Tracking the state of United States-Israel relations, Keren Yarhi-Milo called the relationship “important and unique, neither static nor simple; it is complex and evolving, nesting within regional and domestic dynamics.”
The assistant professor of politics and public and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School was addressing a conference she also cochaired — on U.S.-Israel relations — that took place May 6 at the university’s Center for International Security Studies.
At a moment when “strategy and intelligence cooperation was never better” and “the dynamic between leaders was never worse,” Yarhi-Milo said, “we can lose the sense of urgency to act.” But, she cautioned, “The leaders in the United States and Israel will be forced to act, to react to the events that are unfolding.”
Joining her on the morning panel, “The Evolution in U.S.-Israel Strategic Relations,” Martin Kramer, founding president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, suggested that Israel’s unwillingness to submit to U.S. constraints between 1948 and 1967 was essential to its survival as a nation.
Israel took three major actions in that period — declaring its independence, building the Dimona nuclear reactor, and preemptively attacking its neighboring Arab states in 1967 — despite U.S. warnings that if it did act, it would be acting alone.
“The actions Israel took in defiance of the U.S. in those years are the bedrock of Israeli sovereignty,” Kramer said.
In 1948, for example, he said: “The way [Israel] waged war and the way the Arabs waged war assured the flight of 750,000 Arabs and assured the state would have a decisive Jewish majority.”
Once Israel developed a client-patron relationship with the United States, Kramer said, “Israel lost some of the freedom of decision of a sovereign state.”
In 1973, he noted, just before Yom Kippur, Israel heeded the United States and did not launch a preemptive attack against its neighbors, who were clearly readying for war, resulting in high casualties for the IDF. But, said Kramer, “Had Israel become an American client early in its history, it would be a far weaker state today.”
Other panelists explored the realities that have created strong ties between the two countries. Steven David, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said that despite some American hostility toward Israel, the ties between the countries remain strong for three reasons. First, “Israel is the strongest country in a critical region, and the only country whose pro-American orientation won’t change overnight,” thus providing a source of critical intelligence. Second, Israel is the only liberal democracy in the region, meaning Israel’s enemies are the United States’ enemies. And third — though David sees this as the “least important” factor — is the existence of the Israel lobby in Washington.
Jonathan Rynhold, director of the Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People at Bar-Ilan University, said that the relationship between the United States and Israel has been institutionalized through many agreements. The significant U.S. military aid to Israel, he explained, is undergirded by three logics: Israel is strong, reliable, and provides intelligence against common enemies; Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East, and the United States wants to be able to restrain and influence Israel; and U.S. aid to Israel is a complement to peacemaking, compensating Israel with a strategic deal that will lessen its sense of vulnerability.
But there may be trouble on the horizon. David expressed concern that the values that bind the two countries are under assault as a result of Israel’s continuing occupation of Arab lands and Israel’s “very narrow right-wing government.” The BDS movement is also having an effect. “Israel is reviled in most of the world, and America is an outlier. Some of that can’t help but seep into American discourse,” David said.
Michael Barnett, professor of international affairs and political science at The George Washington University, explored the U.S.-Israel relationship from the perspective of American Jews’ self-understanding. Whether they view themselves as “a people that dwell alone or a light unto the nations, apart or a part, has implications for how they think about the relationship with Israel,” he said.
“American Jews tend to be more cosmopolitan than tribal, which has made it more difficult to attach to Israel,” Barnett continued.
He spoke of an increasing interest in social justice among young Jewish Americans as interest in Israel has fallen, although he did not suggest any cause-and-effect relationship. He noted that many American Jews come home from a visit to Israel with mixed feelings that they do not have to face if they are, say, building latrines in Ghana. He has also seen an increased wariness of nationalism. And finally American Jews are liberal and pro-democracy, and see a divergence from those ideals in Israel’s political makeup.
David pointed to younger American Jews who, except for the Orthodox, “are showing signs of reducing their support [for Israel].”
“If American Jews are anchoring themselves in universal and cosmopolitan values and Israel is increasingly perceived as drifting away from democracy, being theocratic, and fundamentally an ethnic nationalist state, it has caused a lot of strain,” Barnett said.
David noted that while today “security cooperation has been as good as it has ever been,” President Obama does trouble some Israelis. “There is a sense that Obama doesn’t like Israel in his kishkes, that it is just another country,” he said.
Looking toward the future, he offered two factors that may influence the U.S.-Israel relationship.
First, the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East — which makes Israel look like an island of stability — has drawn even a number of Arab regimes to openly align with Israel. This shift could enhance U.S.-Israeli ties and the emphasis on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
However, David said, the relationship could be threatened by the continued occupation. He suggested that Israel needs to stop building beyond the security barrier and “that Israel has to rein in religious, antidemocratic laws.”
Other sessions at the CISS conference centered on the perspectives, mostly gleaned from polling data, of the general public and elites on the Arab-Israeli peace process; an exploration of the next phase of the Iran nuclear deal; and a look at patterns of continuity and change in great power interventions.
Rynhold said that even in the face of a United States that may be self-sufficient in oil, and Americans who are increasingly less internationalist and less willing to use force in overseas conflicts, “What will hold the United States and Israel together is the region itself. It is such a dangerous region that it will pull the United States back in no matter what.”