US Support For Israel: Popular Myths Versus Underlying Reasons – OpEd


Last week it was announced that US President Biden had accepted an invitation from Israeli Prime Minister Bennett to visit Israel in the near future. This announcement has been interpreted as a strong signal of support for Israel coming as it does amidst an upsurge in violence in Israel’s seemingly insolvable conflict with the Palestinians. Unqualified American support for Israel, bar the tepid criticism of Israeli actions that can be faintly heard in some quarters of the establishment, is bound to fan the whiff of hypocrisy swirling about US foreign policy given the praise that has been heaped upon Ukrainians for their resistance to Russia’s invasion of their country and the condemnation with which successive administrations have tended to view Palestinian acts of resistance against Israeli occupation.  

Although generally expected, unwavering US support for Israel even at the risk of being accused of hypocrisy is bound to have led many to question why the US remains so steadfast in its support. On the face of it, there is little obvious reason why this tiny, resource-poor country seems assured of US diplomatic cover for its every act or is deemed worthy of being the biggest beneficiary of US military largesse even though it has a higher GDP per capita than Mississippi, the poorest US state, or the UK, the US’s closest ally. This conundrum persists despite the familiar explanations that expert analysts and commentators are fond of intoning or the conspiracy theories that are routinely peddled on social media.  

Take for instance the argument that attributes US foreign policy support for Israel to evangelical Christian voters, specifically the millenarian beliefs of certain denominations which hold that the establishment of the State of Israel is a necessary precursor to the End Times and the second coming of Christ. Although persuasive at first, given the intractability of inter-religious conflicts and the religious significance which Jews, Muslims and Christians have historically attached to the land of Palestine, there are grounds to believe that the importance of religion in explaining the US’s support for Israel might be exaggerated. Chief of these is the growing irreligiosity of Western societies in general and the waning influence that religion subsequently exerts in these countries at the policy level.

Furthermore, assuming US government support could be explained on strictly religious grounds, it would mean that supporters essentially subscribe to the view that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can only be resolved at the end of time when God returns to judge us all, believers and non-believers alike. If so, why does the US even bother intervening in this conflict or US policymakers expend great effort striving to appear to be attempting to solve this conflict if they believe it cannot be settled by earthly means?

Alternatively, consider the view that official American policy can be traced to the activities of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the role that the Jewish Lobby plays in American politics. The oversized influence this explanation accords to Jewish interests and insider lobbyists sounds uncomfortably like xenophobic tropes of the nefarious Jewish cabal that is intent on dominating world affairs that has come to be associated with the most despicable far right elements. In addition, as countless reports indicate, ‘the Jews’ do not speak with one voice. Indeed, some of the harshest critics of Israel’s actions and US policy towards Israel are Jewish.

Or is it because of racism, because Israelis ‘look white’ and share cultural similarities with Europeans? Ignoring for a moment that Jews come in different shades, observe that the US is growing increasingly racially diverse and multicultural, along with most other Western countries. Government support for Israel, however, remains as strong. Incidentally, it remains just as strong regardless of which of the two main political parties is in power, that which popularly believed to embrace racial diversity or that which is popularly believed to oppose increased racial diversity.  

And what of the well-worn argument that it is because of Western guilt over the Holocaust, an atrocity that occurred over 75 years ago and is fast fading from public memory? According to this view, citizens in the West feel a great deal of shame about their countries’ initial inadequate response to reports of Nazi discrimination against German Jews and experience collective guilt that their ancestors’ inaction caused them to fail to prevent the subsequent genocide of European Jews. These feelings of guilt and shame are so great that ensuing generations have resolved to protect the Jewish homeland to ensure that this tragedy will never befall members of this group again. Though compelling in the nobility of its aim, there are a number of weaknesses in this argument. Most obviously, most Jews do not live in the State of Israel but in Western countries. A slim majority, in fact, lives in the US. Given their global distribution and the fact that Jews were exterminated on European soil, it would be far more sensible, and certainly more cost effective, for countries that have made the protection of Jews their mission to fulfil this mission by strengthening Jewish citizens’ individual protections. Secondly, cumulative Western support for Israel since its creation has enabled the Israeli military to build up its capacity relative to that of its neighbours in the region to such a degree that it is safe to presume that Israel is itself capable of ensuring that Jews in Israel will never be oppressed again. Besides, one need only peruse the record of Western treatment of the Kurds or any number of allies of convenience across the globe to conclude that Western recollections of loyalty and remembrance of past injustices are short and thus cannot be relied upon.  

Based on the arguments above, one contends that the oft-cited reasons proffered in answer to the question ‘Why does the US support Israel?’ cannot satisfactorily explain US support for Israel, either jointly or individually. It follows that alternate explanations must be sought to establish the underlying reason or reasons. A good place to begin to tackle this task would be by analysing the dynamics that characterise the relationship between Israel and the US. The most notable feature of this relationship is that it is a relationship between two vastly unequal partners. The US is clearly the senior partner in this relationship, no matter the metric used to compare these two countries. It is also an unequal relationship, in economic terms at least, given the substantial and measurable aid which flows in a uni-directional flow from the US to Israel.

Arguably, the terms of this relationship, when coupled with certain simple and reasonable assumptions about the motives and behaviour of the parties involved in vastly unequal relationships, allows us to draw insights about the nature of this relationship. These insights, in turn, may enable us to discern the reasons why the US supports Israel so strongly. For one, it can be reasonably assumed that the dominant partner will seek to maintain its position in the relationship. When the dominant partner happens to also be the most powerful country in history, it could be further assumed that it will brook no serious competition to its preeminent global position and will seek to preserve this status at all costs. This includes resorting to enlisting partners to thwart the threat of the emergence of rivals thereto. It follows that it will only tolerate those actions taken by the junior partner insofar as they serve this purpose. Presumably, the junior partner will acquiesce to this role (wittingly or unwittingly) to preserve the status quo in their relationship with their powerful ally.

By appealing to this basic framework, it is possible to gain a better understanding of why the US supports Israel and appears to indulge its belligerence and aggression in the region. Retaining Israel as its closest regional ally provides a convenient casus belli which offers sufficient justification for the US to intervene directly in the region should rivals emerge to challenge its hegemony in this strategically important region that possesses abundant supplies of the global economy’s most strategic asset. Crucially, arming Israel and keeping it on a permanent war footing cultivates Israel’s reputation as a militant, daresay rogue, country that is prepared to act outside of the bounds of international norms. Painting Israel in this light enables the US to capitalise on perceptions that it must be able to wield influence over this country because of the enormous amount of aid it provides. This enables the US to advance its geostrategic aims within the region via indirect means by destabilising the balance of power in the region and driving apart countries which, by virtue of the commercial advantages bestowed by their common language and shared culture, together represent a ‘natural’ market that has the potential to become an economic bloc powerful enough to rival the historical Great Powers.  

It is put to the reader that this provides compelling grounds for the US to want Israel to be permanently stationed on a war footing and might explain why the US is so generous in providing arms to Israel when clearly the Israeli army can neutralize any foreign threats facing their country. The benefits the US reaps from Israel’s banishment to being an outsider might also explain the curious position coalition or governing Israeli parties find themselves in when it comes to the peace process. For all their supposed desire for peace and readiness to engage in talks – usually about talks, none appear enthusiastic to revive the peace process or to champion a credible peace proposal that would be acceptable to Israel’s neighbours and the wider international community. With no realistic political endgame in mind, the Israeli position seems amorphous, driven by actions like approving ever-expanding settlement building and continuing the occupation that squander public goodwill internationally and pilfer the diplomatic bargaining chips which previous generations’ sacrifices have secured. In so doing, they ultimately undermine Israel’s long-term negotiating position. This is a baffling situation for a country supposedly facing existential threats from its neighbours and sundry internal and external enemies to find itself in. This oversight hints at a ruling class that has either become complacent in the assuredness of the patronage of its main benefactor or, less kindly, at a political class determined to do its master’s bidding.

Seen from this perspective, Israel, for all its apparent impunity, is trapped. Held hostage at the policy level to the machinations governing how its patron chooses to exercise its power in the pursuit of its geostrategic goals, its entrapment condemns its citizenry to being divided internally, cowed into a state of existential fear by leaders who are adept at exploiting their fears to convince them that the nation’s goal should not be to coexist but to win in order to force citizens to accept their fate of being locked in a never-ending cycle of retaliatory violence. The net effect is the multiplication of its risks of becoming a garrison state that is a pariah amongst the Community of Nations, except when amongst illiberal regimes that is.

[NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part article. The second piece discusses the vulnerability of Israel’s position and identifies trends in several contemporary economic and sociopolitical factors in the US that could render this state of affairs untenable and the prospect of withdrawal of American support thinkable if not imminent.]

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