From March to November 2017, Gallup conducted an annual worldwide opinion poll on the leadership of the United States. Some like the direction the U.S. is heading, some don’t, but in four of the 134 countries surveyed the U.S. approval rating rose by a whopping 10 percent compared to the previous year – Liberia, Macedonia, Belarus and Israel. That Israel was included attests to how starkly U.S.-Israel relations have changed under the administration of Donald Trump. Before he became president, bilateral ties seemed on the verge of collapse. In 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Washington to lambast President Barack Obama in front of the U.S. Congress, practically begging the government not to move forward with the Iran nuclear deal – a plea that ultimately fell on deaf ears.
In March 2018, Netanyahu visited Washington again, but instead of criticizing the sitting president, he compared him to a modern-day Cyrus the Great – the Persian king who allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland to rebuild their temple, ending the Babylonian exile. Netanyahu is a student of history. His father was a history professor. So when he compares Trump to one of the most important gentiles in Jewish history, he means it.
Netanyahu’s disposition toward the Trump administration is no personal quirk – an important distinction for a characteristically quirky person who once requested nearly $3,000 in the government budget for his personal ice cream needs. He speaks for the majority of Israelis, among whom Trump’s approval rating has hovered around 70 percent, according to a poll conducted by Haaretz. (For perspective, his approval rating among his own citizens is around 40 percent.) In June 2018, an American Jewish Committee survey found that 77 percent of Israelis approved of the way Trump has handled U.S.-Israel relations.
This is hardly surprising. From Israel’s perspective, there is much to approve of. Trump’s first trip abroad as president was to Israel, where he became the first U.S. president to visit the Western Wall. Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy there, seemingly apathetic to the chorus of regional and global dissent. Under Trump, the U.S. has canceled its funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency on the grounds that it disproportionately supports the Palestinian territories. Gone also is some $200 million of U.S. aid for the Gaza Strip.
And these were just the symbolic gestures. The more meaningful policy is the return of agency to Israeli foreign policy, or at least the appearance of it. Trump has already secured what Netanyahu could not: termination of the Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu, who is poised to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, staked his political career on being the politician best equipped to battle Iran and its stated desire to destroy Israel. But he was powerless to stop the U.S. from agreeing to the Iran nuclear deal. He was powerless against Obama, who basically forced him to apologize to Turkey in 2013 for the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010. And he was powerless when the U.S. abstained to vote against a U.N. censure on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. For eight years, Netanyahu seemed impotent. Trump gave him back his chutzpah.
Since 1967, the most important job of any Israeli leader has been to secure U.S.-Israel relations. The world tends to forget that Israel and the U.S. were not always such close allies. Israel would likely not have survived its 1948 war for independence had the Soviets not sold Israel weapons on the black market via Czechoslovakia. And had it not been for the support of France, Israel would not have developed nuclear weapons, nor any of the military technology that allowed it to prevail in the wars with its Arab neighbors in 1967 and 1973. It was only at the height of the Cold War, and under the strategic machinations of Henry Kissinger, that Israel became such a close U.S. ally. (And even then, the relationship was not without its challenges. The accidental Israeli bombing of the USS Liberty in 1967 could have irrevocably poisoned bilateral relations. The first Bush administration was tougher on Israel when it came to the Palestinians than perhaps any other U.S. presidency, including Obama’s.)
Back then, the U.S. had clearly defined interests in the Middle East. Most important was containing the Soviet Union, the altar before which all U.S. policies had to bow during the Cold War. The United States also needed Middle Eastern oil. Led by Saudi Arabia, OPEC produced almost 55 percent of the world’s oil in 1973. The U.S. had to be sure the oil kept pumping, and it had to keep open the sea lanes by which the oil was shipped to its shores. This meant that trade through the Suez Canal had to be maintained – which explains why the U.S. could not allow the United Kingdom to retake control of it in 1956 any more than it could allow the Egyptian government, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and supported by Moscow, to block the canal whenever it wanted.
Israel performed its duties in the Cold War alliance structure in a variety of ways, but all of them revolved around containment. In the 1970s and 1980s, Israel was part of a crucial regional balance of power, one of the few Middle Eastern states on which Washington could depend to curb Soviet ambitions. Indeed, the defeat of Soviet-backed regimes in Egypt and Syria by Israel brought Egypt to the negotiating table in 1979 and helped set up a regional framework that, despite the region’s various violent spasms, has proved remarkably resilient. Israel couldn’t do much to affect oil production, nor was its navy able to help keep sea lanes clear, but it served its purpose of containment soundly.
But eventually the Soviet Union weakened, its rivals became irrelevant, and Israel grew tired of taking casualties. It would still do Washington’s dirty work sometimes – as it did when it took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 – but its services became gradually less important. Take oil, for example. The U.S. no longer relies on the Middle East, having become an oil exporter itself (and a net exporter of petroleum products). Israel’s strategy has evolved accordingly. Its politicians do not define U.S.-Israel relations in terms of interests, even when an issue as important as the Iran nuclear deal is under discussion. Instead, Israel emphasizes the shared ideological bond between the U.S. and Israel – in the words of Netanyahu himself, a bond that is “above politics” and is about “a common destiny, the destiny of promised lands that cherish freedom and offer hope.”
This may seem a strange strategy, considering the history of Israel and the United States. Israel is a product of Jewish nationalism and British imperialism. In search of a state of their own, European Jews coveted the lands that were once Ottoman and then British Palestine. The British Empire promised Palestine to both Arabs and Jews, setting the stage for a civil war that would culminate in Israel’s independence in 1948. (Palestinian Arabs refer to it as their “catastrophe.”) Israel has always struggled with its split personality – it wanted to be at once a national homeland for the Jewish people and a thriving liberal democracy akin to the U.S. That’s like saying the U.S. wants to be a homeland for the Pilgrims and a constitutional republic. It is categorically the latter, without any experience or analogue to something like Israel’s recently passed Basic Law, which stipulates Israel is a nation-state for the Jewish people.
This partly explains why talking about U.S.-Israel ties is so precarious. Proponents of the relationship rely as much on the language of identity as the politics of interest. Its critics rely often as much on anti-Semitism as on practical shortcomings. The truth is that the U.S.-Israel relationship is like any other bilateral relationship. It waxes and wanes on the basis of shared interests. U.S. and Israeli interests have diverged since the Cold War ended in 1991, but they are now bending back toward a similar path. Once again, Washington needs Israel as a bulwark against would-be regional hegemons – only this time it’s Turkey and Iran, not the Soviet Union. Oil is no longer the issue it once was, but in its place is jihadism, which will be kept to the fringes of political power in the Middle East with the help of Israeli air power and intelligence.
The trouble for Israel is that the U.S. will likely ask it to take a more active role than it has in years. Washington’s long-term interest is to extricate itself from the Middle East, and, to that end, it will work with partners that allow it to do less, not continue to go to war. And this means whether Obama or Trump or Trump’s successor is in charge, Israel will do Washington’s bidding. It is no coincidence that in the past year, Israel has participated more heavily in the Syrian civil war, attacking Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah targets and even occasionally butting heads with Russia. This will require the Israeli government to put its citizens in harm’s way, and to relearn how to politick in the region on its own. If the Obama administration taught Israel anything, it’s that Washington will support it only so long as it’s in Washington’s interests to do so.