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Monday, November 19, 2012

Israel: Background and U.S. Relations

Jim Zanotti
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

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 maintaining close U.S.-Israel defense, diplomatic, and economic cooperation. U.S. and Israeli leaders have pursued common security goals and have developed close relations based on common perceptions of shared democratic values and religious affinities. U.S. policymakers often seek to determine how regional events and U.S. policy choices may affect Israel’s security, and Congress provides active oversight of executive branch dealings with Israel and the broader Middle East. Some Members of Congress and some analysts criticize what they perceive as U.S. support of Israel without sufficient scrutiny of its actions. Other than Afghanistan, Israel is the leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid and is a frequent purchaser of major U.S. weapons systems. The United States and Israel maintain close security cooperation—predicated on a U.S. commitment to maintain 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. For more information, see CRS Report RL33222, U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, by Jeremy M. Sharp.

Israel’s perceptions of security around its borders have changed since early 2011 as several surrounding Arab countries—including Egypt and Syria—have experienced political upheaval or transition. Of particular concern to Israel is the durability of its 33-year-old peace treaty with Egypt, where a new Islamist-led government may become more reflective of popular sentiment that includes anti-Israel strains. Israeli leaders continually call for urgent international action against Iran’s nuclear program, and have hinted at the possibility of a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. For more information, see CRS Report R42443, Israel: Possible Military Strike Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities, coordinated by Jim Zanotti. Israel also perceives an expanding rocket threat from non-state actors such as the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, as well as Hamas and other militants in Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Recent regional developments and Israeli reactions to them have reinforced the political impasse between Israel and the Palestinians on core issues in their longstanding conflict, calling into question the land-for-peace formula that has guided years of efforts to resolve it. Since the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel has militarily occupied and administered the West Bank, with the Palestinian Authority exercising limited self-rule in some areas since 1995. Israeli settlement of that area, facilitated by successive Israeli governments, has resulted in a population of approximately 500,000 Israelis living in residential neighborhoods or settlements in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). These settlements are of disputed legality under international law. Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be the “eternal, undivided capital of Israel,” despite Palestinian claims to a capital in East Jerusalem and some international actors’ support for special political classification for the city or specific Muslim and Christian holy sites. Although Israel withdrew its permanent military presence and its settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it still controls most access points and legal commerce to and from the territory.

Despite its unstable regional environment, Israel has developed a robust diversified economy and a vibrant democracy. Political debates are being shaped in new ways by population increases among Jewish ultra-Orthodox and Russian-speaking communities and Israel’s Arab citizens. Many analysts assert that national elections scheduled for January 22, 2013 will probably result in another government coalition headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Initial reports indicate that the campaign will focus largely on Israel’s handling of the Iran and Palestinian issues—including coordination on these issues with the United States—as well as the economy.

Date of Report: November 7, 2012
Number of Pages: 39
Order Number: RL33476
Price: $29.95

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