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Conflicting Values: How US Public Sentiment Legitimises Supplying Ukraine and Delegitimises Arming Israel

Shae Potter | USA Fellow

Protest meeting in front of the White House in Washington DC in support of Palestinian resistance to Israel during the 2023 Israel-Gaza war. Image sourced from Ted Eytan via Wikimedia Commons.

The 2021 withdrawal of military operations in Afghanistan was presented to the American public as an opportunity to move beyond perpetual and ineffective military engagement. Less than three years later, the US again finds itself at the foot of two conflicts which have deteriorated into protracted, devastating and inefficient campaigns.


The expansion of US military exports in response to the parallel Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Palestine conflicts discards their post-Afghanistan ambition for outcome-driven resource allocation. In the fiscal year of 2023, the US transferred USD$80.9 billion in defence services under the Foreign Military Sales system, representing a 55.9 per cent increase from the previous year. While both conflicts are refocusing the US’s attention, engagement approaches between Ukraine and Israel sharply diverge, mirroring differences in international geopolitical factors and domestic public sentiment.


Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s invasion enjoys broad support within the American public on the basis of Cold War era anti-Russia attitudes. Research from Pew Research Center found that a 64 per cent majority view Russia as an enemy to the US. For younger generations, opinions are informed by recent developments like Putin’s arrest of LGBT activists and the persecution of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The American public’s support for Ukraine is inseparable from vestigial views on Russia as a historical aggressor.


Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is vocally nostalgic for the territorial unity of the former Soviet Union, and regularly cites his ambition to reunify the empire as justification for his ‘special military operation’. However, his imperial mythology has no basis in fact (references to Ukraine’s struggle for statehood were recorded as early as the 16th century). As a result, the US and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members view Ukraine’s security as integral to Europe, fearing further westward Russian advancement if Ukraine were to fail. Recognising this security imperative, the United States has committed more than USD$51.2 billion to Ukraine’s defence alongside significant community aid investments. The values-based consensus within the American public and across foreign allies that Ukraine is a ‘righteous underdog,’ and a victim of Russian aggression legitimises the Biden government’s approach to weapon supply and military aid support.


The same assessment cannot be made for the US’ approach to the concurrent Gaza conflict. Instead, the Biden government’s support of Israel is delegitimised by more Americans thinking that Israel has ‘gone too far’, rather than viewing their actions as justified. As the conflict progresses, all three major party groups have become less supportive of Israel. For many, Israel is perceived as the aggressor due to disproportionate responses resulting in mass Palestinian civilian death, and their unwillingness to negotiate a ceasefire agreement. Consequently, arming Israel has been strongly criticised and protested by highly motivated pro-Palestinian activists.


Since the 7th of October 2023, the US has enacted legislation to provide at least USD $12.5 billion in military support to Israel. In May, a US State Department report found that some American-made weapons may have been used in breach of international law. Yet to date, the US has not placed conditions on their use. The Biden administration has attempted to ameliorate ethical concerns by funding USD$674 million of humanitarian aid in Gaza and urging Netanyahu to protect Palestinian civilians.


Like Ukraine, the supply of military aid to Israel is similarly characterised by a longstanding diplomatic alliance defined by mutual security interests. From the US perspective, Israel is an important stabiliser within the Middle East region, preventing disruptions to the oil supply on which the US remains dependent. For Israel, the US is their largest trading partner and key collaborator in sensitive R&D technology. These historical arrangements position Israel as an important strategic ally, especially as Saudi relations have deteriorated. Israel's strong technology and defence capabilities, asymmetrically advanced relative to their neighbours, feature in criticisms of their behaviour.

The US’ ongoing support of Israel suggests that the value of their strategic partnership outweighs mounting scrutiny from the International Court of Justice and global allies and implies a tacit support of their objectives. Even after the United Nations Special Rapporteur identified ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, the US did not course-correct.


The backdrop to both conflicts is an aspiration to be recognised by the global community as a sovereign state with autonomy over their people, territory and judiciary. Ukraine and Palestine have faced prolonged struggles to assert their independence and legitimacy. Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and especially after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine has continually sought to maintain its territorial integrity and political sovereignty. Similarly, Palestine has pursued international recognition and self-determination amid decades of conflict with Israel, seeking to establish a state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. As these fresh conflicts erode their internal capacity to maintain political processes and institutions, both Ukraine and Palestine must re-examine how they might secure wider international support in their respective paths to recognised statehood.


There are many important differences between the contemporaneous Ukraine and Gaza conflicts. However, the US’ responses to both provides an interesting view on the power of public opinion to legitimise or delegitimise government decisions. To Americans, it seems that supporting a historically significant strategic ally is a valid argument for defending Ukraine, a victim, but it is insufficient in convincing the public to arm Israel as an aggressor.


A lesson from Afghanistan is that Americans want their government to prioritise outcomes when making military investments. No clear solutions appear forthcoming for the tandem Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine conflicts. The choice for the current Biden administration, and a possible future Trump presidency, is how the US will align their actions to their stated values. US approaches to the parallel Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Palestine conflicts reveal their hypocrisy in how human rights are upheld and contradictions in how ‘victimhood’ is defined. As a result, they risk losing support for their foreign policy agendas within their public and the wider global community.

Shae Potter is the USA Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is versed in global business strategy and leadership through her current pursuit of a part-time Master of Business Administration at the University of Sydney, with her international relations expertise underpinned by a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences. 

Shae has a deep personal interest in US domestic and foreign policy and frequently attends events hosted by the US Consul General and the Unites States Studies Centre.


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