The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political minefield and the United States has placed itself right in the middle of it. U.S. diplomatic ties and historical sympathies for Israel have repeatedly antagonized Palestine, and by extension the entirety of the Arab world. The Palestinian question is one of many issues that drive a stake between the U.S. and its Arab allies, although the issue of Palestine has potent nationalistic implications for Arab countries. This in combination with other points of conflict with the Middle East threaten U.S. access to important resources like oil with larger implications for greater global security.
U.S. ties to Israel stretch back to 1948 when it was the first country to recognize Israel as a state. This recognition sparked the War of 1948 in which Arab expeditionary forces began to retake Arab areas and attack Jewish settlements. The aftermath of the war left Israel in charge of the land promised to them by the UN Partition Plan, as well as 60% of lands previously promised to the Palestinians. Israeli annexation of the West Bank after the 1967 Six-Day War and of the Gaza Strip after the War of 1948 was and remains to be especially controversial in regional politics, perpetuating violence between the two sides. 2022 is the deadliest year in the West Bank since 2015, following a spike in violence in 2021. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported 410 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians and their property over the first 10 months of 2021. In 2022, Israeli raids in the West Bank culminated in the arrest of over 1,500 Palestinians.
The U.S. has historically sympathized with Israel’s cause because of their ideological and religious similarities. Former President Trump ran his presidential campaign partly on the promise to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in an effort to mobilize evangelical and American Jewish voters. Previous Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe stated in a 2002 address regarding the conflict, “This is not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true.” On a more political note, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) highlights the security that Israeli technology provides to the U.S. in terms of protecting American critical infrastructure from terrorist threats. The committee holds that as the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel is “a key pillar of America’s regional security framework.” Its tactical significance includes a geographically advantageous location in the Middle East, storage for U.S. military equipment, and technical contributions to the security of American cyberspace and anti-terrorism infrastructure. The U.S. provides $3.8 billion to Israel for Foreign Military Financing and cooperative programs for missile defense each year in Israel. The States are Israel’s largest investor with more than 2,500 American firms in the country. Bilateral trade approaches $50 billion annually.
Strong U.S.-Israeli religious and ideological similarities have often left Palestine and greater Arab interests low-priority in terms of U.S. foreign policy. The relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 24, 2018 elicited reluctant and skeptical acquiescence of other countries such as the Netherlands and Ireland, with particular pushback from Arab states. Several countries expressed concern about the regional security implications of overriding Palestinian wishes by acknowledging Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Arab states hold Arab unity and Palestinian freedom to be synonymous and have historically been seen as responsible to help free Palestine. Since then, however, there have been important changes to regional politics post-Abrahamic Accords. Countries like the UAE and Bahrain are opening up to trade with Israel for the first time. Egypt, Jordan and Morocco have full diplomatic relations with Israel. There are rumors of Saudi-Israeli military and intelligence cooperation against Iran and Turkey, and relations between Saudi and the Palestinian Authority are waning. Even so, hostilities toward the Jewish state persist in retaliation such as Kuwait closing its waters from goods being transported to or from Israel.
Any Arab dissatisfaction with U.S.-Israeli cooperation poses a threat to U.S. security. In light of other global conflicts, notably between Russia and Ukraine, a healthy relationship with the Middle East is vital to U.S. security. U.S. siding with the Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (Yom Kippur War) against Palestine sparked an oil embargo against the U.S. by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), resulting in the 1973 oil crisis. Today, the Middle East continues to leverage its control over oil as the world suffers shortages in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On October 4, 2022, Saudi Arabia led a cartel of countries within OPEC+ (a coalition comprising most of the world’s top oil exporters) to brush off diplomatic talks with President Biden and cut oil production in a move that might help Russia’s economy during its invasion of Ukraine. This move damages U.S. and global access to oil, threatening to damage the economy and bolster Russia’s increasingly aggressive international rhetoric.
The effects of the 1973 oil crisis, including price disruptions that led to later recessions, inflation and reduced economic growth, loom over the U.S. –– and by extension the rest of the world –– as it navigates the minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Careful mediation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict directly impacts Western-Arab relations, with broader implications for the world order, including Russia’s global prominence as it vies for allies and support for its Ukrainian invasion and economic and military competition with the United States.