Gaza tests the boundaries of America's 'special' relationship with Israel

Six months of war have led to huge swings in public opinion and growing criticism of Israel from US leaders, which would have been unthinkable in the past. Have things changed?

US President Joe Biden (L) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on 18 October 2023.
US President Joe Biden (L) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on 18 October 2023.

Gaza tests the boundaries of America's 'special' relationship with Israel

After more than six months of Israel's war on Gaza, the conflict has offered rare insight into the relationship between allies in Washington and Tel Aviv.

The audacious and unexpected Hamas operation on 7 October led to substantial Israeli civilian and military losses, which, in return, prompted an immediate American declaration of full support for and solidarity with Israel.

Two days after the attack, US President Joe Biden spoke to the nation. “At this moment, our stance must be unequivocally clear: we are with Israel,” he said.

“We will ensure that Israel has the necessary support to protect its citizens, defend itself, and counteract this assault. Terrorism can never be justified or excused.”

Notably, the US president directly engaged the American public on a foreign military operation with which the US had no direct involvement, underscoring its significance to US interests.

'Israel's 9/11'

Americans quickly began calling 7 October “Israel’s 9/11”—a terrorist act aimed at civilians, resulting in significant loss of life and a temporary state of vulnerability.

Although Hamas’s success on 7 October was initially seen as a bold victory, in the larger context, it represented merely the start of something much bigger.

Biden’s swift visit to Israel ten days after the attack echoed the response of America’s allies in the days after 9/11. It emphasised the White House’s unwavering support for Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) receives US President Joe Biden upon his arrival in Israel on 18 October 2023.

However, American leaders also acknowledged early concerns about the potential consequences if Israel’s response was not handled with care. This was informed by past (and bitter) US experience.

“Justice needs to be served, and those responsible must be held accountable,” Biden told the Israelis on his visit.

“However, I urge the Israeli government to temper its response with restraint. The anger America felt after 9/11 was palpable, and in our quest for justice, we acknowledged our own missteps.”

Read more: Gaza war reminds of history's tactical military victories-turned-strategic defeats

It encapsulated Biden’s appeal for a measured response, stressing accountability while cautioning against actions driven by anger.

However, these subtle cautions were a gentle aside. Biden’s clear main message was of US support for Israel. Yet, over time, that emphasis has slowly shifted.

Disturbing developments

In early November, less than three weeks after Israel's intensive military response began in earnest, the US expressed concern about the growing civilian casualties.

Air strikes on the Jabalia refugee camp in late October using two massive 2,000lb American bombs killed hundreds and profoundly disturbed Biden.

Israel said the bombs killed Hamas commander Ibrahim Biari, who helped plan the 7 October attacks, but the huge loss of civilian life worried the White House.

In the immediate aftermath of 7 October, Biden's main message was of US support for Israel. But, over time, that emphasis has slowly shifted.

Increasingly vocal

This US apprehension was initially confined to private exchanges but was eventually made public through leaks.

On 12 December, two months into the war, Biden publicly articulated a critical stance, acknowledging that despite ongoing US and European support, Israel's widespread bombing campaign was compromising its standing.

Unusually, he even recounted a candid conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which amounted to a rare public rebuke.

He said: "Netanyahu pointed out to me, 'You carpet-bombed Germany; you used the atomic bomb; many civilians perished as a result.'"

"To which I replied, 'Indeed, and that led to the establishment of post-World War Two institutions designed to prevent such occurrences in the future... Let's not replicate the errors we committed post-9/11.'"

Biden's comments revealed concern that the Israeli strategy had not been properly thought through.

In March, Schumer, who is the most senior Jewish politician in the US, said Netanyahu was no longer the right person to lead Israel and called for elections.

The Netanyahu problem

Israel and the US have long been allies, with America offering Israel diplomatic and military support.

Yet some US leaders have had difficulties dealing with Netanyahu, notably Barack Obama, for whom Biden was vice-president.

Today, Netanyahu leads an Israeli government that includes extreme right-wing parties with anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian ideologies.

Some analysts think that the Israeli government has perpetuated the Gaza deadlock by obstructing any political settlements with the Palestinians, which would be anathema to Israel's nationalists.

Therefore, Netanyahu and his ministers have become targets of a cautious yet progressively intensifying campaign of pressure by the Biden administration.

In their refusal to compromise or even listen, they have come to be seen as the major impediments to a future peace with the Palestinians after Hamas.

It was interesting, therefore, in December when the Biden administration imposed a travel ban on some Israeli settlers over their part in violence in the West Bank.

Netanyahu's coalition allies' main voting constituency are settlers, whose attacks on Palestinians and their property in the West Bank have increased markedly since the 7 October attack by Hamas.

It was a symbolic decision with little practical effect. The significance lay in the messaging, which was directed as much at the Israeli public as at anyone else.

Upping the pressure

In March, there was yet more rare public criticism of Israel from a senior US pro-Israel politician, this time from Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democratic majority in the US Senate and a staunch historical ally of Israel.

Read more: The Schumer shock: Seismic US shift on Israel or attempt to gain voter favour?

Schumer, who is the most senior Jewish politician in the US, said Netanyahu was no longer the right person to lead Israel and called for elections.

"The second major obstacle to peace (after Hamas and its supporters) is the radical right-wing Israelis in government and society," said Schumer.

"The coalition led by Netanyahu no longer fits the country's needs following 7 October. The world has undergone profound changes since then, and the Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past."

Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, Biden called it "a good speech". This suggested that he agreed.

In the same month, Biden wondered aloud whether Netanyahu was "hurting Israel more than helping it".

It seemed to fit a theme.

Weeks earlier, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had told Israel it could not use Hamas's attacks on 7 October "to dehumanise others," a particularly poignant reference to the Jewish state.

Shifting moods

Over the past six months, there has been heightened public empathy toward Palestinians across much of the world as they face a humanitarian aid crisis following such a prolonged Israeli military assault.

This empathy recognises Palestinians as a people and as a society with valid political aspirations, including their own independent and viable state, free from Israeli dominance, which Israel often justifies on security grounds.

Israeli control over borders and access impedes Palestinian aspirations. An Israeli government that includes anti-Palestinian extremists only highlights the issue.

While international sympathy for the Palestinians has grown, international backing for Israel has dwindled.

In the past six months, while international sympathy for the Palestinians has grown, international backing for Israel has dwindled.

The West initially offered Israel its wholehearted support, saying it had the right to self-defence.   

But the Palestinian death toll has risen beyond 30,000, hospitals and medics have been attacked, 2 million people have been deprived of food, water, fuel, or electricity, and now famine is setting in.

In America, the government's support for Israel is now being seriously challenged at the grassroots level, in universities and trade unions.

American support for Israel, which had for decades been taken for granted, is now being challenged. It could start a generational shift in policy and societal attitudes toward Israel.

According to the most recent Gallup poll, the tide has shifted; 55% of Americans now oppose the Israeli military campaign in Gaza due to its severity. Just 36% shared the same view in November.

Read more: Why unconditional US support for Israel must stop

Growing trends

The figures appear to confirm the gradual transformation in American minds of Israel, which many now see as "privileged" and exempt from the kind of scrutiny that would be applied to America's other friends.

At the same time, criticism of Israel—once extremely rare—has become increasingly prevalent and vocal, transitioning from the fringe to the forefront of media coverage.

Support for Palestinians and their pursuit of a state has likewise grown, particularly from minority groups such as Black, Latino, and Arab communities, as well as from young Americans and those more likely to vote Democrat.

Protestors calling for a ceasefire in Gaza raise their hands, painted in red, during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on October 31, 2024.

Read more: Palestinians must capitalise on the growing global support for their cause

Arguably, the most evident indication of the evolving American political stance towards Israel has been Biden expressing support for a Palestinian state, with frequent mentions of a "two-state solution".

In late January, it emerged that Blinken had asked his officials to review options for the possible unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state by Washington. Such a move was once unthinkable.

Previously, such recognition would have been contingent on reaching an understanding with Israel and securing its consent for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The conventional and oversimplified view is that the way to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to find 'technical' solutions to Palestinian grievances.

This includes resettling Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1948 war by Israel to locations other than their original homes within present-day Israel.

Yet the Gaza war has helped Americans see that, at the core of the conflict is the plight of the Palestinian people, who have endured profound suffering as a result of Israeli policies and the shortcomings of their own leadership.

Their legitimate aspirations are for an independent state rooted not in Israeli national security imperatives but in a foundation of legal rights, ethical principles, and pragmatic considerations.

Six months on, Americans now appear to know more about Palestine and Israel than at any point in the past seven decades.

Whether this leads to a permanent shift in US public sentiment remains to be seen.

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