Friends and Frustration: The US and Israel’s Complicated Relationship

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

The quarterly journal provides examinations into the realities and perceptions of the deep but tenuous relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. 


Ties between the United States and the State of Israel go back to the latter’s very founding, when US President Harry Truman was the first world leader to recognize the newly established country in May 1948. Since that time, Washington has grown into Israel’s key backer, providing decades of military and political support to go along with extensive economic engagement.  

Today, the relationship is strained like few times before.  

Israel’s actions in its invasion of Gaza, a response to the horrific attacks by Hamas on October 7, 2023, have turned what was once unwavering support for the country into a tense and bitter exchange between their governments. US President Joe Biden has repeatedly expressed concern and frustration over the growing Palestinian civilian toll—which now stands at more than 35,000 dead and 10,000 missing—and a worsening humanitarian situation. This concern led to Biden’s pausing the delivery of offensive weapons with a warning about an Israeli invasion of Rafah, a large city in southern Gaza. 

Despite the warning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has re-asserted his intention to proceed with operations into Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have fled since the war began, with or without a hostage deal. In continuing to confront Biden, the leaders’ relationship has soured, with sources reporting “a deep distrust” between the two sides. Adding fuel to the fire is a recent letter to Congressional Democrats from Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, in which he lambasts them for urging President Biden to examine Israel’s restrictions on aid into Gaza. 

The coming months will be a defining moment in the relationship. Both leaders are facing domestic backlash and political challenges, as Biden begins his campaign for the US presidential election later this year and thousands protest in Israel for Netanyahu’s resignation. Their decisions on the next moves, in Rafah and beyond, will determine the paths for themselves and their countries. 

Middle East Policy has long examined the ties between the United States and Israel, from how they are perceived domestically to the interactions between their leaders to the numerous diplomatic agreements forged between them. The journal provides comprehensive analysis of key developments in the important relationship, giving readers the information they need to understand its role in the region, the ongoing tensions, and the history behind it all. 

Here are some of the key studies the journal has published: 

Between the Superpowers: Gulf States and Israel Navigate the New Mideast Dynamics, by Gedaliah Afterman and Dominika Urhová 

  • Gulf countries and Israel are increasingly prioritizing their national interests, which at times contradict the US agenda. Israel, as a country long propped up by American support, has faced significant pushback for its rising engagement with China. It is taking steps to allow cooperation, however, including founding a foreign investment advisory committee that is forced to be transparent. 
  • Beijing has expressed interest in expanding cooperation with Israel in the infrastructure and technology sectors, but Israel is in no strong position to defy Washington’s demands to prevent Chinese ‘interference.’ It is still working to take as much Chinese investment as possible, however, and China continues to push because it recognizes Israel and the larger Middle East as an opportunity to counteract the US and its influence. 
  • However, Beijing has also been willing to actively attack Israel on the international stage if it serves its interests, which the US is often much more hesitant to do. This level of commitment to the partnership may affect ties in the long run. 

Democrats’ Attitudes Towards the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Jonathan Rynhold 

  • Since 2015, the sympathy of Democrats has shifted away from Israel and towards Palestinians. Among the top reasons for this are the growth of liberalization and secularization within the US and the rise of an increasingly right-wing government in Israel that featured Prime Minister Netanyahu’s strategy to block the controversial Iran nuclear deal. 
  • The reality that the rise in Palestinian sympathy has spurred little change in strategic and security considerations, however, reflects that Democrats continue to recognize Israel as a critical partner, which could be attributed to the country’s long-standing pro-Israel culture. Rynhold notes that this trend could potentially be reversed by a more centrist Israeli government. 
  • This most recent shift can be attributed above all to Jerusalem’s response to the Iran nuclear deal negotiations and the development of the government into a motif of negative affective partisanship in Washington. 

Changes in Palestinian and Israeli Leadership: Implications for US Policy, by Dan Arbell, Omar Rahman, Sari Nusseibeh, Joel Rubin, Richard Schmierer, and Bassima Alghussein  

  • In this symposium, held in 2021, the speakers reflect on the change in government from Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing administration to the Naftali Bennett mixed-party government. Many felt relatively pessimistic about the future following the change, noting that: 
    • Washington appeared to be ignoring the Palestine issue and taking a safe, limited policy approach; 
    • Both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas would advocate for peace, but the US backed Palestine-diffusing policy would likely only maintain the status quo and the PA would only lose more legitimacy;  
    • Democrats’ opinion—including among American Jews—was shifting against Israel, but military funding towards Israel was still pushed through Congress for the sake of political support. 

Hezbollah’s Coercion and the Israel-Lebanon Maritime Deal, by Daniel Sobelman 

  • The US had a vested interest in facilitating and pushing Israel into the deal because it feared impacts on the global energy market and wanted to avoid a potential regional conflict. Hezbollah acknowledged that it recognized Washington’s, and therefore Israel’s, vulnerability to significant conflict and disruption. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah even warned Washington that if it failed to push through a deal, “the Americans would ‘lose in Lebanon and you should expect chaos in the entire region.’” 
  • Israeli sources revealed that the US exerted significant pressure on Israel to reach an agreement as soon as possible, which would include relinquishing the contested area. This pressure likely played a role in the backing of the agreement by Israel’s defense and intelligence institutions, which are primarily funded by Washington. 

The Fadeout of the Pax Americana in the Middle East, by Chas W. Freeman Jr. 

  • America has served as a primary regulator of affairs in the Middle East for decades, but its recent shift away towards East Asia has reduced regional states’ confidence in their longtime partner. Among these key players is Israel, who maintains strong ties with the US even as others pull away but is diversifying by engaging with states that Washington is more hesitant to become close with.  
  • Washington, facing pressure from its citizens, has not only been pushed to ease out of the Middle East in recent years, but also is facing criticism for its staunch support for Israel. Because Israel no longer visibly shares the moral values of the West, it is finding itself increasingly estranged. 
  • Meanwhile, the lauded Abraham Accords have given greater power to Israel to pull away from the US as it normalizes its regional ties, but the move has raised concerns from MENA states that Israel may be increasingly unchecked without Washington’s management. Many also signed on with the belief that the Accords would be a temporary agreement for the current political climate, rather than an attempt to establish a new one. 

The Abraham Accords and Religious Tolerance: Three Tales of Faith-Based Foreign-Policy Agenda Setting, by Hae Won Jeong 

  • Modern foreign policy is increasingly intertwined with religious tolerance and freedom, particularly in the context of the Middle East. Ahead of and following the signing of the Abraham Accords by the UAE and other Arab states along with their normalization with Israel, there was renewed emphasis on interfaith dialogue that has facilitated improved diplomacy. 
  • Despite former President Trump’s success in pushing through the Abraham Accords, he only furthered an existing international freedom of religion doctrine and failed to put into practice his claims for religious freedom, putting faith-based diplomacy in a rocky standing. 
  • Israel, unlike the UAE and US (under the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations), has done little to engage in intercultural and interfaith dialogue and has received minimal pushback for their failure to do so, particularly regarding Palestine. 

 

(Banner image: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem)

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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