RA Posts Spring 2020

The Need for a Balanced Strategy in U.S. Foreign Policy towards Israel

By Maggie Manson
February 26th, 2020

On January 28th, 2020, U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled the Peace to Prosperity Plan: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People, also known as the Trump Peace Plan. This plan claims to provide a definitive solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and usher in a new era of U.S. foreign policy regarding the conflict. However, the lack of Palestinian leadership present in the drafting and unveiling of the plan demonstrates a clear adherence to the status quo of a one-sided U.S. approach to the conflict that heavily favors Israel. This strategy places the U.S., a, supposed mediator of the conflict, in a staunchly pro-Israel position that undermines the prospect of peace between Israel and Palestine. 

U.S. foreign policy regarding Israel and Palestine has long been defined by bipartisan pro-Israel politics and well-funded pro-Israel lobbying by groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In recent years, President Trump has doubled down on a pro-Israel stance by moving the U.S.- Israel embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, officially recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This recognition is significant because this move essentially validates Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the city that is dually claimed by Palestine and has historically been a grey zone in U.S. foreign policy regarding the region. Trump also declared that Israeli West Bank Settlements do not violate international law, in contrast the 192 other member nations to the United Nations that  have affirmed through Resolution 446 (1979) that these settlements are in violation of international law. 

There has been increased resistance by progressives within Congress to Trump’s policies on Israel, along with increased international resistance to Israeli dominance of the region. But how do international relations scholars view Trump’s policy towards Israel, and how might U.S. foreign policy on Israel evolve in the coming 2020 presidential election? First let’s take a look at how we got where we are today on Israel. 

The Israel Lobby has been highly influential in forming current U.S. foreign policy on Israel, this lobby is constructed of groups such as AIPAC and Christians United for Israel (CUFI) that invest large sums of money towards maintaining a pro-Israel U.S. foreign policy approach. These groups utilize tactics such as letter writing, organizing conferences, distributing educational information, and drafting legislation to influence the policy process regarding Israel. In previous years the efforts of the Israel Lobby have been successful in shaping the policy positions of both Democratic and Republican opinion leaders, but recently, there has been significant pushback from a minority of opinion leaders along with shifting attitudes of public opinion on the issue. However, the relevance of the Israel Lobby in the US foreign policy process cannot be understated and will likely remain significant in influencing U.S. foreign policy towards Israel for years to come. 

Here’s what foreign policy scholars have to say about President Trump’s decision to move the U.S.-Israel embassy to Jerusalem based on the results of the TRIP 2020 snap poll XII. In one question, scholars were given a list of Trump’s foreign policy actions and asked, “have the following actions had a positive effect, negative effect, or no effect on US credibility with its allies?” One such policy action was the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. 84.94% of scholars responded that this action had a negative effect on US credibility with its allies, while only 4.32% responded that it had a positive effect. 

See fifth bar from right for “Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”

Public opinion on the issue is also shifting with a general increase in more centrist views as well as pro-Palestinian viewpoints. On university campuses there has been increased pushback to pro-Israel U.S. foreign policy in the form of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and organized protests in which students voice their concerns with this Israel-favoring approach.

How might these realignments of opinion be reflected in the policy process in the coming years? There has been an increase in dissenting opinions against Trump’s Israel approach, notably by progressive congressional representatives such as Representative Ilhan Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib, who have very publicly expressed sympathy with the plight of Palestine. 

Additionally, there is promise for a more balanced approach from many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. The majority of candidates have expressed support for a two-state solution, but a few candidates have described more detailed plans. Senator Elizabeth Warren has stated that she would support a plan that placed Jerusalem as the joint capital of both Israel and Palestine and grant both states sovereignty over the city. Senator Bernie Sanders has expressed disdain with the influence that AIPAC exerts over the US foreign policy process. Sanders has also called for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders, which were agreed upon by Israel and the UN after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Pete Buttigieg has stated that he would approve of withholding US military aid towards Israel, especially in the event that they annexed the West Bank. 

All of these positions reflect a change from the current U.S. foreign policy on Israel and signal a possibility for significant change in US-Israel relations in the event of a Democratic presidency. Regardless of whether or not these ideas will actually be articulated in the form of policy change, it is clear that US opinions, of both the public and scholars, are shifting on Israel and we can expect to continue to see dissent of a pro-Israel approach. It will be interesting to see the extent to which the Israel Palestine conflict will be discussed in both the 2020 Democratic primary election as well as in the general presidential election.

 I certainly hope to see more discussion on the conflict in the coming debates and I am optimistic that there will be a shift in U.S. foreign policy that is more sympathetic towards Palestine in the coming future. As a Jewish American, this is an issue that has been at the forefront of my political consciousness for most of my life. After visiting Israel this past summer, I discovered the rich history, culture, and customs of the state of Israel, but I also recognized the suffering of the Palestinian people that much of this culture is built off of. This experience, partnered with an education that has exposed me to a more holistic view on the issue, has helped to develop my balanced view of the conflict which favors a two state solution in which Palestine would retain the West Bank and Gaza. 

I believe that President Trump’s rhetoric of conflating American Judaism with Zionism and Israeli nationality is extremely dangerous and an invalid way of garnering support for his pro-Israel policies. We cannot allow our leaders to continue to mobilize a historic narrative of the state of Israel, while turning a blind eye to the atrocities that Israel commits towards the Palestinian people. While it is important to craft arguments with cultural awareness and bring a degree sensitivity to discussions of the conflict, dissent towards U.S. foreign policy on Israel or the actions of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, and should not be blanket labeled as such. I would also argue that the influence that the Israel Lobby exerts on the US foreign policy process is detrimental to a U.S. foreign policy that is representative of public opinion on the conflict. If the US government were able to shift away from the influence of this lobby, our foreign policy would be more reflective of US interests. 

Explore more of TRIP’s Snap Poll XII data here.

Maggie Manson is a sophomore at William & Mary, majoring in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies.  She began working at TRIP in September 2019. Her research interests include Border Disputes, Colonialism, Global Development, International Security, Middle Eastern Politics, Nuclear Politics, and Political Islam. On campus Maggie is Assistant Chair of Administration for the Undergraduate Honor Council, a research assistant for Professor Grewal’s Armed Responses to Mobilization Or Revolution (ARMOR) project, and Political Correspondent for the Flat Hat student newspaper.