Can America’s Special Relationship With Israel Survive?

Protesting weapons shipments to Israel in front of the White House, Washington, D.C., May 2024. Craig Hudson / Reuters
Protesting weapons shipments to Israel in front of the White House, Washington, D.C., May 2024. Craig Hudson / Reuters

On May 8, the Biden administration confirmed that it was withholding a major weapons shipment to the Israel Defense Forces. It was the biggest step that the United States has taken in decades to restrain Israel’s actions. The decision concerned a consignment of 2,000-pound bombs—weapons that the United States generally avoids in urban warfare, and which White House officials believed that Israel would use in its Rafah operation in the Gaza Strip—and did not affect other weapons transfers. Nonetheless, the administration’s willingness to employ measures that could materially constrain Israel’s behavior reflected its growing frustration with Israel’s nearly eight-month-old war in Gaza.

But the announcement also underscored something else: the growing partisan divide within the United States over Israel. For months, some Democratic leaders in Congress and many Democratic voters felt that the administration was far too indulgent of Israel’s conduct in the war, which they believe it enabled with overwhelming military, financial, and political support. On the other side, Biden’s decision on the bombs was excoriated by dozens of Republican members of Congress, who have called him a “pawn for Hamas” and a “terrible friend to Israel”. On May 19, Republican Representative Elise Stefanik, of New York, went further, traveling to Jerusalem and publicly denouncing Biden’s policy in a meeting with a caucus of the Israeli Knesset.

Washington prides itself on its tradition of bipartisan support for Israel, but in reality a partisan gap has been growing for years. Democratic voters, and younger Americans generally, have become critical of Israel’s long-standing denial of Palestinian human rights and national self-determination. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s populist, illiberal policies and his theocratic governing-coalition allies have alienated them further. On the other hand, Republicans and many religious conservatives have seized on support for Israel—including unrestrained backing for right-wing Israeli governments—as an article of faith, and, increasingly, a political litmus test.

The increasingly partisan reading of the bilateral relationship isn’t only on the American side. Despite the Biden administration’s strong support for Israel after October 7 and through much of the war—and despite the fact that a large majority of American Jews have traditionally voted Democratic—Israelis show that they prefer Donald Trump to Joe Biden by a wide margin. Unlike in past decades, a majority of Israelis also approve of their leaders’ defying U.S. policy preferences. And it’s not clear that these majorities are much concerned about a rupture in the U.S.-Israeli relationship or that Israeli defiance might one day jeopardize the extensive military aid on which Israel relies.

The growing friction between Israelis and Americans didn’t emerge with the current war in Gaza. Longer-term social and political trajectories in both countries suggest that the famous “shared values” that have for decades underpinned the relationship were already under pressure. But the war has brought this tension, and the partisan politics driving it, into full view. This does not mean that the countries are on a collision course, but it raises important questions about the nature of alliance for the years to come.

FRIENDSHIP FIRST

To understand the significance of the current rift, it is important to recall that the U.S.-Israeli alliance has weathered many disagreements over the decades. In the past, each side presumed that the underlying relationship was sufficiently solid to absorb tensions or even crises. A U.S. administration that pushed back on Israeli behavior or demanded significant concessions might generate controversy, but opinion surveys, where available, indicated that the Israelis generally deferred to the Americans, regardless of who was in the White House. (Unless otherwise specified, historic data cited here comes from the Data Israel resource, hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute.)

Take the Carter administration. Breaking with decades of U.S. policy, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter became the first U.S. president to speak publicly about the need for a Palestinian homeland, in an unscripted remark at a Massachusetts town hall meeting. The idea was anathema to Israeli Jews at the time. In a survey taken two years earlier, 70 percent of them supported a boycott of the Palestinian Liberation Organization at the United Nations. Even Stuart Eizenstat, who was Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser and heavily involved in the administration’s Middle East policy, was caught by surprise. “I nearly fell off my bench”, he recalled in an interview.

Nonetheless, in 1978, Carter hosted the Camp David negotiations between Egypt and Israel, cajoling Israel to make an unpopular land withdrawal from the Sinai, which it had occupied after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and putting the Palestinian issue squarely on the negotiating agenda. And when Israeli Jews were asked that September how much they trusted Carter, almost two-thirds said that they trusted him somewhat or a great deal. During President Ronald Reagan’s first few months in office, a similarly large majority, between 63 and 70 percent of Israeli Jews, said that they trusted him regarding Israel. (Unfortunately for researchers, the limited surveys of Israel’s Arab citizens at the time were separate from surveys of Jewish Israelis, and usually asked different questions.)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, Tel Aviv, October 2023. Miriam Alster / Reuters
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, Tel Aviv, October 2023. Miriam Alster / Reuters

President Bill Clinton also maintained wide support in Israel, even when he was advocating for unpopular policies. In 1994, a year after the controversial Oslo accords were signed, 65 percent of Israelis said they were somewhat or very satisfied with Clinton. In the coming year, Israel lived through a wave of suicide bombings and the assassination of its prime minister, and there was sufficient concern about the accords that Israelis elected Netanyahu; nonetheless, support for Clinton remained.

In the summer of 2000, days before Clinton hosted the Camp David summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasir Arafat, surveys I conducted as an analyst for Stan Greenberg, who was advising Barak, found that nearly the same portion, two-thirds of Israeli Jews, gave Clinton a favorable rating. This was despite the fact that Israelis knew the United States would press for significant and highly controversial Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Even after the talks collapsed and the second intifada broke out, Clinton remained popular.

Moreover, an Israeli leader who defied a U.S. president too brazenly could face serious political consequences at home. In early 1992, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker threatened to withhold U.S. loan guarantees to deter right-wing Israeli leader Yitzhak Shamir from using the funds to build settlements. Shamir’s government rejected the U.S. terms, and the rift was widely reported to have contributed to Shamir’s loss in the 1992 Israeli election. His successor, Yitzhak Rabin, ushered in a left-leaning government that quickly agreed to cease settlement expansion in certain areas and broke the impasse with the United States (although settlement growth ultimately continued).

But it’s not at all clear that these patterns hold true today. Despite Biden’s sweeping support for Israel after the October 7 attack and throughout the war, Israelis have shown only lukewarm approval. In November 2023 and January 2024, studies from the Israel Democracy Institute reminded Israeli respondents that Biden had offered unyielding support, and then asked them if Israel should meet some U.S. demands in return; in both surveys, a larger number (a plurality) of Israelis said that Israel should make its own decisions rather than coordinate with Washington.

And in mid-March, an opinion survey for Israel’s News 12 network found that Israelis preferred Trump to Biden in the 2024 U.S. presidential election by 14 points: 44 percent for Trump, versus just 30 percent for Biden. This was well before the administration had announced the decision to withhold the weapons shipment and just before the administration said that it would sanction a small number of violent West Bank settlers.

As in the case of U.S. attitudes about Israel’s leadership, Israeli attitudes about U.S. administrations also align to a significant degree with political affiliation: in the News 12 poll, nearly three-quarters of those who support Netanyahu’s coalition said that they preferred Trump, whereas 55 percent of those who support parties opposed to Netanyahu preferred Biden. In fact, this partisan divide reflects the culmination of social and political forces that have been underway in both Israel and the United States for years.

DEMOCRATIC DISCONTENT

In the months preceding Biden’s announcement about delaying the weapons shipment, Democratic discontent with Israel’s war in Gaza was running high. Progressive members of Congress were pressing the Biden administration to take a tougher stand against Netanyahu’s policies. And this past March, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer—a centrist Democrat and well-known Israel supporter—broke precedent to publicly criticize Netanyahu and call for early Israeli elections. Parts of the Democratic electorate, especially younger Americans and those on the left, have been at least as vocal as politicians in criticizing the war. Notably, weeks before Biden made his announcement about withholding the 2,000-pound bombs, a poll found that a large majority of Democrats, and a bare majority of all Americans, supported halting weapons shipments to Israel.

But these developments also reflect longer-term trends in U.S. opinion about Israel. It’s important to note that, as in previous decades, a firm majority of Americans support Israel. Netanyahu himself has cited a Harvard CAPS / Harris Poll from March that found that 82 percent of American adults support Israel over Hamas in the current war. The following month, a Harvard CAPS / Harris Poll found that 52 percent of Americans gave Israel a “favorable” or “very favorable” rating, compared to just 16 percent for the Palestinian Authority—and 14 percent for Hamas (a figure that is perhaps surprisingly high, though the group ranked dead last in favorability on a list of 18 countries or groups). Even among college and university students, whose pro-Palestinian protests have been widely covered, opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are far more measured than has often been portrayed in the media. For example, a survey conducted in early May for Axios found that 83 percent—an overwhelming majority—of U.S. college and university students believe that Israel has a right to exist.

Counter-protesters in front of a Pro-Palestinian student encampment, Seattle, May 2024. David Ryder / Reuters
Counter-protesters in front of a Pro-Palestinian student encampment, Seattle, May 2024. David Ryder / Reuters

Yet Americans have become increasingly critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. According to Gallup polling, the overall portion of Americans who side with Israel over the Palestinians has declined from 64 percent in 2018 to just 51 percent in early 2024. Pew surveys have also revealed a growing partisan gap on this question. In 2001, just 50 percent of Republicans sided with Israel; by 2018, the number had increased to 79 percent; conversely, among Democrats, those who chose Israel shrunk from 38 percent in 2001 to just 27 percent in 2018. This divergence seems only to have solidified in the years since.

At the same time, a large generational divide has also emerged in American views about Israel. A February 2024 survey by Pew found that 78 percent of older Americans (over 65) see Israel’s reasons for fighting the war as valid, whereas just 38 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds do—a 40-point gap. And although students in the Axios survey overwhelmingly agreed with Israel’s right to exist, nearly half of them—45 percent—supported the campus protests “which seek to boycott and protest against Israel”, whereas only 24 percent were opposed. (The remainder were neutral.) The Harvard CAPS / Harris Poll from April also found that respondents between 18 and 24 years old were almost evenly divided between those who believed that Israel was mostly responsible for “the crisis in Gaza”— 49 percent—and those who held Hamas mostly responsible—51 percent. By contrast, among people over 65, just 14 percent blamed Israel.

Regardless of how one interprets the behavior of young Americans during the current war, these trends should not be surprising: in most of the Western world, young people tend to skew liberal and progressive. And in Western countries, liberal or left-leaning politics tends to involve supporting oppressed people, a pattern that has helped fuel pro-Palestinian protests by young Americans. The political preferences of young people are sure to evolve over time, but the trends are sufficiently established to suggest the future direction of Democratic positions on Israel. Notably, the progressive tilt of young people in the West appears to be the opposite of where young Israelis are moving.

BIBI’S YOUNG GUNS

For at least 15 years, in-depth studies have shown firm right-wing trends among young Israeli Jews. There are two immediate explanations for this phenomenon. One is demographics: more young Israeli Jews are religious than was the case in earlier decades because religious families tend to have many children, and religious Jews are reliably more right-wing than less religious Jews in Israel. The second is the prevailing political environment in Israel during the past two decades: young Israelis today have grown up in the heavily nationalist right-wing era of Netanyahu. They carry no memories of the Oslo years or a peace process and have plenty of experience of war, having grown up amid numerous rounds of fighting with Hamas, frequent rocket attacks, and waves of conflict-related violence.

In fact, the rightward tilt of younger Israeli voters has closely coincided with Netanyahu’s own efforts to make the U.S.-Israeli relationship more partisan. Shortly after Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, a plurality of Israelis held positive views of President Barack Obama, more than those who held negative views. But Netanyahu and his proxies began systematically attacking Obama—tellingly, for taking positions that were close to a policy consensus at the time, such as the president’s 2011 support for a two-state solution using the 1967 borders, the 1949 armistice lines, with adjustments. Netanyahu’s accusations ricocheted back to the United States, where Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012, accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus”.

In 2015, Netanyahu took an even bigger gamble: breaking a long-standing taboo, he delivered a speech in Congress at the unilateral invitation of Republican lawmakers, in which he made a broadside attack on the Obama administration’s efforts to secure a deal with Iran to rein in its nuclear program. Why did Netanyahu play roulette with Israel’s most essential ally? He was facing a cutthroat reelection bid at the time, and he wagered that his global statesmanship, even if it meant directly challenging a U.S. president (perhaps especially so) would actually help his campaign.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preparing to address Congress, Washington, D.C., March 2015. Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preparing to address Congress, Washington, D.C., March 2015. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Netanyahu was mostly right. With Israeli society firmly trending right-ward by the mid-2010s, he won the Israeli election handily (though there can be numerous explanations), and the insult to Obama did not dissuade the president from signing what was at the time one of the biggest U.S. aid packages in history—$38 billion for Israel, over ten years.

When Trump was elected president, in 2016, Netanyahu portrayed him as Israel’s best friend. “Pro-Israel” soon came to mean embracing Trump’s policies: humiliating the Palestinians, proposing plans for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. In retrospect, given the record of the Trump administration toward Israel, it is not surprising that Israelis viewed him favorably.

By contrast, even before he entered the Oval Office, Biden’s lifelong record as a devoted pro-Israel Democrat left many Israelis cold. In October 2020, ahead of the U.S. election that year, a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) found that 63 percent of Israelis preferred to see Trump reelected; just 17 percent preferred Biden. Following Biden’s victory, an even larger percentage of Israelis—73 percent—said that Biden was likely to be somewhat or much worse than Trump for Israel, according to another IDI poll.

These figures make clear that it’s not just the current tensions over the war in Gaza that are contributing to Biden’s low levels of support in Israel, but also deeper changes within the Israeli electorate. Moreover, after the war, Israel’s right-wing majority in Israel could grow further, even as U.S. voters become more dissatisfied with Israeli behavior.

LOST EQUILIBRIUM

Public opinion fluctuates, and polls should never drive policy. In an interview, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren observed that Israeli opinion about the United States isn’t very consequential to U.S. policymakers. (Although it may have an indirect impact because it affects American Jewish opinion.) But in the past, generally positive Israeli attitudes toward the U.S. president have sometimes helped give the president the authority to advance policies in Israel that reflect U.S. interests. Eizenstat noted that Carter’s team read Israeli polls closely to discern whether Israelis supported the president’s efforts to reach an Israeli-Egyptian peace. Israelis generally did, Eizenstat recalls, and his team learned about the Israeli public’s specific security concerns that would need to be met as they worked out the details.

By contrast, in April 2024, after the United States gathered an international coalition that included even Arab states to provide extraordinary military support to Israel, using their combined air defenses to thwart a massive Iranian missile attack, Israelis seemed no more favorable toward the Biden administration than before. Following the attack, the IDI reminded Israelis of this highly effective coalition and asked if they would now “agree in principle to the future establishment of a Palestinian state, in return for a permanent regional defense agreement”. Israeli numbers didn’t budge: a majority of 55 percent rejected the idea, while just 34 percent agreed. The rate was even lower among Israeli Jews: only 26 percent agreed.

Yet Israelis are also tracking the growing partisan division of U.S. opinion toward Israel with alarm. They know well that Biden is watching polls showing how his positions on Israel and the war are viewed among critical constituencies in the American public during his difficult reelection campaign against Trump. Informally, many Israelis think that Biden has succumbed to pressure from the left, that American university students protesting the war in Gaza have been brainwashed, and that anti-Semitism has surged to dangerous levels.

It should be noted that continued divergence of American and Israeli public opinion is not the only possible near-term outcome of the current situation. If Trump succeeds in defeating Biden, and continues policies that favor the Israeli right, the current rift between the two countries, at least at the government level, may shift to a populist right-wing alignment. But it seems likely that in the years to come, the shifts that have taken place among younger voters in both countries will continue, presenting a significant challenge for the two allies as they seek to agree on a common policy agenda.

The basis of the U.S.-Israeli relationship was once grounded in shared interests, but with a much-prized sense of values. In terms of interests, the geopolitics of the Cold War are long gone. But the two countries still have overlapping regional concerns. The question of shared values, however, is more complicated: do both countries continue to share a commitment to democracy, especially liberal democracy? Israel has been moving away from that identity, and the United States will decide its own path in November.

Much is unknown about where both countries will go, especially given the continuing war and upheaval in Israel. But if the core values of the United States and Israel diverge further, the next generation of leaders in both places may no longer see each other as kindred spirits. In that case, shared strategic interests might ensure that the countries remain allies, but they might cease to have the “special relationship” they have counted on in the past.

Dahlia Scheindlin is a pollster, a Policy Fellow at Century International, and a columnist at Haaretz. She is the author of The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel: Promise Unfulfilled.

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