In the shadow of the ISIS-K attack that killed 13 American troops in Afghanistan, Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett met President Joe Biden at the White House. The visit reaffirmed the close ties between the two countries. But deeper questions linger about the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship. After years of partnership defined by the Cold War, the pursuit of peace and fighting terrorism, the alliance needs a new driving force.
During the first few years of Israel's existence, America expected little. With the surrounding Arab countries determined to destroy the fledgling state, it was unclear whether Israel would survive, let alone serve American interests. The State Department was also ambivalent about whether an alliance with Israel would benefit the United States, given the latter's reliance on Arab states for oil.
A shift occurred in the 1950s, when the Cold War ramped up between the United States and the Soviet Union. When war erupted on the Korean Peninsula, Israel quickly expressed its support for the American effort. As the Soviets began to arm and train many Arab armies, not to mention Palestinian terrorist groups, the Israelis drew even closer to Washington.
When Israel triumphed over Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, State Department cynics began to see Israel as an asset. This impression was reinforced in 1970 when Israel intervened in the Jordanian civil war to support the king. For the three decades that followed, Israel embraced its role as a democratic, pro-Western bastion with a professional military that was both willing and able to deter Moscow's clients in the Middle East.
With the end of the Cold War in 1989, Israel's strategic value appeared to be waning. But the U.S.-Israel alliance quickly found a new focus: peace. With the formal initiation of the Oslo peace process in 1993 (secret channels were open long before that), the United States launched an intense diplomatic effort to end the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Despite some disruptions—namely attacks by the Iran-backed Hamas terrorist group—Israel largely embraced this partnership.
However, the peace process imploded in 2000, when Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat launched the "Second Intifada." This violent campaign against Israel, waged by a wide range of terrorist groups, ended prospects for continued negotiations.
Remarkably, this only strengthened the U.S.-Israel alliance. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Washington needed capable and like-minded allies in the "War on Terror." Israel, with its many years of experience defending its citizens from terrorism, was a valued partner.
America's counterterrorism campaign never officially ended, but it was certainly deemphasized during the Obama administration. Washington wanted out of the Middle East. Afghanistan and Iraq had become albatrosses. Another unwanted challenge was Iran, which was pursuing a nuclear program with obvious military dimensions.
In 2013, the Israelis grew deeply alarmed over the Obama administration's efforts to defuse the Iran nuclear crisis—most notable of which was an interim nuclear deal that yielded hundreds of millions of dollars to the anti-Israel terror sponsor. Two years later, the administration agreed to a nuclear accord that failed to block Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and yielded billions more to the regime. Bewildered by a deal that so clearly imperiled their country, some Israelis questioned whether Washington was deliberately spurning the alliance.
Relations improved during the presidency of Donald Trump, who exited the Iran deal, although new tensions surfaced as another great-power competition took shape. The United States wanted Israel to dial back its commerce with the People's Republic of China.
With Joe Biden's election last year, Israeli officials hoped for a familiar paradigm with a familiar face. However, Biden continues to explore a return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and officials in Washington continue to eye Israeli business with China suspiciously. Even counterterrorism cooperation is askew; Washington has shifted its attention to domestic terrorism, while Israel remains focused on Middle East threats.
Shared Western values have been the cornerstone of the U.S.-Israel relationship for more than 70 years. But that relationship now needs a greater sense of common purpose.
Israel may seek to demonstrate how it can support America in the looming tussle with Beijing. The Israelis can set an example for how allies can optimize their economic and diplomatic engagements with America's adversary to mitigate risk—and in fact, are already doing so, even if there is more work to be done. Israel could also serve as the eyes and ears for America in the Middle East, where China clearly seeks to build up assets.
The future could also be built on military cooperation. Israel is one of the few military powers capable of defending American interests, even when America is unwilling or unable to do so. It has played this role for years, taking out the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs and undermining the Iranian program through cyber and other means. Looking ahead, the Israelis could forge deeper alliances with some of their new peace partners in pursuit of this mission.
Given the grave circumstances surrounding Bennett's visit to the White House, now is not the right time to address these strategic challenges. But they still loom. The United States and Israel must clearly identify the interests and ideas that will sustain their alliance in the future. With foreign policy challenges mounting, the sooner the better.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.