Why America's Relationship With Israel Is Now More Complicated Than Ever

by John Haltiwanger

Yesterday, two Palestinians armed with axes, knives and a handgun killed four people at a Jerusalem synagogue. Ultimately, the two attackers were shot and killed by Israeli security forces.

Three of the individuals killed possessed dual citizenship between Israel and the United States, while the fourth victim possessed dual citizenship between Israel and the United Kingdom.

Israel: A US born rabbi, Moshe Twersky, named as one of the victims of this morning's terror attack in Jerusalem — Lisa Daftari (@LisaDaftari) November 18, 2014

Animosity between Palestinians and Israelis is nothing new, but tensions have risen a great deal in Jerusalem in recent weeks. The tragic events at the synagogue yesterday reveal how bad the situation has gotten.

Undoubtedly, things will only continue to escalate. Israel is expected to issue a harsh response to yesterday's events.

Following the attacks, Israel's Prime Minister came forth and announced that he planned to bulldoze the houses of the attackers. "I have decided we will destroy the houses of those that attacked the synagogue," he stated.

Concurrently, Hamas leaders praised the attackers as heroes.

Given that three Americans were killed, this incident will also impact the increasingly-complicated relationship between the United States and Israel.

Indeed, this will place a great deal of pressure on the Obama administration, which arguably has one of the worst relationships with Israel's government in American history.

Let's break down why America's relationship with Israel is more complicated than it has ever been:

America's Historic Relationship With Israel Has Been Strained Since The Israel-Gaza War This Summer

A strong friendship between the United States and Israel has been a characteristic aspect of American foreign policy since the Cold War. As Zack Beauchamp notes for Vox:

Everyone knows the United States is Israel's best friend. The US gives Israel billions of dollars in aid annually, consistently blocks UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israel, and backs its military offensives publicly.

Much of this has to do with America's general strategy in the Middle East, but is also a product of an extremely influential pro-Israel lobby and public opinion within the United States. Most Americans support the state of Israel.

Yet, during an intense conflict between Israel and Gaza over the summer, that relationship and the American public's perception of Israel experienced dramatic changes.

Much of the world condemned Israel's actions in Gaza as disproportionate and excessive. In some instances, the US government agreed, at one point issuing perhaps its strongest criticism of Israel in history following the shelling of a United Nation's school. At the time, a State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, stated:

The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons. The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.

While the majority of Americans (51 percent) still exhibited support for Israel, the extent of that support definitely began to dwindle. The shift in public opinion was primarily generational. Simply put, while the vast majority of those aged 65 and older (60 percent) overwhelmingly support the state of Israel, younger people are beginning to change America's stance. A recent Pew poll revealed that only 44 percent of Americans aged 18-29 sympathized more with Israel.

Fortunately, the hostilities between Israel and Gaza came to an end in late August, but this did not repair the increased tensions between America and its old friend.

This was revealed in particular when an Obama official recently called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "chickensh*t." Relatedly, Jeffrey Goldberg highlights for the Atlantic:

This comment is representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli officials now talk about each other behind closed doors, and is yet another sign that relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis. The relationship between these two administrations... is now the worst it's ever been, and it stands to get significantly worse.

Consequently, a member of Netanyhau's political party issued a harsh response, stating that "under Obama, the US has deteriorated to the cultural and essential level of a third world country."

Thus, it seems that American policy in the Middle East might see a drastic shift in the near future.

With Three Americans Citizens Dead, The Pressure Will Be On Obama To Support Israel

President Obama is likely already aware that he will be placed under even more pressure to support Israel following these attacks. The United States and Israel have an historic relationship, but as noted, it has been strained recently. Following the attacks yesterday, prominent politicians came out in support of Israel, primarily Republicans.

America stands with #Israel in condemning Palestinian terrorists' cowardly murder of our innocent citizens during prayers. — Speaker John Boehner (@SpeakerBoehner) November 18, 2014

Correspondingly, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen came forth and made a fervent case against any US support going towards a Palestinian government backed by Hamas.

President Obama has condemned the attacks, while also advocating restraint. The president stated, "I strongly condemn today's terrorist attack on worshippers at a synagogue in Jerusalem, which killed four innocent people, including US citizens Aryeh Kupinsky, Cary William Levine and Mosheh Twersky, and injured several more."

It's obvious that the president wants Israel to refrain from collectively punishing Palestine for the abhorrent, yet isolated, actions at the synagogue.

POTUS notes that #Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has strongly condemned Jerusalem synagogue attack. #Israel #jpost — Michael Wilner (@mawilner) November 18, 2014
"A tragedy for both nations, Israel & the United States," POTUS says, warning against a "spiral from which it is very difficult to emerge." — Michael Wilner (@mawilner) November 18, 2014

The Obama administration is in a difficult position. It must condemn the attacks, particularly as American citizens died, while also supporting moderation. All the while, it must contend with an already awkward relationship with Israel's government.

We can only hope that Israel's response to these heinous events will not exacerbate the recent chaos in Jerusalem. Yet, history does not give many reasons to feel optimistic. This is certainly a situation that must continue to be observed.

If it escalates, the true nature of the complicated relationship between the US and Israel will likely be revealed even further.