As Israel’s Dependence on U.S. Shrinks, So Does U.S. Leverage
By Max Fisher
Israel, a small country surrounded by adversaries and locked in conflict with the Palestinians, depends absolutely on American diplomatic and military support. By giving it, the United States safeguards Israel and wields significant leverage over its actions.
That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. For decades, it was true: Israeli leaders and voters alike treated Washington as essential to their country’s survival.
But that dependence may be ending. While Israel still benefits greatly from American assistance, security experts and political analysts say that the country has quietly cultivated, and may have achieved, effective autonomy from the United States.
“We’re seeing much more Israeli independence,” said Vipin Narang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist who has studied Israeli strategy.
Israel no longer needs American security guarantees to protect it from neighboring states, with which it has mostly made peace. Nor does it see itself as needing American mediation in the Palestinian conflict, which Israelis largely find bearable and support maintaining as it is.
Once reliant on American arms transfers, Israel now produces many of its most essential weapons domestically. It has become more self-sufficient diplomatically as well, cultivating allies independent of Washington. Even culturally, Israelis are less sensitive to American approval — and put less pressure on their leaders to maintain good standing in Washington.
And while American aid to Israel remains high in absolute terms, Israel’s decades-long economic boom has left the country less and less reliant. In 1981, American aid was equivalent to almost 10 percent of Israel’s economy. In 2020, at nearly $4 billion, it was closer to 1 percent.
Washington underscored its own declining relevance to the conflict last week, calling for a cease-fire only after an Egyptian-brokered agreement was nearing completion, and which Israeli leaders said they agreed to because they had completed their military objectives in a 10-day conflict with Gaza. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will visit the region this week, though he said he did not intend to restart formal Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The change comes just as a faction of Democrats and left-wing activists, outraged over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and bombing of Gaza, are challenging Washington’s long-held consensus on Israel.
Yet significant, if shrinking, numbers of Americans express support for Israel, and Democratic politicians have resisted their voters’ growing support for the Palestinians.
The United States still has leverage, as it does with every country where it provides arms and diplomatic support. Indeed, former President Donald J. Trump’s unalloyed embrace of the Israeli government demonstrated that Israel still benefits from the relationship. But American leverage may be declining past the point at which Israel is able and willing to do as it wishes, bipartisan consensus or not.
Steps Toward Self-Sufficiency
When Americans think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many still picture the period known as the Second Intifada, when Israeli tanks crashed through Palestinian towns and Palestinian bombs detonated in Israeli cafes and buses.
But that was 15 years ago. Since then, Israel has re-engineered the conflict in ways that Israeli voters and leaders largely find bearable.
Violence against Israelis in the occupied West Bank is rarer and lower-level, rarer still in Israel proper. Though fighting has erupted several times between Israel and Gaza-based groups, Israeli forces have succeeded in pushing the burden overwhelmingly on Gazans. Conflict deaths, once three-to-one Palestinian-to-Israeli, are now closer to 20-to-one.
At the same time, Israeli disaffection with the peace process has left many feeling that periodic fighting is the least bad option. The occupation, though a crushing and ever-present force for Palestinians, is, on most days and for most Jewish Israelis, ignorable.
“Israelis have become increasingly comfortable with this approach,” said Yaël Mizrahi-Arnaud, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank. “That’s a cost that they are willing to accept.”
It’s a status quo that Israel can maintain with little outside help. In past years, its most important military tools were American-made warplanes and other high-end gear, which required signoff from Congress and the White House.
Now, it relies on missile defense technology that is made and maintained largely at home — a feat that hints at the tenacity of Israel’s drive for self-sufficiency.
“If you had told me five years ago,” said Mr. Narang, the M.I.T. scholar, “that the Israelis would have a layered missile defense system against short-range rockets and short-range ballistic missiles, and it was going to be 90 percent effective, I would have said, ‘I would love what you’re smoking.’”
Though heavy American funding under President Barack Obama helped stand up the system, it now operates at a relatively affordable $50,000 per interceptor.
Israel began working toward military autonomy in the 1990s. Cool relations with the George H.W. Bush administration and perceived American failure to stop Iraqi missiles from striking Israel convinced its leaders that they could not count on American backing forever.
This belief deepened under subsequent presidents, whose pressure to strike peace with the Palestinians has run increasingly counter to Israeli preferences for maintaining control of the West Bank and tightly blockading Gaza.
“The political calculus led to seeking independent capabilities that are no longer vulnerable to U.S. leverage and pressure,” Mr. Narang said, adding that Israel has also sought independent intelligence gathering. “It certainly appears they’ve been able to get to that point.”
The ‘Other Friends Policy’
There is another existential threat from which Israel no longer relies so heavily on American protection: international isolation.
Israel once sought acceptance from Western democracies, which demanded that it meet democratic standards, but bestowed legitimacy on a country that otherwise had few friends.
Today, Israel faces a much warmer international climate. “Anti-imperialist” powers that once challenged Israel have moved on. While international attitudes toward it are mixed, and tend starkly negative in Muslim-majority societies, Israel has cultivated ties in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Even nearby Arab states, such as Jordan and Egypt, once among its greatest enemies, now seek peace, while others have eased hostilities. Last year, the so-called Abraham Accords, brokered under President Trump, saw Israel normalize ties with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Israel subsequently normalized ties with Morocco and reached a diplomatic agreement with Sudan.
“We used to talk about a diplomatic tsunami that was on its way. But it never materialized,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political analyst and pollster.
Ms. Scheindlin runs an annual tracking poll asking Israelis to rank national challenges. Security and the economy reliably come first. Foreign relations are now near the very bottom.
Even as European diplomats warn of consequences that never come and Democrats debate the future of the alliance, she said, Israelis view their international standing as excellent.
On diplomacy, too, Israel has sought independence from the Americans.
In the mid-2010s, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, all but directly campaigned against President Obama’s re-election because of his Middle East policies, sending relations plunging.
Since then, Mr. Netanyahu has cultivated a network of illiberal democracies that, far from condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, treat it as admirable: Brazil, Hungary, India and others.
Ms. Scheindlin calls it the “other friends policy.” As a result, Israelis no longer see American acceptance as crucial to survival.
At the same time, rising nationalism has instilled a greater willingness to shrug off international criticism.
Washington’s support for Israel’s democratic credentials, a soft kind of leverage long wielded by American diplomats, means less every year.
Risking the Consensus
One of the top jobs of any prime minister, it has long been said in Israel, is safeguarding Washington’s bipartisan consensus in support of the country.
So when Mr. Netanyahu aligned Israel with Republicans in the mid-2010s, even haranguing Mr. Obama from the floor of Congress, he was expected to pay a political cost at home.
But Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats did little to modulate their support. Americans then elected Donald J. Trump, who catered to Mr. Netanyahu more than any previous president.
The episode instilled a “sense of impunity,” Ms. Scheindlin said. “Israelis have learned that they can handle the heat, they can handle a little bit of rocky relations.”
In a series of focus groups conducted since President Biden’s election, Ms. Scheindlin said she had found that Israelis no longer fear reprisal from American politicians.
“People are just not that moved,” she said. “They’re like, ‘It’s America. Biden will be fine.’”
At the same time, many Israelis have lost interest in the peace process. Most see it as doomed, polls show, and growing numbers consider it a low priority, given a status quo that much of the Israeli public sees as tolerable.
“That changes the nature of the relationship to the U.S.,” Ms. Mizrahi-Arnaud said.
Because Israeli leaders no longer feel domestic pressure to engage in the peace process, which runs through Washington, they do not need to persuade the Americans that they are seeking peace in good faith.
If anything, leaders face declining pressure to please the Americans and rising demands to defy them with policies like expanding settlements in the West Bank, even annexing it outright.
Israel is hardly the first small state to seek independence from a great-power patron. But this case is unusual in one way: It was the Americans who built up Israel’s military and diplomatic independence, eroding their own influence.
Now, after nearly 50 years of not quite wielding that leverage to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it may soon be gone for good, if it isn’t already.
“Israel feels that they can get away with more,” said Ms. Mizrahi-Arnaud, adding, to underscore her point, “When exactly is the last time that the United States pressured Israel?”