American analysts and observers have long tended to view Israel and its politics in terms of Washington’s own politics—part of an over-emphasis on the centrality of the US for everybody else. At Ottomans and Zionists, Michael Koplow discusses this in some more detail regarding Benjamin Netanyahu and his rhetoric on Iran (and makes a similar argument to mine here). In this context, Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted that “Netanyahu lost premiership the first time because Israeli voters understood he had alienated Washington. Could happen again.”
Of course the relationship with the United States is Very Important for Israel: The US provides critical diplomatic support in international forums, and considerable economic and, more importantly, military aid.
But make no mistake: Israeli governments have almost never conducted their politics or foreign policies on the basis of relations with the US alone. During the Cold War, when IR scholars studied American patronage of “client” states around the world, they often concluded that in the case of Israel, it was less of a client and more of a junior partner; and that sometimes the tail would wag the dog (for an example, see this book by Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov).
The one time when the Israeli government waited for American approval led to what is probably Israel’s biggest military setback: the 1973 War. There were other factors constraining Israel, but Prime Minister Golda Meir was explicit about being sure of American support before agreeing to military action against a gathering Syrian-Egyptian threat. Henry Kissinger’s warnings to her not to preempt played no small part in her hesitation; his later instruction to let Israel get bloodied a bit during the war only underlined for Israel the problem with such reliance on Washington.
The war had disastrous consequences for Israel: a breach opened up on the Golan Heights under the Syrian offensive, the initial Arab victories undermined Israeli deterrence, the Labor government was now considered by Israelis as weak and past its prime, and the emergence of Gush Emunim and the radical settler movement received a major boost from the government’s poor performance in the lead-up to the war.
I cannot think of any other examples in which Israel did not take action because it wanted to wait for Washington’s approval first. 1956, 1967, 1981, 2006, and 2008 all point to the opposite conclusion.
Nor have Israeli publics ever punished or sanctioned Israeli leaders for causing problems in that relationship. At best, such concerns have exacerbated existing electoral problems for politicians and prime ministerial candidates.
The obvious example is Yitzhak Shamir, whose very public spat with President George H.W. Bush over settlements is often pointed to as the best example of this argument. But Shamir did not lose the 1992 election because of his mismanagement of relations with the US. These certainly underlined the problems with his government, and did make many Israelis angry.
But it was only one of many factors Israelis voted on—the most important of which included Shamir’s public insistence on spending resources on the settlements and growing economic problems. A close advisor to Shamir, Moshe Arens, notes in his autobiography that he told Shamir the focus on the settlements was hurting his and Likud’s chances in the upcoming election, including among the Russian community—the natural constituency for Likud.
Another study of the 1992 election highlights other reasons: just before the voting, a poll found that among potential voters who said they’d switch from Likud to Labor, 21.6% pointed to unemployment, 18.9% to socioeconomic conditions, 16.2% to government corruption and inefficiency, and 13.5% to appeal of Rabin as leader (Jonathan Mendilow, p. 221).
Now consider Goldberg’s claim about Bibi in 1999. To begin with, Bibi barely won the election: he beat Shimon Peres for the prime ministry 50.5% to 49.5%; and the barrage of Hamas terrorism is widely considered to be the reason that he got that razor-thin margin. In other words, his mandate from the people was, at best, already tenuous and unstable.
Bibi also failed to deliver on his promise to provide security—indeed, he actively undermined it; he signed agreements with Yasser Arafat that entailed withdrawal from land in the West Bank, after blasting Rabin for doing so; and he and his wife, Sara, faced a number of accusations of corruption.
Finally, his contender in the elections for prime minister in 1999 was Ehud Barak. Barak was relatively new on the scene, at least as a leading player (he had served in the Knesset under Rabin). He was offering new ideas, he sounded convincing, he was the most decorated soldier in Israeli history—in short, he offered a very new and different option to the bungling Netanyahu. The large mandate by which Barak won—56.8% to 43.92%—cannot be attributed to Israelis’ anger at Bibi’s relations with the US.
The historical record demonstrates time and again that while Israel prefers US tacit or overt support for its actions, it is willing to go it alone if it perceives its interests or security to be directly threatened. The one time it didn’t, in 1973, is now considered to be an anomaly that proves the wisdom of the rule.
This is not to say that relations with the US are unimportant; it is a major consideration for Israeli political and military leaders, and often comes up in their decision-making. But it is not the be-all, end-all that many Americans seem to think it is.