With Israel attacking Gaza for a second week, United States President Joe Biden and his administration are sticking to a long-established script in Washington, expressing unequivocal support for Israel and its “legitimate right to defend itself” from Hamas rocket attacks.
That narrative fails to acknowledge the profound advantages the state of Israel enjoys over the Palestinians when it comes to military prowess, wealth and resources. It also turns a deaf ear to growing cries from progressive Democrats in Congress to take a harder line with Israel over its military assault on Gaza.
This latest escalation in violence has killed at least 213 Palestinians, including 61 children, while ten Israelis have died, including two children,
So why is the US so unwavering in its support for Israel?
When did the US start supporting Israel?
From the beginning. Former US President Harry Truman was the first world leader to recognise Israel when it was created in 1948.
Why was Truman so quick to do that?
In part because of personal ties. Truman’s former business partner, Edward Jacobson, played a pivotal role in laying the groundwork for the US in recognising Israel as a state. But there were also strategic considerations driving the decision.
What were the strategic stakes at the time?
This was right after World War II, when the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was taking shape.
The Middle East, with its oil reserves and strategic waterways (think the Suez Canal) was a key battleground for superpower hegemonic influence. The US was taking over from severely weakened European powers as the primary western power broker in the Middle East.
But even then, support for Israel was not unequivocal.
So when did it become unequivocal?
That is partly rooted in the aftermath 1967 war in which Israel defeated the poorly led armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan and occupied the rest of historical Palestine – as well as some territory from Syria and Egypt.
Since then, the US has acted unequivocally to support Israel’s military superiority in the region and to prevent hostile acts against it by Arab nations.
Were there other developments that played a role?
There was also the 1973 war that ended with Israel defeating Egyptian and Syrian forces.
Partly to drive a wedge between Egypt and Syria and thwart Soviet influence, the US used the aftermath of the 1973 war to lay the groundwork for a peace deal between Israel and Egypt that was eventually cemented in 1979.
Has that influenced US aid to Israel?
You bet. Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid in the post-World War II era.
In 2016, then-President Barack Obama signed a defence agreement with Israel providing $38bn in US military support over 10 years including funding for the Iron Dome missile defence system.
Bear in mind, Israel is not exactly in need of aid. It is a high-income country with a thriving high-tech sector.
Is this all just about practical geostrategic stuff?
Like all things foreign policy-related, public opinion, money – and the influence money buys in politics – have also played a role in US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians.
What role has public opinion played?
American public opinion has long tilted in favour of Israel and against the Palestinians, in part because Israel had a superior PR machine. But headline-grabbing, violent actions by pro-Palestinian groups such as the 1972 Munich Massacre in which 11 Israeli Olympic athletes were killed also generated sympathy for Israel.
Has that sympathy wavered at all?
More Americans are warming to the Palestinian cause, according to an annual survey conducted by Gallup.
The February poll found that 25 percent of Americans sympathise more with Palestinians – a 2-percentage-point increase over the previous year and a full six percentage points higher than 2018.
Favourable ratings for the Palestinian Authority also hit a new high of 30 percent – a 7-percentage-point improvement over 2020.
But Israel still holds far more sway in the court of US public opinion.
That same Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans sympathise more with Israel, while 75 percent of Americans rate Israel favourably.
What about pro-Israeli political influence?
There are a number of organisations in the US that advocate for US support of Israel. The largest and most politically powerful is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Members of the organisation wield influence through grassroots organising, advocacy and fundraising among American Jews in the US as well as Christian evangelical churches.
How powerful is AIPAC?
AIPAC holds an annual conference in Washington, DC, with about 20,000 attendees that feature personal appearances by top US politicians. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have made appearances. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also a regular attendee.
Is there a rival to AIPAC?
A smaller, pro-Israel group called J Street organised by Democrats has sought to build a constituency in US politics that is supportive of Israel and Palestinian rights.
What about influence in dollar terms?
Pro-Israel interest groups donate millions to US federal political candidates. During the 2020 campaign, pro-Israel groups donated $30.95m, with 63 percent going to Democrats, 36 percent to Republicans. That is about twice as much as they donated during the 2016 campaign, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Who are some of the US political heavyweights in Israel’s corner?
Former President Trump, driven by support for Israel from evangelical Christians and a like-minded leader in Netanyahu, was a staunch defender of Israel during his four years in office.
Large majorities of the US Congress in the Democratic and Republican parties are avowedly pro-Israel.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer – all Democrats – have long track records of supporting Israel and can be counted on to voice strong support for Israel’s right to self-defence in moments of conflict.
When asked last week whether more needed to be done to stop Israel’s assault on Gaza, Pelosi responded: “The fact is that we have a very close relationship with Israel, and Israel’s security is a national security issue for us, as our friend, a democratic country in the region.”
“Hamas is threatening the security of people in Israel. Israel has a right to defend itself,” Pelosi said.
Who is in the Palestinians’ corner?
The Palestinian point of view has long been represented by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), founded in 1980 and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, an activist network founded in 2001, among others. But pro-Palestinian groups are not nearly as active in US federal campaign spending.
Are there any heavyweights in Washington backing Palestinians?
Within the US Democratic Party, a growing faction of progressives who support the Palestinians has gained prominence on the national stage.
Lead among them are Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both former contenders for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. Sanders and Warren have called for conditioning US military aid to Israel on Palestinian human rights.
In the House of Representatives, new progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib – the first Palestinian American elected to Congress – have emerged as leading voices for Palestinians.
This is happening with the support of the United States.
I don’t care how any spokesperson tries to spin this. The US vetoed the UN call for ceasefire.
If the Biden admin can’t stand up to an ally, who can it stand up to?
How can they credibly claim to stand for human rights? https://t.co/bXY99O3Wqp
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 15, 2021
These younger newcomers are not as reliant on the traditional fundraising structures of US politics and are more motivated by concern about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel.
Former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, had paved the way for today’s progressives with a 2006 best-selling book titled Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.