Long called the most special bilateral relationship, US-Israeli ties are in fact the world’s strangest. The weirdness, as we have witnessed in the past few weeks, comes in different forms – ranging from the cynical to the surrealistic.
Take for example a tweet by the US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, containing a video of himself and Israeli soldiers at the Israeli-Lebanese border, wishing everyone “Shabbat Shalom”. This bizarre display of support for the Israeli military, which is de facto still at war with Lebanon, came amid heightened tensions between the two countries.
Earlier in June, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant threatened to bomb Lebanon back into the “Stone Age” if the Lebanese group Hezbollah starts a war. Likewise, Amir Baram, the head of Israel’s northern command, declared that in the event of a war, the Israeli army would “destroy all the infrastructure … to the last stone” in Southern Lebanon – which would amount to a war crime. Three days after the “Shabbat Shalom” clip appeared on Twitter, the Israeli army sent 1,000 troops from its elite forces along with armoured vehicles, helicopters and drones into the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, killing at least eight Palestinians, including children, within the first few hours.
Nides, a banker-turned-diplomat, engaged in his publicity stunt at a time when Israel is snubbing the US, its closest and most generous ally, with increasing frequency and intensity. Apart from launching deadly assaults on the Palestinians, Israeli officials have also repeatedly challenged the official US position in support of Palestinian statehood. Just last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset’s foreign policy committee that Israel must “crush” the idea of a Palestinian state.
The Israeli leader has also openly disregarded warnings from the US against fostering closer ties with China. Most recently, he announced he will be travelling to Beijing, giving the cold shoulder to US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has not yet invited him to visit Washington. Netanyahu and his ministers have not minced their words when expressing dissatisfaction with Biden’s policies. In March, the prime minister accused the American leader of meddling in Israeli affairs over his comments about the controversial judicial reform his government has been trying to pass and which has sparked months-long protests across Israel.
In February, Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli reprimanded Nides for “interfering” in Israel’s internal affairs, telling him to “mind [his] own business”. The US ambassador is not the only US official to engage in bizarre diplomatic stunts amid growing disparagement from the Israeli government.
Last month, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken went out of his way to lobby Saudi Arabia to normalise relations with Israel despite its ever-expanding illegal settlements and mounting violence against Palestinians, which have already embarrassed its new friends in the Gulf along with the Biden administration. Then the US Congress announced that Israeli President Isaac Herzog will address both of its houses to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Israeli statehood, an honour extended previously to Netanyahu three times.
The last time Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of Congress was in 2015 when he tried to mobilise, if not outright incite, US lawmakers against then-President Barak Obama’s administration over its decision to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. This came after he publicly humiliated Obama at the White House in 2011, lecturing him about Palestine and the Middle East. This did not deter the Obama administration from committing to send Israel $38bn in military aid over 10 years, subsidising its purchase of F-35 jet fighters. And if that wasn’t enough, this “single largest pledge of military assistance in US history”, a pricey gift from the American taxpayer, was met “not with big love, but with mostly meh”, according to The Washington Post.
Last year, the Biden administration reaffirmed and even expanded these military commitments in a new strategic memorandum, the Jerusalem US-Israel Joint Partnership Declaration, in return for, well, nothing. Nada. It couldn’t even get the previous, presumably more moderate Israeli government to embrace the standard rhetoric on achieving peace in Palestine. Meanwhile, Biden has decided not to reverse any of his predecessor’s major concessions to Israel concerning its illegal annexation of Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights.
That’s not just strange, it is obscene. Even mad. And it begs the question, is there a method to this madness? Otherwise, why would the US reward Israel despite its intransigence when such support boosts its militaristic and colonial tendencies and feeds its bellicosity? Several explanations come to mind.
First is the state of US domestic politics. Biden is desperate not to alienate a single pro-Israel Democrat in the Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the Senate, especially when the Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, are blindly following Netanyahu, come what may. This is perhaps why Biden, the leader of the world’s foremost superpower, asked for Israeli approval to rejoin UNESCO six years after his predecessor abandoned it to appease Israel. This was to make sure that the vote in Congress on the issue would pass.
Second is Washington’s political tactics. Biden wants to offset the temporary coolness towards the Israeli government by warming to its military, presidency and secular business elites to illustrate his bona fide “love for Israel”. Such misplaced sentiment towards a colonial, apartheid regime has become more of an obsession in Washington, totally disconnected from the rest of the country, indeed the world.
In fact, when it comes to Israel-Palestine, Biden and many Democratic senators are not exactly aligned with the Democratic Party’s base, which has become ever more critical of the Zionist state. Dissatisfaction is growing even among the party’s Jewish members. According to a 2023 Gallup poll, 49 percent of Democrats sympathise more with the Palestinians, 38 percent sympathise more with the Israelis and 13 percent sympathise with neither.
Third is traditional US foreign policy. Conventional wisdom in Washington has long revolved around satisfying Israel’s needs and desires to encourage it to moderate its positions on peace with the Palestinians and make the necessary “compromises”, even “sacrifices”, for peace. But in reality, unconditional US support has thus far hardened Israel’s stance, radicalised its society and driven its polity towards fascism.
Finally, there is also Washington’s strategic thinking. Historically, the US has maintained strong and consistent strategic cooperation with Israel, seeing it as its most reliable ally in the Middle East despite political and diplomatic ups and downs. Just last year, Biden repeated this mantra, saying that if there was no Israel “we’d have to invent one.” But treating it as a strategic asset has long proved of illusionary utility as the Zionist state has shown itself to be an utter liability, at least since the end of the Cold War.
In fact, Israel’s primary objective is to keep America stuck in the Middle East to clean up its messes. Recently, Netanyahu was quite honest about it, telling Knesset members that China’s growing involvement in the region may not be so bad because it compels America to stay engaged. Well, on Israel’s side, of course.
But much of the Middle East’s hostility towards the US is driven by its decades-long support for what countries in the region see as a colonial warmongering state. That’s why only by freeing itself from Israel’s paranoid influence could Washington begin to act as a responsible and respectable actor in the region.
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But the shift in the Democratic Party in favour of justice in Palestine does provide some hope when it is needed most.