The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dominated the evening news for decades, but when comparing that tiny strip of land, the root of such a horrific struggle, to the size of the world, how has this conflict remained so important? The State of Israel has only been in existence since 1948, yet it has managed to expel and occupy almost the entirety of Palestinian land and identity, which had existed for centuries prior to Israel’s birth. While the will of Zionism has been strong since the beginning of the movement to create the Jewish state in Palestine, motivation alone does not allow a people once in diaspora to become the state with the eleventh largest military in the world. The importance of international intervention in this long-standing conflict is of high importance when analyzing the imbalance of power that exists between Israelis and Palestinians, especially when it comes to the United States’ role.
As a world superpower and the country with the world’s largest military and GDP, the policy of the United States toward Israel and Palestine is a large determinant of the fate of each group. The United States has chosen Israel as its ally, and overwhelmingly so. This support is translated in the copious amounts of power that Israel has over the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Through its foreign aid budget and its policies that prevent the freedom of existence of Palestine on the world stage, the United States government not only allows, but perpetuates the occupation and humiliation of Palestinians.
How does the U.S. Support Israel? The United States has supported Israel financially, militarily, and politically since 1949, shortly after the creation of the state. However, Haaretz reports, in the beginning, aid to Israel was largely civilian, and U.S. military aid to Israel did not begin until 1962. Since the majority of U.S. aid to Israel is military-based, and because the controversy of supporting Israel largely stems from the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) occupation of Palestinian territories, this analysis will focus primarily on U.S. military aid to Israel.
The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA) reports that, as of 2015, cumulative total U.S. aid to Israel since its creation amounts to $137.638 billion (WRMEA). Reported military aid amounts to $76,568.4 billion, which is about 56% of total U.S. aid to Israel (WRMEA). This military aid, according to American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), makes Israel the largest recipient of U.S. Foreign Military Financing. This lump sum amounts to $3.1 billion per year, not including other Department of Defense funds for missile defense programs (AMP). No other nation in the world receives this amount of U.S. military funding, and no other government in the world has the benefit of using U.S. military funding to buy arms produced by its domestic weapon companies like Israel does (AMP).
While the United States’ support of Israel is largely financial, the U.S. also has policies that ensure that Israel maintains its disproportionate amount of power in the region. When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to recognize Palestine as a member in order to protect its cultural heritage, the Washington Post reported, the United States immediately cut off its funding from UNESCO, as did Israel (Washington Post). The New York Times reports that legislation from 1990 and 1994, during the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration, “mandates a complete cutoff of American financing to any United Nations agency that accepts the Palestinians as a member.” Since the United States does not have veto power in matters regarding membership to UNESCO, its resistance to the unfavorable decision consisted of ending much-needed funding, which consisted of 22% of UNESCO’s annual budget. Both parties in Congress called the UNESCO move to recognize Palestine “counterproductive,” asserting that, by recognizing Palestine, “UNESCO is interfering with the prospects for direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine” (New York Times).While the Palestinian admittance into UNESCO did not give the Palestinians much more power on the world stage than they already possessed, recognition in one UN body can be seen as moving toward full recognition of Palestine as a member state of the UN. The policy of the United States clearly stands to prevent this possibility.
AIPAC. The large amount of loyalty and support flowing from the United States to Israel could not happen without some powerful body making it happen. As Democratic and Republican administrations occupy the White House, the amount of support to Israel changes very little, making the American stance on Israel a bi-partisan one. The strong third-party influence that allows for this bi-partisan effort comes from the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to the AIPAC official website, “The mission of AIPAC is to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel” (AIPAC). The New Yorker article, “Friends of Israel” by Connie Bruck states that AIPAC has over 100,000 members, seventeen offices throughout the United States, and “a vast pool of donors” (Bruck). This gives a good idea of the power that AIPAC has over Congressional decisions. Related to the United States policy on UN recognition of Palestine, Bruck reports that, “AIPAC helped persuade four hundred and sixty-four members of Congress to co-sponsor resolutions opposing the idea” of Palestinian application for U.N. statehood” (Bruck). Because Israelis see Palestine as an existential threat to Israel, and the Israeli interest lobby has such a large amount of power over the decisions made by Congress, the United States government naturally produces policies that provide Israel with the things it asks for while being restricted from aiding the Palestinians with what they need for self-determination.
Why? It is evident that the U.S. has disproportionately supported Israel and its actions more than any country in the world, but why? The frame of U.S. support for Israel has changed throughout the span of the conflict, but the ideological reason has always remained the same: support for democracy. According to the Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) article, “Why the US Supports Israel,” although U.S. military aid to Israel is framed as a means for Israel to defend itself against terrorism, “the vast majority of U.S. military aid has no correlation to counterterrorism efforts” (FPIF). Rather, funding Israel serves several of the United States’ interests.
In the beginning of the military alliance between the U.S. and Israel, support was largely Cold War motivated. The Washington Institute for Near East Affairs reports that, during the heights of the Cold War, “the Jewish state came to be seen in Washington as a bulwark against Soviet influence in the Middle East and a counter to Arab nationalism” (Washington Institute). During a time when small emerging nations in the Middle East were vulnerable to the ideological propaganda of the United States and Russia, the United States was eager to promote democracy by providing Israel with support against the Arab nations that were receiving military support from the Soviet Union. This promoted the larger goals of the United States and its push to spread democracy throughout the world while combating Communism.
Today, there is little difference between the United States’ former goal of fighting communism and its current claimed goal of fighting radicalism and terrorism in the Middle East. FPIF states that “Israel has successfully prevented victories by radical nationalist movements in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as in Palestine” (FIPF). Although the fight may not be against communism, the alliance with Israel is still as strategic for the United States as if the Cold War were still alive. The fight, however, has shifted from fighting Soviet Communism to fighting Arab radicalism. Israel has proven to be an ally in this fight.
Ideology aside, the United States has several other interests that are served by supporting Israel. These interests are largely military and economic. The Washington Institute states:
“The benefits to the United States of its relationship with Israel belie the argument that the alliance is based solely on the two countries’ shared democratic values, on the popularity of Israel in American politics, or on the elusive pursuit of progress in the peace process. It is a relationship based on tangible interests — and will remain so for the foreseeable future.”
The relationship between the United States provides benefits that are based on more than just ideological similarities or a genuine concern for the security of Israelis. While the United States provides Israel with billions of dollars in civilian and military aid each year, the relationship is not one-sided. Israel has served a wide range of American military interests, including the development of technology for military intelligence, like cyber weapons, unmanned military vehicles, and electronic warfare systems (Washington Institute). The argument can and has been made that the United States’ presence in the conflict roots from a desire for control over oil resources in the Middle East, as has been a popular argument for U.S. long-standing involvement in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. In addition, the Washington Institute points out that the long-standing relationship between the United States and Israel been economically beneficial, as “Israeli companies [are] looking for a global market for their products” and U.S. companies have naturally been targets for economic cooperation. This cooperation is evident as, in 2011, Israel surpassed Saudi Arabia as the top importer of U.S. products in the Middle East (Washington Institute). This implies that, while the relationship exists in part because of Israel’s ideological attractiveness to the U.S., self-interest plays a role in the United States’ continuous decision to support Israel.
What about aid to Palestinians? One of the most commonly used reasons for U.S. aid to Israel is that it is helping to protect the state from violence and terrorism. However, Amnesty International has regarded the IDF killing of civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 2014 as “unlawful” and the promotion of continued settlements in the West Bank as “illegal” (Amnesty International). In addition, the UN has declared Israel’s actions against civilians in the Gaza Strip during the summer of 2014 as “war crimes” (New York Times). The International Court of Justice also regarded “the construction by Israel of a wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and its associated regime” as “contrary to international law” (International Court of Justice). Frequently called the “world’s police force,” the United States has been known to intervene in international situations in which there are blatant violations of citizens’ human rights. So, while the United States provides Israel with more aid than any other country to ensure the security of its people, does it aid the West Bank and Gaza, whose people have fallen victim to several Israeli violations of international law? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. However, in comparison to the aid Israel receives from Washington, aid to the Palestinians can be seen as negligible.
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) study, “U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians,” “since the establishment of limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s, the U.S. government has committed more than $5 billion in bilateral economic and non-lethal security assistance to the Palestinians” (CRS).
While $5 billion in twenty years seems like a significant amount, it clearly pales in comparison to the more than $50 billion the U.S. has provided Israel with in the past fifteen years alone. In addition, the Palestinians do not have a powerful interest group lobbying congress for pro-Palestinian policies. So, as Presidents come and go from the White House, vowing to work toward peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, when it comes to policy, Israel’s relationship with the U.S. seems to be of even higher importance.
Conflict Resolution. The U.S. relationship with Israel serves many American interests, but is also a huge cost to the defense budget and the American taxpayers. As the United States has remained committed to Israel, American presidents have attempted at conducting peace talks and negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Among the many attempts, two of the more recent and arguably most pertinent are the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995 and the Camp David Summit of 2000, both negotiated by President Bill Clinton.
Historically, the first Oslo Accord was a ground breaking attempt at peace between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat. PBS reports that the meeting between the two leaders ultimately ended up with a joint goal of both Israeli and Palestinian governments to fight terrorism, while Israel “agreed to recognize Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by beginning to withdraw from the cities of Gaza and Jericho” (PBS). The second part of the Oslo Accords in 1995 ended with three percent of the West Bank coming under control of the Palestinian Authority (PBS). While a step in the right direction, Israeli forces remained closely controlling a majority the Occupied Territories, and violence between Israelis and Palestinians continued.
In 2000, President Clinton negotiated more peace talks at Camp David between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, looking to make a permanent agreement with a two-state solution. PBS reports that both Barak and Clinton proposed a bordered plan that permitted a Palestinian state, but “the Palestinians rejected Israeli proposals while offering no proposal of their own” (PBS). The talks, though the topics discussed had never been discussed before between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, ultimately failed, as have many other U.S.-negotiated talks.
Evidently, while attempts have been made, no solution has sufficed to end, or even calm, the conflict. While it is ideal to find just solutions to conflicts, especially a conflict as violent as the one between Israelis and Palestinians, American involvement in conflicts around the world has been proven to benefit the U.S. militarily and economically. The same can be said about the strong alliance with Israel, as mentioned before. Therefore, while successful peace agreements between Israelis and Palestinians could be genuinely beneficial to both parties, the U.S. might lose out on the benefits it gains from the ongoing conflict. In addition, while peace talks come and go, the large gap between U.S. foreign aid to Israel and to Palestine remains, on average, unchanged. It is paradoxical for the United States to vow its continued involvement in a peace process between two parties as it continues to fund one party disproportionately. As an important player in the conflict, if the U.S. doesn’t change its fiscally based policy toward the conflict, it is difficult to expect any real progress in the peace process.
Do Americans agree? Putting military, economic, and ideological interests of the United States government aside, the money that flows to Israel is coming out of the pockets of American citizens in the form of tax dollars. However, as citizens, after they leave our paychecks and pockets, we have little control over what our tax dollars support. As it turns out, though, the American opinion does not deviate drastically from that of the United States government on the topic of Israel.
According to Gallup, as of February of 2015, 70% of Americans view Israel “favorably” in comparison with the Palestinian Authority. In addition, 62% of Americans sympathize more with Israelis than they do with Palestinians regarding the situation in the Middle East. While different occurrences like attempts at peace talks and attacks on both sides have changed American opinions temporarily, “Since 2004, Israel has consistently received the majority share of Americans’ sympathies” (Gallup). This generally favorable view could be a result of media portrayal of the conflict, the large American Jewish population, and the West’s remaining sympathetic view of the world’s Jewish population due to the horrors faced by the Holocaust.
However, there seems to be a generational gap in American opinions toward Israel. Another Gallup survey that analyzed American opinions on the 2014 Israeli invasion and attack on Gaza states that 51% of 18-29 year olds saw Israel’s actions as unjustified, while only 25% of 18-29 year olds saw its actions as justified (Washington Post). This suggests that, while Americans, on average, still overwhelmingly support Israel, America’s youth is beginning to see a problem with Israel’s aggression toward Palestinians. While those opposed to Israel’s military action cannot necessarily stop their tax dollars from supporting it, they are engaging in a form of protest through their consumption habits.
One of the most prominent forms of support for Palestinians living under occupation and for the push to end Israeli occupation of Palestinians is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The BDS movement is an international campaign to boycott Israeli goods, divest from Israeli companies, and demand sanctions against Israel “until Palestinian rights are recognised in full compliance with international law” (BDS Movement). The three goals that activists intend to reach through BDS are, according to the BDS official website, for Israel to end its occupation of all Arab lands and dismantle the separation wall, recognize the rights of Arab-Palestinians in Israel to full equality, and recognizing the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes (BDS Movement). In the United States, the BDS movement is targeting the boycott and divestment of campuses and churches from companies including Caterpillar, HP, Re/Max, Sabra Hummus and SodaStream, which are companies that are either located in Israeli settlement territories or that somehow support the occupation. In the United States, the BDS movement is the main protest against Israel’s violation of human rights by targeting Israel economically. While the organizational structure of the BDS movement is not entirely clear and the effects of the campaign are yet to be determined, the wide-spread acknowledgement of Israel’s violation of human rights and subsequent non-violent protest in opposition is a step in the right direction for just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
In foreign policy critics Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe’s newest book regarding the fate of Palestinians, the continued Israeli occupation of Palestine is regarded as “ethnic cleansing.” Pappe writes that “ethnic cleansing does not end because it peters out. It ends either when the job is completed or is stopped by a more powerful force” (Chomsky and Pappe 31). In the case of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine that began in 1948, this remark holds true. The United States funds the occupation with billions of taxpayer dollars, and if that funding continues, the status quo, meaning the oppression of Palestinians, is sustained. Therefore, as we have seen, the solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine does not root from talks that are merely negotiated by the United States. The solution comes from the world superpower’s acknowledgement that, with its funding, the fate of the violence between Israelis and Palestinians is in its hands. In order to have justice and balance between Israelis and Palestinians, balance in international support must first exist.
“A Conservative Estimate of Total U.S. Direct Aid to Israel: Almost $138 Billion.” WRMEA. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.
AIPAC: America’s Pro-Israel Lobby. AIPAC, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.
“Boycott and Divestment Campaigns.” End the Occupation. US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
Bruck, Connie. “Friends of Israel.” The New Yorker. N.p., 25 Aug. 2014. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
Chomsky, Noam, Ilan Pappé, and Frank Barat. On Palestine. Chicago: Haymarket, 2015. Print.
Erlanger, Steven, and Scott Sayare. “Unesco Accepts Palestinians as Full Members.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 Oct. 2011. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
“Friends with Benefits: Why the U.S.-Israeli Alliance Is Good for America.” – The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.
“Hellfire in Perspective /U.S. Military Aid to Israel Exceeds $100 Billion – Diplomacy and Defense.” Haaretz.com. Haaretz, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
“Introducing the BDS Movement.” BDSmovementnet. BDS Movement, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
Jim Zanotti. “U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians.” Congressional Research Service (2016): n. pag. 18 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.
“Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” International Court of Justice. International Court of Justice, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2016
Rudoren, Jodi, and Somini Sengupta. “U.N. Report on Gaza Finds Evidence of War Crimes by Israel and by Palestinian Militants.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 June 2015. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
“Seven in 10 Americans Continue to View Israel Favorably.” Gallup.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
Sharp, Jeremy Maxwell. U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 2006. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
“Shattered Dreams of Peace.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.
“UNESCO Votes to Admit Palestine; U.S. Cuts off Funding.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.
“US Aid to Israel – 2015 Fact Sheet.” US Aid to Israel – 2015 Fact Sheet. American Muslims for Palestine, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.
“Why the U.S. Supports Israel – FPIF.” Foreign Policy In Focus. N.p., 01 May 2002. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
“Young Americans Take a Dim View of Israel’s Actions.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2016.