On May 13th, 1977, President Jimmy Carter said ‘We have a special relationship with Israel. It’s absolutely crucial that no one in our country or around the world ever doubt that our number one commitment in the Middle East is to protect the right of Israel to exist, to exist permanently, and to exist in peace’.
The special relationship of which Carter spoke is well documented, with the United States and Israel enjoying strong and extensive political, economic and military ties in the latter half of the 20th century.
With the relationship between the US and Israel reaching new heights over recent years, there have been suggestions that Israel's sole foreign policy ally either is or should be the US. Such suggestions, however, are incorrect.
Firstly, one must look back at the history of the Israel-US relationship.
The foreign policy ties has not always been as strong as they have been in recent years, with the relationship being minimal in the years following Israel’s creation in 1948.
During America’s first post-war administration, President Harry Truman saw Israel and its conflict with Palestine and the wider Arab world as ‘a low priority nuisance’ that was not worthy of political or economic engagement. Subsequent administrations also adopted this view, deliberately withholding support for Israel as they feared public support would alienate Arab states, with such states being perceived as key regional buffers against the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War.
The US placed high importance on their attempts to cohere the Arab states into some form of anti-Soviet alliance, a strategy that was untenable if they had extensive diplomatic ties with Israel. When foreign policy interactions did occur between Israel and the US, they were not always positive. For example, in 1953 there were diplomatic disagreements over Israel’s National Water Carrier project at the B’not Yaacov Bridge, with more significant tensions erupting after the 1956-57 Suez-Sinai campaign, both instances resulted in the US imposing economic sanctions on Israel and, in the latter instance, threats of Israel’s expulsion from the United Nations.
This lack of diplomatic cooperation was exacerbated by Israel’s lack of overt support for the US in the early stages of the Cold War. In November 1960, Israel’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Golda Meir noted how Israel was geopolitically ‘non-aligned’ as they ‘pursued an independent foreign policy’ that was detached from the ongoing US-Soviet Union rivalry. This lack of a robust diplomatic relationship was again on display prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, as the head of Mossad, Meir Amit, travelled to Washington to assess the US’ likely response to the war. Despite the US not explicitly instructing the Israelis not to go to war, they were told that ‘if it acted alone, it would be alone’.
Further acrimony over foreign policy decisions could be seen in June 1981, after Israeli intelligence indicated that Iraq could be 5-10 years away from developing nuclear weapons, Israel launched Operation Opera, unilaterally destroying the Osiraq nuclear reactor despite US opposition to the move. Indeed, relations in the realm of foreign policy were still not extensive by 1990, when the US explicitly instructed Israel to refrain from involving itself in the intervention against Iraq in Kuwait, as the US saw Israel as a clear strategic liability.
In more recent times, there remains little evidence that Israel’s ties with the US are extensive enough to warrant the assertion that it has no foreign policy beyond its ties with the US. Under President Barack Obama, the US decreased its attention and support towards Israel, evidenced in his first year in office when he visited Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, but not Israel.
Relations further soured after disagreements over Israel’s maintenance of settlements and actions of the Israeli military that resulted in the loss of Palestinian lives. This lack of a constructive and beneficial foreign policy relationship was exacerbated by the US’ wider pivot away from the Middle East, undermining the ability for Israel to have extensive diplomatic ties with the US, let alone exclusive ties.
It is important to probe Israel's wider foreign policy goals as well. Europe is prime example.
On a bilateral level, Israel has enjoyed strong diplomatic relations with France and West Germany, both of which provided political and military support prior to the administration of Richard Nixon, when the US was refusing extensive support. In fact, it was the US’ decision in 1955 that it did not want to project an image to the Arab states that it was Israel’s protector that prompted Israel to develop their alliance with France which was ‘consummated in the Sinai Campaign’.
Israel’s relations with France improved under President Nicolas Sarkozy as he insisted that he would not meet with ‘any world leader who does not recognise Israel’s right to exist’. However, this relationship fluctuated under the presidencies of Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron; they continued to provide security assurances to Israel whilst condemning the actions of the Israeli military. Germany has also developed strong ties with Israel, having extensive economic agreements and a strong political relationship.
Much like the US, the UK’s relationship with Israel has been limited by a desire to maintain strong relations with the Gulf states. The premiership of Margaret Thatcher did much ‘to thaw bilateral ties’, and the UK has more recently looked to enhance its relationship with Israel significantly.
The primary explanation for this increase in cooperation with Israel is the UK’s vote to leave the EU in 2016 and the UK’s subsequent pursuit of political and economic development. This is evidenced by the fact that Israel was the first state to sign a post-Brexit continuity trade agreement with the UK after the 2016 vote, with this relationship since being built upon through significantly enhance economic cooperation and greater coordination of overlapping geostrategic aims such as limiting Iran’s path to nuclear capabilities,
This relationship is significant for Israel as the UK is its second largest state-level trading partner, behind the US, and has a strong intelligence capacity that Israel is keen on utilizing. Further evidence of these relations can be seen in the UK and Israel carrying out their first ever joint military exercise in 2019, with the Royal Air Force and the Israel Air Force collaborating on practice missions and training.
It should also be noted that Israel enjoys robust and constructive bilateral ties with Denmark and the Netherlands, with these relationships being an important supplementary source of political and economic support.
Despite political divergences, the relationship between Israel and the EU has been steadily strengthening. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner and the largest source of Israeli investment, representing 40% of outgoing investment. Israel and the EU have also signed an Association Agreement which came into force in 2000, and Israel is also part of the Union for the Mediterranean and the Euro-Mediterranean Transport Partnership, all aimed at promoting political and economic cooperation.
In recent years, Israel has also sought to bolster its foreign policy ties with proximate states as well.
Revelations from Wikileaks in 2010 exposed the level of cooperation that Israel was enjoying with states including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, all united over a mutual concern about Tehran and its power in the region. These ties were not made through official diplomatic means, however, these developments demonstrate how Israel can have strong foreign policy ties with multiple states without having such ties officially codified.
These instances of cooperation extend beyond military and geostrategic manoeuvring, there has also been an enhancement of trade and transfer of technology – including spyware – as Israeli technology was used by Saudi Arabia, for example, in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. These relations look likely to continue and improve as Iran has abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which was limiting its capabilities to develop nuclear weapons, and the US is decreasing its presence in the region.
In addition to this, Israel has also enhanced its ties with India and China, recognising that both are very significant markets, especially for Israel’s thriving technology sector, and they also serve as potentially useful sources of political support.
In Israel’s comparatively short time in existence as a state, it has had numerous complex relationships with other states, varying in extent and motivation. Israel’s relationship with the US has been profound and it has yielded dramatic benefits, however, Israel’s foreign policy cannot be said to be exclusive to pursuing these benefits from relations with the US.