Lee Hamilton: U.S.-Israeli partnership shows signs of strain


Israeli President Isaac Herzog celebrated the “sacred bond” between the United States and Israel when he spoke to a joint session of Congress last month.

But recent developments have tested that bond as rarely before in Israel’s 75-year history.

On July 24, Israel’s parliament approved the first phase in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to restructure the judicial system, despite mass protests that brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets. A White House statement called the vote “unfortunate.”

Israeli society is divided with Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition determined to take the country in one direction and secular, liberal Israelis pushing back. The prime minister is Israel’s chief executive. Herzog’s presidency is largely ceremonial. Critics say Netanyahu’s judicial reforms will undermine democracy by making it harder for the courts to check government power.

Meanwhile, tit-for-tat violence has escalated between Israel’s defense forces and Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza, reaching levels not seen since the last Palestinian uprising in 2005. Controversially, the government has increased Jewish settlements in Israeli-controlled Palestinian territories, settlements that the United Nations considers illegal.

The news out of the region doesn’t lend itself to optimism, but neither should we give in to pessimism. The Middle East has a complex history, and it has faced great challenges throughout history. Its people have shown themselves to be determined and resilient.

The U.S. regards Israel as a cornerstone of democracy in a region known for autocratic and repressive rulers. But Netanyahu’s government, the most far-right in Israel’s history, has strained the relationship. The ultimate political survivor, he has aligned himself with nationalist and religious parties to hold together a governing coalition despite facing charges of fraud and bribery.

The international community has long pinned its hopes for Middle East peace on a two-state solution in which Palestinians would have their own independent nation that could include East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. That idea seems dead in the water for now, but no real alternative has replaced it.

But international support has helped achieve progress in the past, and surely, it can in the future. Fifty years ago, the Geneva Conference reduced conflict between Israel and Egypt but made little progress on the Palestinian question. The 1978 Camp David Accords raised hopes but again fell short of a peaceful resolution. Then came the Oslo Accords, signed at the White House, which called for a reduction in violence and interim Palestinian governance in the West Bank and Gaza.

But Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had signed the agreement, was assassinated by a right-wing extremist. Palestinian groups stepped up terrorist attacks, producing a reaction that helped bring Netanyahu to power and helps keep him there. Progress stalled again.

For the United States, the current situation requires a diplomatic balancing act. We have a long history of support for Israel, and we provide it with $3.8 billion a year in aid, most of it military aid. We also provide significant humanitarian and civil society aid for the Palestinians. We have a stake in all these conflicts.

President Joe Biden greeted Herzog warmly when the Israeli president visited last month. He also phoned Netanyahu and invited him to the White House this year. For all the disagreements, Israel remains a key American ally, and the wider Middle East is crucial to global stability.

For the U.S., the only real option is to do whatever we can to discourage violence and promote dialogue. Crucially, we should try to help keep lines of communication open between Israelis, Palestinians and their neighbors. The saying attributed to Winston Churchill – that it’s better to jaw, jaw, than to war, war – holds especially true for this unstable and conflict-prone region.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Send comments to [email protected].

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