As concern in Washington is growing over Israel’s anti-democratic turn, new questions are arising about the underlying strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Such a reflection is welcome, especially if it produces recognition that for much of the past quarter century, Israel has acted as an adversary of the U.S.
Indeed, while enjoying the status and perquisites of a U.S. special ally, it has pursued policies not only in variance with American strategic interests but often directly adversarial to them. And it has done so on a wide array of fronts, in the Middle East and across the globe.
The adversarial shift began with the ascendance of a specific leader: Benjamin Netanyahu. From his first rise to power in 1996 through the more than years 15 years he has held the reins—after losing an election in 1999, Netanyahu returned in 2009 and, with the exception of an 18-month hiatus between June 2021 and December 2022, has been prime minister ever since—Netanyahu has consistently and increasingly advanced foreign and security policies that, whether directly or indirectly, undercut U.S. strategic interests.
Notably, these policies pertain not only to areas in which Israel could be argued to hold overriding interests, such as the Palestinian one. Although Netanyahu’s diplomatic approach on this front has been at odds with U.S. interests for all but the Trump years, Washington should, and has been, understanding of this divergence between the two allies. The same case can be made for Netanyahu’s policy on Iran, even as he has unequivocally sabotaged and derailed American efforts on this front.
But the remarkable fact is that Netanyahu’s Israel has pursued policies at odds with American strategic interests across much of the world. Let us recount the ways.
In Europe, Netanyahu’s Israel has adopted a policy aimed at undermining the European Union and the liberal democratic order for which it stands. In fact, it has aligned itself not merely with some of Brussels’s staunchest adversaries—such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński and Mateusz Morawiecki, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, to name a few; it has openly embraced some of Europe’s most far-right parties and their populist leaders whose opposition to Brussels transcends E.U. politics and turns on an illiberal agenda with, astonishingly, neo-fascist and even neo-Nazi strains. A partial list includes the Freedom Party of Austria, founded by a former Nazi SS officer, and Germany’s extremist Alternative for Germany (AfD).
For Netanyahu, these relationships have been first and foremost transactional. In exchange for Israel turning a blind eye to their historical and ideological links with neo-Nazism and present-day anti-Semitism at home, these parties provided their support for Israel’s policy on the Palestinian front. Such support, moreover, has also served a wider strategic aim for Netanyahu: by undermining E.U. consensus on foreign policy toward Israel, these relationships contribute to sowing divisions within the E.U. itself and weaken Europe’s core liberal norms.
Of course, Netanyahu’s brazen diplomatic posture against the liberal democratic order—the cornerstone of American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War—has been reflected most strikingly in his intimate relationship with Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin. As Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu should certainly maintain cordial and constructive relations with Moscow, a major world power with a growing presence in the Middle East, including across Israel’s northern border of Syria. But the relationship Netanyahu has cultivated with Putin has gone far beyond what has been strategically necessary to safeguard Israeli interests; worse, it has often come at Washington’s expense.
The full cost to U.S. strategic interests became apparent in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although launched during Netanyahu’s brief hiatus from leadership, the relationship he had cultivated over the years with Putin has made Israel into a natural outlet for Russian capital and commodity exports. The conduct is not limited to Jewish Russian oligarchs, for whose welfare (more in the sense of their wealth than health) Israel could claim to care; enter any supermarket in Israel since Western powers imposed sanctions on Moscow, and the number and variety of products from Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea will settle any question as to where Israel truly stands.
Regardless of whether Israeli supply of arms to Ukraine would make a difference on the battleground, its blank refusal of Kyiv’s requests poked a hole in American efforts to present a unified front against Russian aggression. And although Israel has shifted its rhetoric of neutrality somewhat in favor of Ukraine and is reportedly ready to consider supplying it with some defensive weapons systems—the result, no doubt of Iranian military assistance to Russia and U.S. pressure—Netanyahu’s intimacy with Putin should be regarded as Israeli betrayal of the special relationship with the U.S.
A similar approach can be seen in Netanyahu’s policy toward China, the other global player determined to undercut American leadership. China’s rivalry with the U.S. alone should have restrained Netanyahu from forging a comprehensive partnership with it. Yet under his leadership, Israel has become a leading supplier of R&D and cutting-edge technologies and accelerated China’s transformation into becoming America’s “most serious competitor,” as President Biden has defined it.
Remarkably, Israel has also at least declared itself a a geo-strategic backer of China. At a 2017 meeting with President Xi, Netanyahu encouraged China to assume its rightful place “on the world stage,” and waxed romantic by describing the Israeli-Chinese relationship as “a marriage made in heaven.” Meanwhile here on earth, Netanyahu’s Israel has opened itself up to strategic investments by China in its infrastructure, such as the mass transit system in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, which will also run in sensitive underground locations abutting Israel’s military and defense compound, and parts of the Haifa Bay Port, which may steer the U.S. Sixth Fleet elsewhere.
Perhaps most egregiously, Netanyahu has had the temerity to meddle in American domestic politics. He has used Israel to sow divisions between Democrats and Republicans, to anathematize a sitting U.S. president (Barack Obama), and to manipulate—we are using this word advisedly—another one (Donald Trump) to withdraw from a hard-reached international agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. The withdrawal is widely recognized to have been a huge strategic mistake, not only for U.S. security interests but, ironically, also for Israeli ones.
Disagreements between allies are par for the course in international relations. Yet in the case of Netanyahu’s Israel, the kind and quality of its foreign-policy divergences with the U.S. are the stuff of an adversarial relationship, not a friendly one. That there is a certain reluctance to designate Netanyahu’s Israel an adversary of the U.S. is understandable. After all, the U.S. and Israel are bound by a special relationship. And in many ways they are. The very fact that it can contain and subsume the detrimental foreign policies of Netanyahu makes it a very special one indeed.
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