As Israel’s dependence on the United States decreases, US leverage also decreases
Israel, a small country surrounded by adversaries and locked in a conflict with the Palestinians, absolutely depends on American diplomatic and military support. By giving it away, the United States is protecting Israel and exerting considerable influence over its actions.
This is conventional wisdom anyway. For decades, it was true: Israeli leaders and voters treated Washington as essential to the survival of their country.
But this addiction can end. While Israel still benefits greatly from American aid, security experts and political analysts say the country has quietly cultivated, and may have achieved, effective autonomy from the United States.
“We are seeing a lot more Israeli independence,” said Vipin Narang, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied Israeli strategy.
Israel no longer needs American security guarantees to protect it from neighboring states, with which it has mostly made peace. Nor does he see himself as needing American mediation in the Palestinian conflict, which the Israelis find largely bearable and support keeping as is.
Once dependent on US arms transfers, Israel now produces many of its most essential weapons domestically. It has also become more diplomatically self-sufficient, cultivating independent Washington allies. Even culturally, Israelis are less responsive to American approval – and put less pressure on their leaders to maintain a good position in Washington.
And while US aid to Israel remains high in absolute terms, Israel’s decades-long economic boom has left the country less and less dependent. In 1981, US aid was equivalent to nearly 10 percent of the Israeli economy. In 2020, at nearly $ 4 billion, it was closer to 1%.
Washington underscored its own declining relevance to the conflict last week, calling for a ceasefire only after an Egyptian-brokered deal was nearing completion, and which Israeli leaders said they accepted because that they had achieved their military objectives in a ten-day conflict with Gaza. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will visit the region this week, although he has said he has no plans to resume formal Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The change comes just as a faction of Democrats and left-wing activists, outraged by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the bombing of Gaza, question Washington’s long-standing consensus on Israel.
Yet a significant, albeit shrinking, number of Americans are expressing support for Israel, and Democratic politicians have resisted growing voter support for the Palestinians.
The United States still has influence, as it does with any country where it provides arms and diplomatic support. But that leverage may be waning beyond the point at which Israel is able and willing to do whatever it wants, bipartisan consensus or not.
Steps to Self-Sufficiency
When Americans think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many still imagine the period known as the Second Intifada, when Israeli tanks crashed into Palestinian cities and Palestinian bombs exploded in Israeli cafes and buses.
But that was 15 years ago. Since then, Israel has rearranged the conflict in a way that Israeli voters and leaders find largely bearable.
Violence against Israelis in the occupied West Bank is rarer and lower level, even rarer in Israel proper. Although fighting has erupted repeatedly between Israel and Gaza-based groups, Israeli forces have managed to push the burden overwhelmingly onto Gazans. Deaths from conflict, once three to one between Palestinians and Israelis, are now closer to 20 to one.
At the same time, Israel’s disaffection with the peace process has left many feeling that periodic fighting is the least bad option. The occupation, while an overwhelming and pervasive force for Palestinians, is, for the most part, and for most Jewish Israelis, despicable.
“Israelis are increasingly comfortable with this approach,” said Yaël Mizrahi-Arnaud, a researcher at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank. “It’s a cost they are willing to accept.”
It is a status quo that Israel can maintain with little outside help. In recent years, its most important military tools have been American-made fighter jets and other high-end equipment, which required the approval of Congress and the White House.
Now, it relies on missile defense technology that is manufactured and largely maintained at home – a feat that hints at the tenacity of Israel’s drive for self-sufficiency.
“If you had told me five years ago,” said Mr. Narang, the MIT researcher, “that the Israelis would have a layered missile defense system against short-range rockets and short-range ballistic missiles. , and it would be 90 percent effective, I would have said, “I would love what you smoke.” “
While massive US funding under President Barack Obama helped strengthen the system, it is now operating at a relatively affordable price of $ 50,000 per interceptor.
Israel began to work for military autonomy in the 1990s. The fresh relations with the George HW Bush administration and the perceived failure of the Americans to prevent Iraqi missiles from hitting Israel convinced its leaders that they could not. eternally count on American support.
This belief has deepened under subsequent presidents, whose pressure to achieve peace with the Palestinians increasingly runs counter to Israeli preferences for maintaining control of the West Bank and a strict blockade of Gaza.
“The political calculation has led to the search for independent capabilities that are no longer vulnerable to US influence and pressure,” Narang said, adding that Israel had also sought to collect independent intelligence. “It certainly looks like they may have come to this.”
The “ policy of other friends ”
There is another existential threat on which Israel no longer depends so much on American protection: international isolation.
Israel once sought acceptance from Western democracies, which demanded it meet democratic standards, but granted legitimacy to a country that otherwise had few friends.
Today Israel faces a much warmer international climate. The “anti-imperialist” powers that once challenged Israel have evolved. While international attitudes towards it are mixed and tend to be markedly negative in predominantly Muslim societies, Israel has cultivated ties in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Even neighboring Arab states like Jordan and Egypt, once among its greatest enemies, are now seeking peace, while others have eased hostilities. Last year, the so-called Abraham Accords, negotiated under President Trump, saw Israel normalize its relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Israel subsequently normalized its relations with Morocco and reached a diplomatic agreement with Sudan.
“We used to talk about a diplomatic tsunami that was on the way. But that never materialized, ”said Dahlia Scheindlin, Israeli political analyst and pollster.
Ms Scheindlin conducts an annual follow-up poll asking Israelis to rank national challenges. Safety and economy come first. External relations are now at their lowest.
Even as European diplomats warn of consequences that never come and Democrats debate the future of the alliance, she said, the Israelis see their international position as excellent.
On the diplomatic front, too, Israel demanded independence from the Americans.
In the mid-2010s, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, practically campaigned directly against President Obama’s re-election because of his Middle East policies, which plunged relations.
Since then, Mr. Netanyahu has cultivated a network of illiberal democracies which, far from condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, treat it as admirable: Brazil, Hungary, India and others.
Ms. Scheindlin calls this “other friend policy”. As a result, Israelis no longer view American acceptance as essential to their survival.
At the same time, the rise of nationalism has instilled a greater willingness to evade international criticism.
Washington’s support for Israel’s democratic credentials, a sort of moderate leverage long exercised by US diplomats, means less every year.
One of the main jobs of any prime minister, it has long been said in Israel, is to safeguard Washington’s bipartisan consensus in favor of the country.
So when Mr. Netanyahu aligned Israel with Republicans in the mid-2010s, even haranguing Mr. Obama from the Congressional floor, he was expected to pay a political cost at home.
But Mr. Obama and the Democrats in Congress haven’t done much to modulate their support. The Americans then elected Donald J. Trump, who spoke to Mr. Netanyahu more than any previous president.
The episode instilled a “sense of impunity,” Ms. Scheindlin said. “The Israelis have learned that they can handle the heat, they can handle a few tough relationships.”
In a series of focus groups held since President Biden’s election, Ms Scheindlin said she saw Israelis no longer fear retaliation from US politicians.
“People are just not that moved,” she said. “They’re like, ‘This is America. Biden will be fine. ”
At the same time, many Israelis have lost interest in the peace process. Most see it as doomed, polls show, and a growing number of people see it as a low priority, given a status quo that much of the Israeli public sees as tolerable.
“It changes the nature of the relationship with the United States,” Ms. Mizrahi-Arnaud said.
Because Israeli leaders no longer feel domestic pressure to engage in the peace process, which passes through Washington, they do not need to persuade Americans that they are seeking peace in good faith.
On the contrary, leaders face decreasing pressure to please Americans and increasing demands to challenge them with policies such as West Bank settlement expansion and even outright annexation.
Israel is not the first small state to seek independence from a big-power boss. But this case is unusual in a way: it was the Americans who built Israel’s military and diplomatic independence, eroding their own influence.
Now, after nearly 50 years of not really using that leverage to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it may soon be gone for good, if it hasn’t already.
“Israel feels it can get away with more,” Mizrahi-Arnaud said, adding, to emphasize her point, “When exactly was the last time the United States pressured Israel?”