This is what complicates our relationship with Israel
“Ilhan Omar’s Criticism Raises the Question: Is AIPAC too Powerful,” read a recent New York Times article. Much of recent news commentary has highlighted remarks made by the freshman House Democrat about the relationship between the pro-Israel lobby, the Jewish people, the Israeli government, and the United States; however, many political pundits have ignored the complexity of the circumstances regarding America’s support for Israel. The relationship between the two countries should be viewed within the context of the reasons for establishing the State of Israel.
In order to adequately discuss this subject, one must understand the relevant terminology. To be pro-Israel is to be in favor of the State of Israel, namely the government and its current leaders; it is both possible to be in favor of the State of Israel and against the current Israeli government leaders. Zionism is the belief that Jews deserve their own state in their ancestral homeland, Israel. The discussion of Israel in the realm of American politics often refers exclusively to politicians that are either for or against the Israeli government; however, a growing portion of Democratic politicians refer to themselves as advocates of boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning the Jewish state.
As with all public policy issues, debate should ensue but there should be an objective, fact-driven dialogue. Some have utilized arguments against the State of Israel as a vessel to promote anti-Semitic viewpoints, while others have sought to promote the idea of a natural alliance based on similar founding principles and geostrategic benefits. Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, one must acknowledge the complexity of the United States-Israel relationship in order to fairly critique our current standing.
Established in 1948, the State of Israel was intended to be the nation-state for Jewish people all around the world. In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, international leaders recognized that anti-Semitism nearly caused the extinction of the Jewish people, and thus they sought to create an avenue to protect the Jewish people. Initially, the United States, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was skeptical of interfering in the conflict between Palestinians and Jews in the region. The British also opposed the “creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine as well as unlimited immigration of Jewish refugees to the region.” The British justified their opposition on their political and economic interests in Palestine.
Later, in 1947, the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine “recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.” In November 1947, the United Nations adopted the Partition Resolution, formally known as Resolution 181, to divide Britain’s Palestinian territory into Jewish and Arab states. Contrary to the U. S. Department of State’s recommendation, President Harry Truman decided to formally recognize the State of Israel. Fast forward to May 14, 2018, where the United States, under President Donald Trump’s leadership, formally opened the United States Embassy in Jerusalem; a decision that was also made contrary to Department of State and international recommendations.
Needless to say, the politics of the Middle East have become even further complicated with the emergence of Israel as an economic, technological, and militaristic powerhouse in the region. Western nations have sought to balance their alliance with Israel with their economic and political interests with Arab nations. The most relevant example is Western reliance on Middle Eastern exports of crude oil, namely on OPEC’s resources. During the Yom Kippur War, “Arab member states imposed an oil embargo on the United States and a handful of other countries, seeking to pressure them on Israel.” Since, the United States has become far less dependent on foreign oil, as the result of innovation. Keep in mind that a nation’s dependence on foreign oil is a national security concern, so the unwillingness of Israel’s allies to submit to OPEC is a crucial moment in time.
Additionally, Israel has a geo-strategically important location in the Middle East. Israel is located between Europe, Africa, and Asia. It’s location is the envy of the region given its ability to reap the benefits of the Mediterranean and its proximity to oil-exporting nations. This centrality is key to providing the United States with the ability to closely monitor threats from Iran, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist regimes and to deter possible attacks. In return for pledged American support, Israel provides the United States with training and supplies for its soldiers, provides intelligence about common enemies, and supports American values and foreign policy objectives. Israel’s intelligence apparatus has been greatly benefited by the United States in the “War on Terror” and vice versa.
Finally, Israel has diplomatically benefited from the emergence of Iran as a central security threat in the Middle East. Due to the American and European effort to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities, under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Deal), Iran has agreed to certain stipulations on uranium enrichment in return for fewer sanctions. Fewer sanctions allow Iran to spend more money financing terror groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, groups which specifically instigate acts of war against Israel. These two groups wreak havoc on nation-states. Conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen has led to numerous unusual alliances. Egypt has assisted Israel by militarily striking the Muslim Brotherhood and squeezing Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Gulf states have strongly opposed the Iranian nuclear deal, as well. Strikingly, “a senior Israeli and a senior Saudi even shared a platform in Washington to articulate their anxieties about the Islamic Republic…But both condemn Iranian backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.” Saudi Arabia and Israel are “alarmed by Iran’s role in Iraq and are seeking compensation from Washington for Barack Obama’s tilt to Tehran.”
Israel’s centrality to Middle Eastern geopolitics and global economics provides the United States with numerous benefits, as previously discussed. While Israel receives $3.8 billion per year in foreign aid from the United States, the return in value from a geopolitical and national security perspective is difficult to quantify. Even the liberal Obama Administration acknowledged the importance of a strong alliance.
Why is any of this relevant? Andrew Sullivan, at New York Magazine, discusses the pro-Israel lobby, which has been the driving force behind the large annual foreign aid to Israel. Sullivan errs in criticizing Israel for not succumbing to American demands, despite record receipt of foreign aid. It appears that Sullivan views the United States-Israel relationship as merely transactional and largely one-sided. Little does he acknowledge the vast geostrategic, political, and military advantages of a strong alliance.
Sullivan and many other skeptics of this alliance are right to acknowledge the ever-growing influence of lobbyists on our elected officials. Unfortunately, this debate has been prompted by the anti-Semitic remarks of Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN). Representative Omar’s association of Israel with the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) and with Jewish influence is particularly troubling. She questioned the “allegiance” of supporters of Israel, revisiting age old anti-Semitic charges of dual loyalty. These comments come at a time when hate crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions have risen, with Jewish targets “accounting for 58.1 percent of religious-based hate crime incidents.”
What’s most important in the discussion over the United States-Israel alliance is a focus on the bigger picture. As President George W. Bush said, “Our two nations have a lot in common, when you think about it. We were both founded by immigrants escaping religious persecution in other lands. We both have built vibrant democracies…These ties have made us natural allies, and these ties will never be broken.” This issue is far too complex to break down into a 30-second sound bite on cable television and it is much too nuanced to be on a bumper sticker. What is necessary for this debate and for politics, at large, is to gather a full-scale understanding of the facts and context and to proceed with civil dialogue. Until the public decides that a full-scale debate is necessary, issues such as this will continue to be polarized by extremists.
Mitchell Nemeth is a contributing writer for Merion West. He holds a Master in the Study of Law from the University of Georgia School of Law.