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  • Tan Kian Ann

US Foreign Policy on Israel: A Little Too “Special”?

Tan Kian Ann is a first year BSc Politics and International Relations student, with an interest in uncovering the nuance behind on-going policies and individual agendas.

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL's Diplomacy Society, Diplomacy Review nor The Diplomat.

Israeli president Netanyahu speaking at AIPAC

“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are perpetual and eternal, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” These famous words, uttered by 19th-century British statesman Henry Temple, accurately express the foundations of realist thinking and continue to reflect the state of nature in international politics today; states are selfish, power-maximising entities, and it is the duty of statesmen to “think and act in terms of interest defined by power”.

Yet, one might experience a challenge in applying realist logic to explain the “special relationship” between Israel and the US. Israel continues to receive 3.8 billion USD in military aid from the US annually today despite the US “Pivot to Asia,” the strategic re-channeling of resources from the Middle East toward the Asia-Pacific region to contain China’s rise. Furthermore, the US continues to isolate itself on the international stage when it comes to Israel - the US was the only Security Council member to veto a UN resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza. This is despite its more prominent interest in unifying the world (particularly the West) to maintain a great power hegemony amidst rising US-China competition. While Israel has often been depicted to possess strategic value as a “force for stability” in the Middle East, its treatment of Palestinians and the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli War could conversely be argued to have been a significant source of regional instability over the past decades. In fact, the backing of Israel could even be argued to be a primary cause of the terrorism problem faced by the US - not only had it produced profound grievances among Palestinian sympathisers in the Middle East and fueled a growing “Anti-Americanism,” but it ultimately served as a justification for Al-Qaeda to launch the 9/11 attacks. Therefore, it could arguably be observed that the immense costs borne by the US in supporting Israel fail to be justified by its apparent benefits, and a deeper explanation would be required to explain the US’ unwavering Israeli commitment that remains even to this day. Under what circumstances did the US foreign policy on Israel originate? Have those circumstances changed, and if so, what explains the continued lack of change in the US foreign policy?

According to Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework, a policy “window of opportunity” opens when three streams intersect: the policy stream (existing solutions), the politics stream (public and bureaucratic sentiment), and the problem stream (perception of problems). In the context of US-Israel foreign policy, the Six-Day War may be argued to be the “window of opportunity.” Before the war, the US and Israel were largely engaged in a patron-client relationship where the former limited its aid to food loans and minimal defensive weapons to avoid becoming involved in an arms race in the region. After Israel achieved a sweeping victory over the Arab coalition, however, a rapid expansion in US-Israel military cooperation was heralded the following year, with the former equipping the latter with 50 F-4 Phantoms (the most sophisticated fighter jets of the time). While Israel’s victory highlighted its potential to be a reliable strategic partner to the US on the one hand, this greatly polarised the region on the other and provided the opportunity for expanding Arab radicalism and Soviet influence to threaten the US’ continued pursuit of its interests in the Middle East; this is the problem stream. Israel was hence perceived as - in the words of Nixon - “an effective opponent to Soviet expansion”. Israel’s security had to be augmented to gain even greater military superiority to make the Arab states recognise the “futility of the military option and of Soviet military aid”; this is the policy stream. In addition, substantially large numbers of the American public of 1967 sympathised more with Israel (45%) compared to those who sympathised more with the Arab states (4%); this is the politics stream. A “special relationship” emerged between Israel and the US from the convergence of these streams.

Do these streams continue to converge today? With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and especially after 9/11, the “problem” was redefined as the war on terror - where both Israel and the US are threatened by terrorist groups and rogue Arab states that back them. Yet it can be argued that the old “policy” of making Israel militarily stronger is not only a mismatch of the redefined problem but even exacerbates it. On the one hand, Arab extremists are non-state actors that thrive under asymmetric warfare through the employment of guerrilla tactics. On the other hand, the more the US backs Israel, the stronger the anti-American rhetoric and the greater the soft power enjoyed by Arab extremists within the Arab world. Furthermore, a gradual shift in American public sentiment may be observed today - amidst the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, 47% sympathise more with Israel, while 20% are with the Palestinians (in the 18-29 age category, notably, 27% are with Israel and 46% are with the Palestinians). In adapting to this shift, Biden has seemingly attempted to communicate a more balanced view of the Gaza war in his recent remark that Israel is “starting to lose that support by indiscriminate bombing that takes place.

Yet, perhaps the outrage sparked by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is insufficient in overcoming the status-quo bias that perpetuates American politics. John J. Mearsheimer points at an Israel Lobby, with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as the core, which has successfully shaped the US foreign policy on Israel favourably by influencing the US Congress, executive branches of government, and mainstream media. This is indeed reflected in the November 2023 election cycle, where pro-Israel Congress members (who issued statements that were more supportive of Israel in the Gaza war) received about USD 125,000 on average from pro-Israel donors, while those supportive of Palestine received USD 18,000. A further revelation uncovered that USD 20 million was offered by AIPAC-connected businessman Linden Nelson to the Senate primary candidate Hill Harper, to run in Congress instead against Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib - who stands alone in opposing the Biden White House’s support for the Israeli military campaign. Hence, despite an observable mismatch between the existing problem and policy streams, Israeli policy entrepreneurs' active efforts have led to a dominating “politics stream” that eliminates opportunities for a US foreign policy reversal regarding Israel, at least in the foreseeable future. 


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