Commentators are fond of saying that the US-Israel relationship is ‘complicated’. Actually, it’s not.
Let’s explain what is usually considered a major paradox: the US provides billions in military aid to Israel, enabling it to keep its enemies at bay. But at the same time its diplomats claim that they don’t know what the capital is, and the major thrust of US policy since 1973 has been to force Israel to withdraw to indefensible boundaries, despite the obvious damage to its security.
Israel’s foes in the US will say that the aid is extorted by the all-powerful “Israel lobby.” But this is nonsense — AIPAC (stupidly, in my opinion) brags about how powerful it is, but it has lost more than one important battle. And there are countervailing forces, like the Saudi lobby, which has been very effective in quietly working against Israel through its academic grants and “post-emptive bribery” of government officials (“scratch our backs today and we’ll feather your nest when you retire,” to mix metaphors) like Jimmy Carter.
There are several reasons for the military aid: one is that it is spent in the US, which is helpful to our economy. And where else can we sell weapons without worrying that they might some day be turned against our own soldiers? But the main reason is that the great majority of Americans strongly support Israel, want to see it survive, and express this to their members of Congress.
Walter Russell Mead, in a perceptive discussion of Mitt Romney’s attitude toward Israel, wrote,
…the idea that Israel needs us and that it is both our moral duty and a strategic interest to support it to the hilt has sunk so deeply into the American public mind that Governor Romney can hardly go wrong in standing up for it.
It sounds odd, but it is very true: Israel is as American as apple pie. By showing how much he loves Israel, Governor Romney is telling millions of voters that he is a solid and loyal American.
Don’t think that the other side doesn’t understand this. Public support for Israel is under siege from several directions.
Probably most important is the attempt to turn Christian believers against Israel, by falsely accusing Israel of mistreatment of Palestinian Christians — every Christmas we see a flood of media items to this effect — or by pushing anti-Jewish replacement theology. They have been much more successful with the “mainstream” Protestant churches like the Presbyterians, whose General Assembly came within a couple of votes of calling for divestment from companies that do business with Israel, than with the Evangelicals, although they are trying.
What about secular Americans and Jews? Here the approach is to attack the idea that Israel really is a democracy that shares American values. So we have Peter Beinart arguing that Israel is becoming an undemocratic theocracy which behaves in racist ways toward minorities. We have representatives of the Union for Reform Judaism suggesting that Israel is institutionalizing the misogyny of ultra-orthodox extremists. There are even distorted analogies drawn between the Palestinian movement and the US civil rights movement!
The really interesting question is not why average Americans support Israel, but rather why our Administration and State Department continue to implement policies that are inimical to its survival, despite the clearly expressed will of the people.