This week, Israel marks 67 years of independence and 67 years of a vibrant relationship with the United States.
Over the decades, as governments of varying political persuasions have come and gone on both sides, the friendship between the two countries has deepened. Even despite the latest tensions, it’s hard to think of many other countries with which the US has a broader or more significant and complex relationship.
At its core, this deep attachment is rooted not only in the ties between the American-Jewish community and their family and friends in Israel but also in the cultural, religious and political affinity that so many Americans of all backgrounds feel toward Israel based on a common faith tradition and shared values.
In recent years, however, the relationship has shown signs of strain – and not only on the personal level between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
One source of stress has been the effort by some to turn Israel from a point of bipartisan consensus into yet another contentious partisan wedge. Instead of accepting that US-Israel relations have benefited from remaining above the political fray, right-of-center donors and activists have in recent years tried to define being “pro-Israel” as demanding unquestioning support for the policies of a Likud-led government.
Another source of stress has been the difference in policy and worldview between the current Prime Minister of Israel and President of the United States. These differences were highlighted by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s unprecedented speech to a joint session of Congress in March, when he attempted to derail international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program – a top priority of President Obama.
And, of course, as the Israeli election wound down, the Prime Minister vowed to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, putting the two countries on fundamentally different paths on perhaps the most crucial issue that has faced Israel since the day of its birth.
These new stresses and strains have forced many to ask what supporting and loving Israel really means. Does being “pro-Israel” really mean backing every decision the Israeli government makes? Should it not mean standing up for and defending a set of ideals and principles that exist irrespective of the policies of the government of the day in either capital?
With Netanyahu poised to form the most right-of-center coalition in Israel’s history – a collection of nationalist and ultra-orthodox parties that will expand settlements, deepen the occupation and chip away at Israel’s democratic fabric – this question will take on new urgency.
An enduring and strong US-Israel relationship will be able to weather the strains of an Israeli government pulling one way and an American administration pulling in the other only if both sides remember four critical pillars on which a healthy US-Israel relationship must rest:
Firstly, values: The strength of the relationship derives from a shared commitment to promoting core values such as democracy, equality and justice for all citizens. The new coalition should think long and hard before pushing forward with initiatives that put Israel’s democratic character at risk.
Second, security: The United States is and must remain the ultimate guarantor of Israel’s security. Israel too must act in a manner that respects the critical security interests of the United States in the Middle East as well.
Third, the two-state solution: A negotiated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ensures security and peace for both peoples remains a core national interest of both countries. Taking steps away from that outcome endangers not only Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature, but its relationship with the US as well.
Lastly, political non-interference: Both sides should refrain from meddling – or even the perception of meddling – in the other’s domestic politics.
Remembering these principles does not mean that the countries must avoid differences over policy or pretend they do not exist. Friends can disagree civilly and respect each other in the process.
After 67 years, it’s clear that the US-Israel relationship can endure beyond the tenure of any one political leader from any part of the political spectrum. But preserving and nurturing that relationship does require respect for the core interests and values of each side, and a measure of civility in the manner in which differences are expressed and resolved.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and President of J Street