Public figures in Israel and the United States often say that the relationship between the two countries is grounded in a joint appreciation of democratic values. Yet Israel has become a symbolic port of call for aspiring authoritarians. Nationalist demagogues from Viktor Orban of Hungary to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to, yes, America’s own President Trump, are heartily welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu shares with this group a penchant for racist scaremongering. Following the deadly attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue by a white supremacist, an attack inspired in part by Trump’s lies about a migrant caravan approaching from Central America, Netanyahu blamed “radical Islam.” Trump, for his part, canceled the Iran nuclear deal at Netanyahu’s urging, and has rewarded Israeli expansionism by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, cutting aid to Palestinians and quietly endorsing a construction surge in Israel’s illegal settlements. Trump finds inspiration in Israel’s legalized ethnocracy, its boastful marginalization of minorities and the big wall it has built.
Does this mean the political right has hijacked the relationship between Israel and the United States?
In truth, the current state of U.S.-Israeli relations is a clear continuation of a long-established practice, supported by liberals and conservatives alike. Long before authoritarian leaders began queuing up to move their embassies to Jerusalem — and even before the triumvirate of AIPAC, neoconservatives and Christian evangelicals lionized Israel’s garrison state — both liberals and conservatives embraced Israeli militarism. Together they turned Israel into the single largest annual recipient of American foreign assistance in the late 20th century. Trump’s willingness to support Israel regardless of its treatment of the Palestinians has simply remained true to this bipartisan pattern cemented over decades.
Israel has long held a singular position in the American political imagination, particularly when it comes to questions of war and society. That fascination stemmed from Israel’s triumph over its neighbors in the June 1967 war, a victory that quadrupled the territory under its control. Americans frustrated with the fractures the Vietnam War wrought in their own society believed this victory affirmed Israel’s approach to warfare and what they perceived as a rare citizen-soldier utopia.
These American champions of Israeli exceptionalism spanned the political spectrum from Richard M. Nixon and George McGovern. They idealized Israel as a country that successfully combined regimentation and freedom, striking an impeccable balance between state authority and individual liberty. They admired Israel’s combination of a sophisticated military leadership and refined martial masculinities with freedom of expression during wartime.
But this vision was a fiction, one both Americans and Israelis constructed and upheld.
Journalist Alfred Friendly, a former managing editor of The Washington Post who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from the 1967 war, played a key role in spreading that message. Friendly told his readers how the American observer, “shattered” by the strife at home, could see in Israel a society that was “whole.” Sentimental admiration of the camaraderie and diversity of bearded Israeli troops marked his reporting. He basked with Israeli officers in a West Bank spring “in sheer bliss” and admired them as “a heterogeneous fighting collective.” To an Israeli press officer Friendly confided his happiness that his Pulitzer came for a story where the “white hats licked the black ones, as should be the case in every proper Western.”
In the New Republic, cartoonist Bill Mauldin drew a cartoon of relaxed Israeli soldiers riding a half-truck. The caption read, “It is definitely a citizens’ army.” Mauldin, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his World War II comic strip “Willie and Joe,” took his romanticized vision of the democratic, laid-back instincts of the American citizen-soldier and superimposed that image on 1960s Israel. Other American publications told of Israeli soldiers studying, dating, cooking and singing between battle tours and military training. Picturing the Israeli citizen-soldier as a combination of West Point graduate and flower child, most outlets gave little attention to attitudes of the newly occupied Palestinians.
Israeli progressives helped spread this message to American readers. Amnon Rubinstein, dean of law at Tel Aviv University, boasted in his New York Times column that Israelis effortlessly jumped from tank maneuvers to family holidays. Amos Elon, one of Israel’s most prominent journalists, cockily told American readers that Israel, unlike America, “mates solidarity with robust individualism.” To combat any negative claims about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, Israel sent Palestinian-Israelis on American speaking tours to claim that the occupation was benevolent, economically beneficial and apolitical.
In the American polity, only a few activist groups such as the Black Panthers challenged this story. Even anti-Vietnam War doves like McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, spoke with great reverence about Israel’s ability to remain “united” through a trying conflict. Forty-six years before Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, McGovern recommended it during his campaign.
Conservatives and hawks tried to claim they were Israel’s only defenders. Nixon resented Israel’s strong ties with liberals, warning Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1970 that Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, Jr. were Israel’s true friends and that “when the chips are down” liberals “will cut and run.” Nixon was wrong: although from the mid-1970s onward liberals talked more about a diplomatic compromise and expressed less excitement about Israeli militarism, they provided the country with unparalleled support without pressing Israel to curtail its expansionist policies.
The October 1973 War shattered the image of Israeli citizen-soldier utopia. While Israel rebuffed the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian surprise offensive, the shock of the attack took the gloss off Israel as a fighting society. The conflict stirred up unprecedented dissent in Israeli society. Meir resigned. Mainstream outlets in the United States still portrayed Israel sympathetically, but they cast it as a war-weary society, in need of American guidance.
That view of Israel prescribed the need for American diplomatic leadership. It also represented an American effort to reinvent their country’s mission in the post-Vietnam War world in less combative tones. Liberals initially hoped to promote a comprehensive deal that would solve the Palestinian crisis. This spirit defined Jimmy Carter’s initial attitude to the Camp David peace process from 1977 through 1979, but it was quickly abandoned in the face of Israeli defiance and Egyptian acquiescence.
In subsequent decades, liberals and conservatives have sometimes differed in their rhetoric about Israel, but not in their policy. Through decades of meandering peace processes, White House photo-ops, milestones and road maps, Americans remain unwilling to compel Israel to pay the territorial price required to achieve a meaningful agreement.
While the right branded liberals as unfaithful to Israel, and by extension, weak on security matters, in reality there was little difference between liberals and conservatives on Israel. With few exceptions, Democrats and Republicans alike proved reluctant to condition American support to Israel on a settlement freeze or withdrawal, and refused to consistently back a plan that would allow viable Palestinian statehood. Unconditional bipartisan support has allowed Israeli policymakers to increase the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank to over 400,000. It has played into the hands of the Israeli right as it demonstrated Israel could effectively defy international law with impunity.
While he has shattered norms elsewhere, Trump’s Israel policy is nothing more than a clearer manifestation of long-standing policy.
The sharpening of political differences during the Trump era provides an opportunity to break away from failed practice. Emergent voices in the Democratic Party challenge policymakers to present a genuine alternative on various fronts, including Israel. If and when progressives regain power, they cannot simply relapse to the pre-Trump norm. Daring to pressure Israel to end the occupation is an important step toward righting decades of wrong.