Since the Cold War, bipartisan political support for Israel in the United States has remained strong enough to influence U.S. strategy in the Middle East. Often, U.S. officials who wanted to take action in the region running counter to Israeli interests found themselves having to weigh their decision against the possible electoral penalty. But political and demographic shifts underway in both the United States and Israel are changing the nature of that limitation, potentially injecting a measure of volatility into their relationship that will often be defined by the political party in power in Washington.
That's because an increasing share of young American voters with different attitudes toward Israel are steadily showcasing their influence on U.S. politics. If that pattern continues, it would reduce the electoral costs for U.S. officials who seek to pursue policies that do not align with Israeli strategies. Meanwhile, a rising tide of religious-nationalist voters in Israel will cause it to drift toward policies that would clash with the changing attitudes in the United States. That will create a strategic situation in which the United States would be more likely to use its military, diplomatic and economic leverage to bring Israel closer into line with its own objectives.
U.S.-Israeli ties have been extraordinarily close for many years in part because U.S. domestic politics has been highly sensitive to Israel's regional position. But the demographics of both countries are slowly changing, giving U.S. decisionmakers increasingly more leeway to reassess Israel's role in Washington's Middle East strategy. That decadeslong change will eventually produce a new and potentially contentious U.S.-Israeli relationship.
The Generational Shift in the United States
Slow-moving generational shifts in the United States are changing the way young Americans view Israel. Polling from the Pew Research Center gathered in January 2018 shows younger Americans in the 18-49 age bracket are increasingly breaking the bipartisan consensus that U.S. voters sympathize with and support Israel, especially in regard to the Palestinians. Three major cultural factors seem to be driving this change.
First, they have a different historical experience of Israel than their elders, who tend to be more supportive of it. For many young Americans, firsthand memories of the Arab-Israeli wars that threatened Israel's existence decades ago are dim, if nonexistent. They also have no direct connection with members of the generation who experienced the Holocaust. Combined, these factors change the way these voters view Israel's fragility. For them, Israel appears to be a permanent feature of the region, not a budding nation-state that could be wiped out in the next conflict. That makes them less likely to buy into arguments that U.S. policy changes could endanger Israel's very existence. For their generation, Israel's fraught history unfolded before their political perceptions of the world were formed, leaving them with attitudes unlikely to change substantially even as they age.
On the flipside of that, these younger Americans are more likely to have direct experience with Israel's strong military responses to Palestinian intifadas, with exposure to images of force being used to quell the uprisings by often poorly armed fighters and protesters. This experience, on the whole, has made younger Americans more willing to accept an increased role for Israel's culpability in the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the Palestinian factions have been the militarily weaker of the two parties for much of their lives.
Second, long-term tracking surveys show that the trend among younger Americans is to be less religious than generations prior. Religion is a key factor in shaping attitudes toward Israel; voters who hold strong religious views, especially Christian and Jewish ones, are more likely to sympathize with the country for ideological reasons.
Third, an increasing proportion of younger Americans who are religious are Muslim. That segment of voters is less likely to accept a strident pro-Israel policy line than other religious groups. Muslim populations in the United States have coalesced in communities sizeable enough to have notable effects on the U.S. political process, including exercising influence over the Democratic and Republican party primaries and electing lawmakers to the House of Representatives.
The Generational Shift in Israel
Meanwhile in Israel, the younger generation is growing increasingly nationalist and religious. One driver of this trend is the growth of ultra-Orthodox communities, which tend toward nationalism and have a birth rate far outpacing those among other Jewish communities. A large wave of Russian immigrants in the 1990s brought with it a surge of nationalism that continues to mature. Meanwhile, many younger Israelis, having lived with the regular experience of Palestinian militancy, are also more likely to support nationalist policies. Finally, the inability of the Israeli Left to lead the country to greater economic prosperity has weakened its appeal, and voters looking for answers to the country's rising cost of living tend to gravitate toward centrist parties with nationalist overtones.
For Israelis, these demographic changes will produce a strategic contradiction. Israel needs outside support, which today comes chiefly from the United States, to maintain its military edge and economic balance. At the same time, the country's changing demographics will increasingly promote policies that butt up against U.S. regional interests, putting cooperation at risk. Israel's increasingly strong nationalist-religious voting bloc will seek more policies that push the country down a one-state track. These, in turn, will alienate the increasing share of voters in the United States favoring a solution to the generations-old conflict that creates a Palestinian state. Additionally, increasingly nationalist Israeli voters will elect governments more likely to minimize or ignore Washington's concerns about their country's policies, complicating U.S. regional strategy.
Evolving demographic changes in the United States will give U.S. politicians freer rein to open debate over how Israel fits into U.S. strategy, both regionally and globally. As each election cycle passes, these changes will increasingly manifest. Officials, both elected and not, will face fewer political checks when deciding how to approach Israeli strategic value. That extends to multiple facets of U.S. regional strategy, most notably in its approach to Iran, where the issue of the Iran nuclear deal has taken on sharp partisan overtones driven by the political concern of Israeli security. It also extends to how Americans react to the Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Rather than shield Israel at the United Nations, or finding ways to reduce the influence of activist movements encouraging Israel's isolation, the United States may increasingly step aside or even join in criticism of Israel's Palestinian policies, especially if such actions provide diplomatic or soft power advantages elsewhere in the region.
No matter how many other regional or global allies Israel can muster, there will be no clear replacement for its close U.S. relationship.
To offset this shift in U.S. domestic politics, Israel will look elsewhere to supplement or replace U.S. support. It will seek military and economic connections with the other great powers, China and Russia, to give it greater independence in pursuing regional strategies. It will also continue its regional outreach to the Gulf Arabs, although Israel's drift toward a one-state solution will limit the extent of those relationships for a long time. It will explore new and upgraded ties with other regional powers like Egypt and Turkey, yet its approach to the Palestinians would also hinder better ties with those countries also.
But no matter how many other regional or global allies it can muster, there will be no clear replacement for Israel's close relationship with the United States. Maintaining that friendship will expose Israel to U.S. pressure and test its political system. The strains of navigating the increasing vacillations in the U.S. political system in order to maintain that relationship may reshape the demographic forces inside Israel, causing them to become more pragmatic over time. On the other hand, it may also radicalize them in reaction. If the former, the United States and Israel will enter an updated phase of their largely stable, decadeslong relationship. If the latter, U.S.-Israeli ties will continue to diverge, with volatility between them increasing.