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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Israel: Background and U.S. Relations

Casey L. Addis
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs

On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel declared its independence and was immediately engaged in a war with all of its neighbors. Armed conflict has marked every decade of Israel’s existence. Despite its unstable regional environment, Israel has developed a vibrant parliamentary democracy, albeit with relatively fragile governments. The most recent national elections were held on February 10, 2009, ahead of schedule. Although the Kadima Party placed first, parties holding 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset supported opposition Likud party leader Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who was designated to form a government. Netanyahu’s coalition includes his own Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), Shas, Habayet Hayehudi (Jewish Home), the United Torah Judaism (UTJ), and the new Ha’atzmout (Independence) party. The coalition controls 66 of 120 Knesset seats. Israel has an advanced industrial, market economy with a large government role.

Israel’s foreign policy is focused largely on its region, Europe, and the United States. Israel’s foreign policy agenda begins with Iran, which it views as an existential threat due to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism. Achieving peace with its neighbors is next. Israel concluded peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, but not with Syria and Lebanon. Recent unrest in Egypt is rekindling latent anxiety in Israel about the durability of the peace treaty Egypt and Israel have relied upon for 30 years. Israel unilaterally ended its 18-year occupation of Lebanon by withdrawing from the south Lebanon in 2000. Syrian occupation forces remained until 2005, but its proxy Hezbollah remains in Lebanon and sparked a 34-day war when it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006. A cease-fire monitored by the enhanced United Nations Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is holding. Syria-Israel negotiations reached an impasse in 2000, were partially revived through Turkish mediation, and have stagnated. Israel negotiated a series of agreements with the Palestinians in the 1990s, but that process ended in 2000. It resumed talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in June 2007, after Palestinian Authority (PA) President and PLO Chairman Mahmud Abbas dissolved an Hamas-led unity government in response to the group’s takeover of the Gaza Strip. The Obama Administration’s Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, former Senator George Mitchell, is trying to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Since 1948, the United States and Israel have developed a close friendship based on common democratic values, religious affinities, and security interests. U.S.-Israeli bilateral relations are multidimensional. The United States is the principal proponent of the Arab-Israeli peace process, but U.S. and Israeli views differ on some issues, such as the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, and settlements. Israel and the Bush Administration enjoyed particularly close relations. The latter and Congress supported Israel’s 2006 military campaigns against Hezbollah and Hamas and Israel’s 2008/2009 offensive against Hamas as acts of self-defense. Shortly after taking office in January 2009, President Obama stated that he considers Israel to be a strong ally of the United States. Yet relations have sometimes appeared strained as Administration officials and the Netanyahu government have differed markedly over how to resume the peace process. The United States and Israel concluded a free-trade agreement in 1985. Israel is among the leading recipients of U.S. foreign aid and the two countries also have close security relations. Other issues in U.S.-Israeli relations include Israel’s military sales, inadequate Israeli protection of U.S. intellectual property, and espionage-related cases. See also CRS Report RL33530, Israeli-Arab Negotiations: Background, Conflicts, and U.S. Policy, by Carol Migdalovitz, CRS Report RL33222, U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel , by Jeremy M. Sharp, and CRS Report R41618, Israel’s Offshore Natural Gas Discoveries Enhance Its Economic and Energy Outlook, by Michael Ratner.

Date of Report: February 14, 2011
Number of Pages: 43
Order Number: RL33476
Price: $29.95

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