Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

It’s Time to End the ‘Special Relationship’ With Israel

The benefits of U.S. support no longer outweigh the costs.

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Members of the U.S. military carry the Israeli and U.S. flags.
Members of the U.S. military carry the Israeli and U.S. flags before the arrival of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman during an honor cordon at the U.S. Defense Department in Washington, on April 26, 2018. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The latest round of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians ended in the usual way: with a cease-fire that left Palestinians worse off and the core issues unaddressed. It also provided more evidence that the United States should no longer give Israel unconditional economic, military, and diplomatic support. The benefits of this policy are zero, and the costs are high and rising. Instead of a special relationship, the United States and Israel need a normal one.

Once upon a time, a special relationship between the United States and Israel might have been justified on moral grounds. The creation of a Jewish state was seen as an appropriate response to centuries of violent antisemitism in the Christian West, including but hardly limited to the Holocaust. The moral case was compelling, however, only if one ignored the consequences for Arabs who had lived in Palestine for many centuries and if one believed Israel to be a country that shared basic U.S. values. Here too the picture was complicated. Israel may have been “the only democracy in the Middle East,” but it was not a liberal democracy like the United States, where all religions and races are supposed to have equal rights (however imperfectly that goal has been realized). Consistent with Zionism’s core objectives, Israel privileged Jews over others by conscious design.

Today, however, decades of brutal Israeli control have demolished the moral case for unconditional U.S. support. Israeli governments of all stripes have expanded settlements, denied Palestinians legitimate political rights, treated them as second-class citizens within Israel itself, and used Israel’s superior military power to kill and terrorize residents of Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon with near impunity. Given all this, it is not surprising Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem have recently issued well-documented and convincing reports describing these various policies as a system of apartheid. The rightward drift of Israel’s domestic politics and the growing role of extremist parties in Israeli politics have done further damage to Israel’s image, including among many American Jews.

In the past, it was also possible to argue Israel was a valuable strategic asset for the United States, though its value was often overstated. During the Cold War, for example, backing Israel was an effective way to check Soviet influence in the Middle East because Israel’s military was a far superior fighting force than the armed forces of Soviet clients like Egypt or Syria. Israel also provided useful intelligence on occasion.

The Cold War has been over for 30 years, however, and unconditional support for Israel today creates more problems for Washington than it solves. Israel could do nothing to help the United States in its two wars against Iraq; indeed, the United States had to send Patriot missiles to Israel during the first Gulf War to protect it from Iraqi Scud attacks. Even if Israel deserves credit for destroying a nascent Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 or helping develop the Stuxnet virus that temporarily damaged some Iranian centrifuges, its strategic value is far less than it was during the Cold War. Moreover, the United States does not have to provide Israel with unconditional support to reap benefits such as these.

Meanwhile, the costs of the special relationship keep rising. Critics of U.S. support for Israel often start with the more than $3 billion dollars of military and economic aid Washington provides Israel every year, even though Israel is now a wealthy country whose per capita income ranks 19th in the world. There are undoubtedly better ways to spend that money, but it is a drop in the bucket for the United States, a country with a $21 trillion economy. The real costs of the special relationship are political.


As we have seen over the past week, unconditional support for Israel makes it much harder for the United States to claim the moral high ground on the world stage. The Biden administration is eager to restore the United States’ reputation and image after four years under former U.S. President Donald Trump. It wants to draw a clear distinction between the United States’ conduct and values and those of its opponents like China and Russia and, in the process, reestablish itself as the primary linchpin of a rules-based order. For this reason, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.N. Human Rights Council the administration was going to place “democracy and human rights at the center of our foreign policy.” But when the United States stands alone and vetoes three separate U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolutions, repeatedly reaffirms Israel’s “right to defend itself,” authorizes sending Israel an additional $735 million worth of weapons, and offers Palestinians only empty rhetoric about their right to live with freedom and security while supporting a two-state solution (the latter a possibility few knowledgeable people take seriously anymore), its claim to moral superiority stands exposed as hollow and hypocritical. Unsurprisingly, China was quick to slam the U.S. position, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted the United States’ inability to serve as an evenhanded broker by offering to host Israeli-Palestinian peace talks instead. It probably wasn’t a serious offer, but Beijing could hardly do worse than Washington has in recent decades.

Another enduring cost of the “special relationship” is the disproportionate foreign-policy bandwidth relations with Israel consume. Biden, Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have bigger problems to worry about than the actions of one small Middle Eastern country. Yet here the United States is again, embroiled in a crisis largely of its own making that demands its attention and takes valuable time away from dealing with climate change, China, the pandemic, Afghan disengagement, economic recovery, and a host of more weighty problems. If the United States had a normal relationship with Israel, it would get the attention it deserved but not more.

Third, unqualified support for Israel complicates other aspects of U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Negotiating a new agreement to roll back and cap Iran’s nuclear weapons potential would be far easier if the administration did not face constant opposition from the Netanyahu government, not to mention the relentless opposition of hard-line elements of the Israel lobby here in the United States. Once again, a more normal relationship with the only Middle Eastern country that actually has nuclear weapons would aid Washington’s long-standing effort to limit proliferation elsewhere.

The desire to protect Israel also forces the United States into relations with other Middle Eastern governments that make little strategic or moral sense. U.S. support for Egypt’s unsavory dictatorship (including ignoring the military coup that destroyed the country’s fledgling democracy in 2011), is partly intended to keep Egypt on good terms with Israel and opposed to Hamas. The United States has also been more willing to tolerate abuses by Saudi Arabia (including its air war in Yemen and the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi) as Riyadh’s tacit alignment with Israel has deepened.

Fourth, decades of unconditional support for Israel helped create the danger the United States has faced from terrorism. Osama bin Laden and other key al Qaeda figures were crystal clear on this point: The combination of steadfast U.S. support for Israel and Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians was one of the main reasons they decided to attack the “far enemy.” It was not the only reason, but neither was it a trivial concern. As the official 9/11 Commission Report wrote regarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), whom it described as the “principal architect” of the attack: “by his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.” The risks of terrorism would not disappear if the United States had a normal relationship with Israel, but a more even-handed and morally defensible position would help diminish the anti-U.S. attitudes that have contributed to violent extremism in recent decades.

The special relationship is also connected to the United States’ larger misadventures in the Middle East, including the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Israel did not dream up this cockamamie idea—pro-Israel neoconservatives in the United States deserve that dubious honor—and some Israeli leaders opposed the idea at first and wanted the George W. Bush administration to focus on Iran instead. But once U.S. President George W. Bush had decided that toppling then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would be the first step in a broader program of “regional transformation,” top Israeli officials—including Netanyahu and former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres—got into the act and helped sell the war to the American people. Barak and Peres wrote arguments or appeared on U.S. media to drum up support for the war, and Netanyahu went to Capitol Hill to give a similar message to Congress. Although surveys showed American Jews tended to be less supportive of the war than the public as a whole, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other organizations in the Israel lobby threw their weight behind the war party as well. The special relationship didn’t cause the war, but close connections between the two countries helped pave the way.

The special relationship—and the familiar mantra that the U.S. commitment to Israel is “unshakeable”—has also made being pro-Israel a litmus test for serving in the government and prevented any number of able Americans from contributing their talents and dedication to public life. Being ardently supportive of Israel is no barrier to a high position in government—if anything, it’s an asset—but being even mildly critical means instant trouble for any appointee. Being perceived as insufficiently “pro-Israel” can derail an appointment—as it did when veteran diplomat and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Chas W. Freeman was initially picked to head the National Intelligence Council in 2009—or it can force nominees into demeaning acts of contrition and self-denial. The recent case of Colin Kahl, whose nomination as defense undersecretary for policy barely won Senate confirmation despite his impeccable credentials, is another example of this problem, to say nothing of the many well-qualified individuals who are never even considered for appointment because transition teams do not wish to invite controversy. Let me emphasize the concern is not that such individuals were insufficiently devoted to the United States; the fear was they might not be unequivocally committed to helping a foreign country.

This unhealthy situation prevents both Democratic and Republican administrations from pursuing the best talent and adds to the growing dishonesty of U.S. public discourse. Ambitious policy wonks quickly learn not to say what they really think about Israel-related issues and instead, to mouth familiar platitudes even when they are at odds with the truth. When a conflict like the latest violence in Gaza erupts, public officials and press secretaries squirm at their podiums, trying not to say anything that might get themselves or their bosses in trouble. The danger is not that they will get caught in a lie; the real risk is they might unwittingly speak the truth. How can one have honest discussion about the repeated failures of U.S. Middle East policy when the professional consequences of challenging the orthodox view are potentially grim?


To be sure, cracks in the special relationship are beginning to show. It is easier to talk about this topic than it used to be (assuming you aren’t hoping for a job in the State or Defense Department), and courageous individuals like Peter Beinart and Nathan Thrall have helped pierce the veil of ignorance that has long surrounded these issues. Some supporters of Israel have shifted their positions in ways that give them great credit. Just last week, the New York Times published an article detailing the realities of the conflict in a way it has rarely, if ever, done before. The old cliches about the “two-state solution” and “Israel’s right to defend itself” are losing their hexing power, and even some senators and representatives have moderated their support for Israel of late—at least rhetorically. But the key question is whether and when this change in discourse will lead to real change in U.S. policy.

To call for an end to the special relationship is not to advocate for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions or an end to all U.S. support. Rather, it is to call for the United States to have a normal relationship with Israel akin to Washington’s relationships with most other countries. With a normal relationship, the United States would back Israel when it did things that are consistent with the United States’ interests and values and distance itself when Israel acted otherwise. No longer would the United States protect Israel from condemnation by the U.N. Security Council, except when Israel clearly merited such protection. No longer would U.S. officials refrain from direct, plain-spoken criticism of Israel’s apartheid system. U.S. politicians, pundits, and policymakers would be free to praise or criticize Israel’s actions—as they routinely do with other countries—without fear of losing their jobs or being buried in a chorus of politically motivated smears.

A normal relationship is not a divorce: The United States would continue to trade with Israel, and U.S. firms would still collaborate with their Israeli counterparts on any number of ventures. Americans would still visit the Holy Land, and students and academics from the two countries would continue to study and work at one another’s universities. The two governments could continue to share intelligence on some issues and consult frequently on a host of foreign-policy topics. The United States could still stand ready to come to Israel’s aid if its survival was in jeopardy as it might for other states. Washington would also remain firmly opposed to genuine antisemitism in the Arab world, in other foreign countries, and in its own backyard.

A more normal relationship could benefit Israel as well. For a long time now, the United States’ blank check of support has allowed Israel to pursue policies that have repeatedly backfired and put its long-term future in greater doubt. Foremost among them is the settlement enterprise itself and not-so-hidden desire to create a “Greater Israel” that incorporates the West Bank and confines the Palestinians to an archipelago of isolated enclaves. But one could add to the list the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that produced Hezbollah, past Israeli efforts to bolster Hamas to weaken Fatah, the lethal assault on the Gaza relief vessel Mavi Marmara in May 2010, the brutal air war against Lebanon in 2006 that made Hezbollah more popular, and the previous assaults on Gaza in 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2014. The United States’ unwillingness to make aid conditional on Israel granting the Palestinians a viable state also helped doom the Oslo peace process, squandering the best chance for a genuine two-state solution.

A more normal relationship—one where U.S. support was conditional rather than automatic—would force Israelis to reconsider their present course and do more to achieve a genuine and lasting peace. In particular, they would have to rethink the belief that Palestinians will simply disappear and begin to consider solutions that would secure the political rights of Jews and Arabs alike. A rights-based approach is no panacea and would face many obstacles, but it would be consistent with the United States’ stated values and offers more hope for the future than what Israel and the United States are doing today. Most important of all, Israel would have to begin dismantling the system of apartheid it has created over the past several decades because even the United States will find it increasingly difficult to sustain a normal relationship if that system remains intact. And none of these positions implies the slightest approval or support for Hamas, which is equally guilty of war crimes in the recent fighting.

Do I expect the changes outlined here to take place any time soon? No. Although a normal relationship with Israel—akin to the ones the United States has with almost all other countries in the world—shouldn’t be an especially controversial idea, there are still powerful interest groups defending the special relationship and plenty of politicians stuck with an outdated view of the problem. Yet change may be more likely and imminent than one might think, which is why defenders of the status quo are so quick to smear and marginalize anyone who suggests alternatives. I can remember when you could smoke on airplanes, when gay marriage was inconceivable, when Moscow ruled Eastern Europe with an iron fist, and when few people thought it odd if women or people of color were rarely seen in boardrooms, on college faculties, or in public office. Once public discussion of a topic becomes more open and honest, however, outmoded attitudes can change with surprising speed and what was once unthinkable can become possible—even normal.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.