The American debate on Israel

US support for Tel Aviv isn’t a surprise. But this support is qualified. And that shift reflects a churn within America and the world

In March 2006, two of America’s foremost realist scholars, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, wrote an essay in the London Review of Books. Titled ‘The Israel Lobby’, the essay put forth a straightforward hypothesis. The United States (US) had offered more assistance to Israel than to any other country after the Second World War. This often ran against America’s own strategic interests and moral compass. So why did Washington DC do it?

Mearsheimer and Walt argued, “The explanation is the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby.” They noted the lobby’s influence both with the executive and on Capitol Hill, its narrative dominance in the public sphere including think tanks and media, and its accusations of anti-Semitism against those critical of Israel to shut down debate.

The essay sparked a furious debate. Critics slammed it for ignoring Palestinian violence and overestimating the power of this lobby, with some even suggesting it smacked of anti-Semitism. A recent book, The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel and Fate of the Jewish People, written by another realist scholar, Walter Russell Mead, counters the thesis, aiming to dispel “bad theories — like the idea that a cabal of American Jews controls America’s Israel policy”.

Mead looks back at the drivers of support for Israel, which spans the American immersion in Biblical Christianity to the critical role played by the American Left and liberals in backing the creation of a Jewish State. He suggests that US policy must be viewed in conjunction with what others were up to (including the fact that Stalin played a key role in Israel’s creation) and Israel’s own agency. He describes both the diversity of viewpoints within the American Jewish community and among the Arab States. And he points out that in the early decades, the American attitude to Israel was cold and distant, attributing the real pro-Israel shift to Richard Nixon, whose successor in terms of the scale of pro-Israel policies was Donald Trump, both Republican presidents widely disliked by American Jews.

This detour into America’s Israel policy debates is not to suggest that there is no Israel lobby, nor to indicate in any way that major strategic drivers aren’t in play, but to highlight that the debate is far more complicated than popularly portrayed. And this debate is now shaping how Joe Biden approaches the war in West Asia.

Make no mistake. The US is standing firm, unapologetically, with Israel after the Hamas terror attacks. It has made it clear (as has India) that Israel not only has a right but also has an obligation to fight terror. Biden’s statements and visit of solidarity to Tel Aviv, secretary of state Antony Blinken’s shuttle diplomacy, the enhancement of American force posture, the call for an unprecedented security package for Israel, the diplomatic cover to Tel Aviv as it attacks Gaza, the warnings to other hostile actors are all a part of the script of American support.

What’s surprising is not this support but the fact that Biden has pushed another message in parallel. He has told Israel to respect the laws of war, protect civilian lives, allow humanitarian access to Gaza, and not make the mistakes the US made in rage after 9/11. He has asked Benjamin Netanyahu to figure out military objectives clearly and how Israel will achieve them, think through whether regaining control of Gaza is in Israel’s interest, and judge the timing of the offensive carefully given the presence of hostages. And he has backed the right to dignity and self-determination of Palestinians, reiterated support for a two-State solution, and engaged with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

What’s driving the second part of Biden’s message are two major shifts.

Domestically, there is today a large segment in America that does not see Hamas’s actions in isolation but as a part of a longer history of Israel’s actions in Gaza, aggression in the West Bank, the cynical strengthening of Hamas as opposed to Palestinian moderates, the rise of the far-Right within Israel’s politics, and the failed promise of a two-State solution. It also sees Israel’s current actions as an affront to basic humanitarian norms. This constituency may have been confined to a few Left-wing academics or civil liberties groups in the past. But progressive politics in America, just like far-Right politics, is today probably stronger than it has ever been. University academics and students, liberal politicians, advocacy groups, new-age tech and corporate professionals, journalists and lawyers, American Muslims, people of colour, administration and Hill staffers, and perhaps most importantly, younger Jews are at the forefront of opposing a blank cheque to Israel.

A 2020 Pew study offers revealing statistics on the community’s evolution. Politically, 71% of American Jews lean liberal and back Democrats. Both in a 2013 study and then in 2020, 54% Jews said that US policy on Israel was just about right, but by 2020, 22% also said that America was “too supportive” of Israel. While 51% Jews above the age of 50 said caring about Israel was “essential” to what being Jewish meant to them and 37% in the same age bracket said it was “important” even if not essential, only 35% of those Jews below 30 said that caring about Israel was essential to them while 27% said it wasn’t important at all.

If Biden has to take this domestic shift into account, he also has to confront new geopolitical realities. The Russia-China-Iran axis sees Israeli excesses as a moment to dent DC’s credibility. The American project of cutting back from West Asia while filling in the strategic void by normalising ties between Israel and its Arab neighbours, with India as a critical player, lies suspended. The Global South is furious with what’s seen as American complicity in the Gaza tragedy. The risks to the US of allowing Israel to follow its raw instincts are real and high.

How Biden balances his multiple, often conflicting, objectives and how Netanyahu acts on the ground will shape the next chapter of the American debate on Israel. What’s certain is that the past won’t guide the future.