Sunday, April 9, 2017

Israel: Background and U.S. Relations

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, successive U.S. Presidents and many Members of Congress have demonstrated a commitment to Israel’s security and to close U.S.-Israel cooperation. The question of Israel’s security regularly influences U.S. policy considerations regarding the Middle East, and Congress provides active oversight of executive branch dealings with Israel and other actors in the region. Israel is a leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid and a frequent purchaser of major U.S. weapons systems. By law, U.S. arms sales cannot adversely affect Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over other countries in its region. The two countries signed a free trade agreement in 1985, and the United States is Israel’s largest trading partner.
Israel has many regional security concerns and aligning U.S. and Israeli policies to address these concerns has presented persistent challenges. In a dangerous and uncertain regional environment, Israel regularly seeks assurance that the United States will bolster its regional security standing and self-defense capabilities. A new U.S.-Israel memorandum of understanding will provide Israel with $38 million in military assistance from FY2019 to FY2028, subject to congressional approval. In addition to concerns over Iran’s regional position that have increased despite or because of the 2015 international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s perceptions of security around its borders have changed since 2011 as several surrounding Arab countries have experienced political upheaval. Israel has shown concern about threats from Hezbollah and other non-state groups in ungoverned or minimally governed areas in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, as well as from Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s political impasse with the Palestinians continues. Israel has militarily occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, with the Palestinian Authority exercising limited self-rule in some areas since the mid-1990s. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution could affect U.S. and international diplomatic initiatives. The Palestinians have advanced diplomatic and legal initiatives in various international fora despite U.S. and Israeli concerns about increasing international “isolation” of Israel. Activities facilitated by successive Israeli governments have resulted in approximately 580,000 Israelis living in residential neighborhoods or “settlements” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These settlements are of disputed legality under international law. Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be the “eternal, undivided capital of Israel,” but Palestinians claim a capital in East Jerusalem and some international actors advocate special political classification for the city or specific Muslim and Christian holy sites. The Gaza Strip presents its own set of complicated challenges. Israel withdrew its permanent military presence and its settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, but it still controls most access points.
Israel has a robust economy and a vibrant democracy, though how to incorporate Arab citizens into the state and society remains challenging. Since late 2015, Israeli-Palestinian violence centered in Jerusalem and the West Bank has stoked domestic and international debate about Israel’s dedication to the rule of law on matters involving Palestinians, and about the openness of Israel’s political sphere and civil society to varying viewpoints. Continuing development of offshore natural gas finds raises the prospect of a more energy-independent future, while economic debates focus largely on cost-of-living and inequality issues. Various leaders vie for public support by interweaving ideology with ethnic, religious, demographic, socioeconomic, and national security considerations. Netanyahu’s current governing coalition includes various right-of-center and religious parties.

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