Sometime as a kid, many of us learn: friendship is one of the keys to happiness, laughter, success, and personal fulfillment. The support that comes with friendship feels irreplaceable. As we age, long-lived friendships often grow more complicated; they present challenges, they bring pain or loss, and sometimes, carry respite in the same moment.
In no relationship has a struggle for friendship proven to be more complicated than in the one between the United States and Israel. Discourse of the U.S. and Israeli friendship dominates American political history. President Lyndon Johnson claimed, in May 1967, “I’m just a six-foot-tall Texan friend of Israel.” In October 1984, following meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, President Ronald Reagan declared the discussions had “reconfirm[ed] the close friendship…that bind[s] our countries.” Across the Republican primary debates in 2016 alone, candidates Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich all at one time referred to themselves as “friends” of Israel.
The December 2016 passage of UN Security Council resolution 2334, concerning Israeli settlement building in Palestinian territories, placed the discourse of U.S./Israeli friendship under a microscope. Reactions to 2334 across the U.S. were swift and strong, igniting a fury of comments from U.S. politicians in both parties as well as from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The discourse around this amendment points to difficulty in understanding international diplomacy between nations, particularly the U.S. and Israel, as “friendship.”
The rhetoric around 2334 also points to a possibly unprecedented policy change on Israel, within U.S. politics, that will have serious consequences for the Middle East. Friendship discourses that conflate anti-Semitism or “anti-Israel” sentiment with opposition to Israeli settlement building carry with them immense power to affect global foreign policy in troubling ways. If critique of Israel’s occupation of Palestine always makes one a bad friend, or even an enemy, to Israel (and as a result, the U.S.), how possible is critical analysis of avenues for peace in the Israeli/Palestinian case?
Resolution 2334 has twelve (relatively short) parts regarding the state of Israel’s building of housing settlements inside Palestinian territories. In 2334, the Security Council “reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory…has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law…and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace,” and calls for “Israel [to] immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem…”
Settlements are Israeli civilian communities built almost entirely within Palestinian territories inside the Israeli state’s borders. These Palestinian territories (including the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Gaza Strip as well as the disputed areas in East Jerusalem which are predominantly Palestinian) have been occupied by the state of Israel since the Six Day War of 1967.
As of 2015, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 750,000 settlers live within all of the Palestinian territories. And, as of 2014, approximately 15% of West Bank settlers alone were American. In the words of scholar Sara Yael Hirschhorn, Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at Oxford, American Jews are “strikingly over-represented” within the settler population.
Despite the growing number of U.S settlers there, the U.S. has long maintained, alongside its ongoing rhetoric of friendship, a position against increased Israeli settlement building based on the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 (articles 47, 48, and 49). In 1978, legal adviser to the U.S. State Department Herbert J. Hansel issued a report calling the settlements “inconsistent with international law.” Three U.S. ambassadors to the UN, George H.W. Bush in 1971 (who would go on to become U.S. President in 1988), William Scranton in 1976, and Samantha Power in 2016 as well as former Secretaries of State Cyrus Vance in 1979 and John Kerry in 2016 have all publically maintained that Israeli settlements are illegal.
The Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations all argued that settlements are at worst illegal, at best “illegitimate.” The UN member states have affirmed the position that settlement expansion is illegal at least seven times in the last four decades. And, in the case of 1980 UN Security Council resolution 465, the U.S. actually voted in favor of condemning Israel’s expansion of settlements and calling on all states “not to provide Israel with any assistance to be used specifically in connexion with settlements in the occupied territories.”
In response to the Obama administration’s abstention on 2334, President Elect Donald Trump doubled down on the rhetoric of friendship, tweeting, “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but…not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!” Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, has financial ties to the West Bank settlements, as does Trump’s pick for U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Friedman has even been reported as calling liberal Jews in the United States who support a two-state solution with Palestinians “worse than kapos,” a reference to Jews in World War II concentration camps who were assigned by Nazis to supervise forced labor.
not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but…….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2016
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (MD, but born in New York) represented several Democrats that also decried the U.S. decision to abstain on 2334, allowing the resolution’s passage. New York state is home to the largest number of U.S. Jews of any state in the U.S., by more than four times over, which may do some work to explain Trump or Schumer’s steadfast deployment of friendship discourse around Israel.
Extremely frustrating, disappointing & confounding that the Administration has failed to veto the UN resolution.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) December 23, 2016
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to 2334’s passage fiercely. In a speech the day after the vote on 2334, Netanyahu recalled Israeli ambassadors from Senegal and New Zealand, both countries who had advanced the resolution. He withdrew all Israeli assistance to Senegal and halted NIS 30 million of funds going into unnamed UN institutions deemed “especially hostile to Israel.” Haaretz reported that Netanyahu openly called support of the resolution “a declaration of war.”
Netanyahu’s discourse was clear about the effects of 2334’s passage: “Contrary to what you might expect, it is very likely that last night’s scandalous resolution…is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Last night’s resolution is a call to arms for all of our many friends in the US and elsewhere around the world…” (Emphasis mine.) Netanyahu went a step further, entangling his rhetoric with Trump’s by directly referring to Trump’s tweets of friendship, claiming, “In the new era there is a much higher price for those who try to harm Israel, and that price will be exacted not only by the U.S., but by Israel as well.”
The rhetorical work of responses to the passage of 2334 is a fusion of Trump’s claims he will restore “great friendship” to Israel (which, in his discourse, was uniquely dissolved by the Obama administration via the Iran nuclear deal and the abstention on 2334) with Netanyahu’s “call to arms,” a call forcing supporters of 2334 to pay a “higher price” for their position on settlements. Opposing Israeli settlement expansion in this rhetoric, despite a long history of near unanimous global opposition, is conflated with being a “bad friend” to Israel.
The consequence of bad friendship here is a denial of aid, expulsion of ambassadors and cessation of diplomatic relations. Most concerning, the friendship discourse alongside Netanyahu’s “call to arms” points toward at least the possibility for military engagement with countries who openly critique settlement expansion, or with Palestinians who resist settlement building. On January 5, with a vote of 342-80, the U.S. House went a step further in defense of their rhetoric of friendship and voted officially to reject UNSC 2334, claiming the resolution was “one-sided and anti-Israel.”
If these discourses around 2334 are any indication, the possibility of military and diplomatic actions against those who oppose the building of new settlements, even through peaceful and processually legitimate means like a UN resolution, will substantially increase in a Trump presidency. In this discursive frame, nations who oppose and/or act to prevent settlement expansion will mark themselves as enemies, not friends, of both the U.S. and of Israel.
Ample tools for military engagement against “enemies” of Israel are already in place. The U.S., as part of its declared friendship, signed a historic 10-year military assistance deal with Israel in September 2016 that is worth more than $38 billion, the single largest military aid package in U.S. history to any nation. In fact, according to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. friendship with Israel has made Israel the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.
As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry argued in his defense of the administration’s vote on 2334, “some seem to believe that the U.S. friendship means the U.S. must accept any policy, regardless of our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own principles…Friends need to tell each other the hard truths…” President Obama echoed Kerry’s remarks in the last press conference of his presidency. He noted, “I don’t see how this issue gets resolved in a way that maintains Israel as both Jewish and a democracy.” The frames Kerry and Obama tried to set cast historical and near unanimous opposition to settlements as the foundation of a more productive U.S. relationship with Israel and improved possibilities for regional peace. Trump’s reaction suggests that Kerry’s move has little hope of influencing future policy.
Trump’s reaction alongside the U.S. House’s move to deem 2334 “anti-Israel” reveals a dangerous double bind: maintain a strong “friendship” with Israel and accept settlement expansion (against the democratic will of Palestinians living under occupation and international law) or oppose settlements, breaking friendship with Israel and risking a call to arms from some of the world’s best funded and most lethal militaries. Moving forward, I implore citizens to monitor and be aware of these discourses of friendship and critically assess what they mean for policy and democracy.
Discourses of friendship are ill suited in this case precisely because the processes of negotiating with friends when they hold values that may differ from your own is a complicated one, whether you’re in middle school or the floor of a United Nations Security Council meeting. Conflict with friends often comes with higher stakes precisely because of that friendship. However, when friends disagree during recess in a school day, no one has access to nuclear arms. And, in international relations, the implied path to becoming one’s enemy is first losing one’s friendship. In the Israeli case, these stakes may include deeply troubling diplomatic and political consequences that threaten to further erode democratic norms and chill opportunities for peace.