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Israel Is a Strategic Liability for the United States
U.S. President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023. Evan Vucci/AP
The special relationship does not benefit Washington and is endangering U.S. interests across the globe.

U.S. 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.

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.


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