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.