Bibi Goes To D.C.
Why does the relationship remain so close despite the row over the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit? It’s complicated.
To simplify, let’s break it down into four areas. Good ol’time religion and votes, shared values, geopolitics, and yes, the ‘Israel lobby’.
Our view of America is skewed by New York and Hollywood. On the East coast we see the symbol of modernity, vibrancy, indeed sassiness that many of us associate with the USA. On the West Coast, Hollywood pumps out endless glossy films which help shape our view of the superpower. And in between, in the flyover states? There lives most of America quietly getting on with quiet lives in which Bruce Willis is not required to rescue them from anything.
And there, traditionally, live people who often come from Anglo-Protestant stock, and who go to church, and the voting stations.
Sections of this demographic buy into the idea of a divinely ordained plan for the Jewish people and most of which feels a connection with the Jewish people due to the lineage of their religion. In some quarters this goes as far as believing that the return of the Christian messiah cannot come about until the Jews of the world are gathered together in Israel. From this flows strong support for the state of Israel which translates into support for Congressmen and women who take note of their opinions, and who indeed often share them.
The demographic is shrinking. In this decade the number of Americans identifying as Protestant fell below 50% for the first time in the USA’s history. However, this section of America remains part of the story, especially in the tightly clustered evangelical districts.
Across the country they are joined by those who agree that the USA has shared values with Israel on the grounds that it is the Middle East’s only functioning democracy. Together the two groups ensure that support for Israel is both broad and deep. A recent Gallup poll showed that despite the row between the White House and the Netanyahu government more than 70% of Americans still had strong support for Israel.
The shared values view is also reflected in the majority view on terrorism. The Hezbollah attack on US troops in Lebanon in the 1980s, and the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath have helped to form an instinctive view of a shared struggle. When we factor in the efforts the US has made over the years to bring about a two state solution, the shared values concept has almost become enshrined as a doctrine of US foreign policy.
Many Americans also recognize the pioneer spirit in the story of modern Israel that has echoes of their own history. In both cases many tend to brush over the complexities of the issue of land, and who lived where first, and concentrate on the ‘can do’ attitude of Israel which speaks to their idea of themselves. The Americans forged the world’s most powerful state out of the wilderness and the Israelis have made the desert bloom.
The national interests of the USA are also part of the story:
In 1948 it took President Truman just 11 minutes from Israel’s declaration of statehood to recognize the new country. However that appears to have been a personal view, which overrode the advice he was given. He was followed by Eisnenhower whose Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, conscious of Arab opinion refused to arm the fledgling state. In 1956 the USA saved Egypt from the Israeli, French, and British invasion, then followed up by doing what it could to prevent Israel gaining nuclear weapons.
However, some of the Arab countries, notably Egypt, chose to side with the Soviets as the Cold War became global. The Americans moved to check this by building bridges with Israel that became so strong even the end of the Cold war has not broken them.
Contrary to some opinion, this is not unquestioning support. Several US presidents have clashed with Israeli leaders, LBJ, Clinton, George W Bush, and Obama among them.
The ‘Israel lobby’ is also a factor but one which is, unfortunately, overplayed.
On the wilder shores of comment you find people who believe that Israel controls America. To believe, and/or propagate, this weak thinking is to promote a modern version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and irrational theories of control.
However, it would be disingenuous not to accept that one of the best run, most vocal, hardworking, and well-funded of the many lobby groups in Washington D.C. is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – AIPAC.
Just as many of America’s minority groups ensure their views are heard at local and national level, so AIPAC promulgates the views of a significant number of the country’s 6 million Jews. Given that the USA is a country in which Jews have been allowed, over time, to flourish without being held back, it is no surprise that the communities are well organized. The geography of America’s Jews also plays a role as there are significant numbers living in Florida and Pennsylvania, which come election time, tend to be swing states. That said, it is still unfair to give too much weight to AIPAC, or to view America’s Jewish voters as a single bloc. They are split between the two major parties: 65% disapprove of Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank, and increasingly, younger liberal, and or secular, Jews no longer identity with Israel.
Which brings us to the future: America’s Protestants are no longer a majority and many American Jews view Israel as either not an issue or, as a secondary issue. Add to this the overall demographic trends of the USA and we have a future where Israel will feature less in public discourse and voting patterns.
When they come to vote, the immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere will not look across the Atlantic to a small country in the Middle East for inspiration for their foreign policy opinions.
The last factor in why support will very slowly fade, is America’s self-sufficiency in energy. The Middle East will become less strategically important to the USA therefore so will Israel.
These changes will take decades. The current break in ties between an Israeli and an American government is a temporary blip, but in the longer term, the ties that bind will fray.