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Israel, the United States, and the War Against Hamas, July–August 2014
The “Special Relationship” under Scrutiny
Zaki Shalom is a member of the research staff at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies and at Ashkelon Academic College. He is the author of Israel’s Nuclear Option: Behind the Scenes Diplomacy between Dimona and Washington (Sussex Academic Press and Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 2005), and Ben-Gurion’s Political Struggles, 1963–1967: A Lion in Winter (Routledge, 2006). In 2007 he was awarded the Prime Minister’s prestigious David Ben-Gurion Memorial Prize for his book Fire in His Bones, which relates Ben-Gurion’s activities following his resignation as prime minister and until his death.
“Operation Protective Edge”, launched on July 8, 2014, saw heavy fighting between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas in Gaza. Throughout the war US government media spokespersons confirmed Israel’s right to self-defense against rockets and tunnels, and condemned Hamas for initiating the conflict and its use of human shields. But there is an important difference between confirmation and pro-active demonstration at the highest political level.
The longstanding alliance between the United States and Israel has always been subject to the administration and president of the day. In this case, the Obama administration’s support for Israel’s right to self-defense was “qualified”, and as a result the Israeli political leadership felt constrained in its ability to defeat Hamas militarily without risking criticism from the United States that would impact negatively on the "special relationship". In its role as ally, the United States was careful not to apply direct political pressure on Israel. However, US government public criticisms relating to Gazan civilian loss of life damaged Israel on the international stage via harrowing media coverage surrounding the conflict. The Federal Aviation Administration order to airlines to stop flying to Israel enhanced Hamas’ claim that it had inflicted a “strategic defeat” to the “Zionist State”.
For the last 70 years Israel has recognized that the United States is its primary strategic ally – a principle initiated by Israel’s first Prime Minister and Defense Minister, David Ben-Gurion. Political and military policies have to be directed to prevent a rift. But the “Protective Edge” experience has brought to the fore that in times of crisis Israel cannot rely on a “special relationship” to secure its safety and must of necessity possess the political will and military ability to defend itself and to take actions that may result in a strained relationship.