Soft on rhetoric, hard in practice: Evolving US policy for Israel

Rami Rayess
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To the surprise of many, traditional relations between the US and Israel might be taking a new path. Foundations of this seventy-year alliance have started to crack. Recent developments in Gaza have catalyzed this approach. The standard mantra: “Israel has the right to defend itself,” appears no longer failsafe. It is still utilized in American political jargon, but at least not repeated blindly. Not anymore.

The disproportionate Israeli military response to Hamas firing a small arsenal of rockets targeting different districts, led to the killing of innocent children and entire families. The demolition of residential towers and buildings have all contributed to a growing discontent with Israel in the American Congress along with public opinion.

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Support for Israel has historically been bi-partisan. Members of both parties, Republicans and Democrats, have competed to earn the support of the Jewish lobby. This is changing.

Criticism for Israeli expansionist policies is on the rise in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This is unprecedented. Questions pertaining to Israel’s commitment to respecting human rights are now forthcoming: they were never before.

Representative Betty McCollum introduced a bill earlier this year putting human rights conditions on US aid to Israel. Words of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib have listening ears now.

“Israel has the right to defend itself” has never been in question, but “Palestinian lives matter” is a slogan growing in support. It’s a nod to the “black lives matter” movement that went mainstream after the George Floyd killing by an American policeman.

US support for Israel has never been so politicized. Thanks to former President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, joint relations became more of a Republican cause.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on after a special session of the Knesset whereby Israeli lawmakers elected the new president, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem June 2, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on after a special session of the Knesset whereby Israeli lawmakers elected the new president, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem June 2, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

Since the presidency of Barak Obama, Netanyahu has meddled deep into American domestic politics indirectly leading to rising partisanship on Israel. Attracting the support of Republicans can antagonize Democrats. The golden rule remains applicable: the more partisan Israel becomes, the weaker its alliance with the US will be.

Continued political, military and economic support for Israel requires bipartisan support to pass in Congress. Since the end of World War Two, the US has provided more cumulative aid for Israel than it has done for any other country. From the 83 times that Washington waved its veto power in the Security Council, 42 were to block resolutions that might hold Israel accountable for atrocities and massacres it committed on the Palestinians.

A Memorandum of Understanding between the two states was signed in 2016 leading to a robust $38 billion of aid stretching over ten years.

It is possible that President Joe Biden might buck the trend and offer Israel his explicit support for Israel, but based on full, unconditional support for Israel isn’t the smooth political path it once was.

Israel has never offered a cooperative hand to Washington in its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians: not in the two state solution, nor the freezing of settlements, and certainly not in the return of refugees categorically refused by successive Israeli cabinets.

For the first time in almost fifteen years, a March 2021 Gallup poll found that a majority of Democrats favored “putting more pressure on Israel” to make compromises for peace with the Palestinians. Israel’s traditional image as the “only democracy in the Middle East” was highly contested when the American public watched the aggressive Israeli retaliation on Gaza.

There are serious doubts about whether Israel will remain America’s indispensable Middle East ally. With the enormous Chinese threat challenging Washington’s global supremacy politically, militarily and economically, the growing sentiment suggests reducing unlimited support to Israel while no concessions are put forward by the Knesset.

On Iran, it was said that Biden was hard in rhetoric, but soft in practice. It’s plausible to reach a stage where the US with Israel is soft on rhetoric, but hard in practice.

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