Why does America support Israel? This question has been answered plenty of times before, but since experts usually give the wrong answer, the right one needs to be repeated every time the Middle East’s single Western democracy gets involved in another crisis.
Claims that Israel is not a democratic nation or that political parties like the far right’s Yisrael Beiteinu are the moral equivalent of Hamas are ridiculous. Yes, Israel’s laws regarding religious liberty, freedom of speech and economic freedom have plenty of room for improvement. But the reports of groups like Human Rights Watch speak as much to Israel’s openness as they do to its repressiveness. NGOs should have the right to chronicle practices of which they disapprove, but less repressive regimes are the only ones that allow them to do so. (If only this were true in Iran or North Korea.)
None of this is reason for the United States to continue providing military support to Israel. People from Ron Paul on the right to Glenn Greenwald on the left have argued that American support for Israel isn’t worth the price that America has to pay for it, and exhibit one for them would likely be the 9/11 attacks. It's a fair enough case.
More importantly, the younger generation of Americans appears to agree. Unlike the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, millennials don’t tend to remember the Cold War and have no idea why America provides such disproportionate support when we appear to get so little out of the relationship. Even with America’s support for illiberal countries like Saudi Arabia, young Americans can understand that we get oil.
Why go far out of our way to support Israel? The short answer to this question is that we don’t. At least, not anymore than we have for other American allies. The United States gave more resources to the Soviet Union during World War II and funded a large part of France’s colonial efforts in the first half of the Vietnam War. America has close to 30,000 military personnel in South Korea and over 35,000 in Japan, but zero in Israel.
Israel may receive more support today, but this is because they are more frequently at war than allies like Great Britain, France or Canada. Any of those countries could probably rely on American support with as much confidence as Israel.
Commentators like Peter Beinart have questioned whether American support for Israel will last. After all, most young American Jews feel little affinity for Israel and don’t see defending it as a priority. But this assumes that America’s support for Israel is part of public domain. This isn’t the case. Not just among American Jews, but among Americans in general, support for Israel is probably about as much a priority as combating global warming: They like the idea but wouldn’t go to too much trouble to enforce it.
Evangelicals, the only group that supports Israel more or less uncritically, have very little influence over Washington’s military aid policies. Their support for Israel has always been more of a footnote to more fervent priorities, such as their opposition to abortion.
Support for Israel is more endemic to Washington than it is to America. It is bipartisan. It is a position which is not only grounded in the history of U.S.-Israel relations but is also grounded in the traditions of American diplomacy. Israel may not have been a member of NATO at any point during the Cold War, but its alignment with America was no less strong during those years. Walking away from this relationship would be as radical a step as walking away from NATO.
Of course, critics may say that this isn’t such a bad idea. After all, the Cold War is over. Provocations in Gaza and the West Bank are making Israel more of a liability than an asset. Wasn’t the War on Terror a costly enough price for this alliance? But this argument oversimplifies the issues. America’s support for Kuwait was probably more important than America’s support for Israel in provoking the War on Terror, but this doesn’t delegitimize either position.
America’s military support for Israel has in the past often made the difference between that country’s existence and destruction. Today, it is possible that Israel could stand without American support. Israel enjoys good relations with India and is forging bonds with countries like Russia as well. But nothing — not even millennial disillusionment with the State of Israel — suggests that the United States’s relationship to the country will be changing in either the short or long term. Israel may not be Great Britain, but the relationship is still special.