Israel and the US: the complexities of asymmetric dependence

Attitudes in Israel towards the United States, its primary ally, are generally very positive. However, at a deeper level, the relationship is more complex, reflecting both its centrality and its intricacy.

For the most part, Israelis view the US with a combination of admiration and appreciation. Just as polls reflect the dominant American view of Israel as a fellow democracy, facing similar security threats, including terror and weapons of mass destruction, Israelis see the US as the major source of understanding in the world. America is perceived as more consistent and uncompromising than Europe in supporting the principles of democracy and freedom, and in its commitment to the survival and security of Israel. While there are some differences, this highly unusual relationship encompasses Democrats and Republicans, as well as the White House and Congress.

The sense of shared destiny was reinforced by the mass terror attacks of 9/11 against the US and Palestinian bombings in Israel. America’s military response in Afghanistan, the policy of targeting killings against terror leaders, and removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq by force were widely applauded in Israel, and not only by those who share the neo-conservative principles of the current Bush administration.

However, many Israelis also understand that this relationship has costs and some limitations. The goal of political Zionism and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty as embodied in the State of Israel was to end the dependence of 2000 years of exile and dispersion. Thus, reliance on outside powers, including the US, is seen by some as reflecting a reduced level of independence. If America were to falter and lose its superpower status, or turn inward in another cycle of isolationism, Israel would pay a major price. As a result, while sustaining close relations with Washington, Israeli leaders have been careful to maintain insurance policies, including an independent strategic deterrent capability. (On this central issue, Israeli leaders have consistently rejected US pressure.)

This close identification also makes it difficult for Israeli leaders to act independently and dissent from US policies and actions. During Cold War crises, Israel had little choice but to support the Americans, which increased hostility from the Soviet Union and severed links with its large Jewish population. During the Reagan administration, Israel was recruited to participate in the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"), in part in order to influence the political debate in the US. Given the immense power and influence of the US, expression of official disagreement, when it exists, is very difficult.

In addition, the highly asymmetric nature of the relationship allows the US to exert a major influence on Israeli security policy, economics, and other issues. The Eisenhower administration demanded Israeli withdrawal from Sinai without a political agreement following the 1956 Suez war, and in 1970, Israeli protests regarding Egyptian violations of the ceasefire terms were suppressed. Later, Henry Kissinger’s threat to "reassess" the relationship (including military aid) and President Carter’s attempts to use economic and political leverage to gain concessions from Prime Minister Begin at Camp David also illustrate the friction and pressure. Conflicts took place between the first Bush administration and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (1991-2) over linking US loan guarantees to settlement policy, and the current negotiations with Washington involving the route of the separation fence provide a further example of the costs of dependence.

In response, Israelis from different parts of the political and ideological spectrum call periodically for reducing economic and defense dependence on Washington. On the right, the criticism focuses on American pressure on Israel to act with restraint in response to terrorism, and on US objections to Israeli settlement policy. The US is blamed for creating the conditions in which the disastrous Oslo process was conceived and maintained, and for influencing Israeli elections, including in 1992 when Yitzhak Rabin defeated Shamir. In addition, the current Bush administration is criticized for bowing to British leader Tony Blair and imposing the ill-conceived roadmap, and for the fraudulent ceasefire that allowed terror groups to restore their capabilities.

In contrast, the Israeli left shares much of Europe’s criticism of the neo-conservative policies of the current administration. US pressure is sometimes blamed for encouraging the adoption of the free-market approach in which government support for social services is reduced, including drastic reductions in budgets for health and education. There was also some opposition to the American decision to initiate the 2003 Iraq war, fearing increased regional confrontation at Israel’s expense.

However, for most Israelis, the US remains a vital source of political, military, economic and moral support, as highlighted in vetoes of anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations and agreement on core issues. As a result, Israeli policy makers are likely to continue to avoid conflict with the US, and, where differences exist, to seek to resolve them through persuasion rather than confrontation.-