'Strategic interests' and lobby power:

The influences behind Biden’s support for Israel

Biden Netanyahu
President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport on October 18 in Tel Aviv [Evan Vucci/AP]
President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport on October 18 in Tel Aviv [Evan Vucci/AP]

This is the second instalment in a two-part series about how the administration of President Joe Biden developed its unequivocal support for Israel. To read part one, click here.

Washington, DC – “It’s the price of waging a war.”

Those were Joe Biden’s words in late October, when the United States president was asked about civilian casualties in war-stricken Gaza.

Thousands of Palestinians had already been killed in Israel’s bombardment of the besieged enclave and United Nations officials were urging an immediate ceasefire amid a deepening humanitarian crisis.

Yet, instead of calling on Israel to show more restraint, Biden – a committed supporter of Israel – instead cast doubt on the Gaza death toll. “I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed,” he said on October 25.

The exchange was just one of many episodes since the war began on October 7 that observers say laid bare an unparalleled level of US diplomatic and military support for Israel.

The two countries have enjoyed strong ties for decades under both Democratic and Republican presidents, and the US sends Israel at least $3.8bn in military aid each year.

But anger over US foreign policy has reached a peak amid the Gaza war as the Biden administration pushes for increased arms sales and aid to Israel, despite serious human rights concerns over its military campaign.

More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, with UN experts warning of the potential for famine and genocide.

A Palestinian man stands in front of a building destroyed during Israeli bombardment around the city of Rafah in southern Gaza [AFP]

So what explains Biden’s current stance? Al Jazeera interviewed more than a dozen experts, rights advocates and former US officials about the many factors that underpin Biden’s present-day actions and his “unwavering” backing of Israel.

“I don’t think there is a short answer to the question, ‘Why does Israel continue to enjoy exceptionalism in US foreign policy?’” said Raed Jarrar, the advocacy director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a think tank in Washington, DC.

“There is an all-of-the-above kind of answer.”

In this second instalment of a two-part series, we examine how history, domestic politics and US strategy in the Middle East influence the Biden administration’s policies. In part one, we explore Biden’s personal and professional ties to Israel and how his Gaza war policy could affect his political future.

“It is very deeply entrenched,” Jarrar said of US-Israel ties.

Israel, he said, has fundamentally built “a very well-oiled machine” – one that can withstand domestic and international pressure even amid the bloodshed in Gaza.

A ‘special relationship’ like no other

Israel weapons
An Israeli soldier holds a weapon atop an armoured personnel carrier crossing back into Israel from Gaza [Baz Ratner/Reuters]
An Israeli soldier holds a weapon atop an armoured personnel carrier crossing back into Israel from Gaza [Baz Ratner/Reuters]

Israel has garnered many superlatives in its decades-long relationship with the United States. It has been called an “ironclad” ally, an “unbreakable” friend, a “miracle”.

And it remains the “leading global recipient” of US foreign military assistance, according to Biden’s State Department.

A 2008 law mandates that the US protect Israel’s “qualitative military edge” and it has continued to be the beneficiary of “some of the most advanced military equipment in the world”.

That puts Israel in a league of its own, according to experts like Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University.

“There’s nothing like the US relationship with Israel,” Walt told Al Jazeera. “People talk about the special relationship between the United States and Great Britain. The US relationship with Israel is even closer than that.”

Walt underscored that there is “no comparable case anywhere in American foreign policy where the United States has provided such consistent and generous support – and nearly unconditionally – to a state of eight, nine million people”.

Historically, the US’s close ties with Israel have been underpinned by two main beliefs, Walt explained.

The first is that Israel functions as a “strategic asset” in a volatile part of the world. And the second is that Israel represents a “heroic democracy, the only democracy in the Middle East, [and] therefore, it shares the same values as the US”.

Questioning the US rationale

Biden meets Israeli officials, including Benny Gantz (left) and Yair Lapid (second from right), in front of an installation for Israel's Iron Dome defence system [Gil Cohen-Magen/AP]
Biden meets Israeli officials, including Benny Gantz (left) and Yair Lapid (second from right), in front of an installation for Israel's Iron Dome defence system [Gil Cohen-Magen/AP]

Critics, however, have questioned both of those narratives. Advocates have long argued that Israel is not a real democracy, due to discriminatory laws and practices that favour Jewish over Palestinian citizens of the state.

Leading rights groups such as Amnesty International have said that Israel maintains a system of control designed “to oppress and dominate Palestinians”, amounting to apartheid.

Scholars and analysts, including Fayez Hammad, a lecturer at the University of Southern California, have also questioned Israel’s value as a “strategic” US asset in the Middle East.

Hammad said he struggles to identify what advantage the US can gain from its continued support for Israel, particularly as outrage mounts over its deadly campaign in Gaza.

Thousands of protesters across the Middle East have taken to the streets since the war in Gaza began, with some demonstrating in front of US embassies. US forces have recently faced attacks in both Syria and Iraq, while Houthi rebels in Yemen have fired missiles at US ships in the Red Sea, ostensibly in support of Gaza residents.

On January 27, three US service members were killed in a drone attack in northeastern Jordan, raising fears of a wider escalation. Biden blamed the attack on “Iran-backed militant groups” and said his administration “will hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner [of] our choosing”.

Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, said that, by giving the Israeli government a “blank cheque for what happens in Gaza”, the US has opened itself up to a widening conflict that it cannot control.

“At some point, your best efforts to prevent escalation will no longer work,” he said.

According to Hammad, the longer the conflict in Gaza drags on, the weaker the Biden administration’s standing in the world becomes. Estimates indicate that, for every 100 residents in Gaza, one has been killed in the war.

“It is sort of surprising,” he said of the Biden administration’s approach. “To put it in this cruel manner: Wasn’t it enough after 10,000 or 15,000 dead?”

The White House did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for comment on the administration’s policies.

‘Never really adjusted’: Israel seen as Cold War asset

US Cold war
Analysts say the US's support for Israel is a relic of its Cold War-era military strategy [Oded Balilty/AP]
Analysts say the US's support for Israel is a relic of its Cold War-era military strategy [Oded Balilty/AP]

Hammad and other analysts said Biden’s die-hard support of Israel is a relic of the Cold War – a continuation of a belief that the US needs “strong regional allies to maintain stability and security”.

David DesRoches, formerly the US Department of Defense’s liaison to the Department of Homeland Security, said “the logic of the Cold War” paved the way for Israel’s present-day relationship with Biden.

“What we have, to a certain extent, is a system that was put in place at the height of the Cold War that has never really adjusted,” he told Al Jazeera.

Israel was founded only a year into the Cold War. According to political lore, it took only 11 minutes from the moment Israel declared its independence at midnight on May 14, 1948, for then-US President Harry Truman to recognise the nascent state.

But Washington’s early ties with the country could be described as tepid. The US, for instance, imposed an arms embargo on Israel and its Arab neighbours as they launched into the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Over the next decade, Israel received mostly humanitarian aid from the US government.

A turning point came in the 1960s, when Democratic President John F Kennedy provided Israel with a defensive missile system. His administration was the first to establish a strategic military relationship with Israel.

Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B Johnson – buoyed by his staunch personal views and distinctly pro-Israel cabinet – upped the ante. For the first time, in the late 1960s, the US provided offensive weapons to Israel, including tanks and bombers.

Golda Meir, Israel's then-foreign minister, meets with US President John F Kennedy at the White House in 1962 [AP]

That trend only escalated under the administration of Republican President Richard Nixon. He surged military aid to Israel to amounts never previously seen – a level of whole-hog support that has persisted in the decades since, setting the precedent for today’s billion-dollar aid packages.

To date, the US has provided Israel with more than $130bn “in bilateral assistance focused on addressing new and complex security threats” since 1948, according to the State Department.

In Nixon’s time, Israel was seen as an important ally to combat the Soviet Union’s influence in the Arab world. But it also took on symbolic importance to the US electorate, which was dominated by Christian voters who identified with the Jewish plight.

“The United States is concerned by more than strategic values. That’s maybe a weakness, but that’s the way we are, and there are moral issues involved here,” Nixon himself said in a 1973 interview.

He added that, even if there is no strategic value to the US-Israel relationship, no US president would let Israel “go down the tube, Democrat or Republican”.

Israel's role in the US's Middle East strategy

Strategic Asset
A protester in Amman, Jordan, holds a placard with a crossed-out picture of Biden to show support for Gaza [Alaa Al Sukhni/Reuters]
A protester in Amman, Jordan, holds a placard with a crossed-out picture of Biden to show support for Gaza [Alaa Al Sukhni/Reuters]

In the 1980s, the US went so far as to house a strategic stockpile of weapons in Israel, so its forces could have swift access if violence broke out in the region.

But even after the Cold War ended in 1991, supporters of military aid to Israel argued that the country remains a key bulwark against instability in the region, citing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and other potential threats.

Biden himself said in October that Israel’s success in Gaza was “vital for America’s national security”.

Today, Israel receives US-made military equipment including F-35 fighter jets, materials for its Iron Dome defence system and deadly Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), a guidance system for bombs.

Since the latest war in Gaza began on October 7, the State Department has also twice moved to bypass Congress to approve weapons sales to Israel, drawing questions about oversight and possible rights violations.

Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defence under US President Ronald Reagan, pointed to Iran’s budding nuclear programme as one argument for Israel’s continued strategic value.

The US “wants stability in the region, so the oil will flow. Obviously, Iran could try and stop that if they wanted to”, Korb told Al Jazeera. “And if Iran got a nuclear weapon, what would be their ability to influence the other [countries] in the area?”

For its part, Israel has led operations to undermine Iran’s nuclear programme, furthering US interests, Korb explained. That includes the 2021 killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and the regular targeting of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps generals in Syria.

Korb also said that the attacks on September 11, 2001, increased US fears about threats in the Middle East.

“Of course, after 9/11, we were concerned about people using that area of the world for attacks,” he explained, adding that Israel was seen as an important partner in the US’s subsequent “war on terror”.

But DesRoches, the former Pentagon official, warns that the US’s outsized support for Israel could backfire, no matter its role in post-9/11 politics.

“The question is still, do we gain more than we lose?” he said.

The influence of pro-Israel lobby groups

Biden is seen on large video screens as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, DC, in 2016 [Cliff Owen/AP]
Biden is seen on large video screens as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, DC, in 2016 [Cliff Owen/AP]

Military concerns and security interests are not Biden’s only motives for keeping close ties with Israel, though.

James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, points to a constellation of pro-Israel groups that have spent years “reinforcing narratives” to ensure Israel is seen as one of the US’s closest ideological partners.

“That ends up defining the turf and skewing congressional behaviour,” Zogby said.

Chief among those groups is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest, oldest and most influential pro-Israel lobbying force in the US.

The structure of the US political system allows special interest groups to wield outsized influence. They can lobby, make political contributions and spend unlimited amounts of money on advertisements and other messaging.

Other “ethnic lobbies” have had influence in the US, said Walt, the Harvard University professor. “But none have had the impact that what we call the ‘Israel lobby’ has had, particularly in the last 30, 40, 50 years.”

AIPAC Netanyahu speech
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks via a video link from Israel to the AIPAC conference in 2017 [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

AIPAC, in particular, has been extremely successful in its decades-long efforts. The group came from humble beginnings, emerging in the early 1950s as a one-man lobbying effort helmed by journalist Isaiah Kenan.

At that time, Israel was under international scrutiny. In 1953, Israeli forces responded to the killing of three Jewish citizens by killing 69 civilians in the West Bank village of Qibya.

The attack prompted an intense international backlash. Even the US backed a UN Security Council resolution to condemn the Israeli attack.

The Qibya killings “brought a lot more urgency to step up and intensify and make more organised the lobbying for Israel”, said Douglas Rossinow, a history professor at Metro University in Minnesota who has studied AIPAC’s early days.

The group embarked on damage control, helping to shore up Israel’s reputation in the wake of the killings.

Since then, AIPAC’s goals have gone beyond fundraising. Rossinow said its mission has equally been “what Israel has called – using the Hebrew term – ‘hasbara’, which means ‘explaining’”.

“It’s a kind of communications or propaganda effort to spin matters in ways favourable to the State of Israel,” Rossinow explained.

“It is a Hebrew term familiar in Israel and it was used openly within the Israeli government as something that patriotic Israelis should do but that they hoped Americans would do as well.”

For many decades, though, AIPAC avoided direct electioneering. Instead, by its own account, it used its influence to “encourage and persuade” government policy through techniques like sponsoring congressional trips to Israel.

But the group’s tack changed in 2021, when AIPAC launched its own political action committee (PAC) and a super PAC, which can raise unlimited funds.

It has used the PAC to encourage supporters to donate to candidates – and the super PAC to back or oppose candidates through advertising campaigns.

Risk during a pivotal election year

MANASSAS, VIRGINIA - JANUARY 23: A protester holds a sign reading "Stop Genocide" as they are removed from the crowd while U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at a ”Reproductive Freedom Campaign Rally" at George Mason University on January 23, 2024 in Manassas, Virginia. During the first joint rally held by the President and Vice President, Biden and Kamala Harris spoke on what they perceive as a threat to reproductive rights. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Anna Moneymaker / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
A protester holds a sign reading 'Stop genocide' as she and other demonstrators are removed from a Biden campaign rally in Virginia [Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images via AFP]
A protester holds a sign reading 'Stop Genocide' as she and other demonstrators are removed from a Biden campaign rally in Virginia [Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images via AFP]

The war in Gaza has intensified AIPAC’s endeavours. Since October 7, AIPAC has led efforts to advocate for $14bn in additional military support for Israel, a funding package that remains stalled in Congress.

It has also been a leading voice in criticising lawmakers who voiced concerns over Israel’s military campaign.

That criticism comes at a pivotal time for many elected officials. In the 2024 general elections, the presidency is up for grabs, as is every seat in the House of Representatives and 34 in the Senate.

To date, only a minority of federal lawmakers have spoken out against the war. The advocacy coalition Win Without War found that only 65 congressional officials – out of 435 members of the House and 100 senators – have called for an end to the fighting.

Biden himself is facing narrow reelection prospects as the presidential race seems likely to pit him against former Republican President Donald Trump, another staunch Israel supporter.

Despite being rivals, Biden and Trump have “remarkably similar” approaches to Israel, according to Harvard professor Walt. They both attempt to “sideline the Palestinian issue and worked to get Israel to normalise relations with some Arab countries”.

Walt, who co-authored the 2007 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, also pointed out that Biden is unlikely to cross AIPAC, as he has historically had a tight bond with the lobby.

As a senator, Biden touted his allegiance to the group in a 1992 address to AIPAC’s annual conference. “I don’t think there’s any senator who has done more fundraisers for AIPAC or gone around the country more for AIPAC,” Biden said.

“Joe Biden was a senator for 30-plus years,” Walt explained, “and he knows how this game is played. He knows what the political consequences of bucking Israel – bucking AIPAC and others – are".

In November, the news outlet Slate reported that AIPAC was expected to spend $100m in the Democratic primary season to unseat a group of progressive legislators known as “the Squad” who have been vocal in their calls for a Gaza ceasefire.

That puts AIPAC on a collision course with a shifting Democratic Party, according to Zogby of the Arab American Institute.

The party has been split between a pro-Israel old guard – of which Biden is a member – and this more progressive wing, led by Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and others.

Public opinion polls have shown that a majority of Democratic voters support calls for a ceasefire in Gaza. Zogby, therefore, considers Biden’s position “tone deaf”.

“The Democratic base is not with the $100m,” said Zogby, referring to the money AIPAC reportedly plans to spend in the primaries. “The base is with an end to the killing, more humanitarian aid and conditioning military assistance.”

Growing fault lines over Gaza signal change

White House protest
Fake body bags, representing those killed in Gaza, are displayed in front of the White House as part of a ceasefire protest [Andrew Harnik/AP]
Fake body bags, representing those killed in Gaza, are displayed in front of the White House as part of a ceasefire protest [Andrew Harnik/AP]

On a snow-covered day at the US Capitol this month, the characteristically dishevelled Senator Bernie Sanders stood on the congressional chamber's floor and introduced a measure seeking to ask a simple question.

Is Israel using US military aid as it commits human rights abuses in Gaza?

On its face, the answer seemed obvious, said William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft who focuses on the US arms industry and policy.

US arms transfers to Israel since October 7 have been “extraordinary”, Hartung explained. The Biden administration has sent bombs, artillery shells and other materials “directly relevant” to the Israeli army’s war effort.

Yet, despite growing concerns over human rights in Gaza, the Senate swiftly rejected Sanders’s proposal, which would have required the State Department to investigate US military assistance to Israel. Seventy-four lawmakers voted to douse the bill.

Hartung credited the outcome to deep-seated ideological support for Israel as well as other factors like the influence of the US arms industry. But bringing the resolution for a vote was an “accomplishment” on its own, he said.

“To actually take Israel to task in that way, it's not something Congress has really done,” said Hartung. “But obviously, there's a long way to go.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 18: Protesters hold a demonstration in support of a cease fire in Gaza in the Cannon House Office Building on October 18, 2023 in Washington, DC. Members of the Jewish Voice for Peace and the IfNotNow movement staged a rally to call for a cease fire in the Israel–Hamas war. Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by ALEX WONG / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
Protesters hold a demonstration in support of a ceasefire in Gaza in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, DC [Alex Wong/AFP]

Still, the heavy toll of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has forced more Americans to reckon with their government’s wholehearted embrace of Israel. And though the Biden administration so far has refused to meaningfully change its position, experts say US-Israel ties are nearing “a watershed moment”.

“I don't know if we're at a true inflexion point,” Walt, the Harvard professor, said. “But I do think what we are seeing is a gradual and largely inexorable shift in American attitudes.”

He added that US attitudes sometimes change imperceptibly. “Whether it's on smoking or gay rights or whatever, you see no movement for a long time and then all of a sudden, you reach a tipping point,” he said.

“It’s the old line: How did I go bankrupt? Gradually and then suddenly.”

Jarrar at Democracy for the Arab World Now added that the past three months have underscored an uncomfortable truth for the Biden administration: “The blank-cheque policy is unsustainable”.

“And at one point, the US will get to the realisation that we cannot afford to continue to subsidise another country’s economy, another country’s military fight, another country’s war,” he said.

“We don’t have to – and we can’t.”

Source: Al Jazeera