U.S. Congress relations with Israel

CONVENTIONAL wisdom dictates that America will always support Israel, militarily, financially, politically, in a way no other country does. From vetoing UN resolutions to unparalleled military assistance, it is almost an axiom that the relationship is ‘unbreakable’ and ‘special.’

But relations between the two have fractured in recent months over Israel’s settlement policy, a possible nuclear deal with Iran, and the recent Gaza offensive, which left around 1,500 Palestinians dead and earned Israel international censure. Indeed an ex-national security adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Yaacov Amidror, said recently: “relations between Israel and the US have deteriorated to an all-time low.”

And after Mr Netanyahu approved plans for 1,000 new settler homes, Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the State Department, said Israel’s continued building in East Jerusalem was “incompatible with the pursuit of peace.” Mr Netanyahu thereafter reproached anyone making that criticism as “disconnected from reality.”

Most academic work on American-Israel relations has focused on the role of the President in maintaining this bond, though scholars Amnon Cavari and Elan Nyer published a report earlier this year on the actions of Congress concerning Israel, analysing data from 1973-2012; from the 93rd through the 112th Congresses.

Starting the analysis from 1973 is useful as the year of the Yom Kippur War –when the US stepped up its involvement in the region- and also the year Congress passed the War Powers Resolution to stop President Nixon using executive power too promiscuously in foreign affairs.

The authors find Congress has: “consistently debated and passed resolutions in support of Israel and in repudiation of its foes, showing strong bipartisan support for Israel.”

Although -and in a month when Republicans took control of Congress: “there is a growing amount of incoordination between Democrats and Republicans in how they express their support for Israel.”

Salient in the data is the growing partisanship of recent Congresses. Cavari finds that this is because Republican and Democrat opinion on foreign policy, and by extension on Israel, has grown more disparate since the end of the Cold War and particularly since 9/11. He emphasises the weight of the evangelical wing within the GOP, and attitudes toward the ‘War on Terror’ in pushing this disparity.

The trend means Mr Netanyahu will be pleased the GOP has secured both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, especially given his fractious relationship with President Obama.

Put broadly, in terms of foreign policy: Republican’s tend to more interventionist approach especially in areas concerning Islamic militarism, while Democrats will generally emphasise economics, peace processes and human rights- while being by no means isolationist.

As Dr Richard Johnson, of Strathclyde University Government and Policy department said: “The major event that happened that slowed down the prospect of a two state solution was 9/11 and in this era a lot of the support for Israel is connected to the War on Terror.”

“People thought ‘do we want another state potentially with Islamic terrorist links?’ or ‘do we want to keep this historically strong ally in the Middle East?’”

Defining a ‘partisan resolution’ as one that is sponsored by more than five members of only one party, the authors find a sharp increase, particularly in the recent 111th and 112th congresses, where 17 bills fit the ‘partisan criterion’- 14 Republican, three Democrat. This is very significant given there were only 12 ‘partisan resolutions’ from the 93rd through the 110th Congress.

(Data set)

Cavari and Nyer notice: “The three Democratic resolutions focus on peace issues—concerning the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, and commending efforts to teach the history of both Israeli and

Palestinian students in Israel and the West Bank in order to foster mutual understanding, respect and tolerance.”

“In contrast, the Republican resolutions take a more hawkish approach regarding Israel.” Focussing on Israel’s “right to defend its sovereignty and citizens and to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

“The remaining unanimous Republican resolutions relate to condemning enemies, Jerusalem, and to support and facilitate Israel in maintaining defensible borders.”

Although, these resolutions were less than a quarter of the total number proposed it highlights that: “members of Congress are increasingly expressing their support with uni-partisan resolutions – a development we term Congressional dysergia.”

As only 4% of bills proposed in each Congress become law, the authors make no distinction between a bill and a resolution as both illustrate Congress’ position on an issue. Over four decades there have been 538 resolutions where Israel was the main item and only 30 of these were “anti-Israel.” As is evident, support has been nearly unequivocal. (Data set)

Using the library archive of Congress for data, Cavari and Nyer develop eleven categories of support for Israel. They are qualitatively different, ranging from peace negotiations, to friendship and budget issues and responses to Arab boycotts.

Furthermore, they find the US has vetoed 42 UN resolutions criticising Israel from 1946-2012.

Dr Richard Johnson said: “My impression is that Democrats definitely have more of a problem with Israeli actions in occupied areas than Republicans do, but still Israel does a lot of things and doesn’t get punished, at least in terms of US funding, so why would their actions change now?”

The consistent Pro-Israel nature of Washington is a stance which pays in political and financial capital for Congressmen with little cost attached. Unlike in Western Europe: “In the US, outside of college campuses, a majority of people are pro-Israel rather than Palestine. There is little to be won or lost, I think, other than campaign contributions,” says Dr Johnson.

“AIPAC is one of the largest donors to both parties. The conspiracy theorist types would say they have too much influence over Congress with too much money involved.”

The differences between the parties regarding Israel and Palestine are not merely semantic. Obama was the first president to formally endorse a two-state solution, and the unanimously Democrat resolutions do tend to emphasise non-military methods for progress when held up against the Republican ones.

It seems then, that because of recent fractures in this famously ‘unbreakable’ relationship, support from the US may no longer come unquestionably. And with a November 24 deadline for the Iranian nuclear talks and the likely prospect of a UN resolution proposing Palestinian statehood along 1967 borders, Israel needs the US more than ever.

Dr Johnson concludes: “If America’s primary interest is a more stable Middle East they just need Israel to sit down and be quiet for a few years and let them [the USA] focus on other things. Israel/Palestine is a matter of issue saliency and right now Syria is in chaos, Iraq has massive problems with ISIS and other countries in the region are destabilising,

“Israel is making calculations about how far they can push the US and so far it seems like they can keep inching forward.”

America and Israel will continue to be inextricably bound up together, but the nature of that bond will, it seems, increasingly depend on which party holds primacy in Washington.

By Thomas Hornall

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Middle East, North America

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