The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most emotionally fraught issues in U.S. politics, involving the legitimate historical claims, identities and security of two peoples in the same land.
The United States and Israel have maintained strong bilateral relations based on a number of factors, including strong domestic U.S. support for Israel's security, shared strategic goals in the Middle East; and historical ties dating from the creation of Israel in 1948.
This close relationship between the U.S. and Israel has been one of the most important features of U.S. foreign policy.
Foreign aid to Israel
Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $142.3 billion in bilateral assistance and missile defense funding. Almost all U.S. bilateral aid to Israel is in the form of military assistance, although from 1971 to 2007 Israel received significant economic assistance in addition.
In 2016, the U.S. and Israeli government signed a new 10-year memorandum of understanding on military aid, covering the fiscal years 2019 to 2028. Under the terms of the memorandum, the United States pledges to provide $38 billion in military aid ($33 billion in Foreign Military Financing grants plus $5 billion in missile defense appropriations) to Israel. This memorandum replaced a previous $30 billion 10-year agreement, which ran through 2018.
Israel is the first international operator of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the U.S. Department of Defense's fifth-generation stealth aircraft, considered the most technologically advanced fighter jet ever made. To date, Israel has purchased 50 F-35s in three separate contracts.
U.S. foreign aid has been a major component in reinforcing these strong ties with Israel and many U.S. officials have long considered Israel to be a vital partner in the region, and the U.S. aid packages have reflected this calculation.
While some U.S. citizens have worked to cultivate U.S. support for Israel since its creation in 1948, in the years following the 1973 Yom Kippur War advocates for Israel have created an organized, broad-based domestic movement to foster bipartisan support in Congress for the bilateral relationship, including U.S. aid to Israel.
In 2019, Israel has been more secure and prosperous than in previous decades. Yet, despite its status as a high-income country, military power, and top global weapons exporter, Israel remains largely dependent on the United States for the procurement of certain key high-cost U.S. weapon systems, such as combat aircraft. In order to demonstrate the continued utility of U.S. aid to Israel, proponents of foreign assistance have not only emphasized Israel's defensive, qualitative needs, but also that U.S. aid is mutually beneficial for both the United States and Israel.
However, Washington has maintained its large-scale military, financial and diplomatic support for the Israeli occupation in the face of unprecedented violations of international law and human rights standards by Israeli occupation forces.
Therefore, the continued high levels of U.S. aid to Israel comes not out of concern for Israel's survival, but as a result of the U.S. desire for Israel to continue its political dominance of the Palestinians and its military dominance of the region.
Indeed, leaders of both American political parties have not called for the U.S. to help maintain a military balance between Israel and its neighbors, but for ensuring Israeli military superiority.
In addition to providing Israel with the military wherewithal to ensure its security, the United States has also used its political and diplomatic leverage, in a variety of international forums, to protect Israel from an endless array of injurious resolutions concerning the peace process, various military and diplomatic initiatives, and, of particular note, Israel's alleged nuclear capabilities.
The U.S has used its veto power more than 44 times against draft U.N. Security Council resolutions pertaining to Israel since it first began using the veto in 1970.
Over the last years, the United States has vetoed a number of Security Council resolutions critical of Israel as in June 2018 the United States voted on a Kuwaiti-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Israel's use of force against Palestinian civilians, underlining Washington's differences with friends and foes alike over the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
In December 2017, it vetoed an Egyptian-drafted resolution calling on President Donald Trump's administration to reverse its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
The United States often stands alone with Israel at the United Nations and other international forums when objections are raised over ongoing Israeli violations of international law and related concerns.
The United States has long been committed to an Israeli withdrawal from most of the territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War; it has historically backed Israel's view that U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, the bedrock document on which all peace negotiations have rested, does not necessarily require a "complete" withdrawal.
Instead, American leaders have variously spoken of Israel's need for "defensible borders," of the possibility of "minor adjustments," of Israel incorporating the "settlement blocs," and other such formulations.
Washington also shares the view that a final agreement must address Israel's security concerns and backs Israel's opposition to a large-scale return of Palestinian refugees and its demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
De facto one state
The creation of a Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967 has been the goal of the Palestinian people and seen by the international community as the best way for Israelis and Palestinians to achieve peace and to control their destinies in their own homelands.
Yet today, the two-state solution is in crisis, as many in the region and around the world no longer believe it possible while Israel continues to expand illegal settlements and entrench its occupation in the West Bank.
Israel has continued settlement of occupied territories – which has now reached around 650,000 Israeli settlers in communities in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, a serious obstacle to peace. These settlements not only threaten the viability and possibility of a two-state solution, but they are also an affront to the very idea of Palestinian self-determination.
U.S. support for a strong Israel blinded it to recognize that settlements are illegal under international law and neglected the overwhelming international consensus of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids the transfer of an occupying power's civilian population into occupied territory, which applies to the West Bank.
The U.S did not recognize settlements as an impediment to peace and did not call for a freeze of settlement activity in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, leading to critical obstacles for any fair future settlement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies seem to be preparing for a de facto one-state future, in which Israel controls in perpetuity the entire territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and the Palestinians are at best provided limited "autonomy" within a disconnected series of cantons.
The American leadership does not consider equally the needs, aspirations and rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.
In short, no matter what are the reasons for the growing U.S. support for the Israeli government, be it strategic interests, sentimental attachment, messianic theology, conservative Jewish organizations lobbying, Jewish community financial contributions or the widespread racism toward Arabs and Muslims in American society, there is a critical failure of progressive movements towards ending the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
U.S. support of the Israeli occupation has led to enormous suffering among the Palestinians and has repeatedly sabotaged the efforts of peace activists to change Israeli violent policy towards Palestinians.
The United States can give unconditional support for Israel's right to live in peace and security within its internationally recognized border, but with an equally clear determination to end the occupation, which will be the challenge for those who take seriously such basic values as freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.
The Trump era
Since Trump took office, Israelis and Palestinians peace negotiations moved further away and a two-state settlement became even more deeply entrenched while Israel is enjoying overriding control of the entire region between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, disregarding Palestinian rights.
Endless backing of the Trump administration to Israel has encouraged Netanyahu's right-wing/national-religious coalition to expand settlement activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem, to open the way to annexation of settlements, to expand the Jewish population share in Jerusalem and to strengthen the Jewish identity of the state of Israel.
The expansion of the settlements in east Jerusalem, which Israel seized along with the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war, threatens to complicate one of the thorniest issues in the conflict.
The refusal to grant permits to Palestinian residents has confined them to crowded, poorly served neighborhoods, with around half the population believed to be at risk of having their homes demolished.
Israeli Peace Now organization figures show that while Palestinians make up more than 60% of the population in east Jerusalem, they have received only 30% of the building permits issued since 1991.
The fate of the city, which is home to holy sites sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, is at the heart of the decades-old conflict. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, while Israel views the entire city as its unified capital.
Tensions have soared since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2017 and moved the U.S. Embassy there, breaking a longstanding international consensus that the city's fate should be decided in negotiations.
Trump has argued that his recognition does not preclude a final settlement. However, the Palestinians and rights groups say his unbridled support for Israel's nationalist government has given it a free pass to tighten its grip on war-won lands sought by the Palestinians.
The Peace Now group found that in the first two years of Trump's presidency, authorities approved 1,861 housing units in east Jerusalem settlements, a 60% increase from the 1,162 approved in the previous two years. The figures show that 1,081 permits for settler housing were issued in 2017 alone, the highest annual number since 2000. 1,233 housing units were approved for Palestinians in 2017 and 2018, according to Peace Now.
Besides, in March 2017, Israel's security cabinet gave its unanimous approval to begin the construction of a new settlement in the central West Bank – for the first time in 25 years.
U.S. President Donald Trump has announced a "deal of the century" to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although the plan is not revealed yet and the details remain a well-kept secret, the Palestinian leadership already rejected It., since the U.S. administration's record to date suggests that the initiative will priorities Israeli interests over Palestinian rights, ignoring fundamental principles of international law, and steer well away from the idea of two sovereign states.
Moreover, President Trump has begun to question the international consensus on final status issues as laid out in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 of December 2016. As Trump himself put it, he "took Jerusalem off the table." While he did note that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital did not prejudice a negotiated agreement on the border between Israel and the Palestinians.
All systematical steps taken by the Americans point to an anticipated outcome denying the Palestinians sovereignty over east Jerusalem and its neighborhoods by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, closing the consulate-general in east Jerusalem (which had mainly been responsible for the Palestinians) and terminating financial support for Palestinian institutions in the city.
In 2018, Washington also stopped funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The United States had been by far the largest contributor, covering about one-third of UNRWA's total budget in recent years. The background to this is that the Trump administration shares the Israeli government's view that UNRWA perpetuates the refugee problem by encouraging refugees to insist on their status and right of return rather than integrating within their current host states.
According to some press reports, Washington has also demanded that Jordan strip Palestinians living there of refugee status and instead naturalize them.
The final stage
A final peace agreement must be negotiated and agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians themselves, while the United States can, and must do more to help create the conditions under which such negotiations can succeed. This must focus on securing the Palestinians' absolute rights in their independent Palestinian state with a commitment to Israel's legitimate security concerns.
The U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine should reflect the values of inclusiveness, security, democracy, justice, and freedom. A two-state solution is the best way to support all of those values, to ensure the continued existence of the state of Israel and secure the rights of the Palestinian people in a state of their own. In the absence of that solution, however, and in a continuing situation of occupation, Palestinians have rights under international humanitarian law that must be recognized and protected.
* Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist; recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers