Vice-President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Israel to jump-start peace talks seemed like good news, until he was met with an announcement from Israel’s Interior Ministry that it had authorized the construction of another 1,600 homes in occupied East Jerusalem. In my opinion, this highlights an incredible paradox of American foreign policy: how America’s unquestioning support for the state of Israel only threatens American global credibility and security.
America’s current relationship with Israel threatens America abroad and domestically. First, a critical element of American soft power is an appeal to basic norms of justice. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a conflict between equal powers; U.S. backing of Israeli hegemony weakens American influence. When America supports a state that violates international law, as seen in the construction of the Israeli separation barrier and settlements in the West Bank, the world shakes its head in despair. “The world” is an appropriate term here, as America stands alone in the extent of its assistance to Israel. Historically, it has been the lone supporter of Israel, apart for a few Pacific island nations, in General Assembly votes (two of the many examples can be found here and here). In short, American credibility is crippled.
Second, millions of Muslims around the world perceive the U.S. as leading a war on Islam because of its aid to Israel, a view which prompted President Obama to declare that “the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam.” This view of the U.S. strengthens the ranks of terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Of course terrorists do not hear of U.S. support for Israel and immediately strap on explosives. But American-Israeli relations do provide extremists with easy evidence for their radical doctrines. Engaging with individuals who believe you are out to exterminate their religion is not a constructive road to peace.
Third, it is a waste of money. America provides Israel with roughly $3 billion each year, about one-fifth of the American foreign aid budget. The vast majority of this ends up as Israeli military expenditures, including on the separation wall built in the West Bank. I cannot help but think what $3 billion would do for rebuilding Haiti or creating disease-prevention programs in Central Africa, or reviving the Palestinian economy and infrastructure. (Just for comparison’s sake, U.S. aid to the Palestinians since 2004 has averaged $400 million a year.)
But most importantly, U.S. aid to Israel is an obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian peace. With American backing, Israel has no incentive to negotiate with Palestinian authorities, and the announcement, during Biden’s visit, of 1600 new homes in East Jerusalem simply demonstrates how careless Israel has become with U.S. backing. The West Bank is being progressively disabled through the gradual land consfiscations, and Gaza is completely incapacitated in its current position. Israel could not maintain the status quo without American assistance.
The great American paradox is that its support for Israel is contradictory to American interests. But there is a second paradox in American-Israeli relations: the majority of American Jews are liberal Democrats who support a two-state solution and feel frustration with the conduct of the Israeli government. This poll shows that 70% of American Jews believe Israel should support the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
Unfortunately, the majority is no match for the loud and powerful. An alliance of Jewish neoconservatives, officially represented in AIPAC and supported by influential academics such as Alan Dershowitz from Harvard University, have managed to take over the discussion. There is a tremendous gap between the average American Jew and his or her lobbyist on Capitol Hill.
American support for Israel has created two paradoxes. Its foreign policy does not serve its national interests, but only threatens American security, as well as peace in the Middle East. This is partly due to the fact that the American Jewish lobby has a perverted sense of its own interests in Israel.
What should be done? Ideally, American military assistance to Israel should end. Israel needs to take responsibility for its actions, instead of having financial assistance to do whatever it pleases. Realistically, this means American aid to Israel must become more nuanced. But more importantly, politicians and lobbyists need to understand that their decisions are hindering any possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Unquestioning support is damaging precisely because it is unquestioning. Israel should remain an ally, but for an end to the conflict, we also need Palestinians as friends.