Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton; just a small selection of American presidents with a specific preference towards one state.1 Already since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, American presidents have been more or less in favour of this country. Even during the last presidential elections in the United States, it became clear that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were pro-Israel. How can we explain these consistent pro-Israeli American politics? (Featured Image © Lorie Shaull)
It might seem impossible, but during the last presidential elections in the United States, Clinton and Trump had at least one point on which they shared the exact same vision: the relationship between the United States and Israel. Clinton mentioned in her election programme, that Israel is one of her top priorities, due to her long friendship with the country for over thirty years. During her political career, Clinton has been committed to preserve American military assistance to Israel and she made several efforts to pass UN resolutions concerning sanctions on Iran, a big enemy of Israel. She also blocked resolutions that were in favour of Palestinian statehood.2
“Let us do the hard work necessary to keep building our friendship and reach out to the next generation of Americans and Israelis so the bonds between our nations grow even deeper and stronger.” Quote from Hillary Clinton at the AIPAC Conference 2016.
Donald Trump on the other hand, said during the beginning of his presidential campaign that he wanted to maintain a neutral position towards Israel and the Palestinians.3 As the elections drew near, however, Trump’s opinion started to shift. In the end he made clear that the relationship between the United States and Israel is ‘totally unbreakable’.4 After his election, Trump made even more pro-Israel statements.
In December, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In an unusual change of events, the United States (U.S.) did not veto the resolution and was the only country that abstained. Trump responded on Twitter by saying that: ‘We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect’ and ‘stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!’5 Besides that, Trump repeatedly said that he intends to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is a tricky move, because it would violate international law and destroy the peace process.6
“When I’m president, believe me, I will veto any attempt by the U.N. to impose its will on the Jewish state. It will be vetoed 100 percent.” Quote from Donald Trump at the AIPAC Conference 2016.
This raises some questions. How is it possible that Trump and Clinton are chalk and cheese on many issues, but share the same ideas about the relationship with Israel? This isn’t a complete new question, because already in 2006, John Mearsheimer and Stephan Walt published their book ‘The Israel Lobby’ in which they tackled this question and other related issues. According to them, it is the strong Israeli Lobby in the U.S that prevents presidential candidates from openly criticizing Israel. This results in candidates that are all in favour of Israel.
Besides that, the Lobby’s influence is not limited to elections, but it also asserts pressure on the American foreign policy in the Middle East.7 Aside from the arguments that Mearsheimer and Walt summed up in their book, there are several other arguments that can be put forward to explain the special American-Israeli relationship. However, a brief history of the American influence in the Middle East might be useful to get a better understanding of the relationship that the country has with Israel.
Historical Relationship of the U.S. and Israel
Since the establishment of Israel, the U.S appeared to have been a staunch supporter. The 14th of May 1948, when the state of Israel was created, the U.S was one of the first countries to recognize it. To be precise, it took them a mere eleven minutes.8 President Harry Truman said that it was important that a democracy was established in the Middle East, not only to benefit American security, but also for the rest of the world.9
Despite the fast recognition of this new-born state, American aid for Israel was very modest in the beginning. This was due to the fact that President Truman was a strong opponent of communism and was afraid that too much support for Israel would push the other countries in the Middle East into the camp of the Soviet Union.10
Since the establishment of Israel, the U.S appeared to have been a staunch supporter.
This changed in the 1960s, when Israel surprisingly won the Six Days War in 1967. Post- ‘67, American presidents became increasingly convinced of the strategic role that Israel could play in the worldwide struggle against communism.11 President Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger fully agreed on this and used their support for Israel as a part of a broader strategy to drive countries such as Egypt and Syria out of the Soviet camp. The American support to Israel in this period was so high that Soviet support to Egypt and Syria seemed meaningless.12
During the Cold War, the U.S benefited from their strong relationship with Israel. The Israeli Mossad provided the CIA with useful intelligence about the Soviets and it was also a way for the Americans to keep an eye on their oil interests in the Middle East. Some academics even suggest that the U.S has been supporting Israel so heavily since the Yom Kippur War in 1973 so as to prevent a new war between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries.
American policy-makers perceive a war in the Middle East as a threat to the oil flow. Taking the Realist school of thought of Mearsheimer and Walt into account, supporting Israel has been a low-cost way of keeping order in the part of the Middle East which benefited American oil interests.13
Support Among U.S. Citizens for Israel
Despite the fact that America’s interest in oil is declining in recent years,14 support for Israel persists, like we saw during the last presidential elections. Apparently, not only material interests keep the American presidents concerned about Israel. Perhaps public opinion in the United States concerning Israel can help explain this phenomenon.
In several polls conducted among American citizens, it became clear that the American population sympathizes more with Israel than they do with the Palestinian cause.15 Besides that, in the U.S. approximately 70 percent of the Americans consider themselves Christians.16Of this group, 25 percent are the evangelical Protestants17, who are in general committed to the belief that the modern state of Israel is part of God’s plan for mankind’s ultimate salvation and therefore has a special status.18 Polls also found out that twice as many white evangelical Protestants as Jews say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God.19
The evangelicals can be seen as conservative, disciplined voters who are in general committed to the Republican Party. During the last elections, they voted in large numbers for Trump.20 On the other end, as most Jews in the U.S. vote for the Democratic party, it means that there is strong support for Israel across the entire political spectrum in the United States.21
Annual AIPAC Congress
An important annual event for presidential candidates to show their support for Israel, is the policy conference of American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, shortly APAIC. This Committee was founded in 1951 and is pursuing its mission that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel needs to be strengthened, protected and promoted, in such ways that it enhances the security of both countries.22
Anyone who wields power or wants to wield power in Washington D.C., is present at this annual AIPAC conference, which can be seen as the largest gathering of the pro-Israel movement in the U.S. In 2016, more than 18.000 delegates attended this conference, with both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump being present.23 Remarkably, the only Jewish presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, refused to attend the AIPAC conference. He apparently saw little benefit in appearing at this conference which he felt was not receptive to his neutral positions on Israel.24
By attending this conference, presidential candidates can get the attention of (Jewish) donors, which might enable them to run a more extensive presidential campaign. In 2010, the so-called super Political Action Committees (PAC) were set up, which made it possible to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals. Afterwards, these sums of money can be used to advocate for or against political candidates.25
In 2011, the Democratic Party created the Priorities USA Action PAC, which supported Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. It also was the primary super PAC that supported Clinton during the last presidential campaign. 26Interesting fact: the top five largest donors of the Priorities USA Action PAC that supported Clinton, were of Jewish origin. Some names and donations to mention: Donald Sussman ($20.6 million), Haim Saban ($11.9 milion) and George Soros ($9.9 million).27
By attending this conference, presidential candidates can get the attention of donors, which might enable them to run a more extensive presidential campaign.
However, attending an AIPAC Conference doesn’t necessarily mean that a presidential candidate will receive (more) donations. Despite of Trump’s attendance at the AIPAC conference in March 2016, only 5 percent of the Jewish individual donations went to the PACs in favor of Trump/Republicans.28 In general, (orthodox) Jews who were not in favor of the way Obama was dealing with Israel, are voting for the Republican Party. Additionally, Jews who are supportive of Netanyahu’s policies in Israel, may be inclined to vote Republican, because of the fact that Netanyahu has moved to align himself with the Republicans in the U.S.29
However, for the majority of the Jews, Trump is a problematic figure. He made several anti-Semitic comments to Republican donors and there are also the issues of his racism, religious intolerance and opposition to refugees. For Jews, who can be seen as a religious minority with a history of persecution and forced displacements, these issues are very sensitive.30 Therefore, American Jews remain more likely to vote for the Democratic party.
American Political System
As explained, the support for Israel is nonetheless present on the entire political spectrum in the United States. This is important for politicians to take into account, as the American political system requires them to receive as many votes as possible. If a candidate shows that he or she is in favour of Israel, this may lead to more votes – for example from Evangelical Protestants. A good way for presidential candidates to get attention for their pro-Israel vision, is by attending the AIPAC conference as demonstrated before.
As mentioned in the beginning, Mearsheimer and Walt put forth in their book that the strong Israel Lobby in the U.S can help to explain the pro-Israeli presidents. The Americans who are pro-Israel are often member of pro-Israel organisations, but they can’t be simply seen as a single pro-Israel Lobby. For instance, not all these organisations maintain the same views on the future of Israel when it comes to the future of the Palestinians. Mearsheimer and Walt depicted such a broad Israel Lobby in their book, that the organisations that are put together in this Lobby, can eventually start lobbying against each other, because their views are not always matching.31
Simply put: in order to attract donations and to maintain their democratic legitimacy, it makes sense that presidential candidates pursue a pro-Israel vision.
It is thus very hard so speak about the Israel Lobby and therefore it is not very useful to say that this Lobby is the reason why presidential candidates are so often pro-Israel. It might be better to assume that presidential candidates and other politicians are perfectly aware of the support for Israel among American citizens, especially the evangelical Protestants and many Jews. Simply put: in order to attract donations and to maintain their democratic legitimacy, it makes sense that presidential candidates pursue a pro-Israel vision.32 Therefore it is not a surprise that both Clinton and Trump were in favour of maintaining the good relationship between Israel and the U.S.