President Joe Biden startled many Americans and Israelis when he recently asked the Jewish state’s new far-right government to make its controversial attempts to reform the judicial system disappear like leavened products before Passover.
Biden’s unexpected request came in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to weaken the ability of Israel’s Supreme Court to review or toss out laws. The country has no written constitution, so some observers think this could throw its checks and balances into disarray.
Netanyahu’s plan would also stop the court from overruling the government’s legislative and executive branches and allow politicians to appoint judges.
Viewing these efforts as attacks on democracy, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have clogged urban arteries in unceasing, unprecedented protests.
Appearing to side with the protesters, Biden said at the end of March 2023 that the Israeli government “cannot continue down this road.”
So disorientating were Biden’s remarks that, within 24 hours, they propelled the administration into damage control. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby lauded Netanyahu for holding meetings with other politicians in a futile attempt to reach a compromise.
The reforms Netanyahu proposed, along with dozens of other reactionary proposals, threaten to weaken what many observers consider to be the Middle East’s sole democracy.
Still, in the 21st century, an American president has rarely pointed his finger so directly at Israel, one of the United States’ top allies. Biden’s break from etiquette has prompted Democrats and Republicans alike to wonder: Do the proposed reforms represent a grave risk to American and Israeli relations?
The answer, based on my research into the history of U.S.-Israel relations, is that it’s complicated.
Eight sides to this story
On the surface, Israel’s shift to a de facto autocracy would – and some say, should – undermine Israel’s U.S. relations.
A perception exists in both countries that, to a large extent, the U.S. and Israel’s alliance stems from and is sustained by their shared democratic values.
But the U.S. has several allies that are not democratic, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Honduras. Israel was always a democracy, yet it took America nearly two decades after the country’s founding to warm up to Israel’s democratic values.
The narrative of democracy uniting Israel with the U.S. tells only one part of a larger story that dates back to the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, which paved the way for the creation of the Jewish state.
A complex relationship
The U.S. and Israel have had tumultuous relations from the start.
U.S. representatives voted for the U.N.’s Partition Plan on Nov. 29, 1947. This called for splitting Palestine between the Arabs and Jews. But the U.S. quickly reversed course and proposed replacing the U.N. plan with an international trusteeship, which would have prevented Israel’s creation.
The U.S. also declared an arms embargo on the Middle East on Dec. 5, 1947. As I showed in my PBS documentary “A Wing and a Prayer,” the embargo spared the Arabs, who received military supplies and training from the United Kingdom and France. But the embargo stifled the Jews, who lacked weapons and allies.
Only in the Cold War’s second decade did Washington start thawing its relations with Jerusalem. This began in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy sold Israel defensive missiles.
During the 1956 Suez Crisis – when Israel joined the U.K. and France in fighting Egypt – Washington sided with Cairo, which had just switched from a monarchy to a political dictatorship.
Succumbing to American pressure, Israel received nothing in March 1957 when it gave up the Sinai Peninsula, which it had conquered a few months earlier during the Suez Crisis.
Benefiting from much better U.S. relations two decades later, Israel secured a game-changing peace agreement with Egypt for the same piece of land, which by then it had retaken during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Where they diverge
Despite their similarities, the U.S. and Israel differ on several fundamental fronts. For instance, until the 1980s, the Jewish state’s economy looked nothing like America’s. It resembled communist Russia’s, with enough governmental controls to pacify Karl Marx.
Even today, decades after the Reagan administration compelled Israel to institute free-market changes, the Jewish state offers such socialist programs such as nationalized health care.
Although the two countries share interests, their priorities sometimes diverge and even clash.
For example, it has long been in Washington’s interest to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the implementation of the two-state solution. Among other benefits, it would win the U.S. favor with such key allies as Saudi Arabia, which supports Palestinian people’s right to statehood.
Yet the lack of progress on the Palestinian issue has had no effect on America’s financial support for Israel: Every year the U.S. gives Israel US$3.3 billion and an additional $500 million as part of a defensive missile development collaboration.
So, what keeps the U.S. and Israel so close?
According to Dennis Ross, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy distinguished fellow who served as special assistant to President Obama, the alliance comes down to strategic cooperation, which started under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
As part of this partnership, the U.S. and Israel help each other achieve geopolitical goals in the Middle East and beyond. They assist each other in maintaining security at home and abroad, share intelligence, conduct military exercises and collaborate on technological pursuits.
“Every administration after that, even if the president doesn’t have the warmest relations with the Israelis – it’s true for George H.W. Bush, it’s true for Barack Obama – nonetheless they build on that basic foundation,” Ross said during an interview for “Israel Survived an Early Challenge,” a documentary short I co-produced with Retro Report.
Growth over time
The two countries’ strategic partnership has only grown through the decades.
The U.S. counts on Israel now more than ever for military, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation. With Russia digging its claws into Ukraine and China flashing its sharp teeth at Taiwan, America must have a reliable, capable ally in the Middle East. So the U.S has no choice but to maintain close ties with Israel.
Strategically speaking, the Jewish state has it all: second-to-none military intelligence, Hollywood-worthy espionage, sci-fi-like technology and advanced, seasoned armed forces.
For the U.S., such a partnership has proved priceless, and its value only keeps going up.
Washington’s latest geopolitical gaffe – Pentagon memos leaked over the holiday weekend showing the U.S. has been spying on allies such as South Korea, France and Israel – only accentuates the vitality and durability of its relations with the Jewish state.
Americans and Israelis know their relations are strong enough to easily withstand the leaked memos crisis. After all, they survived the 1980s Jonathan Pollard affair, during which the U.S. Navy Intelligence employee gave the Jewish state classified documents, some of which reportedly fell into Soviet hands.
So, while the U.S. will certainly go to great lengths to preserve Israel’s democratic nature, it is unlikely to walk away from this strategic partnership.