American foreign policy since the end of the cold war has been focused primarily on the Middle East and to an alarming extent on the defense and promotion of Israel. Why has Israel become so central to our foreign policy and what advantages does the United States gain from the relationship?
Israel is not an important trading partner for the United States, in 20th place, behind Venezuela and Thailand. Israel has no significant natural resources, nor is Israel an important defense ally. None of its neighbors pose any significant threat to the United States or American interests. There is not an important Israeli American population. If we equate American Jews as somehow "Israeli" because of the fact that Israel is a Jewish state, than we are still only talking about a population of 6,444,000 approx. (2007) 1.7% - 2.2% of the US population. This is less than the number of Polish Americans, approximately 10,000,000 people and well below the number of Irish Americans, over 30,000,000.
Yet Ireland never received anywhere near the attention that Israel has in the media, in political debates, in foreign aid or in foreign policy efforts, even when a full blown civil war was occurring in Ulster.
The attention Israel receives in the United States is completely disproportionate to its strategic, commercial, or political importance. For example, in reference to the 2008 presidential elections, Shmuel Rosner at Slate wrote,
"in the vice-presidential debate, Israel's name was mentioned 17 times. China was mentioned twice, Europe just once. Russia didn't come up at all. Nor Britain, France, or Germany. The only two countries to get more attention were Iraq and Afghanistan--the countries in which U.S. forces are fighting wars". A week earlier, in the first McCain-Obama debate, Israel was mentioned seven times, fewer than Russia but still more than China or Japan or any country in Europe, Latin America, or Africa."
In regards to American foreign aid, the amounts are striking. According to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt,
"Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance since 1976, and is the largest recipient in total since World War Two, to the tune of well over $140 billion (in 2004 dollars). Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. This largesse is especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to that of South Korea or Spain."
It's fascinating to compare American foreign policy in Mexico, a country of over 100,000 million people (Israel's population is around 7.5 million) and a very important trading partner with the US. Issues like immigration and drug trafficking with Mexico have palpable daily effects on the lives of Americans, yet Mexico receives less the 2% of the foreign aid that Israel gets, less than 40 million dollars compared to Israel's almost 3 billion. And the over 28 million Americans who are of Mexican ancestry? They are apparently, for politicians, much less important than the less than 7 million Jewish Americans.
In the sphere of politics the tone and attitude of US politicians sounds as if their careers depend on how they speak of Israel. Joe Biden during the Vice Presidential debate,
"Gwen, no one in the United States Senate has been a better friend to Israel than Joe Biden. I would have never, ever joined this ticket were I not absolutely sure Barack Obama shared my passion."
And Sarah Palin,
"But I'm so encouraged to know that we both love Israel, and I think that is a good thing to get to agree on, Sen. Biden. I respect your position on that."
And President Obama this summer said, according to the New York Times,
"that he is committed to Israel's security but does not believe it is essential for him to avoid all disagreement with the Jewish state."