U.S.-Israel Policy

Key Points

  • U.S.-negotiated regional pacts are largely influenced by Israeli concerns, which become “legitimate” negotiating positions in the eyes of the U.S.
  • U.S. relations with Israel, more than with any other country (except perhaps Cuba), are highly influenced by domestic political considerations.
  • The special nature of the U.S.-Israel alliance has resulted in special protection of and impunity for Israel in international arenas.

    No country on earth maintains the kind of special relationship with the U.S. as does Israel. In virtually every arena, the U.S. uses its aid, weapons, and political clout to prop up the Israeli state. For Israel, a country burdened with high military expenditures and diplomatic isolation in most international arenas, U.S. support has proved critical.

    In return for continued U.S. backing, Israel has acted as a surrogate for U.S. policy in the Middle East and beyond. This was especially true from the late 1960s through the 1980s, when Washington had few close ties with other nations in this region (which in addition to Israel includes Turkey, Iran, and twenty-two Arab nations). During the cold war Israel provided military training and other military support for ambitious regional pacification and counterinsurgency efforts in places as far-flung as Guatemala, South Africa, and Zaire-countries where direct U.S. involvement was politically
    untenable.

    Since the end of the Gulf War, U.S. policy has attempted to craft a regional peace process that would provide stable conditions for integrating and expanding the area’s economy-with Israel at the center. This diplomatic effort has also included encouraging increased international reliance on Israel as the key link connecting the Middle East to the broader global economy. The U.S. accepted Israeli conditions for the 1991 post-Gulf War peace negotiations in Madrid, including the exclusion of the United Nations from the talks, the marginalization of Europe; and the postponement of such pressing issues as Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, refugees, and control of Jerusalem. Crucially, the U.S. also granted Israel’s demand for separate negotiations with each of its [much weaker] Arab opponents-rather than insisting on a comprehensive regionwide process that might have evened the playing field.

    Once a small and struggling economy, Israel today has a booming economy. With the 1994-95 ending of the Arab boycott imposed in 1948, Israel’s once derivative economy (long dependent on U.S. government grants and favorable loans, as well as significant financial support from U.S. individuals) is now a powerful player in world markets. Israel’s military is one of the strongest in the world; its defense industry is one of the most advanced (and actually competes with the U.S. in certain areas). These advances have not, however, led to changes in the generous U.S. aid policies toward Israel.

    Since the cold war’s end the overall U.S. foreign affairs budget has been cut roughly in half. Yet aid to Israel has remained intact. In 1996 the U.S. gave Israel $1.8 billion in military aid and $1.3 billion in economic aid grants–constituting 25% of total U.S. foreign aid. In addition, Israel received another half billion dollars to underwrite Tel Aviv’s own foreign aid program, as well as transfers of new weapons systems and equipment from the Pentagon, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and other U.S. agencies. The U.S. also provided Israel $2 billion in loan guarantees. Israel is the only country receiving U.S. aid that is allowed to spend large percentages of its grants at home, rather than using the money to purchase U.S. goods and services. Of the $1.8 billion in military aid, for example, almost half a billion dollars are specifically allocated to research and development by Israel’s own defense industry.

    Aid to Israel is perhaps the most untouchable item in the congressional budget each year, surpassing even domestic entitlements. Beyond valuing Israel as a military and strategic ally, U.S. support for Tel Aviv has a political and emotional intensity. The breadth of that support, reaching far beyond the organized Jewish community in the U.S., is evident in the depth of U.S. press coverage of Israeli political life: elections, assassinations, negotiations, etc.

    Israel’s privileged position means that U.S. electoral candidates vie over who is more pro-Israeli. One consequence is that serious criticism of Israel’s policies (as opposed to raising an occasional concern about a specific tactic), especially during an election year, is essentially taboo in U.S. political life.

    Problems with Current U.S. Policy

    Key Problems

    • Intensity of ties and assumption of protection of Israel in international arena limits the independent U.S. role as an honest broker in the region.
    • U.S. has abandoned UN resolution 242, which it has claimed to support since 1967, including the resolution’s call for a “land-for-peace” exchange as the basis for a regional settlement.
    • New government in Israel is moving in direction contrary to stated U.S. goals for regional peace process, while U.S. leverage on Israeli government is limited by U.S. domestic concerns and by overtly partisan ties between Clinton and Israel’s Labor Party leaders.
    • The U.S.-sponsored Israel-Arab peace process has been flawed from the beginning by a pro-Israeli bias and by the failure to provide for even minimal Palestinian and other Arab requirements.

    When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud government came to power in Israel in May 1996, it immediately began reversing the goals of its predecessor and of the U.S. Those goals, encapsulated in the treaties negotiated in Oslo (and signed in September 1993 at the White House) between Israel and the PLO and later between Israel and Jordan, would have granted only minimal concessions to the Palestinians-just enough to suppress the regional conflict to a level that would be acceptable to the international financial community.

    But Netanyahu’s accountability to a volatile mix of nationalist settlers and fundamentalist religious extremists meant he would not go even this far. He halted and reversed key components of the Oslo accords, while authorizing such provocative actions as the September 1996 opening of the tunnel adjacent to East Jerusalem’s Islamic holy places, sparking massive Palestinian unrest. Clinton’s earlier public embrace of Netanyahu’s electoral opponents, Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin and then Shimon Peres, resulted in a lowering of U.S. political influence in Tel Aviv, despite continuing Israeli reliance on U.S. international backing. Although Washington remains the key sponsor of the peace process, its acceptance of Israel’s conditions and demands has narrowed the U.S. ability to act as a truly honest broker. This pro-Israeli policy has left the Clinton Administration vulnerable to charges that it cares more about the appearance of continuing the process than about forging a just peace. Thus, Washington has depleted much of its reservoir of good will in the region, leaving little besides photo opportunities to show for it.

    The U.S. has abandoned its previous insistence that UN resolution 242, which prohibits the holding of territory taken by force and mandates a “land-for-peace” exchange, should be the basis of any comprehensive regional settlement. Despite 242 being the official basis of both the Madrid and Oslo agreements, the U.S. has ceased defending the principle of land for peace. Moreover, it has not challenged Netanyahu’s attempt to replace the “land-for-land” principle with a “peace-for-peace” approach, which is clearly an unviable option.

    As a consequence of Washington’s favoring of Israel, official U.S. personnel, institutions, and even ordinary U.S. citizens, are sometimes endangered by military or terrorist actions by extremist opposition forces throughout the region. Although these forces (Islamist, nationalist, democratic, and others) are diverse and not unified, they share opposition to Israel’s role in the region. When Washington refuses to distance itself even from Israel’s most provocative acts, the U.S.–and its citizens–become surrogate targets of the most militant (and sometimes terrorist) forces. It is also true that whether or not the U.S. publicly distances itself from any particular Israeli violation of international law, its continuing uncritical economic, political, and military support of Israel lead many thoughtful and moderate voices throughout the region to accept a similar view of U.S. responsibility for every Israeli action.

    Israel’s violations of human rights have been documented for decades by human rights organizations, as well as by the State Department itself in its annual human rights review. The violations include arrest and long periods of detention without trial or judicial review, routine physical and psychological torture during interrogations, demolition of houses of families of suspects, and the expulsion of both individuals and communities of Palestinians from their homeland. When Israeli human rights violations are ignored by the U.S.-and a U.S. veto prevents the UN Security Council from criticizing or attempting to reverse those violations-Israel’s legitimacy as the largest recipient of U.S. economic and military aid comes under increasing challenge.

    During the cold war, the U.S. cast a long series of vetoes of Security Council resolutions condemning Israel. The last of these cold war era vetoes occurred in May 1990 when the U.S. prevented Security Council criticism of Israel’s human rights violations in the occupied territories. After five years without a single Security Council veto being used by any power, the U.S. cast the first post-cold war veto in May 1995. This U.S. veto blocked a 14-to-1 resolution demanding that Israel stop its imminent seizure of a large tract of Palestinian land in Arab East Jerusalem to be used for building Jewish settlements.

    Foreign policy considerations have often resulted in quiet exceptions for many U.S. allies and trading partners. But the exemption of its largest foreign aid recipient from the obligation to uphold even the most basic human rights standards seriously weakens any U.S. claim of concern about human rights.

    Further, it reinforces the culture of human rights impunity among dependent U.S. client states that should have disappeared with the end of the cold war. The severity of electoral consequences for U.S. politicians dangerously distorts the reality of Israel’s role as a strategic ally. Choosing not to antagonize Israel’s supporters (either at the voting booth or in political action committees responsible for large campaign contributions), U.S. congressional representatives, senators, presidents, and other officials routinely fail to criticize even Israel’s most flagrantly provocative acts. As a result, instead of committing itself to a foreign policy that would truly foster a just peace in the Middle East, the U.S. has chosen to focus its public diplomacy on maintaining the appearance of continuing the peace “process.”

    Toward a New Foreign Policy

    Key Recommendations

    • U.S. aid to Israel should be cut in consideration of the improvements in Israel’s economic and military capabilities.
    • Aid should be contingent on adherence to international human rights and legal norms.
    • Domestic/electoral considerations should not lead to impunity for Israeli violations; Israel should be treated as an important ally, not an invulnerable icon.
    • Serious regional negotiations should be reinitiated with Syria, Lebanon,and the Palestinians, based on UN resolution 242 and an exchange of land for peace.

    U.S. aid flowing to Israel every year-massive both in its dollar amount and as a percentage of total foreign aid-should be dramatically scaled back. U.S. taxpayers subsidize a comfortable suburban lifestyle for Israeli citizens, but Israel does not need those billions for survival. As Labor Party leader Yael Dayan said in October 1996: “It’s ridiculous to talk about Israel being the victims. We’re an empire: It’s ours to give, to be generous.” U.S. economic assistance should be targeted to the poorest countries, especially in Africa, rather than wealthy powers such as Israel.

    Arms transfers, especially of the most advanced fighter jets and missile systems, should be stopped. Israel is the strongest military power in an already overly armed region. The U.S. should demand that Israel immediately open its nuclear arsenal to international inspection and oversight, and in the longer term that it divest its nuclear weapons to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

    Israel’s strategic value to U.S. policy has been important in the past. But in these last years of the 20th century, new U.S. regional interests require the broadening of alliances to others in the Middle East. The exclusivity of the U.S.-Israeli special relationship makes that difficult. The Washington-Tel Aviv embrace undermines the U.S. role as an honest broker in Israel-Arab negotiations. As a result, the U.S. is held accountable by others in the region for Israel’s actions.

    As one of Washington’s closest allies, Israel should be expected to adhere to the highest standards of human rights covenants and international law. The U.S. should implement even-handed guidelines for criticizing human rights violations whether perpetrated by its allies or by its opponents. Internationally, and especially in the Middle East, ending Washington’s human rights double standard would bolster U.S. credibility as a world leader seriously committed to a human rights agenda.

    Washington should proffer its own policies-rather than those of Israel-in regional diplomatic initiatives. When Israel deviates from U.S. policy (such as in continuing expanded settlement activities or in its disproportionate military activities in Lebanon), it should be criticized. The U.S. should not recalibrate its own policy in acquiescence to Tel Aviv. The U.S. defense of Israel in the UN should not be automatic but rather based on a careful assessment of the Israeli position in relation to defined U.S. goals and to broader international and regional concerns. Efforts should be taken to identify a broader pool of diplomatic talent for Middle East appointments in the State Department and White House. Specifically, Washington should avoid the revolving door phenomenon between the staff of Israeli lobby-linked institutions and those appointed to high positions of influence in the foreign service.

    The U.S. should reassert that regional peace efforts must be based on the exchange of land for peace, as mandated in UN resolution 242, and it should support involving the UN and European nations as full partners. With the U.S.-sponsored peace process collapsing, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must be relaunched on a firmer footing. They must be based on a serious exchange of land for peace, and the U.S. must be willing to take the lead in identifying the components of a comprehensive agreement, rather than focusing only on the need to continue talking.

    In negotiations, the U.S. should insist on the following:

    • Equitable and just status for both Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem.
    • Arrangements for the return of refugees from the wars of both 1948 and 1967.
    • Security for a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, with an end to land confiscations and armed Israeli settler privileges in Palestinian territory.
    • Reasonable security guarantees for all residents in both states.

    With respect to Syria, the U.S. should demand that Israel commit to a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace with Damascus. To help keep the peace between Israel and Syria, Washington should provide guarantees to monitor the Israeli-Syrian border as part of a UN peacekeeping and monitoring mission. The U.S. should demand that Israel withdraw from Lebanon in accordance with the requirements of UN resolution 425. Israeli negotiations with both Syria and Lebanon should be held to ensure the security of both sides of each border.

    Written by Phyllis Bennis, IPS Fellow