

If there is one issue that still unites Democrats and Republicans, it is the consideration of Israel as America’s first ally. The two parties’ motivations for this are somewhat different: in the case of the Democrats, there are reasons of pure political representation: all nine Jewish senators – 9% of the Senate – and twenty-four of the twenty-six Jewish congressmen – 6% of the House of Representatives – are Democrats (in a country where only 2.4% of the population is Jewish, which shows the high degree of Jewish over-representation in US politics). Democrats have been associated with the Jewish cause since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, with a devotion that is often more sentimental than ideological (not in vain were the efforts of Truman, a Democratic president, who pushed his country to be the first to recognise the new state).

As for the Republican Party, if in Eisenhower’s time it was still capable of forcing the Israelis to make decisions against their interests (such as the withdrawal during the Suez Crisis in 1956), by the time of Nixon’s presidency it was axiomatic that the main US bulwark in the Middle East was the existence of a Jewish state surrounded by more or less pro-Soviet Arab nations. The 1973 oil crisis, sparked precisely by the reaction of Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations to US support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, solidified this symbiotic relationship between the first superpower and its Jewish ally.

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Israel’s increasing shift to the right, exemplified in 1977 by Likud’s first electoral victory, which also coincided in time with a similar shift in the Republican Party and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, made the relationship between conservative administrations in the two countries increasingly comfortable, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. In that sense, the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the fight against Islamic jihadism only served to strengthen the ties between the two countries in their struggle against a common enemy.

While Republican administrations supported Israel’s heavy-handed policy towards its adversaries, Democratic administrations tried to get it to reach agreements with them (for instance, the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt under President Carter or the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, negotiated under President Clinton).

This partisan division of labour has become more strained in recent years as the Democratic Party, in particular, has sought to adopt a more critical stance towards its ally (perhaps inevitably, as American Muslims, a traditionally Republican bloc, began to vote Democratic after 9/11 and gained more influence in Democratic administrations) and Israeli governments began to rely on far-right parties to govern. It is well known that relations between Presidents Obama and Biden with the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were and are very frosty and that the latter’s authoritarian policies, with his attempts to control the Israeli judiciary, are viewed with great concern by the current US administration.

However, the murder, rape, and kidnapping of hundreds of Jewish Israelis by Hamas this weekend can only provoke a reaction in today’s United States of unity between the two parties, especially given that Hamas attacks from Gaza and Hezbollah attacks from Lebanon may have been sponsored by Iran, in an attempt to hinder the growing establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the various Arab countries (in particular Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main enemy in the region), a détente, moreover, with which Republicans and Democrats agree (any policy that frees US military assets from the Middle East and redirects them to more strategically important locations is welcome in Washington).

How can Israel’s declaration of war change US policy? It will depend on two key factors: first, that the conflict does not spill beyond Gaza and Lebanon into open war with Iran (the Israeli administration’s initial reaction that it has no evidence of Iranian involvement in the attacks has been surprisingly restrained, although today’s Wall Street Journal revelations may change this). The headache for the Biden administration would be gigantic if it were to spread, as it would undoubtedly be used by Republicans to divert to the Middle East the aid funds theoretically earmarked for Ukraine. At the same time, it would distract attention from the Taiwan Strait, which is the real hot spot in US foreign policy at the moment.

The second key factor is, if the conflict does not escalate, that the Israeli response to the attacks is not disproportionate, something that is far from guaranteed. The savagery of Hamas’s aggression against civilians who were not only defenceless, but even – I am thinking of those attending the peace music festival who were massacred – sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, is calculated to provoke a brutal reaction from the Netanyahu administration against Gaza’s civilian population (lest we forget, the Israeli prime minister will be tempted to hide the spectacular failure of his secret services to detect the actions of Palestinian paramilitaries). The outrage generated, at least in the West, by the images of entire families wiped out, young girls begging for help when abducted, children separated from their parents and subjected to sinister taunts by their captors, will soon be replaced by the same sentiment at the images of thousands of Palestinians dead and buried under rubble in bombed-out buildings in Gaza. This will cause the initial groundswell of sympathy for Israel to cool quickly, except, probably and precisely, in the United States, where it will do so much more slowly, if at all.

Joe Biden’s administration will face an unpalatable situation: it will receive no quarter from the Republicans, who will accuse it, in any case – as they have already done this weekend – of failing to support the country’s best ally. Former President Donald Trump, in particular, will embrace Benjamin Netanyahu’s cause with a fervent passion and justify any action taken by the Israeli military – even those that are morally questionable – while attacking Biden at the same time. The Democrats are also likely to be divided between their more left-wing, which includes Muslim Democratic members of Congress, who are increasingly reluctant to uncritically support Israel, and the moderate majority, which tends to include Jewish Democratic politicians, who, while very upset with the current Hebrew government, cannot conceive of severing the political, economic, and military ties that have bound the two countries for decades. And the rest of the world will criticise the US for allowing itself to be dragged into a conflict by its junior partner, as has happened many times in the past.

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