The key to revitalizing Israel-US relations lies between Moscow and Beijing

President Biden’s threat to suspend offensive arms shipments if Israel moves forward with plans for a large-scale military operation in Rafah marks a new low in Israel-US relations. Truth be told, the move is not unprecedented – recall the Anglo-American embargo during the War of Independence, the delayed delivery of F-15 fighter jets by the Ford administration over deadlocked negotiations with Egypt in 1975, and the suspended supply of F-16 aircraft under the Reagan administration in response to Israel’s attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor and subsequent escalation in Lebanon. Nevertheless, Biden’s threatened arms embargo comes against the backdrop of a prolonged crisis of trust between the two governments and widespread protests against Israel on American college campuses. Crucially, the shift in policy comes in the midst of a dangerous multi-front war in which every sliver of daylight between Israel and the US risks emboldening Iran and its proxies and producing the very escalation the US President is bent on avoiding.

Let us assume that the embargo ends up being a temporary measure, as was the case under Presidents Ford and Reagan, and that the proximate crisis over prosecution of the Gaza campaign is resolved. How can relations between the two countries be restored after this war is over?

It is vital to develop a good answer to this question because Israel is entering a dangerous new era in which it will need the strong backing of the United States more than ever before. Those who think that Israel can make do without the United States should remember that while Israel has always fought alone, its security has always relied, in the final analysis, on an alliance with at least one of the great powers. The pre-state Yishuv developed under British protection and then fought for its independence with weapons provided with the blessing of the Soviet Union. The State of Israel secured its survival in the 1950s and 1960s with the help of France, and since 1967, has continued to flourish under the patronage of the United States. In the absence of a serious alternative (no one in their right mind would consider replacing the United States with Russia or China), the future of Israel in a dangerous region will continue to depend to a considerable degree on the strength of its relations with the United States. Thus, the question of how to bolster the alliance is an existential one.

As is often repeated, Israel-US relations are grounded in shared values and common interests. So the question really is: what can be done to reinforce the two pillars of the relationship, each of which has undergone erosion in recent years? Clearly, the leaders of both countries have their work cut out for them when it comes to shoring up the liberal democratic foundations of their regimes. Israel can start by adopting a constitution and bill of rights, which would formalize its status as an upstanding member of the family of liberal democracies, and not a colonialist apartheid state, as some on the far left are attempting to paint it. But demonstrating Israel’s liberal bona fides will not be enough to persuade skeptics, left and right, who worry about the utility of continued support for Israel.

As Lord Palmerston once said of Great Britain, global powers do not have eternal allies, only eternal interests. So it is the smaller power that must forever shoulder the burden of justifying a great power’s continued support. For Great Britain, Zionism was an asset in its quest for a mandate over Palestine, until it became a burden in the face of Arab opposition to the Zionist project. For France, Israel was an asset in its struggle against Nasserism and the Algerian rebels, until it became a burden following Algeria’s independence and the Six Day War. For the United States, Israel was a valued partner, first in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union and its Middle Eastern proxies, and then in the war against Islamic terror. But today, when the US has secured energy independence, exhausted itself in two protracted regional wars, and seeks to free itself from the problems of the Middle East and shift its attention eastward, what is the new formula that will convince decision-makers in Washington that supporting Israel remains a vital American interest? What will make Israel indispensable – regardless of the party in power?

The beginning of an answer took shape last month in Washington, DC. On April 20th and 23rd, large majorities of the House and Senate approved a military aid package to Israel worth approximately $14.5 billion. Given that presidents (and prime ministers) come and go, while the people remain, Congress’s approval of the aid package overshadows the president’s subsequent decision to delay delivery of specific weapons. And Israelis should take note of the creative path taken by Mike Johnson, the speaker of the House of Representatives, to get the bill passed. In order to overcome the opposition of certain Democrats to the transfer of military aid to Israel, and the opposition of certain Republicans to continued support for Ukraine, Johnson bundled together three separate aid packages for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan (along with measures against the Chinese company TikTok). What do the three beneficiaries have in common? They are all democracies under threat from the new authoritarian axis extending from Moscow to Beijing, via Teheran and Pyongyang.

The backdrop to this legislative breakthrough is the growing conviction in Washington that it is no longer possible to treat Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia as separate theaters of conflict. From the green light given by the Chinese premier Xi Jinping to President Putin on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the supply of Iranian drones and North Korean artillery shells to the Russian military, multiple signs are pointing to the crystallization of a new “axis of resistance” that seeks to challenge US leadership and threaten world peace. Both the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel in 2024 attest to the growing boldness of individual axis members. Somewhat less visibly, temperatures on the Korean Peninsula and across the Taiwan Straits have also been rising significantly. Israelis speak of the “conflation of theaters,” by which they mean the danger of a multi-front war involving Hezbollah, Hamas and other Iranian proxies. But in the West, concern is growing over likelihood of a global “conflation of theaters.” Imagine a Russian drive toward Kiev or the Baltic Sea, coinciding with the announcement of a Chinese naval blockade of Taiwan, an attack by North Korea on South Korea, and all-out war between Iran and Israel, possibly under the new shadow of an Iranian nuclear capability. In other words, World War Three.

We are not there yet, but the world order is rapidly being reorganized around a new cold war between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and China and its allies on the other. It was this incipient realization that convinced the Speaker of the House to reverse his opposition to the aid package and paved the way for a divided Congress to approve it.

For Israel, this new cold war, which has already become hot in some places, holds both opportunities and risks. The new global conflict will require most countries – with the exception of a handful that will manage to remain neutral – to choose sides. Not just regarding Iran and North Korea, which should be easy. But also when it comes to Russia and China. Israel can try to walk the geopolitical tightrope and hope not to fall. Alternatively, Israel can exploit the new global reality in order to maximize its capacity to face the principal threat to its existence.

As the events of the last eight months have underscored, the coming decades will be marked by an expensive, high-risk, multi-dimensional struggle against the Islamic Republic and its proxies – a conflict that will become even more dangerous if and when Iran crosses the nuclear threshold. Israel cannot win this conflict alone. It needs strong partners, in the Middle East and elsewhere. In this sense, Iran’s decision to align with the global axis of resistance presents a golden opportunity for Israel – to declare its loyalty to the democratic camp and present the US administration (this one or the next) with a comprehensive military, economic, and diplomatic plan for addressing the Iranian threat. The deal that Israel should offer the Americans, ideally in partnership with Saudi Arabia, would look something like this: We’ll take responsibility for weakening the Middle Eastern link in the axis of resistance, freeing you up to focus on Russia and China. In exchange, we’re asking for military aid and diplomatic backing. Undoubtedly, taking sides in this way will come with costs and risks. But there is no doubt on which side of the new Iron Curtain Israel’s interests – and its values – reside.

About the Author
Dr. Jesse Ferris is Vice President for Strategy at the Israel Democracy Institute and author, most recently, of How Israel Can Survive in a Nuclear Middle East.