On September 14th, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu signed a 10-year military-assistance deal containing the largest package of military aid that the US has ever given to any country. The $38 billion pledge, averaging $3.8 billion per year, constitutes a roughly 27% increase from the last such agreement in 2007 — which already made Israel the recipient of the most cumulative US foreign aid since World War II. A week after the two leaders signed the deal, they met again in New York. Obama took this opportunity to publicly reprimand Netanyahu for the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a process that has systematically and increasingly endangered the viability of a peaceful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We want to make sure that we keep alive this possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors, and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of the Palestinian people,” he told reporters. Netanyahu showed no interest in halting settlement expansion, and only vaguely remarked on peace as something to be desired.

From a diplomatic standpoint it might seem bizarre that the United States, which has repeatedly condemned the Israeli military and civilian occupation of the Palestinian territories, would issue yet another high-profile rebuke only after forfeiting its massive leverage in the form of military aid. For years, the State Department has released periodic statements of anxiety over the occupation’s threats to American interests, as well as to Israeli safety and to Palestinian human rights. In Washington, though, many politicians in both parties have accepted the status quo US-Israel relationship as inevitable and unchangeable. Among the greatest contributing factors undergirding this dearth of political will toward a peace process is Congress’s submission to AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. As US demographic tides shift and younger generations of American Jews enter the political arena, AIPAC’s domination of US-Israel relations and the global damage it perpetuates may finally be facing serious political counteraction. Whether such opposition can establish itself in time to ameliorate the effects of Obama’s deal with Netanyahu, however, remains to be seen.

For decades, the startling power of AIPAC in Washington has hinged on its huge influence across the political spectrum. The lobby has more than 100,000 members and an enormous pool of donors. Between 2010 and 2015, AIPAC spent more than $14 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies to press its causes—primarily the continuation of military aid to Israel and new sanctions against Iran (before international negotiators successfully negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran). The lobby does not officially endorse congressional candidates or raise funds for them directly, but it encourages its members to do so.

For decades, the startling power of AIPAC in Washington has hinged on its huge influence across the political spectrum.

While it is not easy to track the sum of money that AIPAC members donate to candidates, congressional Democrats and Republicans are well aware of the group’s power. As Brian Baird, a former U.S. Representative from Seattle, explained: “In order to get elected to Congress, if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to raise a lot of money. And you learn pretty quickly that, if AIPAC is on your side, you can do that.” Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky said in 2014: “AIPAC clearly has a great deal of clout in the Republican conference, and many Democrats still think that they have to be responsive to it.” Yarmuth, a Jewish member of Congress, has been accused of anti-Semitism for his criticisms of AIPAC and Netanyahu. But he has insisted that placating the lobby too often obstructs real US interests: “We all took an oath of office,” he said, “and AIPAC, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.” In 2011, when the Palestinian National Authority petitioned the UN for statehood, AIPAC played a significant role in assuring the opposition of 446 members of Congress. During this U.S. election season, aid to Israel remains one of few relatively static topics. Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s proneness to contradictory statements on Israel-Palestine, he has firmly promised a strong relationship between Israel and the United States. Hillary Clinton has long established her consistent support for Israeli administrations, while secretary of state and otherwise.

At the same time, American voters are developing increasingly mixed views on the sort of unconditional support that their government offers to Israel. Differences of opinion follow the divides of political party and age group. A 2016 Gallup poll found that over 60% of Americans identified with greater sympathy toward Israel than toward Palestinians — but nearly 80% of Republicans were sympathetic to Israel, while only 50% of Democrats said the same. Separately, a Brookings poll revealed that roughly half of surveyed Democrats saw Israel as exerting too much influence on the US government. Further, young Americans are generally far less sympathetic to Israel than older voters. In a 2014 Gallup poll, half of respondents between 18 and 34 favored support of Israel over that of Palestinians, versus 58% of 35 to 54-year-olds and 74% of those aged 55 and older. During the Democratic primary season, Bernie Sanders won praise from his distinctly young base for criticizing Israel. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement — which demands that organizations in the US and abroad sever their financial ties with Israel — has steadily gained popularity on college campuses, especially after its endorsement by the Movement for Black Lives this year.

For decades after Israel’s founding, American Jews understandably sought collective self-definition through their united, largely unconditional support for the state. But a growing portion of the community, and particularly its younger membership, chafes at the impenetrable lack of progress toward peace in the area. Many have found that AIPAC does not represent them. In 2008, Jeremy Ben-Ami consolidated a political challenge to AIPAC through his founding of J Street, an advocacy group that claimed the tagline: “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” The organization has attracted American Jews who advocate for a two-state solution and denounce the occupation as a direct impediment to both Israel’s wellbeing and its claim to democracy. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas recalled that in 2010, AIPAC’s clout was great enough to pressure Congress members into removing their names from the J Street gala’s honorary host committee. “I don’t view criticizing Netanyahu as being any more anti-Israel as criticizing Dick Cheney is anti-America,” said Doggett, and added: “J Street has given us an ability to discuss this in an organized way.” Although the group’s funding and influence in Congress are minuscule compared to AIPAC’s, it is still, as Husam Zomlot of the PLO said, “the first organized Jewish group with a different agenda in Washington since Israel was established.”

If there remains a hope for redemption in US-Israel relations, it lies in the potential for public backlash against US military aid, and the tacit support of the occupation that such packages represent. Shifting popular views on Israel among Americans, combined with a growing political space for alternative understandings of the “pro-Israel” position, may be building toward such a backlash. But the timeline for any public pressure to change the status quo grows more and more constricted, as Israeli settlement expansion continually imperils the viability of a two-state solution and the possibility of peace.


Over the past two years, civil war has ravaged Syria. There has been over 100,000 deaths reported by the UN and extensive economic devastation that will leave Syria in shambles for decades to come. It is difficult to foresee any calm emerging from this bloody storm – and the violence has only been escalating. On August 21, the Assad regime reportedly used chemical weapons to murder thousands of civilians, violating the international norms condemning the use of biological and chemical weapons. President Obama has threatened a limited military strike in retaliation against this inhumane act of war. The precedent set by America’s response to the deployment of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, Obama’s so-called “red line,”  could have vast ramifications.

If we can concede that the further contribution of bloodshed is short of a legitimate humanitarian pretense for involvement, the only valid argument in support of an American military operation is to uphold Obama’s political credibility. America’s “reputation” is hardly justification for the deaths of even more Syrians – after all, no one with a brain or a newspaper will expect consistency in American foreign policy on war crimes. Unfortunately, the morally troubling reality of America’s strategic interest is to allow this bloody “war of attrition” to play out between Assad’s regime and the Syrian people.

So why is it that a futile military strike is still on the table, when the threat to America is minimal and there is little certainty that bombs will directly benefit anyone? Perhaps because the stability of America’s reputation actually is critically important ­– to Israel.

And Israel has not been shy about demanding a proactive American response. Both the Israeli government as well as the American pro-Israel lobby AIPAC have shown outspoken support for a military strike, with the intent to set a precedent in the region. In other words, Israeli representatives, looking to ensure security and inhibit the nuclear ambitions of Iran, have consistently advocated the enforcement of Mr. Obama’s “red line” on Syria.

Israeli President Shimon Peres offered an Israeli radio station his confidence that, just as “Obama will not allow nuclear weapons in Iran,” he will go forward with the proposed strike on Syria. An AIPAC editorial, which casually features a picture of Bashar al-Assad and Ayatollah Khamenei chitchatting, mentions that, “As we witness unthinkable horror in Syria, the urgency of stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions is paramount.” Subtle linkage, AIPAC.

According to Haaretz, a preeminent Israeli new source, “Most experts agree that a Congressional veto of President Obama’s plan for a U.S. military strike on Syria would not only damage his presidency but also erode America’s standing in the Middle East and diminish its power of deterrence, especially towards Iran.”

Beyond purely defensive instincts, perhaps Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers the consequences of American actions in Syria as a small potential price for an Israeli victory: bringing the U.S. ever closer to mounting a strike on Iran. The politically justifiable American reasons for striking Syria— to punish a tyrannical regime for war crimes and save the lives of innocents—could certainly apply to Iran as well.

American policymakers are also starting to conflate the two situations. Kerry has been Obama’s primary public advocate for military action against Syria, making his case before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just last week­ – a forum where he first spoke as a Vietnam veteran arguing against that war. Kerry warned that “Iran is hoping you look the other way,” and later in the day, everyone from Barbara Boxer to Marco Rubio to Chuck Hagel reiterated this concern.

Recently, in what seems to be a turn for the better, Syria has conceded to give up its chemical weapons stockpile. As part of an effort spearheaded by Russia, the Asssad regime has agreed to relinquish control. This would essentially allow Obama to sit on his threat while maintaining a strong front and reassuring Israel. “The very fact that the U.S. was getting ready to act militarily in Syria is positive with regards to the situation in Iran,” said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington and a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. “Confidence in an American commitment that Iran won’t get the bomb has been strengthened,” he said, cautioning that Israel would nonetheless be looking carefully at Syria’s next moves to see if they made good on their pledge to give up poison gas.

A glimmer of acquiescence from Assad may be a light in the darkness, and perhaps a relief for American strategists. However, the destruction in Syria is overwhelmingly devastating. And while perhaps Assad will cooperate in the coming weeks, the “the war has gone on even as we’ve had this debate over chemical weapons” notes Michael Singh, managing director at the Washington Institute, a D.C.-based think tank focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Singh points out the unlikelihood of real change coming from this agreement: “The real problem is it just strikes most experts as impractical to somehow identify, locate and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons in the midst of a civil war.”

As the conflict plays out on the international stage, there is no telling for sure what may happen next. The region is a hot bed of violence. Deadly weapons will likely fall into the hands of those who are hostile to the West. Though the future of this volatile region is far from predictable, there’s one thing we can safely count on: America’s engagement will likely be shaped by the interests of our good ol’ buddy Israel.