Since the 1970s, every Israeli prime minister, leader or military chief who is awakened in the middle of the night and asked to name Israel’s most important strategic asset would immediately respond with the exact same words: The United States of America. More than Israel’s reported nuclear arsenal, more than the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), more than its vaunted air force and its Mossad and Shin Bet security agencies. Without American backing and the knowledge that it is always there for Israel, the Jewish state loses its relative advantage in the Middle East and elsewhere. If these generals and politicians are asked a follow-up question about the most sacred principle underlying that unwritten alliance between Israel and the United States, they would also not hesitate to declare, as one, the bipartisan US support of Israel.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, US President Richard Nixon and his mythological Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dispatched an urgent weapons airlift to save the IDF from the combined surprise attacks by the armies of Egypt and Syria. Since then, every thinking Israeli has known that the special relations nurtured with the leader of the free world are Israel’s most reliable insurance policy against its enemies.
The surety that every US president and Congress — whether Democratic or Republican, black or white, liberal or conservative — continue to guarantee Israel’s security and provide it with an unlimited diplomatic and defense umbrella has spawned a reciprocal Israeli commitment: Israel’s leaders have been careful to stay out of domestic US politics, distancing themselves from any involvement in American political divisions and maintaining public neutrality in the rivalry between the Democrats and Republicans.
Every Israeli prime minister visiting Washington is always careful to meet the heads of the party that is not in power; if the visit occurs during an election season, a meeting with that party’s presidential candidate is also de rigueur. The language is always vague, the manners polite and the message clear: Israel does not differentiate between a Republican or Democratic president. Israel only sees the president of the United States. Israel is the spoiled child courting both parents and being careful not to alienate either one.
Over the past decade, this policy and these principles have undergone severe erosion. The person directly responsible for this damage is Israel’s prime minister since 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu. If, at the outset, the erosion was prompted by Netanyahu’s personal mistrust of newly installed President Barack Obama, and its manifestations were largely hidden, as time went on, the vague hints turned into strident declarations. It burst into the open with a 2012 fundraising campaign for Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Mitt Romney held in Jerusalem under Netanyahu’s auspices, prompting angry reactions by Obama and his people. It peaked with an unprecedented commando-style operation during which Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress in 2015, in a bid to scuttle the nuclear agreement with Iran — without informing the president and his people in advance.
On Oct. 23, during a highly publicized three-way phone call between US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu and Sudanese Sovereign Council President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan announcing Sudan-Israel normalization, Netanyahu managed to avoid a trap set by the president over his Democratic rival. Trump asked whether Netanyahu thought “Sleepy Joe could have made this deal.” After a second of hesitation, Netanyahu responded, "Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America."
That being said, every single American is closely familiar with the tight alliance between Netanyahu and Trump, between the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem and the White House Oval Office and between Netanyahu’s patron, US casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Trump’s people.
This week marked another uptick in the total disappearance of all shame when a group of leading religious nationalist rabbis, members of Netanyahu’s political base, issued an official letter calling on Americans to vote for Trump. The detailed letter laid out all the potential threats to Israel posed by a possible Biden presidency, compared to Trump’s many positive attributes and advantages for Israel. The writers urged all Israelis who hold American citizenship to vote for Trump, arguing that for Israel it’s a question of survival.
“This type of letter could result in strategic disaster for us,” a former senior office holder in the Yesha West Bank settlement council told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “If these rabbis think that no one in Biden’s circle reads it, they are wrong. The question is what their backup plan is in case Biden is elected and not Trump. They are willing to endanger our most important strategic interests for momentary gratification.”
Strangely, none of the senior leaders of religious Zionism agreed to openly express such criticism. People preferred to speak anonymously, proving the extent of the control Netanyahu wields over his right-wing political base and his conviction that Trump is the be all and end all for Israel’s future. All that the Foreign Ministry could do was to sigh in frustration and hope that Biden’s people would ignore the letter. “As it is, bipartisan American support for Israel is not what it was in the past,” a senior Foreign Ministry official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Quite a few cracks have appeared recently in this sensitive issue and one has to be blind not to see the almost symbiotic affinity between Trump and Netanyahu. Now the rabbis have come along and added insult to injury.”
Israel is particularly concerned over the rise of elements dubbed “radical” within the Democratic Party, such as Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have been leading a new policy direction that no longer views Israel as a US strategic asset and does not feel any commitment to the historic US alliance with it. “The radical line in the Democratic Party is still on the margins and we are investing great efforts to ensure it does not spread. The problem is that rather than helping us, there are those within our own home undermining this effort,” the senior Israeli diplomat conceded. If Biden becomes the next US president, this official and his superiors will have their work cut out for them.