Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

US-Israeli Diplomacy: the Road to Defending Israel’s War on Gaza

A look at US-Israeli relations through the decades sets the scene for the relentless Israeli assault on Gaza, increasingly seen as a genocide against the Palestinians. This ushers in a new chapter of collaboration to maintain Israel’s security narrative.

US-Israeli Diplomacy
An aerial view of a destroyed UNRWA school following Israeli attacks that hit Jabalia Camp in Jabalia, Gaza on December 12, 2023. The school, where thousands of displaced Palestinians took refuge, has become unusable. Mahmoud Sabbah / ANADOLU / Anadolu via AFP

Author: Ramona Wadi
Edited by: Erik Prins

Defending Israel's assault on Gaza

While the United States was previously considered as an ‘honest broker’ in the issue of Palestine, its role was called into question during the Trump administration. US President Donald Trump granted a series of controversial concessions to Israel, leading to normalisation of ties between a few Arab states and Israel. His successor Joe Biden reignited the so-called two-state solution and brought the US back into the diplomatic fold.

However, Israel’s relentless assault against Gaza following Hamas’s incursion and attacks on October 7, 2023, embarrassed the US as it insisted on defending Israel’s security narrative. Meanwhile, the war led to increasing anger worldwide, not just in the Arab street.

While the policies of Trump’s presidency were scrutinised, the scale of Israel’s attacks against Gaza shed light on US diplomacy. By January 21, 2024, Israel had killed more than 25,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 62,000, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Thousands of Palestinians were buried under the rubble. Almost the entire population has been forcibly displaced. Even those on their way to alleged ‘safe zones’ designated by Israel have been bombed, as well as the areas deemed ‘safe’.

Israel has targeted the entirety of Palestinian infrastructure, including places of respite, such as schools and hospitals. United Nations officials have described Israel’s actions as “evidence of increasing genocidal incitement”, pointing out that the intent to destroy the Palestinian population of Gaza is put into action.

A document from Israel’s Intelligence Ministry dated October 13, 2023, illustrates Israel’s objectives in Gaza. Three options for managing Gaza are listed: having the Palestinian Authority return as the governing body for Palestinians remaining in Gaza, the establishment of a new local authority; or the evacuation of the population to Egypt’s Sinai.

The latter, which would amount to ethnic cleansing, is Israel’s preference and for which, the document states, “It requires determination from the political echelon in the face of international pressure, with an emphasis on harnessing the support of the United States and additional pro-Israeli countries for the endeavour.”

As of January 2024, Biden’s only criticism of Israel was that it had started to lose international support as a result of the “indiscriminate bombing”.

This purportedly tougher stance – a mere reflection on diplomatic rhetoric – pales in comparison to the US support for Israel’s aggression. Besides the US$3.8 billion in annual financial aid to Israel, Biden also requested an additional $14.3 billion in additional assistance specifically for Israel’s bombing of Gaza. The US deployed two aircraft carriers within a week of Israel’s assault on Gaza, while also supplying 2,000 pound bunker buster bombs.

On December 6, 2023, Israel received the 200th plane with military supplies sent by the US. In providing support, the Biden administration even bypassed Congress multiple times.

At the UN, the US continues to serve as Israel’s prime defender by insisting that all resolutions focus on the Hamas attacks, thus diverting attention away from Israel’s daily massacres.

“It’s important for us that the rest of the world understand what’s at stake here and what Hamas did on the 7th of October and how Israel has a right to defend itself against those threats,” US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stated as justification for disagreeing on the wording of UNSC resolution, which the US ultimately abstained from, instead of vetoing. The resolution called for the delivery of humanitarian aid and the release of Israeli hostages, but did not call for a ceasefire.

For its supposed security, Israel has used the same logic as the US did in its “War on Terror”. The most visible similarity in terms of atrocities were the reports of Palestinian men rounded up and held at gunpoint, as well as Israeli torture of Palestinians kidnapped by the Israeli army, evoking recollections of the US atrocities in Iraq.

Rhetorically, Israeli officials have termed the Hamas attacks as “Israel’s 9/11”, thus creating a common ground with the US, and one that was the pretext of foreign intervention in the Middle East, allegedly to bring democracy to the region.

While undoubtedly brought to the fore in the context of the current Israeli aggression, the US’s ironclad commitment to Israel’s security has historical roots that can be traced back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which the UK sought approval for from the then US President Woodrow Wilson. The US was also in favour of the 1947 Partition Plan, which the Zionists lobbied for.

On May 14, 1948, mere minutes after David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the Israeli state, US President Harry Truman became the first leader to recognise Israel at the expense of the native Palestinian population that was ethnically cleansed during the Nakba.

Since then, the US role in supporting Israel’s colonisation of Palestine evolved through the decades, contributing to the obliteration of Palestinian prospects for liberation and rendering the so-called two-state solution obsolete.

Palestinians leave their village and neighbourhoods of Jerusalem to march against a Jewish settlement in Palestine, fleeing the Haganah attack, during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, January 1948. INTERCONTINENTALE / AFP

US-Israeli diplomacy - military aid

While France was initially Israel’s biggest arms supplier while the US provided economic aid, by 1962 Israel was seeking a military alliance with the US, which the then Secretary of State Dean Rusk had reservations about.

US President J.F. Kennedy capitulated to Israel’s demands and agreed to sell Hawk anti-aircraft missiles to Israel, on the condition the right of return of Palestinian refugees would be respected.

Although Israel did not meet this condition, the US-Israeli special relationship was established on the basis of that first sale. Kennedy’s stance on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons was also a contentious issue between Israel and the US; the latter insisting upon semi-annual inspections of the Dimona nuclear facilities in 1963.

Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and his successor Levi Eshkol managed to evade the request, while Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, exhibited a more lenient attitude towards Israel’s nuclear project.

After 1967, when Israel established its military occupation over the rest of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza), US policy towards Israel shifted notably. Johnson established the qualitative military edge (QME) for Israel in 1968, giving it military and technological advantage over its adversaries.

The QME was recognised by US law in 2008 and in 2011 Andrew Shapiro, then Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the US State Department, described the security commitment as “Israel’s ability to counter and defeat credible military threats from any individual state, coalition of states, or non-state actor, while sustaining minimal damages or casualties.” Shapiro contextualised the QME within the US “War on Terror” and the importance of Israel for US strategic interests in the region.

During the 1973 October War, the US backed Israel while the USSR supported Egypt and Syria. US President Richard Nixon ordered military aid to be sent to Israel: “Send everything that will fly,” he reportedly advised Henry Kissinger, who was involved in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Egypt. Kissinger’s aim was to prevent Israel from losing the war, while attempting to keep the US in low profile, so as not to antagonise the Arab states.

In 1976 under US President Gerald Ford, Israel became the biggest recipient of US military aid. During the Carter administration, military aid to Israel quadrupled to US$ 4 billion in the context of finalising a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, which became later known as the Camp David Accords.

US President Ronald Reagan prioritised relations with Israel and in 1981, the US and Israel signed their first strategic and military cooperation agreements. In 1983, following a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Reagan announced the agreement “to increase our cooperation in areas where our interests coincide, particularly in the political and military area.”

He also asked the US Congress to increase security assistance to Israel and allow the Israeli weapons industry to participate “in the production of US weapons systems with foreign military sales credit.”

In addition, the US granted Israel the status of “major non-NATO ally”, allowing it to purchase US weapons at a discounted price. According to Shamir, the designation gave Israel formal recognition as a US ally.

Aiding expansion of settlements

Between 1989 and 1993, US President George H.W. Bush clashed with Israel over its expansion of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land and the annexation of occupied East Jerusalem.

However, the diplomatic spat held no sway over the US commitment to Israel’s security narrative in light of the Gulf War. In 1991, the US and the USSR co-sponsored the Madrid Peace Conference from October 30 until November 4.

Meanwhile, the US had declined to grant Israel immediate access to loans after the latter refused to verify if previous funds were used for settlement expansion.

While the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995 were presented to the world as a breakthrough step that would lead to ‘peace’, they further entrenched Israel’s military occupation and settlement expansion. While the Accords became synonymous with the two-state paradigm, they make no mention of an independent Palestinian state but rather the creation of “an institutional basis for Palestinian self-governance”.

Signed in Washington during the Clinton Administration but negotiated through secret backchannels in Norway, the Oslo I Accord was characterised by the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s recognition of Israel, and Israel’s recognition of the PLO as the Palestinian people’s political representation.

The Oslo II Accords of 1995 established the PA’s Security Services and mapped out the occupied West Bank territory. The PA only got civil and security control over Area A. Area B would be under shared control between the PA and Israel and Area C would remain under Israeli control.

After Netanyahu’s electoral victory in 1996, Israel prioritised settlement expansion and under new negotiations between Ehud Barak and the PLO’s Yasser Arafat in 1999, Israel did not respect its commitments to hand over land to the Palestinians, who lost further control over areas A and B as designated by the Oslo II Accords.

Palestinian children flee Israeli soldiers during riots in Gaza City, on November 26, 1993. The Palestinian uprising or “intifada” (“war of stones”) against the Israeli occupation of Palestine broke out in December 1987 and lasted until 1993 when the Oslo peace accords were signed.

The Islamic Resistance Movement Hamas, which the US designated a terrorist organisation along with other Palestinian resistance factions in October 1997, opposed the Oslo Accords. Its 2006 electoral victory in the Palestinian legislative elections opened another point of contention for the US and the international community. Conditions, among which was recognition of Israel, were imposed upon Hamas in return for international recognition of its governance.

While US President Barack Obama’s legacy is mostly tied to the so-called Arab Spring, his administration was also responsible for ensuring Israel’s QME. Israel received 60 percent of the US’s Military Financing Program to ensure its military advantage. Obama granted Israel US$ 3.8 billion per year in military aid, making the deal the largest share of military aid the US ever gave to any country.

His administration tolerated Israel’s increased settlement expansion, but it abstained from Resolution 2334 in December 2016. Despite the US gesture being hailed as a diplomatic victory for Palestine, it did not lead to a halt or even a decrease in colonisation.

Trump's overt pro-Israel diplomacy

The United States had maintained its position as a purportedly ‘honest broker’ throughout the years, by assisting Israel through military aid while retaining the two-state paradigm as its diplomatic standpoint.

However, the Trump administration shifted into an overt pro-Israel stance. Trump made a series of unilateral concessions to Israel: recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

In addition, his administration suspended funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), closed the PLO’s office in Washington and downgraded the US diplomatic mission to Palestine from a separate consulate to a “Palestinian Affairs Unit” merged with the US Embassy in Israel.

In November 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration no longer regarded Israeli settlements as illegal, breaking away from the consensus it has had since 1978. Israeli settlement expansion increased considerably under Trump.

The Israeli non-governmental organisation Peace Now noted that settlement expansion is in line with the de jure annexation of the occupied West Bank, which Trump encouraged and later pretended to tone down with the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 between the UAE and Israel.

The Abraham Accords, Trump’s parting legacy, built upon two other major concessions that aided Israel’s colonisation plans. One was the attempt to eliminate the Palestinian refugee status. After halting all financial aid to UNRWA and prompting other countries to follow suit, US Senior Adviser Jared Kushner announced the US intention to eliminate Palestinian refugee claims through resettlement and integration into Arab countries. He thereby rejected the Palestinian right of return as endorsed by UN resolution 194.

“We believe that UNRWA needs to pass from the world as it is an organisation that advocates politically against Israel and perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem,” Elad Strohmayer, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, had stated in 2018.

However, UNRWA asserted many times that it operates from a neutral position. Its perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem is not an anti-Israel stance, but the organisation’s political reality of being an integral part of the humanitarian paradigm imposed upon Palestinians by the UN.

The other concession – an alternative to the two-state paradigm – was the “Deal of the Century” in January 2020 which, if implemented, would allow Israel to annex as much as 33 percent of the occupied West Bank. According to details revealed by the Jerusalem Post, Trump was willing to greenlight Israel’s annexation in return for recognising a Palestinian state on what remains of occupied Palestine.

After the signing of the Abraham Accords, the US suspended formalising Israel’s annexation of colonised Palestinian territory. The UAE had stated it would only embark on the Accords if Israel would not declare its sovereignty over the occupied West Bank. As former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman clarified, “The words that we chose was to suspend the declaration of sovereignty. It means temporarily.”

In the meantime, Israel ramped up settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. The international community only condemned it in terms of violating international law without taking into consideration the entire colonisation process.

The UN, which rhetorically opposed all of Trump’s unilateral decisions, took no issue with the Abraham Accords. It perceived the agreement as an opportunity to return to the two-state paradigm and diplomatic negotiations, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared, “I believe that, independently of the opinions that might exist about the agreement, it would be very important for Palestinians and Israelis to engage in direct negotiations for peace in the Middle East.”

Despite initial opposition to the Accords, the PA eventually capitulated to US pressure. This move cannot be seen separate from the Arab and Gulf states’ own tacit or overt justification of the Accords, despite previous adherence to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The normalisation agreements proved Netanyahu’s assertion years earlier that the Palestinian cause was no longer a priority for Arab leaders.

Besides political isolation, the PA’s existence, dependent on donor funding, makes it a weak contender for opposition to US and Israeli demands. The PA’s security services, for example, are trained by the CIA and play a major role in stifling Palestinian struggle against the occupation, at times with lethal consequences, such as the case of Basel al-Araj and Nizar Banat. In February 2023, the PA withdrew a resolution against Israeli settlement expansion in return for a financial aid package from the Biden administration.

Biden - defending occupation, deluding the status quo

US President Joe Biden, who asserted his adherence to Zionism on many occasions, even as Israel continued its bombing of Gaza, was lauded as the president bringing the US back into the international fold. Yet, since the early months of the Biden administration, little effort was made to reverse Trump’s policies and make amends to Palestinians, besides restoring a fragment of humanitarian aid for UNRWA’s budget.

Meanwhile, the international community was only concerned with the US returning to the two-state consensus. Biden’s strategy focuses on accords and keeps silent on other long-time issues in which Israel has been given a blank cheque – notably Jerusalem, settlement expansion and Palestinian refugees.

As Israel expands its construction in the occupied West Bank at the expense of Palestinians, it creates more refugees. In Gaza, forced transfer is being touted by Israeli leaders as a moral imperative that the international community can participate in.

While Trump’s aim was to ostracise the PA politically, Biden’s strategy is to rein it in, albeit not for the Palestinian people’s benefit. The Israeli coalition government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, under US pressure, made concessions to the PA, which the latter accepted. As the PA faced increasing opposition to its rule, particularly in the aftermath of Nizar Banat’s murder, Biden maintained the concept of strengthening the Authority.

Prior to the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza, the United States was preparing a possible normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, hailing it as the next step in the Abraham Accords. On behalf of the PA, the Saudis presented conditions, which include a halt to settlement construction, recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and the reopening of the PLO office in Washington and the US consulate in Jerusalem.

However, given the PA’s weak bargaining position, it remains to be seen whether these conditions will ever be respected.

As Israel’s intention to forcibly displace Palestinians from Gaza continues, and the usual trends of rebuilding Gaza on the international community and Israel’s terms are nowhere in evidence, Biden has continued supporting Israel militarily, and endorsing the excuses Netanyahu is giving for the ethnic cleansing of Gaza. The two-state paradigm, widely considered defunct, remains part of US diplomacy, at least for now.

Meanwhile Israel has altered the game plan, and possibly permanently, which will ultimately shift the US-Israeli relationship into a new phase.