Why the Special Relationship with Israel Should Make Americans Uncomfortable

In the United States, the political conversation about Israel is limited to a pretty narrow field. Want to get a sense of what can happen when you step outside of it? Then take a moment to remember the pushback that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt received after the publication of their 2006 book, The Israel Lobby (a copy of the working paper can be found here).


In the book, Mearsheimer and Walt argued that America’s unwavering and uncritical support of Israel’s policies was the result of a powerful and eclectic coalition of interest groups – ranging from Christian zionists to neoconservatives to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The authors also argued that the inability and unwillingness of American administrations to challenge Israel is hurting not just the United States, but also Israel.

As an example, they cite Israel’s controversial expansion of settlements in the West Bank. The United States’ inability to curb that expansion, the authors argue, has made peace harder to achieve in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has made both Israel and the US less secure. In a healthier relationship, American administrations could have helped to slow settlement expansion by applying pressure on Israeli governments. That pressure might have counteracted the internal forces that have led Israel down a path that has made a long-term solution harder to achieve.

You don’t have to agree with their argument. (I find it compelling – but that’s beside the point right now.) What is remarkable is the response that Mearsheimer and Walt’s academic treatment of the subject got from, among others, the influential Anti-Defamation League, which called the paper “a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control.” This as a response to an argument that laid much of the blame at the feet of Christian evangelicals.

More broadly, it was also emblematic of the vigor – if not the vitriol – with which any departure of full and unconditional support for Israel (and the policies that Israel pursues) can expect to receive. If you want to succeed in American politics, then it helps to take the line that the GOP candidates for president (save Ron Paul) took in 2012: “There should be no space between the United States and Israel, period.” For its part, the Obama administration agreed. Just ask Vice President Joe Biden:

Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the United States and Israel…There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.

He described the United States’ support for Israel as “absolute, total, unvarnished.” That sort of talk is performative – nothing in politics receives absolute, total, unvarnished support. Just ask First Amendment advocates. But the result is that substantive conversation about the tradeoffs involved in our foreign policy, as it pertains to Israel, is almost entirely crowded out.

* * *

The reasons for America’s special relationship with Israel are well-known. You can think of them as falling into three categories. The first is, roughly, that having failed to prevent the Holocaust, the West now owes Israel its support. The fact that some of Israel’s enemies call for the country to be wiped off the map only makes the association more obvious. (Exercise in paralipsis: I won’t bring up the irony that hypersensitivity to the horrors of the Holocaust has done little to disrupt genocides outside of Europe.)


Here it is, happening again in Rwanda.

The second generally falls back on the importance of Israel as a strategic ally. This argument is complicated – while Israel’s value as a military and, especially, an intelligence partner shouldn’t be minimized, it’s also the case that they are an obvious diplomatic vulnerability. Simply put, the US ends up expending a lot of political capital to provide Israel with diplomatic cover. Maybe you think Israel deserves the cover, and perhaps they do. The habit, common in international circles, of turning Israel’s failings into causes célèbres while also largely ignoring Iran’s execution of gays or Saudi Arabia’s wholesale oppression of women doesn’t smell right to a lot of Americans. Frankly, I largely agree. But if we’re counting costs and benefits, it might be the right thing to do, but it’s hard to see how it’s an asset.

There’s also a self-fulfilling element to the special relationship: American aid and support strengthens Israel and incentivizes cooperation. It would be interesting to imagine how cooperative Jordan or Turkey might be if they benefited from “absolute, total, unvarnished” support. Even so, a history of cooperation as well as overlapping interests mean that Israel and America do share a special bond.

The third argument made in favor of the Israeli alliance is, for my money, the most interesting: Israel and America share a common set of values. This argument comes in many forms, but one example is the claim that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East – the public is then left to draw its own conclusions of where our loyalties should be directed.

What should we make of this? As a democracy, Israel has some obvious failings, but it is a far better functioning democracy than any of its regional competitors. Even so, there is something here that should give us pause.

Benjamin Netenyahu, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) address the media during a joint appearance in 2009. (c) Talk Radio News Service.

Benjamin Netenyahu, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) address the media during a joint appearance in 2009. (c) Talk Radio News Service.

In the last year, there has been some movement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As a response, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has introduced a new Israeli demand: the Palestinians must recognize, not just that Israel has a right to exist, but that it has the right to exist as a Jewish state. To a lot of Americans, those twin demands seem patently obvious. In a largely overlooked part of his State of the Union address, President Obama voiced his support:

As we speak, American diplomacy is supporting Israelis and Palestinians as they engage in the difficult but necessary talks to end the conflict there; to achieve dignity and an independent state for Palestinians, and lasting peace and security for the state of Israel — a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side.

But just because it seems obvious, doesn’t mean it makes sense.

To explain the problem I have to first introduce a social science distinction between achieved and ascribed status. An achieved status is one for which an individual is recognized on the basis of something changeable. For example, being a father or a soldier or a newspaper salesman is an achieved status. An ascribed status is one conferred through social consensus and lies outside of the control of the individual: gender, race, and royalty are classic examples of ascribed statuses.


Among the most important contributions that the United States has made to modern international thought has been the emphasis on nationality as an achieved status – American identity is open to anyone who comes here. From the perspective of liberal democracy, nationality as an ascribed status is a thoroughly anachronistic position. That doesn’t make it an uncommon one – most states, you might argue, believe in ascribed nationality. Many states, particularly in the Middle East, believe in ascribed nationality on the basis of religion. Israel is among them. Americans typically view the blending of Islam and political identity with distrust but turn a blind eye to the same phenomenon in Israel.

For the United States, the principal that religious identity is not a requirement for full civic participation was laid down long ago. In Israel, that position remains controversial. At the end of the day, the problem for both the United States and Israel is the same: Israel can be either fully committed to its survival as a Jewish state or as a liberal democracy. It cannot do both.

In the modern age, there have been a number of societies that have provided robust due process and democratic rights to its citizens but that have limited full citizenship on the basis of some ascriptive identity. I won’t list them here, but I am sure that you could do so without much trouble. It may not be a disqualification for American allegiance, but it should make Americans uneasy.

Let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying that there is moral parity between the actions that Israel has taken to defend itself and the actions that Palestinian fighters have taken to pursue their goals. There is not. Nor am I denying that Israel and the United States share bedrock values, such as the importance of open and free elections, procedural checks and balances, due process, or a free press.

What I am saying is that Israelis and Americans view national identity – and, ultimately, the proper role of the nation-state – in overlapping but mutually incompatible ways. We should keep that in mind when we’re tempted to see Israel as our cultural or political facsimile in the Levant. And we shouldn’t be surprised if Israelis encourage that misunderstanding. After all, as a British Prime Minister once observed, countries have neither eternal allies nor perpetual enemies, only permanent interests.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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