Do Israel and the United States Share Values?

This is a guest post by Jeremy Pressman, the Alan R. Bennett Honors Professor in political science at the University of Connecticut. You can find his previous posts here and follow him on Twitter at @djpressman.


Former Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have tried to out-do each other in their love for Israel, mentioning it more than 30 times in the third presidential debate. An observer would surely be left with the impression that the great determinant of the tightness of that alliance, at least from the U.S. side, was which party was most committed to Israel.

Yet scholars have long looked for more fundamental explanations of the American-Israeli alliance. In 1996, Michael Barnett concisely argued that shared values best explains this special relationship. It is a case of two liberal democracies joining hands. (I’ll leave aside three other possibilities: military-strategic links, domestic lobbying, and alliance restraint.) An article (gated) last year by Michael Koplow (@mkoplow) emphasized the strong support in U.S. public opinion polls for robust U.S.-Israeli relations. Koplow also highlighted an ideological base to this support: “the general public identifies with Israel as a Western-style democracy.”

It led me to wonder: what if Israel and the United States are moving further apart on values? Israel has long been expanding its settlements, the occupation continues, and illiberal legislation has grown, all seemingly undercutting an emphasis on shared U.S.-Israeli values.

In the original essay in 1996, Barnett himself worried about the settlement project:  “No doubt Israel’s presence and policies in the territories were eroding the foundations of the special relationship.” Since Barnett wrote that line, the Israeli occupation and building of settlements in the West Bank has continued apace. In 1996, Israel had 303,100 settlers in the West Bank including East Jerusalem. Today there are over half a million settlers. Millions of Palestinians live under occupation as non-citizens with limited rights.

In addition, questions are being asked about illiberal Israeli legislation and the treatment of Israel’s largest minority, its Palestinian citizens. A new survey of Israeli Jews demonstrated many with illiberal tendencies. Moreover, during much of Netanyahu’s administration, analysts have debated the importance of legislation proposed or passed to block Palestinian commemoration of the Nakba, remove Arabic as an official language, or punish Israelis who support boycotting goods from Israeli settlements. Civil society has come under attack. Israel’s Council for Higher Education pressed for reform or closure of the department of political science at Ben-Gurion University. Academic debates about whether Israel is a democracy or ethnocracy continue.

Even the new election campaign has provided some food for thought as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party merged with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. While the merger will surely affect the electoral outcome in early 2013, Peter Beinart highlighted a different result: the end of the Likud’s commitment to liberalism. (The Likud itself was originally created in part from Israel’s Liberal Party.) Beinart cited Aluf Benn of Ha’aretz who wrote that Likud will now become “a radical right-wing party, aggressive and xenophobic.” (See also this smart take on the exclusion of “the dreaded ‘Arab Parties.’”)

Now perhaps this fear for Israeli liberalism and democracy is overblown. That I can string together a survey and some anecdotal evidence could be of limited value. But what if Israeli liberal values are deeply contested?

One could argue that maybe Barnett and Koplow were just wrong about the centrality of an identity explanation, because during this same period of settlement expansion, the U.S.-Israeli military relationship has stayed quite strong. Israel has continued to receive tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance and access to advanced weapons technology. So even as Israel has pursued a policy in the West Bank that seems like a rejection of the very values that supposedly underlie the alliance, the alliance has stayed strong.

Alternatively, maybe we should turn back to other explanations such as military-strategic links, domestic lobbying, or alliance restraint.

Or, maybe we have not reached the decisive moment for evaluating the shared identity explanation. As much as people have talked about the impending conflict for Israeli Jewish society between its Jewish identity and its democratic status, the Israeli decision not to annex the West Bank has left a certain amount of ambiguity. The idea of a two-state solution, which would allow Israel to choose democracy and Jewish identity, is not dead; it is hurting badly, but a two-state solution is not impossible. (Or maybe even if it is impossible on the ground, the broader perception remains that it is still possible if less likely than 10 years ago.)

In short, maybe we are approaching but have not yet reached the moment when the shared values mantra supported by Barnett and Koplow will be truly tested. And even then, it could be that a different factor, say strategic links or a shared commitment to fight terrorism, will cement the ties were shared values to fall by the wayside. In the meantime, we can count on Obama and Romney to keep the issue in the spotlight for a few more days.

12 Responses to Do Israel and the United States Share Values?

  1. William Adler October 31, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    Perhaps the shared values are of a different kind, based on a quasi-religious motivation that involves a shared history of expansionism and a sense of destiny. The illiberal nature of much of American history would seem to fit more nicely, then, with illiberal parts of Israel’s political culture.

    • Barry November 1, 2012 at 11:37 am #

      “Perhaps the shared values are of a different kind, based on a quasi-religious motivation that involves a shared history of expansionism and a sense of destiny. The illiberal nature of much of American history would seem to fit more nicely, then, with illiberal parts of Israel’s political culture.”

      Somebody once said that the US and Israel shared a common origin myth – people who came into an empty land, killed/expelled/reservationed the original inhabitants, and then made the empty land bloom.

      And no, I’m not being accidentally logically contradictory.

  2. Anonymous October 31, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    For the record, the Haaretz article linked to here—which claims most Israelis have illiberal tendencies—misrepresents the findings of the poll. I’d advise the Professor Pressman to go read the poll itself, rather than relying on Haaretz’s misleading coverage of it. Seriously.

  3. seth edenbaum October 31, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    Peter Beinart: “I’m not asking Israel to be Utopian… I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.”

    Beinart’s not talking about what Israel became, but about what it’s always been; discrimination is at the foundation of the state.   So how can ethnic nationalism ever be liberal? If it’s liberal for Jews, why not for blacks? Why not for Germans?   The Palestinians’ situation isn’t new. Why these earnest questions now and not in 1973?  Compare the NY Times in 1947 to what it became.

    There is no text without subtext. The rhetoric of value free science elides subtext it doesn’t eliminate it.

    There are no lines separating the beliefs of the American people, politicians, and college professors. We’re all the products of our culture.  If you want to talk about the relation of American and Israeli values you have to talk about the history of immigration to this country (and specifically of Jews in the late 19th century) and about mythology, even your own.

    The Palestinians exist now more fully -more three dimensionally- in the American imagination than they ever have. They’re no longer just ideas or subject to a blind spot.  The shift is similar to the shift in the public presence of Jews, blacks, other minorities, women, and homosexuals.  People who were talked about now speak.

    Change happens. Ideas are the product of events, not as you would have it the other way around.

  4. Jeremy Pressman October 31, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

    @William It is certainly plausible, as you suggest, that shared values matter but the content of the values is something different than prior scholars have emphasized. @Anonymous I think the numbers tell a lot w/o the Ha’aretz interpretation. If you are suggesting Ha’aretz falsified the poll numbers, I’d be interested to see that substantiated. @Seth I have a lot of reactions but for the sake of brevity, let me just offer one: I see the place of Palestinian issues in the American imagination as a very different place than that of, for example, LGBT issues today in that same American imagination.

  5. seth edenbaum October 31, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    Jeremy Pressman.
    Who led the the fight for LGBT rights? Who led the fight for the rights of blacks and women? Who led the fight for the Jews? Who led the struggles against colonialism? And who leads the fight for Palestinians? The answer is the same in all cases: themselves.
    From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.
    Who were they? And why would it seem more likely that the author would be named “Pankaj Mishra” and not “John Smith”?

    Liberal Zionism is an oxymoron. There really isn’t an argument otherwise, at least logically, and yet the phrase has never gone out of use.
    Any argument beyond that point I’ll leave for elsewhere.

  6. eric November 1, 2012 at 12:36 am #

    This post contains an assumption that American values have not themselves become more illiberal over the past fifteen years which I find problematic, to say the least.

  7. Scott Monje November 1, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    I’m not sure if you mean to present the various explanations (values, lobbying, political/bureaucratic inertia, post-holocaust sympathy, news reporting that focuses on the security threat faced by one side, etc.) as mutually exclusive, but I’d just like to suggest that many or all of these may be operating at once. Thus, a congruance of values (either “real” values or values as defined, identified, and/or perceived by people in both countries) could form a basis for the relationship, which is then reinforced by lobbying, electoral interest, bureaucratic ties, and so forth. The reinforcing factors could then serve to hold the relationship together at least for a time as the underlying values begin to diverge (if that is in fact what is happening). The issue of values, however, if they continue to diverge, could build up into a potentially explosive situation behind the continuing facade of seemingly calm or even improving relations. That could then be forced into the open by some precipitating event, say if Israel were to adopt an openly fascistic state or engage in the wholesale expulsion of millions of people from occupied territories. (Again, we’re just being hypothetical here.) The next interesting question would be how the United States would respond. Would it be a uniform response, one way or the other? Or would the U.S. polity split between those who were shocked/surprised by unexpected policies on the part of a friend and those who would defend the Israeli position as necessitated by some action on the part of the Palestinians or some Palestinian faction (which, of course, also depends on what they are doing)?

  8. Mark November 1, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    I enjoy the analytical posts at this blog but this post just seems like a desperate attempt to revive Beinart’s failed book accompanied by a lot of hand waving and misdirection. The reason there is not a two state solution in place right now has nothing to do with Israel. It has everything to do with the Palestinians – they keep refusing. They refused in 1937, 1947, 2000, 2001 and 2008. As far as illiberal – Netanyahu (of whom I am not a fan) today has a more liberal position on the two-state solution than Rabin did in the 1990s.

  9. seth edenbaum November 1, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    There was no reason for the Palestinians to accept a two state solution in 1937, 1947, or later. As for 2000, here’s Gush Shalom.

    Other than that Beinart makes the best rejoinder to his own arguments in the quote I posted above: “I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.”

    That Israeli Jews are now willing to accept the cultural model of Apartheid is a function of the past unwillingness of self-described liberals (Israeli and Zionist) to admit that they followed already the cultural model of Jim Crow. That blindness has led to other irrational assumptions and actions. A new awareness is being forced upon the Zionist consciousness by outside forces: the Palestinians themselves. Globalization is expanding, Israeli society is blending, and the blending itself is causing the crisis. This is how change works its way, always. As one state or one of two, the state now defined to give preference to Jews will become a multi-ethnic democracy. The only question is how long that will take and how messy it will be.

    Exceptionalism as an intellectual model, American, Israeli or academic (economic, philosophical, or political “science”) is based on a fallacious understanding of language and history.

  10. Wonks Anonymous November 1, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    There is an ongoing review of Mishra’s book at the blog “BrownPundits”:

    Eric, look in the general social survey for attitudes toward interracial marriage or homosexuality. Dollars to donuts, attitudes have gotten more liberal.

  11. seth edenbaum November 1, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    The biggest complaint in the review seems to be that Mishra wrote an introductory text for white people, and that they’re actually reading it. In fact that’s all I’d said about the book. That it was written at all was worth noting. But in the “review” and other posts the author reminds me of Turkish secularists defending the military and bemoaning the rise of Erdogan. Trade is skyrocketing now between Turkey and Israel: corruption is down. And the danger of Turkish nationalism is only a problem because Turkey is rising. Where was it before? Similarly Iranian modernity is more broadly based now that it was under the Shah. The liberalism of the population is the result of the revolutionary government spending millions on programs that transformed the country. If the government is now trying to limit the admission of women it’s only after they topped 60% of university students. And as with education, the same for health care.

    The greatest marks left by authoritarian secularism were left by authoritarianism, not secularism. The latter has to be a choice, and as a choice secularism will win. The Iranian people are more liberal than their government, so when the government collapses, if it’s allowed to under its own weight, the odds of chaos are small. Meanwhile the US and Israel back Saudi and the Gulf monarchies, and once again partner with Salafists. I’m tired of people concern-trolling Islam and religion in general as they used to communism. We know now that Nike won the Vietnam war. Capitalism was always going to win the round.

    And you refer to attitudes toward interracial marriage or homosexuality, not class.
    We have an economy of increasing inequality and an expanding culture of masters and servants, including women called “baby sitters” who are no more than maids.