RSUH Experts Blog

Ilya Kravchenko: US-Israeli relations on the background of the Middle East tensions

February 5, 2016

The escalation of tension in the Middle East continues. The United States, as one of the main player in the region tries to implement its national interests there with different degree of success. As it is known, among the main challenges of the American foreign policy is the following: fight against "Islamic State", nuclear program in Iran and closure of the civil war in Syria, by way of removal of B. Asad from power. It may seem that on the background of a struggle with conflicts and crisis, the USA has distanced from Israel, the main ally in the Middle East. What is the current status of the relations between USA and Israel? What place does Israel take in the USA foreign policy strategy in the Middle East?


The USA was one of the first countries, which has recognized Israel de jure and the first country, which has made this de facto. Nevertheless, in the early years of the new state existence the USSR was the main ally of Israel. However, when Stalin died and vector of the Kremlin foreign policy in the Middle East was changed in the direction of the Arab countries support, the USA pro-Israeli position began to strengthen. And in the latter half of 50s, the White House placed a bet on Israel as its main ally in the region. Moreover, Israel, which was usually on the war-path with the neighbors, needed arming, and American arming companies have lobbied the idea to strengthen the ties between two states.


From now forth, the USA has supported Israel all the time, both in the politico-military aspect and in the economical aspect as well. Nevertheless, the attempts to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict were undertaken continually. It is the White House that was the initiator of many peace negotiations and projects on conflicts resolving. Suffice it to recall the role of Jimmy Carter in sighing of the Camp David Accords in 1979, according to which Egypt became the first Arabian country, which recognized Israel.


To understand the current situation, it is also worth saying that one of the principal problems in the American-Israel relations is construction of Jewish settlements in the "occupied territories". This, in particular, is a main contradiction between positions of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. During the early 2000s, a committee comprised four middlemen, representatives of the world community: USA, Russia, the United Nations and EU, was created. A plan of the Israel-Palestine issue regulation, based on the principle "two states for two nations" was formed. The document was called "Road map". However, contradictions between Israel and Palestine turned out to be too strong.


The problem is that actually the "Road map" has not foreseen the particular mechanism of the conflict solution, including status issues of some or other territories. As well as the Oslo Accords of 1993, both plans were of interim character. As a result, the real solution to the issue was constantly postponed and the tension degree in the conflict almost not reduced.


When it comes to the regional conflicts regulation, there are additional significant complications for Israel engagement as full participant in dialog. Despite efforts of the pragmatic Sunni Muslim states to follow the current vector of the foreign policy, directed on confrontation in Syria and growth of Iran influence, they couldn't ignore the public opinion, antagonistical for Israel.


It is worth mentioning that the degree of social animosity toward Israel in the Arab countries, which are also the main partners of the United States in the region (for example, UAE, Saudi Arabia or Qatar) is too high. So, any dialog with Israel is designated as "normalization" for them, or in other words, recognition of Israel. As the argument, the point of view is put forward, that all negotiations with Tel Aviv result in strengthening of its positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict, specifically in confrontation between Palestinian and the Jewish people.


In support of this viewpoint the opinion of Daniel Kurtzer, the former USA ambassador in Egypt and Israel, and current expert of the Brookings Institution, could be given. According to position of Kurtzer, the Arab countries are always positive in the issue of the Palestinian state formation, but they are not ready to take the new state under patronage, if such situation occurs. How the Palestinian refugee immigrants will be returned? Will the peace with Israel be reached before the solution on the Palestinian state formation? The expert predicts the worst-case scenario for all these issues, however, remaining "among the dying breed of those who believe fervently in the two-state solution".


What can help to initiate the dialog? And what role the USA could act? First of all, at the present day it is difficult to imagine any negotiations with participation of both Israel and Iran. However, the Iranian nuclear program is a fundamental issue, solution to which Israel can only find with other state regions. It is interesting, that in Israel itself the politicians, journalists and members of the scientific community, for whom the new challenges and perils in the Middle East point out the necessity of approach between Israel and some Arab States, grow in number. This could provide the opportunity for collaboration as well as for finding solution to the Palestinian- Israeli issue.


Nevertheless, based on experience of the past Arab- Israeli wars, and also on the modern reality, Israel has the following "factors of survival":

•          Arabians should never be united into one effective power;

•          only Israel can choose time, place and conditions of any armed conflict;

•          Israel has to avoid simultaneous contradiction both with external aggressor and with inner one in person of Arabian people.


After the Cold War, Israel ceased to be the only outpost against "Soviet peril". The USA placed a bet on developing and normalization of relations with Arab countries, mainly the Sunni Muslim ones. At the same time, now Israel and USA no longer need each other as much as it was before 1991, because they have entered the more complicated stage of relations, when each of them really understands what the national interests are.


There is no personal factor in the current disagreements between Israel and USA in Iran nuclear program, i.e. there is no grudge between B. Obama and B. Netanyahu, as many analysts declare. The question is that it is an issue of survival for Israel, but for the USA it is an issue of obtaining of the potential temporary partner, if not an ally.


It is worth mentioning that the recent events, news about construction of new settlements on the so-called occupied territories and continuous fighting between radical Palestinians and Israeli police and army, all this just confirms that Israel will develop own traditional policy, directed on severe upholding of the national interests. One of the myths is that Washington could easily press on Tel Aviv and force it to change its policy, rebuild it according to American interests in the region. It is notable, that based on the American public opinion polls, carried out by the analytic center PewResearchCenter, 48% of respondents consider relations between the United States and Israel as positioned at the desired level, and 29% of respondents suppose, that the White House gives insufficient support to Tel Aviv. At the same time, according to the data of the Israel Democracy Institute, 32% of respondents in Israel consider the current state of the American-Israeli relations as normal, but at that, 19% of respondents consider it as poor one.


Despite non-positive opinion of Israelites about dynamics of the American-Israeli relations, Israel stays a single real military ally for the USA in the Middle East, which could conduct the full-scale military operations individually. Under the conditions of current tension, this factor is one of the fundamental one. Thus, neither Obama nor a politician, who will supersede him as president the next year, will cease to support Israel. The fact, that the "Islamic State" militants still have not attacked Israel, testifies that probably they understand the fatality of such an action. After all, it is not a secret for them, that in contrast to the Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan armies, the armed forces of Israel are the strongest in the region, albeit not the largest one. And the allied relations with USA just add skepticism to such plans.


Nevertheless, life in the Middle East is rushing and has long ago ceased to be steady, as westerners thought earlier, especially about Arab countries. Such reactivity in society and politics of states couldn't keep out of new sources of tension. Present concentration of the world countries, the USA in particular, in fight against "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq could lead to the situation, when the "state" itself will strike in another place, attack another country. Then, the Middle East could be overwhelmed with the hugest confrontation in the recent history, if Israel turned out to be this country.


Ilya Kravchenko, Ph.D. in political science, Lecturer at the Department of International Security, History and Archives Institute, Russian State University for the Humanities.


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