America’s relationship with the Jewish state has never been simple. From the first pilgrims, who looked to create a New Israel when they landed at Plymouth Rock, to Theodore Herzl—one of the original Zionists who flirted with the idea of placing the Jewish state in Texas—the United States was frequently associated with the Semitic homeland. When Palestine was announced as the new location, foreign department officials told presidents from Howard Taft to Franklin D. Roosevelt that supporting the Zionist state was against America’s best interests. Against the efforts of the American Zionist Emergency Council—think a 1940s version of AIPAC—the CIA argued in 1947 that the Zionist leadership had an agenda that would threaten “the strategic interests of the Western powers in the Near and Middle East.”
Sixty years and several fateful wars make quite a difference. With its weight fully behind the Jewish state, the United States has hitched its “strategic Western interests” directly to Israel’s future. This leaves America with a heavy political litmus test and little margin to compromise—something that will weigh heavily on John Kerry’s renewed efforts to broker peace along the Gaza Strip.
Support for Israel in America is not only top-down—96 of 100 senators in 2000 signed a resolution expressing support for the state—but bottom-up, with a February Gallup poll showing that two of three Americans sympathize with Israel. The Jewish state gets more than $3 billion from the United States in foreign aid each year; Obama says the U.S. “has no better friend in the world than Israel.” This isn’t a concern in and of itself for America abroad, since other would-be allies are quickly falling in the region. With Hezbollah, a group hostile toward the interests of the West, taking control in Lebanon and Egypt and Jordan falling into turmoil, Israel is the only stable and pro-American country in the region.
The strategic importance of having an ally in the Middle East, a region where the Persian Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom have done little to endear the West to the residents, cannot be overstated. As Turkey becomes more hostile to the United States, with Iran’s anti-American sentiment resonating louder and louder in the region to boot, the progress of the Hillary Clinton administration may quickly disappear. To fix this, Kerry has picked the issue that most divides the region: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Currently, Israel has done little to express support for a Palestinian state. The Likud Party in power in Israel openly rejects any possibility of Palestinian state and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, less radical on the issue than many in his coalition, will not risk putting it on the table for fear of losing his coalition. Similarly, Obama’s support for the idea is belied by the same dominant Israeli political forces. This leaves little room for compromise on other solutions since a one-state solution will not satisfy Palestinian nationalists who remember the way they were treated by the Israeli government in the Gaza Strip and risks throwing the entire region into chaos.
Thus, for better or for worse, America’s position is set in the dispute. The Israel lobby, led by AIPAC, stands along with the NRA and AARP on the pantheon of powerful Washington lobbying groups. Although he later redacted his comment, Chuck Hagel initially drew accusations of anti-Semitism when he described how “the Jewish lobby” intimidated politicians. Last November, when Israel ordered another round of bombing in the Gaza Strip—bringing the death toll up to 90—a combined zero members of the House and Senate voted to condemn Israel’s action, a reaction the Palestinian delegation called “biased and weak.” Even Rand Paul, who advocates ending all foreign aid, would slowly wean the Jewish state off instead of cutting it off completely.
While strong congressional support brings America closer to Israel, it weakens its position in a region where anti-American sentiment is already quickly ascending. The Jewish state holds immense strategic importance for the United States, but a hardline commitment to it has antagonized possible regional allies. Even as drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan make it difficult enough for the U.S. to extend an honest olive branch, an uncompromising position on Israel makes it nigh impossible to do so. For that reason, as many have prognosticated, the new peace talks will end the same way that they have each other time: with a very partial mediator unable to reconcile two sides with wildly different positions.
Ultimately, many factors limit America’s ability to pose as a legitimate mediator for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The United States’ legislative ruling body is nearly unanimously supportive of Israel, and political pressure to take Israel’s side limits the extent to which Kerry, like diplomats who struggled to do so before him, may be able to exert pressure on Israel to compromise. The more radical Israeli government and weakened Palestinian state—who enter the talks in the unenviable bargaining position of having little to offer—make reconciliation a distant possibility. This is representative of a larger truth about what has been a haphazard U.S. Middle East policy: For better or for worse, Washington’s fortunes are directly tied to Jerusalem’s.
David P. Freed ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House. Follow him on Twitter @CrimsonDPFreed.