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The cracks in a seemingly unbreakable alliance: Keys to the US-Israel relationship

The Gaza war has brought relations between Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu to their lowest point yet

Biden y Netanyahu
Joe Biden (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, last October.Pool (via REUTERS)
El País

At a meeting in 1967, the premier of the Soviet Union, Alexei Nikolayevich Kosygin, asked the then-U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson about why his country supported Israel so strongly. Johnson replied: “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Relations between the United States and Israel — an issue that is practically unquestioned today — slowly became stronger after the creation of the Israeli state in 1948.

A year earlier, Washington was one of the strongest supporters of the United Nations plan to partition Palestine and end the British mandate, which paved the way for the creation of a Jewish state. For decades and regardless of the party in government, the United States has maintained strong political, financial and military support for Israel, which has helped the Jewish state to become more powerful than its Arab neighbors in the Middle East. Although this alliance appears unbreakable, the Gaza offensive ordered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the Hamas attacks in October has brought relations between the two countries to their lowest point.

What has triggered the crisis?

The current tension between the U.S. and Israel was preceded by two events: the first took place on Monday, when the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza during Ramadan and the release of all Israeli hostages held by Hamas and other Gazan militias. The resolution — the first passed in the nearly six months of war — was able to pass thanks to the abstention of the U.S., which was a hard blow for its ally Israel. The Israeli prime minister warned the U.S. against making a decision of this magnitude. And he carried out his threat. Netanyahu canceled the visit to Washington of two of his closest men, National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi and Minister of Strategic Affairs and former ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.

Six months of almost unconditional support

“We will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself and respond to this attack,” Biden said in an address from the White House after the Hamas attacks on Israeli territory on October 7. And Biden has been true to his word. Washington has maintained practically unwavering political support during the Gaza war, even repeating the Israeli narrative that compared Hamas to the Islamic State. The U.S. president has sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the region up to five times in a bid to negotiate — together with the Egyptian and Qatari mediators — an agreement that would end the conflict.

And the U.S. delegation has been vetoing several resolutions calling for a ceasefire in the U.N. Security Council. Until now, Washington has tried to avoid any language that could make the Israeli executive uncomfortable, opting to support a “pause” in hostilities, which didn’t please the administration either. But on Monday, the U.S. for the first time abstained in the vote in the Security Council, which allowed the ceasefire resolution to be passed.

On a military level, the United States, with 30,000 soldiers in the region, has reinforced its deployment by bringing aircraft carriers such as the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower closer to the Mediterranean. To understand the alliance between the two countries, it is also essential to take into account Washington’s financial support. In 2016, during the Barack Obama administration, Congress approved a 10-year economic package for Israel worth $38 billion, the largest signed so far.

The divisions between the two allies

Cracks between the Israeli and U.S. government are now showing. The Biden administration’s repeated statements about Israel’s right to defend itself have started to become more nuanced, with Washington insisting that the Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza must do more to avoid civilian deaths.

“[Netanyahu] is hurting Israel more than helping Israel,” Biden even declared. In another blow to the Israeli prime minister, Biden last week also supported a speech made by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, which called for new elections in Israel and described Netanyahu as an “obstacle to peace.”

With over 32,000 people dead in the Gaza Strip and two million more on the brink of famine, the United States has repeatedly called for greater entry of humanitarian aid into the Palestinian territory. This is up to Israel, as it controls the border crossings into Gaza. The U.N. and NGOs on the ground have denounced the obstacles to getting assistance to the Gazan population.

Lastly, Washington has urged Israel not to carry out its planned ground invasion of Rafah, in the south of Gaza, which is the last refuge for more than one million displaced Gazans from the north, who Israel ordered to head south.

Biden, an avowed pro-Israel politician

Despite the tensions with Netanyahu, Biden has often expressed a close bond with Israel and even Zionism. “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and I am a Zionist,” Biden said last October during a speech in Washington. Throughout his career, the Democratic president has kept up his commitment to addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict — he even met Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in 1973, in the middle of the Yom Kippur War. During his more than three decades as a senator, Biden was a large recipient of donations from pro-Israel groups. That friendship and dedication continued as Obama’s vice president (2009-2017) and during his presidency.

What has Biden’s support for Israel cost him?

The Biden administration can quantify how much its initial unconditional support for Israel’s offensive in Gaza has cost it in votes. Biden received tens of thousands of protest votes at the Democratic primaries in response to a campaign launched by progressive groups and the Arab-American community. The campaign called on voters to select “uncommitted” on the ballot in protest of Biden’s support for Israel in the war in Gaza, and to warn the president that this position could cost him the November presidential election.

In Minnesota, the “uncommitted” vote garnered 19% of the vote on Super Tuesday. By way of comparison, in the 2012 primaries, in which Democratic president Barack Obama was running for re-election, the “uncommitted” vote was just 3.7%. The overwhelming response prompted Biden to change tact, and on Monday, the U.S. allowed the passage of a resolution that the United Nations itself called historic, even though it was adopted after six months of war.

In addition to the political cost, there is also the toll it has taken militarily. Biden’s support for Israel and the offensive on Gaza itself has led to a violent escalation in the Middle East, in which groups linked to Iran, Hamas’s main ally, have attacked U.S. targets in the region.

Biden and Netanyahu’s poor relationship

It is not the first time that both partners differ on sensitive issues. In 2010, Joe Biden, then serving as vice president to Barack Obama, traveled to Tel Aviv to try to talk Netanyahu into a temporary halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and to promote a peace dialogue with the Palestinians. He was met on arrival with a slap in the face: the announcement of the construction of 1,600 new houses in East Jerusalem. “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem,” Biden said in a statement.

In 2016, his last year in the White House, Obama left behind a great military aid plan for Israel for the next 10 years, but also a final message to Netanyahu in the form now also chosen by Biden: an abstention in a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the settlements. In January 2021, now with Biden in power, Netanyahu once again snubbed the United States by authorizing the construction of another 850 homes in settlements in the West Bank.

What could change with Donald Trump?

If Donald Trump wins the November elections, he could relaunch the most conservative and populist line of U.S. foreign policy towards Israel. In December 2017, when he was president, the New York magnate sowed discord in the international community, especially among Arab countries, by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

While Trump was in power, the Israeli settler population also soared to record numbers. The Republican leader was the prime mover, together with his son-in-law Jared Kushner, of the Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab countries through the sale of state-of-the-art weapons to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the lifting of sanctions on Sudan and the recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

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