Gaza conflict: souring of relations unlikely to shift America’s support for Israel

Conflict creates fresh tensions in a relationship that seems impervious to challenge

A day after President Obama phoned Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu demanding an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire”, Netanyahu warned of “a lengthy campaign” against Hamas. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

A day after President Obama phoned Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu demanding an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire”, Netanyahu warned of “a lengthy campaign” against Hamas. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Thu, Jul 31, 2014, 01:00

The photographs of American troops pushing helicopters over the side of a US warship in 1975 became iconic images immortalising the country’s messy withdrawal from a despised conflict in Vietnam.

A former senior Israeli diplomat once pointed to these images when comparing US foreign policy in the Middle East, noting that the US couldn’t simply push helicopters into the sea to end involvement in the region.

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas raged on for a 23rd day, the US has been drawn ever deeper into the region in attempting to broker a ceasefire, creating fresh tensions in the relationship with one of its closest allies that seems almost impervious to challenge – Israel.

The diplomatic overtures made by US secretary of state John Kerry between Israel and Hamas earlier this week drew venomous comments from Israel and led to a marked deterioration in the traditionally strong ties between the two countries.

Kerry’s frustration with Israeli’s military strikes and the increasing civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip while attempting to broker a peace has appeared to boil over when he was caught on a live microphone 10 days ago. On July 20th, while waiting to be interviewed by Fox News on a Sunday talk show, he was caught on camera criticising Israel, while responding to the figures of the latest civilian deaths in Israel on a call with one of his advisers. “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” he said, with stinging sarcasm.

Israeli media have portrayed Kerry’s peace-building efforts as biased, seeking a truce that favoured Hamas and failing to address Israeli concerns. Columnist Ari Shavit, writing in Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Monday, said that in trying to broker a ceasefire, Kerry had “ruined everything.” He cited “very senior officials in Jerusalem” describing the diplomat’s proposal as a “strategic terrorist attack”. Israeli government sources accused Kerry of “completely capitulating” to Hamas.

Escalating of tensions

The rhetoric reflects an escalation of tensions between the countries to a level that is unusual, even after disagreements over Obama’s decision to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear programme, the US persistence to pursue a two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian divisions (something Israel rejects) and American demands that Israel halt the building of settlements in the disputed West Bank.

A day after Obama phoned Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu demanding an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire”, Netanyahu warned of “a lengthy campaign” against Hamas, exacerbating already poor relations between Obama and a man who in effect backed his political rival in the 2012 presidential election.

Unnamed US administration officials have briefed against Israel for launching a “misinformation campaign” in the attack on Kerry, spinning that a draft submitted to the Israelis for discussion – based on an earlier Egyptian suggestion they accepted – as a formal proposal.

“It’s simply not the way that partners and allies treat each other,” said state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday.

US-Israeli relations have their origins in the Cold War era when the US counted Israel as a key defender against Soviet influence in the Middle East. Israel has since become a buffer for the US against the rise of political radicalism in Arab states, including Islamic extremism.

The US was the first country to recognise Israel as a state in 1948 and the axis has been anchored by more than $118 billion in American economic support since then. Political support for Israel goes unquestioned in Congress with lawmakers approving the country’s $3 billion aid package each year “without a ripple of protest,” said Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor of international affairs.

Sharing technology

The relationship has been reciprocated and extended beyond common diplomatic interests with the two countries, sharing technological and military know-how. The US and Israel were reported to have developed the Stuxnet cyber-weapon used to target Iran’s nuclear development programme from 2008.

In each public utterance from the White House on the current crisis in Gaza, administration officials preface any comments about concerns about the rising number of civilian deaths in the conflict with support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

At the other of Pennsylvania Avenue, on Capitol Hill, support for Israel is even more pronounced. On July 17th – the same night Israel launched a ground offensive in Gaza – the Senate voted by 100 votes to zero on a resolution, proposed by a Democrat and a Republican, reaffirming support for Israel, condemning unprovoked rocket fire by Hamas and calling on the Palestinian group to cease fire.

Republican senator Ted Cruz of Texas even went so far as to blame Obama for conducting an “economic boycott” of Israel with last week’s ban on US flights into Tel Aviv over the rocket attacks.

Outside political circles, support for Israel is far from unanimous. A Pew Research poll this week found that 40 per cent of Americans say that Hamas is responsible for the violence, while 19 per cent blame Israel. Looking deeper, Democrats are more divided: the poll found that 29 per cent said Hamas was responsible and 26 per cent blamed Israel.

Younger Americans are more likely to blame Israel for the violence, the poll found, reinforcing the findings of a Gallup poll last week in which found the 18 to 29 age group said by a margin of two to one (51 per cent versus 25 per cent) that Israel’s actions were unjustified.

Images of casualties

The circulating of images of civilian casualties in Gaza on social media may in part explain the sympathies of the American youth.

The differences in support between the American people and their politicians is explained by the influence of the “Israeli lobby,” groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League which as a coalition compete with the gun lobby as one of most powerful groups pushing their interests in Washington.

Relations between the two countries may have soured a little more this week but they are unlikely to shift America’s broad support for an long-time ally with many influential supporters in the US.