The Once ‘Unbreakable’ U.S.-Israel Bond Is Under Strain

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When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken touched down in Tel Aviv on Monday, he arrived to a dangerous escalation of violence following days of tit-for-tat bloodshed in Israel and the occupied West Bank. Between Thursday’s deadly Israeli army raid in the West Bank city of Jenin and a shooting attack near an East Jerusalem synagogue on Friday, more than a dozen people have been killed. Analysts and observers fear that the situation, if not calmed, will only get worse.

But the rise in violence is hardly the only matter on Blinken’s agenda. The Biden administration has grown increasingly concerned over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to limit the power of the judiciary and Israel’s expanding settlements in occupied Palestinian land—not to mention policies that would amount to de facto annexation of the West Bank. These issues loom large over Blinken’s arrival, the third such visit by a senior U.S. official since last month’s inauguration of Israel’s most hardline government yet. In the run up to the trip, the State Department said that Blinken would use the meeting to reiterate Washington’s ostensible commitment to a two-state solution and to “the protection of human rights and democratic values.”

While diplomacy-speak can often be repetitive and underwhelming, the emphasis on democratic values when it comes to Israel is a relatively new one that reflects growing unease in Washington over Israel’s direction. The country’s lurch to the right has drawn the ire of some of Israel’s most stalwart supporters in Congress. Their concern, echoed by experts and pollsters, is that a hardline Israeli government risks eroding its relationship with the U.S., perhaps severely. Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, warned that the the relationship “will come under strain” should Netanyahu’s coalition prevail with its illiberal and territorial aims.

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“The more things get out of hand in the West Bank, either from settlement activity or from violence, the more pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party on [President Joe Biden] will grow,” Indyk says. “While he will resist it, because he is fundamentally pro-Israel, nevertheless he can’t ignore it.”

While the U.S.-Israel relationship is often described as an “unbreakable bond,” fortified by deep security cooperation and nearly $4 billion in U.S. military aid each year, it isn’t immune to internal pressure. In recent years, more liberal voices within the Democratic Party have proven more willing to call out human-rights abuses, from the Israeli government’s eviction of Palestinian families to the Israeli military’s detention of Palestinian children. They are slowly being joined by more moderate Democrats, some of whom are considered to be among Israel’s strongest advocates on Capitol Hill. Sen. Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a stalwart supporter of Israel, reportedly warned Netanyahu that forming a government with far-right figures like Itmar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, as he eventually did, would harm bilateral ties. Sen. Jacky Rosen, who co-leads the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus in support of the normalization deals between Israel and its Arab neighbors, refused to meet with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich during a visit to the country earlier this month. Two other pro-Israel Democrats, Rep. Brad Sherman and Rep. Jerry Nadler, each warned in recent days that the Israeli government’s plans to weaken the judiciary would “risk U.S. support” and leave the relationship “irrevocably strained.”

This tonal shift isn’t limited to Washington. Among ordinary Americans, there has been a notable shift in public opinion surrounding U.S. policy toward Israel—one that has become markedly more partisan. According to a July survey by the Pew Research Center, 55% of Americans have a favorable view of Israel compared to 41% that don’t, a position that is closely correlated to age (a majority of Americans aged 50 and up have positive views of the country compared to less than half of those under 50) and party affiliation (71% of Republicans have a favorable view of Israel, compared to just 44% of Democrats).

Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert and pollster at the University of Maryland, says that although Congress remains more broadly supportive of Israel than the American public, the shift in opinion has given some lawmakers license to be more openly critical of Israeli policy. “When you talk to members of Congress, they have been far more aware of the tilt in American policy on this issue,” says Telhami, noting that the expressed policies of the current Israeli government will “make it impossible for people to ignore and creates fissures even among people who have wanted to look the other way.”

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While the Overton window on Israel has somewhat shifted in Washington, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the most prominent Palestinian American voice in Congress, believes that there is a long way to go in ensuring that the U.S. no longer supports a status quo that runs counter to its values. Israel “can be a Jewish state that is of equality and justice and is safe for everyone who lives there, [including] my grandmother,” says Tlaib, who has family in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. “The only way we’re going to be able to ensure that everyone is safe, that the violence stops, is when we stop with the blank check.” (Tlaib is among a minority of Democratic lawmakers who support leveraging U.S. aid in order to change Israeli policy toward Palestinians and the occupied territories.)

In a press conference in Jerusalem on Monday, Netanyahu hit back at the criticism over his government’s planned judicial overhaul, asserting that Israel and the U.S. “will remain, I assure you, two strong democracies.” Blinken, meanwhile, reaffirmed that U.S. support for Israel remains “ironclad” and that the relationship between the two countries continues to be rooted in shared interests and values such as “support for core democratic principles and institutions” and “a robust civil society,” the latter of which Blinken said was “on full display of late,” in a not-so-veiled reference to a recent mass protest against the Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms.

But whether the U.S. continues to regard Israel as such will depend largely on how much pressure Washington can exert on Netanyahu, whose hold on power relies on the support of his hardline coalition partners. “Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have a very clear, ideologically-driven agenda that relates directly to annexation of the West Bank in one way or another—that’s their fundamental objective,” says Indyk. “They know that there’s going to be American objections, but they’re going to run up against it.” Indeed, Ben-Gvir already made a provocative visit to Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque compound earlier this month, in violation of the holy site’s delicate status quo.

Such an approach risks straining Washington’s support for Tel Aviv by making Israel a point of contention not just when it comes to matters of human rights, but also democracy. Biden has made promoting democracy in the fight against authoritarianism the mainstay of his foreign policy. “If they’re going to become an illiberal democracy on the lines of the Hungarian and Polish models,” says Indyk, “that is going to impact the relationship.”

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