"We have Israel's back come hell or high water."- Susan Rice, U.S. National Security Adviser
Well, here goes the first post about Israel. No matter what I write here, someone will find something offense....
On Tuesday, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is addressing a joint session of Congress. In a move which has generated significant controversy, House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak without first consulting with the White House (invitations like this almost exclusively come from the President, not individual members of Congress). Netanyahu will speak about the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program (a subject already covered in this post). Basically, Netanyahu would rather pursue a (probably U.S.) military option instead of Obama's current policy of negotiations.
Why is this such a big deal and why do Americans seem to care so much about Israel's opinion over that of other regional powers? Well, much of this has to do with Israel's founding and several key events which have led to the current "unique" partnership. Though many Americans strongly believe that Israel is a truly exceptional ally in the region, the facts on the ground show that it behaves a lot more like most U.S. allies (often helpful, but occasionally unruly).
The modern state of Israel has its origins in the World Zionist Organization. In the late 1800s, this group of prominent Jewish scholars founded the political-religious ideology known as Zionism, which among other things called for the creation of a homeland for the Jews in response to anti-Semitism throughout Europe. When the British and French carved up the Middle East following the First World War, the British created the Palestinian Mandate and began allowing the controlled immigration of European Jews into the region. By the end of the Second World War, over 400,000 Jews had immigrated to Palestine, causing extreme tension with the indigenous Arab population. After a prolonged insurgency by Jewish groups against the British in 1946 and 1947, the British abandoned Palestine. The Palestinian Jews then declared their own nation, Arab neighbors invaded in response to reports of large-scale forced evacuations of Arabs, and the state of Israel quickly defeated Arab armies and won its independence. (A much lengthier summary can be found on the Middle East Policy Council educational website.)
The U.S. was one of the first countries to recognize this independence. However, the U.S.-Israeli relationship did not fully solidify until the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. When the U.S. offered to resupply Israel's army at the expense of Egypt's, it brought America and Israel much closer together (while simultaneously angering most other nations in the region causing the oil crisis of the 1970s). Since then, Israel and the United States have been close (though far from perfect) allies.
So what is this relationship founded upon besides history? Well, like any good international relationship, it all starts with guns. The United States provides Israel with 3 billion dollars in military aid every year (some of which is part of the Camp David Accords which help maintain the peace between Egypt and Israel). However, this deal has one special caveat for Israel. All other nations which receive military aid from the United States are required to spend it on American defense companies (Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, L-3 Communications....). This basically helps stimulate the U.S. economy and ensures that America controls the weapons it provides to other nations (a way to both know what everyone is armed with and know how to defeat them if necessary). Israel, however, is only required to spend 75% of this in the United States, the other 25% can be spent buying weapons from anyone (even China).
Besides weapons sales, military cooperation also highlights this interesting relationship. Like most nations in the region, Israel provides the U.S. with information on suspected terrorists or "rouge states." Some of this intelligence has been very useful (helping to stop terrorist plots) while other times it has backfired (selling secrets to other nations or exaggerating the strength of Iran's nuclear program). Still, deception isn't exactly unheard of in espionage. Looking specifically at the Israeli military, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) have provided indirect support to U.S. operations in the past. However, they have never directly fought alongside American military forces in combat. None of this makes Israel a bad ally (they still provide meaningful support for many U.S. endeavors), but it cracks the myth of Israel as a perfect, unwaveringly loyal friend in the region.
Another commonly held reason in favor of the strength of the relationship is regional stability. Israel remains one of the most stable countries in the region and does not appear in immediate danger of collapsing or being overthrown. Despite claims that Israel is constantly under threat by its Arab neighbors (now only rouge extremist factions pose any meaningful threat to the nation), Israel holds the most technologically advanced military hardware (thanks to the U.S.) and seems unlikely to attack or be attacked anytime soon. The nation is also the only nuclear armed country in the region, though neither Israel nor the U.S. will admit this. Essentially, all of this makes Israel a useful (though often unpredictable) ally for the United States.
On a more personal level, there are also strong ideological reasons for the intense backing of Israel by some Americans. Much of this is related to the concept of Christian Premillenialism. This is a (not universally held) Christian belief in the necessity of Israel to bring about an interpretation of the Christian End of Days. Essentially, some interpretations believe that they must support Israel as it holds importance in the coming of the Rapture, Armageddon, the 1000 year reign of Jesus, and all that fun stuff. Fire and brimstone aside, reminders of the Holocaust and the constant emphasis on antisemitism throughout the world are also used to generate strong support for Israel. Though the horrifying events of the Holocaust are inappropriate as a justification for the actions of a modern nation-state, reminders of the terror unleashed by Nazi Germany are occasionally brought up to stifle opposition to Israeli policy.
Finally, we come to the most influential factor in terms of public opinion: The Lobby. The America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a lobbying organization (like tobacco or energy lobbying companies) which seeks to influence American Congressmen and women to further a political agenda. This is not a conspiracy, or some nefarious shadow government. AIPAC is just like any other lobby and it is really good at what it does (attempting to influence politicians through meetings, personal connections, and campaign contributions). The only difference in this case is that AIPAC is lobbying for another nation-state rather than a company or industry. Unlike other lobbies which may have a strong partisan leaning, AIPAC has a wide influence in both the Republican and Democratic parties (though it seems to have more influence with the Republicans, possibly because of the aforementioned religious factor).
All of this might help explain why Boehner invited the Israeli PM to speak about Iran instead of inviting other regional leaders. All Middle Eastern nations have a huge stake in the Iranian nuclear talks, but Israel is often perceived as a closer ally to the United States. Strong support of Israel has been a staple of American politics for decades, and Obama has often been criticized for not doing more to show his backing of the country.
This support does however have some drawbacks in Middle East policy. Most other countries in the region have yet to establish formal diplomatic ties with Israel. This is directly tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (something which will probably require several future posts to fully unpack). The animosity between these nations is also due in large part to the difficult circumstances surrounding the creation of Israel and Israel's identity which sets itself completely apart from its Arab neighbors. The uninvited (at least by Obama) arrival of Netanyahu has complicated the balancing act between these Middle East relationships. This might help explain why the President has refused to meet with him during this trip.
In all, Netanyahu's speech is unlikely to drastically change America's current policy on Iranian negotiations. Instead, it will likely be used to generate support for Netanyahu (in his upcoming election) and the Republicans in 2016. This post should not be taken as a scathing critique of Israel and its policies (though future posts will investigate some of Israel's policy decisions). Instead, these examples should be used to help understand the complexity of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and debunk some of the myths about Israel's "unwavering" support for the United States. Like any other nation (Arab countries included), Israel has its own objectives which often contradict U.S. interests. No matter what Netanyahu says in his address to Congress, it would be best to remember that his opinions and policy ideas must be weighed against those of America's other regional allies. Ultimately, America's decision on the Iranian nuclear negotiations is hers alone.
TL;DR: Israel isn't exactly special, but it is a useful (though not always fully reliable) U.S. ally.