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Are the Israel - US "special relations" still special?

What would a change in the US administration in January 2021 bode for Israel? Does the symbiosis in the relationship between Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu attest to a historic high in relations between their respective countries and did Netanyahu’s tepid relations with Barack Obama signal a historic low? (excuse me for the spoiler, but the answer is no).

The media generally examines ties between countries according to relations between their leaders, but the overall array of relations between Israel and the US is far broader than the identity of their leaders, and long-term trends deserve scrutiny.

In order to examine the “special relationship,” it is common to break it down into three main components that I like to dub “VIP”– Values, Interests, Politics.

The values underpinning the Israel-US relationship: The Protestant Puritan pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower to Plymouth Rock in 1620 regarded themselves as the builders of the New Jerusalem envisioned by the Hebrew biblical prophets. This ethos was adopted by the founding fathers of the US and etched into the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution. Over a century later, the spirit of the US revolution and principles of the Constitution would inspire the founders of modern, political Zionism. Many Americans still regard Israel as a “sister” state peopled by immigrants who established a just, democratic, liberal society after the removal of English control.

Shared interests: Since President Truman’s recognition of Israel 11 minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared its independence, Israeli leaders have aspired to close ties with the US as leader of the free world and hegemonic global power. Energy deposits in the Persian Gulf, critical to the American and global economy, would soon turn the Middle East into a strategic target of US foreign policy. Israel was a US partner in the Cold War and in its war against terrorism, enabling the US to avoid boots on the ground, unlike those deployed in defense of other partnerships in South Korea or West Germany. All the above explains the deep and wide defense and intelligence connections and joint bilateral fora.

Israel’s political influence: Israel enjoyed bipartisan US support for years, with Democrats and Republicans both treating it as an issue transcending their political divide. The Israeli diplomacy mantra was to keep the relations bi-partisan and so did the Jewish organizations, despite the fact that most Jews are Democrats. The pro-Israel forces were, and still are, well organized and deeply involved in US politics and the media. The American Jewish community constitutes only 2 percent of the population (a bit more in swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan), but has an impact that extends in donations and political influence(close to half of the donations to the Democratic Party and quarter to the Republican party are Jews). The pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, with its professionalism and determination,became the most powerful and effective foreign policy lobbying group in Washington. As for Israel’s Christian evangelical supporters, they are almost all Republican voters and their large numbers, some 80 million, and organizational capacities are impressive, to say the least. They staunchly believe that support for Israel is a religious imperative that will result in resurrection.

It would seem, then, that all is well and the “special relationship” is robust and deeply rooted. But in fact, not all is well due to troubling trends in all three “VIP” areas:

Values: Based on Donald Trump’s election and policies as President, one might assume that the US shift toward conservative values and its disdain for liberal democracy are similar to Israel’s, but demographics prove otherwise. In the US, the percentage of minorities leaning to progressive values is growing. The US is no longer dominated by “WASPs” (White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants). In the American Supreme Court, there is not even one Protestant (6 Catholics and 3 Jews) and the Hispanic salsa dressing is more popular than Heinz Ketchup. The Trump election had many reasons (e.g. Backlash from Americans who felt that they are losing their economic standing due to globalization, the lack of support for Clinton in the Democratic base, the influence of social media in empowering populists, etc). I would claim that Trump’s election, however, does not represent a trend (Clinton did win more votes and in the midterm elections the “blue wave” was significant). In Israel, on the contrary, the demographic changes are, indeed, pulling the country to the political right, given the high ultra-Orthodox birthrate and other factors, such as the late marriage age of liberals.

Interests: The US is losing interest in the Middle East, and with good reason. The US doesn’t rely on energy resources from the Arab/Persian Gulf, and has turned into an energy exporter itself. All the major interventions in the Middle East proved to be failures – going all the way in Iraq, “Leading from behind” in Libya and staying on the sidelines in Syria. The “pivot to Asia” was not just an Obama whim but a real change in the US strategic priority, due to the superpower competition with China and the importance of Asian economies. For Israel, this change in the American strategic posture is cause for great concern. We can already watch the new order after the Syrian civil war being shaped by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. When the US is not influential, Israel does not have leverage. At the same time Israel is becoming a victim of the US-China trade war and has to choose between the two, against its interests, to maintain commercial relations with both.

Politics: Israel has become a partisan wedge issue in US politics. The sentiment among large swathes of the Democratic Party base is that Israel has tied its destiny to the Republicans (a perception that is very much based on the reality contrived during the Netanyahu era). The distancing by progressive liberals from Israel is beginning to manifest itself in Congress. Unprecedented criticism of Israel and calls to condition US aid on Israeli policies have also emerged in the Democratic presidential campaign. The Israeli over-reaction to BDS, including the promotion of legislation that curbs free speech, is distancing progressives further. This trend is even present among members of the Jewish-American community, which mostly identifies itself as liberal and votes for Democratic presidents (more than 70 percent). The potential for Israeli annexation in the West Bank sometime between July 1 and the November elections would further exacerbate things given Democratic voters’ vehement opposition to unilateral moves and violation of international law.

How can Israel remedy the problem?

Israel must return to bipartisan diplomacy with the US and build bridges with progressive and minority elements. Israel must embrace the US Jewish community regardless of political views and streams of Judaism. Israel’s ties with the world’s largest Jewish Diaspora are not only vital to the relationship between the states, they stem from Israel’s very mission as the nation state of the Jewish people.

In order to keep the Americans in the Middle East, Israel must promote a contractual defense pact with the US anchored in legislation. Contrary to prevailing views, a defense pact would advance peace by deterring military adventurism. It will increase the US commitment to Israel’s defense, but also its incentive to promote peace in the Middle East, and the US interest in determining Israel’s borders (diplomacy is far less expensive than wars).

Should the US administration change hands in January 2021, Israel must return to the security plan formulated by Gen. John Allen together with the IDF’s Planning Directorate for the defense of Israel’s Eastern border. The plan drafted at the behest of then-Secretary of State, John Kerry, includes technological means and a US presence in the Jordan Valley and would help cement the US commitment to the region and to Israel’s security.

Israel should also advance civil society links with progressive American individuals and organizations who are unaware that many Israelis share their worldview and are engaged in promoting justice regardless of the administrations in either state. A bi-national foundation to promote “tikkun olam,” if formed, could support cooperation between non for-profit organizations and between USAID, and Israel’s foreign development arm, Mashav.

Israeli public diplomacy should engage with US civil society in a positive manner rather than in detrimental, useless arguments and “hasbara”(advocacy). Israel has much to offer the US, but our defensive and polemic approach makes us appear less relevant and less attractive.

Israel’s relations with the US are more important than its strategic ties with any other country in the world.. Despite the deep and robust nature of the relations, current trends are greatly troubling and unless we work quickly to address them, Israel’s strategic posture is bound to suffer a fatal blow.

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