CATO Institute: Israel Is a Strategic Liability for the United States

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US. President Joe Biden recently proclaimed that “there’s no going back to the [Middle East] status quo as it stood on Oct. 6.” But the truth is that Biden refuses to abandon the status quo, particularly regarding Washington’s so-?called special relationship with Israel.

Unwavering U.S. support for Israel has been a consistent element of U.S. Middle East policy since the establishment of the state in 1948. President John F. Kennedy coined the phrase “special relationship” in 1962, explaining that Washington’s ties to the state were “really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.” By 2013, then-?Vice President Biden argued that “it’s not only a long-?standing moral commitment; it’s a strategic commitment.”

According to Biden, “if there were no Israel, we’d have to invent one.” In 2020, then-?President Donald Trump cut through some of the fog, admitting that “we don’t have to be in the Middle East, other than we want to protect Israel.”

The core of the U.S.-Israel relationship is the unparalleled amount of aid that Washington bestows upon its ally. Israel is the top recipient of U.S. military aid, receiving more than $300 billion (adjusted for inflation) from the United States since World War II.

Washington continues to provide Israel with roughly $3.8 billion annually in addition to other arms deals and security benefits. (Some of the other top recipients of U.S. aid, such as Egypt and Jordan, receive large amounts in exchange for maintaining normalized relations with Israel). Israel and its supporters are hugely influential in Washington, commanding attention on both sides of the political aisle through different forms of direct and indirect lobbying and influence.

What exactly the United States gets in return for this unidirectional relationship remains unclear.

Proponents claim that unfaltering support is critical for the advancement of U.S. interests in the Middle East. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, once referred to Israel as the “eyes and ears of America” in the region. While intelligence-?sharing may have some strategic value, the past five months of war in Gaza have made clear the numerous negative effects of the relationship, namely how Washington’s emphatic embrace of Israel has undermined its strategic position in the Middle East while damaging its global image. The war has starkly highlighted the underlying failures of U.S. Middle East policy.

It’s past time for a fundamental reevaluation of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The special relationship does not benefit Washington and is endangering U.S. interests across the globe.

ISRAEL’S CAMPAIGN of collective punishment in Gaza has been historic in scale. According to the Gazan health authorities, the official death toll across the enclave is now roughly 32,000 people, the vast majority of whom are women and children. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently claimed that 25,000 women and children alone had been killed as a result of the war in Gaza. While some, including Biden himself, have raised concern over whether the casualty figures coming out of Gaza are inflated, others argue that the death toll is likely even higher because ongoing hostilities prevent researchers from the accounting for thousands of people whose fate or whereabouts are unknown.

Across the strip, civilian infrastructure has been systematically decimated, and starvation and disease are spreading rapidly. The situation inside Gaza is so bad that the U.S. government—alongside other countries, such as France, Jordan, and Egypt—is now airlifting aid into the strip, and the United States is deploying 1,000 troops to build a pier off the shore of the enclave in order to break the siege that its supposed ally—using U.S. weapons—refuses to lift.

Despite this, the Biden administration has continued to supply Israel with advanced weaponry—including both smart and “dumb” bombs as well as tank and artillery ammunition—approving more than 100 foreign military sales to Israel since Oct. 7, 2023, and invoking emergency rules on two different occasions to circumvent Congress. The United States recently issued its third veto in the U.N. Security Council since the conflict began, being the only country to block a resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian cease-?fire. This is in addition to another $14 billion in military aid for Israel recently passed by the Senate.

It’s difficult to fathom that this war could get worse, but all indicators point in that direction, as Israel insists that it will continue to push into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, despite U.S. objections, where more than 1.5 million Palestinians—exceeding half the population of Gaza—have fled.

The Biden administration has said it opposes an invasion of Rafah “without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the civilians.” In an interview with MSNBC, Biden spoke of a “red line” in response to a question about a possible military operation in Gaza, saying, “[we] cannot have another 30,000 more Palestinians dead,” but he then immediately stated that “the defense of Israel is still critical, so there’s no red line.” This incoherence not only negates Biden’s leverage, but also binds Washington to whatever policies the far-?right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ultimately adopts.

Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu remains adamant that he will not bow to Biden’s ethereal red line by calling off his plan for a ground invasion of Rafah. Netanyahu recently stated that he made it “supremely clear” to Biden that he is “determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah, and there’s no way to do that except by going in on the ground.”

Israel has demonstrated no long-?term political strategy in Gaza beyond the systematic destruction of the enclave and killing of its inhabitants. Netanyahu—whose support has reached all-?time lows, and who faces growing protests calling for early elections—seems to know that once this ends, his time in power is over.

Yet Biden has been either unable or unwilling to leverage the special relationship with Israel or sway Netanyahu, who has previously boasted of his ability to manipulate the United States.

The White House has begun strategically leaking reports of Biden’s increasing “frustration” with Netanyahu, and the administration is becoming more vocal in its support for a temporary pause to the fighting. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered an unprecedented public condemnation of Netanyahu on March 14, arguing that he has “lost his way” while also calling for new elections in Israel.

But empty rhetoric without policy change will accomplish nothing.

SYMBOLIC ACTS—such as the recent U.S. executive order sanctioning two Israeli settler outposts in the West Bank or Biden’s decision to reestablish the position that Israeli settlement expansion is “inconsistent with international law”—is not going to stop the carnage in Gaza, absolve Washington of complicity, or contribute to future stability.

Likely in direct response to these actions, Israel just authorized the construction of 3,400 new houses in West Bank settlements amid historic levels of violence against Palestinians; the United States has done little to punish or halt the move.

Netanyahu’s recently revealed postwar plan contains little more than a plan for the prolonged military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, which would guarantee future instability. Since Oct. 7, Netanyahu has repeatedly bragged that he is “proud” to have prevented the emergence of a Palestinian state, promising that he alone can continue stopping one.

In contrast to Netanyahu’s plan, the Biden administration’s day-?after blueprint includes a vision for a “pathway” toward a Palestinian state. Notably, though, it contains no concrete plans, much less intent, for implementation on the part of the United States or Israel.

The war in Gaza should demonstrate that trying to sidestep the future of the Palestinian people is a foolish strategy. But for Netanyahu—and for Biden, by extension—it has perversely deepened a commitment to that status quo.

Washington’s unwavering support for Israel amid the war in Gaza has also had disastrous regional ramifications. From the Eastern Mediterranean to the Red Sea, a series of different flash points risk dragging the region—and the United States—into full-?scale war. Additionally, Washington’s continued support of Israel’s brutal campaign in Gaza has tarnished Washington’s image as a lodestar of liberal values, making a mockery of claims about a U.S.-led “liberal international order.”

A regional war would be disastrous for the Middle East and the interests of the United States. Nor would such a war be a matter of Israel’s survival. No state—including Iran—is about to push Israel into the sea. Israel’s military superiority, nuclear arsenal, and strategic alignment with the majority of governments in the region guarantee its security against existential challenges.

Washington’s stance allows Israel to act with impunity while bending U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in pursuit of objectives that lie well beyond Washington’s interests. U.S. interests in the region include protecting the safety and prosperity of the American people and preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon while upholding the values that the country claims to stand for. Knee-?jerk support for Israel does not advance any of these.

The pathologies of the special relationship with Israel have hindered Washington’s strategic maneuverability in the Middle East and inhibited U.S. leaders’ ability to even think clearly about the region. In late 2023, for example, Biden defamed his own country when he declared that “were there no Israel, there wouldn’t be a Jew in the world who was safe.”

This kind of thinking makes sound statecraft impossible.

THE UNEVEN U.S. RELATIONSHIP with Israel has, for example, hindered Washington’s ability to engage diplomatically with Iran while pushing the United States toward the use of military force there.

Over the past five months, Israel has repeatedly attempted to pressure the United States into direct confrontation with Iran, despite this being anathema to U.S. interests and regional stability. High-?level military drills between Israel and the United States, Israel’s recent attack on major gas pipelines in Iran, and continued escalation between Iranian-?backed groups and the United States across the Middle East risk sparking a regionwide catastrophe.

Washington’s engagement with Israel—like any other state—should be driven by the pursuit of concrete U.S. interests. Even U.S. relations with treaty allies such as France or South Korea feature debates, disagreements, and the normal push and pull of diplomacy. By contrast, the special relationship with Israel has fueled some of the worst actors in Israeli politics, encouraged ruinous policies, and generally done violence to the long-?term interest of both countries.

Washington’s subsidies for Israeli policies have insulated Israel from the costs of those policies. What incentive does Israel face to change course when the most powerful state in the world refuses to condition its profound levels of political, economic, and military support? Were Israel forced to bear the full costs of its policies in the West Bank, for example, its pro-?settler agenda would become harder to sustain.

A special relationship with Israel does virtually nothing for the United States while actively undermining U.S. strategic interests and often doing violence to the values that Washington claims to stand for.

It’s time to “normalize” the United States’ relationship with Israel. This does not mean making Israel an enemy of the United States, but rather approaching Israel the same way that Washington should approach any other foreign nation: from arm’s-length.

No longer would decisions about military aid, arms sales, or diplomatic cover be rooted in path dependency or muscle memory, but rather in officials’ perceptions of the U.S. interests at stake. Instead of enabling, shielding, and subsidizing Israeli policy, the United States should reorient its relationship with Israel on the basis of concrete U.S. interests.

This would entail Washington ending its willingness to turn a blind eye to Israeli affronts to U.S. interests, by providing huge amounts of aid, and pushing for a swift end to this disastrous war and a permanent political solution to the Israeli-?Palestinian conflict.

The Biden administration faces a choice: continue following the Netanyahu government into the abyss, or forcefully pressure it to change course.

Source: https://www.cato.org/commentary/israel-strategic-liability-united-states



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