Opinion: After the war in Gaza, America's relationship with Israel has to change. Here's how

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as he meets with President Joe Biden, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. Biden and Netanyahu have long managed a complicated relationship. But now they find themselves running out of space to maneuver as their interests diverge and their political futures hang in the balance. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet Oct. 18 in Tel Aviv. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

In recent months, many of the U.S. headlines about the Middle East have come not from the Gaza Strip, southern Lebanon or the Red Sea but from American university campuses. The pro-Palestinian protests that rocked UCLA, USC and Columbia (among others) have generated reams of commentary about free speech, antisemitism, violence and higher education. The focus on these issues, important as they are, has obscured a deeper and possibly more significant development: The relationship between the United States and Israel is changing.

Joe Biden is hardly the first president to describe America’s relationship with Israel as “special”; such phrasing has been a tradition since John F. Kennedy’s presidency. For many years, this language was uncontroversial because Israel was popular among Americans. That popularity translated into, among other things, decades of bipartisan congressional votes for generous U.S. military and economic assistance (the latter of which ended in 2007), as well as diplomatic support for Israel at the United Nations and beyond.

The U.S. consensus on Israel began to break down in the 2010s, however. Between 2008 and 2014, Israel and Hamas fought three wars, during which about 2,500 Palestinian civilians were killed and parts of Gaza’s infrastructure were destroyed — primarily with U.S.-supplied weaponry. During this period, Israel continued to construct settlements in the West Bank — apart from a brief pause after President Obama took office in 2009 — as well as infrastructure to support them. This de facto annexation seemed intended to preclude the establishment of a Palestinian state, which became an official goal of U.S. policy in 2002.

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U.S.-Israel relations deteriorated further in 2015, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered an address to a joint session of Congress opposing the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal. Given at the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, the speech was not coordinated with the White House — a striking breach of diplomatic and political norms that many prominent Democrats have not forgotten, much less forgiven.

This period of conflict, settlement expansion and diplomatic tension coincided with the publication of two books — “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt and “The Crisis of Zionism” by Peter Beinart — that raised difficult questions about the relationship, including whether Israel had come to exercise undue influence over U.S. policymakers and whether carte-blanche support for Jerusalem remained in Washington’s interests.

This wasn’t the first time mainstream American thinkers had openly criticized Israel. But the combination of the bloodshed in Gaza, Israel’s persistent settlement-building in defiance of U.S. policy, Netanyahu’s impudence and broader public acceptance of once-fringe skepticism about the special relationship helped sow the seeds of political change. A decade later, the impact of those events is becoming evident, especially among Democrats.

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While Republican support for Israel remains rock-solid and overall public support for Israel remains strong, many Democrats are clearly reconsidering. A Gallup poll last year revealed that for the first time, more Democrats sympathized with the Palestinian cause than supported Israel. And in Congress, despite consistently lopsided votes in favor of Israel, even centrist Democrats are discussing conditioning future U.S. military aid on Israel’s conduct in the West Bank and Gaza, a once-unthinkable development.

The bloodiness of Israel’s response to the shocking Oct. 7 Hamas attack has only increased Democratic misgivings. Some lawmakers are looking for ways to punish the Israeli government.

But doing so in the middle of a war is unlikely to affect Israeli decision-making. There’s a better way for Washington to recalibrate the relationship after this crisis.

Despite the softening of support for Israel among Democrats, most U.S. officials feel the bilateral relationship is worth preserving. Cooperation and coordination between the U.S. and Israel on defense, technology and intelligence continue to benefit both countries. But the extent to which the countries share interests and values has come under greater scrutiny, and Biden’s recent decision to withhold military aid may be a harbinger of what’s to come under a less Israel-friendly president. If the relationship remains important, then something needs to change.

Given the reality of staunch Republican support for Israel, proposals to condition or even cut off aid are unrealistic. But to avoid what would likely be a nasty, polarizing and politically damaging fight over Israel in the United States, Washington and Jerusalem should agree to phase out U.S. military aid over the next 10 years. The countries could instead agree to a series of treaties and agreements guaranteeing cooperation on security, technology and intelligence.

Israel is a wealthy country. Its per capita gross domestic product was about $55,000 in 2022, more than that of some of our NATO allies. The Israelis don't need the aid as a matter of course, though Washington might continue to provide it in some form in times of crisis.

The benefits of such a shift should be obvious. No longer dependent on aid that is increasingly unpopular among Democrats, Israel would cease to be such a political football in the United States. If Washington helps ensure Israeli security through agreements rather than through billions of dollars in aid, it will likely temper the impulse among lawmakers to punish Jerusalem over real and perceived transgressions.

For the United States, meanwhile, more normal bilateral relations with Israel would likely diminish the moral costs of military assistance. That in turn would mitigate the radicalizing nature of the ties that have turned American campuses into battlegrounds.

Steven A. Cook is a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The End of Ambition: America's Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.