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Can the U.S. pressure Israel to end the war?

The U.S. government has a long history of trying to restrain Israel, with mixed success.

- February 12, 2024
Israeli and US flags in Jerusalem in March 2013, during visit by US president Barack Obama.
The Israeli and U.S. flags in Jerusalem, March 22, 2013, during visit by U.S. President Barack Obama (cc) zeevveez, via Flickr

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded his fifth trip to the Middle East since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, he appeared to make little progress persuading the Israeli government of U.S. policy aims. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu preempted the usual joint press conference with a visiting U.S. secretary of state and held his own to vocally and publicly reject U.S. preferences. 

Back in Washington, the U.S. Senate faced numerous hurdles in its efforts to push forward the Biden administration’s request for $14 billion in aid for Israel. The U.S.-Israeli relationship, and the policy differences between the two governments, continue to make news.

The two countries frequently disagree

The United States and Israel have a long history of clashing over policy while their governments reinforce the close bilateral relationship. Since Oct. 7, 2023, with the Biden administration’s tight embrace of Israel, that pattern has continued. Washington has been incredibly supportive of Israel, providing military arms and diplomatic support, even as the two governments are at odds over crucial issues of how to fight the war and policies for after the fighting ends. 

The United States wants Israel to move toward more targeted warfighting to minimize civilian casualties; quickly provide humanitarian aid; allow the Palestinian Authority (PA) to take control of Gaza after the war; and, ultimately, accept a two-state solution. Israel has allowed some humanitarian aid into Gaza, though likely not at the speed or in the quantity Washington hoped for. On warfighting, the PA’s role, and two states, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli government officials have firmly rejected the U.S. position.

Is U.S. pressure on the Israeli government doomed to fail? Or can this pressure be more effective than it has been so far? Here is what we can learn from past cases.

The U.S. has often tried to restrain Israel … with mixed success

There are many cases of U.S.-Israel disputes over diplomatic and military policy. In 1967, the Johnson administration did not want Israel to go to war in response to Egyptian provocations. But Washington failed to organize a multilateral, U.S.-led show of force to break the Egyptian blockade. And Israel went to war. 

In March 1975, the Ford administration launched a reassessment of the Middle East peace process and U.S. relations with the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In the U.S. view, Israel was not forthcoming enough in talks with Egypt, so the United States suspended new economic and military agreements with Israel and held back promised Lance missiles while U.S. officials reevaluated the U.S. options. A few months later, in September 1975, Egypt and Israel signed a major diplomatic agreement, Sinai II

The Reagan administration clashed with the government of Menachem Begin and its defense minister, Ariel Sharon, over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. If Israel did not accept a ceasefire, Reagan wrote to Begin, it “will create extreme tension in our relations.” 

In the early 1990s, the George H.W. Bush administration provided Israel with loan guarantees to facilitate the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union – but, as the legislation allowed for, deducted an annual amount to try to discourage continued Israeli settlement expansion. In the 2000s, the George W. Bush administration twice clamped down on Israeli arms sales to China. Israel ended up canceling the sale to China of an advanced airborne early warning system as well as a contract to upgrade Harpy anti-radar drones.

U.S. pressure works best when it comes with material consequences

In my book Warring Friends, I examined military disagreements within alliances, including several U.S.-Israeli cases. When does the U.S. successfully restrain Israel? Of course, the United States has to be aware of a proposed Israeli military policy in order to even attempt restraint. That wasn’t the case in the 1960s, when the U.S. was partly in the dark about Israel’s nuclear program. And as the restrainer, U.S. leadership is better off united around the idea of restraint.

I argued a further point: When the U.S. government is unwilling to commit to material consequences for Israeli defiance, Israel pays little heed to U.S. policy demands or requests for restraint. And, historically, the U.S. government is often unwilling to pursue material consequences when dealing with the Israeli government.

That said, there are cases where rhetoric alone has mattered. International relations scholar Daniel Sobelman found the U.S. government may have stopped Israel from attacking Iranian nuclear facilities in 2011 and 2012 solely on the basis of an intense dissuasion effort. But a look at two cases highlights why rhetoric usually does not work on its own.

U.S. and Israel disagreements about conflicts with Iraq and Iran 

In 1991, the United States launched a war against Iraq after the Iraqi military occupied Kuwait. In an effort to split Arab allies of the United States, Iraq tried to draw in Israel by firing SCUD missiles at Israel. Even before the war, Israeli officials told U.S. counterparts that Israel itself would hit back; during the war, U.S. forces did just that.

The U.S. administration was in frequent contact with the Israeli government to reassure Israeli officials that the United States would take care of the Iraqi threat – and Israel should not react. The United States also utilized inducements: a dedicated communications system with Israel to warn of incoming missile attacks and the deployment of Patriot missile batteries.

On Jan. 19, 1991, with Israeli planes aloft, Israel’s defense minister still pressed for direct Israeli retaliation. But the U.S. denied his request for the codes to identify friendly U.S. aircraft. Israeli appeals to the U.S. secretaries of defense and state failed, and Israel was restrained. In sum, positive and negative material steps helped restrain Israel and avoid escalating the conflict.

But consider a contrasting case regarding U.S.-Israeli policy toward Iranian nuclear efforts in 2011-2012. Sobelman notes the two governments disagreed about how to handle the Iranian nuclear program. Israel first tried to alter the U.S. desire to restrain Israel. The Netanyahu government’s “strategic pressure campaign” was trying to convince the Obama administration that an Israeli attack on Iranian facilities was imminent. Israel hoped to force the United States to support or lead an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

The U.S. government’s restraint policy appears to have been rhetorical only, but Israel did not attack Iran. Either the United States restrained Israel through persuasion, or Israel never intended to attack. But the evidence from Israel’s prime minister and defense minister is inconclusive.

While there was no military attack against Iran, Israel may well have influenced the United States to impose additional energy and financial sanctions. In contrast, the United States also pushed forward on the diplomatic front, ultimately signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, an effort to limit Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Even here, in a case more about U.S. rhetoric, U.S. diplomatic resources developed an alternative policy, a substitute for the military policy Israel wanted.

What this means for U.S. pressure on Israel in its war in Gaza

The role of material consequences has had direct bearing on the U.S.-Israeli alliance during the last few months. On the one hand, the United States has tried to influence Israeli policy, including by reining in Israel’s military operation in Gaza. The highest level of U.S. decision makers – including the U.S. president and secretary of state – have been in frequent contact with Israeli officials. A stream of U.S. visitors including President Biden himself have gone to Israel offering advice and counsel. There has been a lot of talk. Last week, Biden went so far as to say Israel’s “conduct of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top.” 

On the other hand, the U.S. government has provided Israel with massive material support including weaponry and diplomatic protection at the U.N. Security Council. The United States has not threatened Israel with disincentives or sanctions if it ignored U.S. demands – and U.S. military aid and support have been a linchpin of Israel’s war effort. Critics like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) point out that the Israeli war effort often has been Israeli personnel using U.S.-made ordnance and weapons

Washington vetoed Security Council resolutions on Oct. 18 and Dec. 8, 2023 – and “watered down” a third resolution that did pass on Dec. 22. U.S. officials called the International Court of Justice case on whether Israel committed genocide “meritless.”

Much about U.S.-Israeli relations since Oct. 7, 2023, is still speculative or unknown to us. After months of avoiding any sticks, last week the Biden administration sanctioned four Israeli settlers for West Bank violence. It was noteworthy; it was also a small step focused on individuals that did not touch the entire Israeli state edifice that supports the settlement movement. The Biden administration has not used material threats, aid conditionality, investigations over human rights, and other possible instruments against the Israeli government. 

In a U.S. presidential election year, it seems unlikely that Biden – or any U.S. president today – would utilize government-to-government penalties or material disincentives against Israel.