The Israeli Right Ignores America

The Israeli Right Ignores America

American officials are debating whether the United States should continue to back the Israeli government. A growing number of Israelis are uninterested in that support.

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gevir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on December 29, 2022. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Just hours before the vote in the Knesset that severely curbed the independence of Israel’s high court, President Joe Biden spoke out against the controversial measure that has generated unprecedented public unrest across the country. “Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this—the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus,” he said in July. Biden was not alone: in recent months, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right nationalist government has charged ahead to neutralize judicial review, prominent U.S. government officials, diplomats, and public figures, as well as leaders of the Jewish-American community, have warned Netanyahu to halt the divisive plan and seek compromise.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has urged Biden to “reassess” Washington’s “special relationship” with the Israeli government. Even David Friedman, U.S. ambassador to Israel under Donald Trump—and an adamant supporter of Netanyahu—took to Twitter to call for a pause in the legislative blitz.

While these repeated calls on Netanyahu and his government to halt illiberal reforms mean well, they fail to grasp the profound shift in Israeli public opinion and politics in recent years. There was a time when Washington’s word counted for something in Israel, regardless of which party controlled the White House. But those days are long gone. Unlike those protesting the judicial overhaul, who regularly wave the American flag and carry placards reading, “Biden, Help Us Please,” the ultranationalist and religious government that came to power in Israel in January, and many of the Israelis who voted for it, don’t really care anymore what Americans, or the U.S. government, think about Israel. While American officials are now debating whether the United States should continue to support Israel, the more pertinent question is whether a growing number of Israelis are even interested in that support.

 

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, sought to cultivate a close strategic partnership with the United States under the assumption that it offered the fledgling state the best guarantee for its survival. “Our success or failure depends in a large measure on our co-operation with and on the strength of the great Jewish community of the United States and we, therefore, are anxious that nothing should be said or done which could in the slightest degree undermine the sense of security and stability of American Jewry,” he said in 1951. The importance of American Jewish community in his eyes was tied directly to its ability to help ensure the aid and support of American policymakers for Israel’s security needs. Accordingly, a primary strategic goal of Israeli foreign policy in the 1950s and ’60s was enhancing its ties with the United States by obtaining a mutual defense pact, which was never realized, and military patronage, which began to materialize during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and has been solidified in the set of memorandums of understanding signed between the countries since the 1970s, making Israel the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. military aid to date.

But growing shipments of advanced American weaponry and support at the United Nations came with strings attached: the more reliant Israel became on U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support, the more compliant it naturally became to its patron’s wishes. This is why Israel often had to accede to American demands, even when it deemed them inimical to its national interest. This was the case with President Gerald Ford’s “reassessment” of the relationship that eventually forced Israel to abandon its initial refusal to withdraw from the Sinai in 1975, the withdrawal from Beirut during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, its halt of settlement construction and agreement to attend the Madrid peace conference in 1991, as well as its painful inaction in response to Iraqi scud missiles lobbed at it during the Persian Gulf War. In all these instances, consecutive Israeli governments, headed by both left-wing and right-wing parties, understood that U.S. support and approval were vital for Israel’s long-term security interests, so they acquiesced to controversial American requests—often causing domestic political pushback.

Up until a few years ago, just the whiff of an American condemnation or the chance of suspending arms deliveries would spur any prime minister, including Netanyahu, into rethinking and changing course. But that was a different country, and a different Netanyahu. As Israeli society has transformed profoundly, so has its attitude toward the United States. In the eyes of many Israelis in far-right and religious circles, whose representatives dominate Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the United States under Biden and the Democratic Party is not considered a dependable ally or faithful patron, but rather a nuisance, a bully, or even a danger (especially for those extremists committed to annexing the West Bank). Many right-wing Israelis have come to view Democrats through the prism of America’s polarized domestic political landscape, much like their cohorts on the American right: as politically correct, woke, and anti-Semitic. Those paying attention to the pro-Netanyahu demonstrations held in Israel in recent months would not have missed the intense level of personal animosity toward Biden and Democrats. One banner read, “Fuck Biden and fuck you for voting for him!”

This acrimony can also be seen within the Netanyahu government, whose members have hurled unprecedented vitriol and insults at the U.S. president. While Israelis have always voiced criticism of American officials, they were never this public, or nasty. Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister and leader of the settler Religious Zionism party, attacked the Biden administration for intervening in Israel’s elections, suggesting that “anyone who hugs and cooperates with anti-Israeli congresswomen should not moralize about who we can and cannot form a government with.” After Biden called out Netanyahu’s government for having the “most extreme members” he had ever seen, the national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) extremist party, responded: “We will not compromise on the Land of Israel. We will not compromise on any step. We will not compromise on any hill, on any outpost. This is ours.” Even Amichai Chikli, the Israeli minister tasked with maintaining good relations with the diaspora, had this to say to Tom Nides, the outgoing American ambassador, after his call to slow down the judicial overhaul: “I say to the American ambassador, put on the brakes yourself and mind your own business. You aren’t sovereign here.”

In the past, such rhetoric from members of the government would engender a severe rebuke, even dismissal, for fear of jeopardizing the U.S.-Israel relationship. Not anymore. Despite Netanyahu’s platitudinous assurances that relations are as strong as ever, voicing acrimony toward the United States is no longer deemed an indiscretion in Israeli politics but a badge of honor. And why would it not? The growing right-wing electoral base seems to revel in it. Public opinion surveys have found that younger Israelis are disproportionately far more right-wing than other age groups, a fact clearly reflected in Israel’s latest election results: polling suggested that while 45 percent of Religious Zionism’s voters were under thirty-four, only 27 percent of the left-wing Meretz and 22 percent of the centrist Yesh Atid’s voters came from younger age groups. Similarly, recent studies found that young Israelis consider themselves more right-wing and religious than in nearly any other Western democratic country, surpassing illiberal Hungary. And given that members of the settler and orthodox Haredi communities tend to be the most nationalist and identify or align with the far right, the fact that they also have a much higher birth rate than secular Israelis (outnumbering them by more than two to one) suggests their political power will only increase. Although the overall share of Israelis sympathetic to the United States remains high, one poll conducted on the eve of Biden’s visit to Israel last year found that a majority of Israelis don’t trust his administration to look after their interests, while a recent Pew survey found that the percentage of Israelis who have a very favorable opinion of the United States has dropped since Trump left office, from 40 percent (2019) to 31 percent (2022).

 

As Israel became stronger militarily and economically in recent decades, more and more Israelis on the political right, enamored with their country’s newfound geopolitical status, seem to have lost their sense of dependency on and deference to America. Despite receiving $3.8 billion a year in military aid from the United States—a gift from the Obama era—not to mention invaluable diplomatic cover at the United Nations, the Netanyahu government has ignored the president’s pleas to postpone its judicial overhaul and reach a compromise. Instead, it chose to ram through the controversial legislation and kowtow to extremists, revealing that it doesn’t really care anymore what the United States thinks. Policymakers in Washington might remember this the next time Israel requests American military or diplomatic aid.


Yoav Fromer is a historian of U.S.-Israel relations. He teaches at Tel Aviv University.