JERUSALEM — In life, Max Steinberg was known for his courage, athletic prowess and love of Bob Marley songs, his family and friends told an estimated 30,000 people who attended his military funeral on Wednesday. In death, Sgt. Steinberg represented more.
As a Jewish American who left the comfort and security of his Los Angeles home to fight — and, last weekend, to die — on Israel’s front lines, the 24-year-old was remembered as a bridge between Israel and the United States, an example of their uniquely close relationship. One dignitary told the crowd that Americans such as Steinberg “deepen our bonds.”
But as Secretary of State John F. Kerry presses for a lasting cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, those close bonds could prove to be both a curse and a blessing. Either way, they are reviving questions about whether the United States can be an honest broker for peace.
The United States provides Israel with $3 billion in annual aid. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which has protected Israelis from the continual barrage of rockets from Hamas militants, was created with substantial U.S. assistance. And hundreds of American “lone soldiers” such as Steinberg are fighting in Israel’s armed forces.
The partnership between the United States and Israel has its roots in American sympathy for the creation of a Jewish homeland in 1948. In the decades since, U.S. presidents from both parties have embraced what President Obama described last year as a solemn, nonnegotiable obligation to Israel’s security.
To the Israeli government, the United States is such a close ally that there is a sense of betrayal here if Washington tries to pressure Israel to accept Palestinian demands or takes actions perceived as damaging to the country. Case in point: Flight bans to and from Israel that were initiated by the United States have been viewed by many Israelis as harming domestic interests while handing Hamas a victory.
To the Palestinian militants, the United States is often seen as equally responsible for the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip and mounting Palestinian casualties because much of Israel’s firepower is American-made.
On a recent day in Gaza City, as he stood outside Shifa Hospital, Khalil Noufal pointed at the chaos of arriving ambulances.
“I want to send a message to the American people, to the American taxpayers,” said Noufal, a Hamas supporter. “Your money buys missiles, tanks, the F-16, the Apache [helicopter]. These are your bombs.”
Inside a Hamas-erected news media tent near the front entrance to the hospital, Khalid al-Batsh, a political leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group, was giving interviews. When he spoke with an American reporter, he said, “The Israelis have the most powerful army in the Middle East. Who has given them all these missiles and drones? The Americans.”
Palestinians often wonder whether Washington truly understands how much they are suffering from Israeli airstrikes.
“Since the war started, people in Gaza have heard Kerry and Obama saying every day that Israel has the right to defend itself. Sure. We understand that,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. “We understand defending yourself. But not killing all these children and destroying all our infrastructure."
Still, Abusada, like some other Palestinians, believes that Kerry could prove to have the best chance of anyone of convincing the two sides to de-escalate the conflict. They say that they have been abandoned by the Arab world — especially Egypt, whose military-backed government despises Hamas because of its kinship with the Muslim Brotherhood — and that close U.S.-Israeli ties mean that the Americans have more influence over Israel than other brokers would.
“If John Kerry is able to broker a cease-fire, with terms that Gaza can accept, then he will be a popular man,” added Abusada, who has two sons who are U.S. citizens.
At Steinberg’s funeral Wednesday, Israel’s solidarity with the United States was visible. The vast majority of the crowd did not know Steinberg but had come out after notices were posted on Facebook and other social media that called on Israelis to show “that Max was part of the family of Israel, and not a lone soldier.”
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro told the crowd that on behalf of Obama, Kerry and the American people, he brought a message of support and consolation.
“A son of the United States, a soldier of Israel, he represented the best of both of our countries,” Shapiro said of Steinberg.
Standing before the grave, Dov Lipman, an American-born member of the Israeli parliament, said: “Thank you for protecting us and showing us that an ordinary American boy from California could become an Israeli hero.”
In the gathering were some “lone soldiers” who, like Steinberg, had left the United States to join the Israeli army. Some said they came searching for themselves, and their roots.
“We’re connected to Israel,” said Tal Fitlovich, 19, from Los Angeles. “This is where I see myself ending up. This is who I want to fight for.”
“I would just like to see more support from America on Israel’s side,” she added a few moments later.
Booth reported from the Gaza Strip.