U.S.-Israeli relations - diplomatic, strategic and cultural - are
as warm now as they have been at any point over the 60 years of
Israel's independence. Yet both the public image of Israel and the
basic approach of U.S. policymakers toward the Jewish state have
passed through four distinct phases over the past six decades.
Periods of tension and even diplomatic distance have alternated
with eras of closer relations.
I. 1948-1960: Distant Ties
World War II brought U.S. troops to the fringes of the Middle East
- Algeria and Tunisia in North Africa, Iran in southwest Asia. The
war also fortified the U.S. link with Saudi Arabia, and broke
ground for the construction of a major U.S. military base in Libya.
Yet officials in the administration of U.S. President Harry Truman
expected to concentrate their post-war efforts on the "Northern
Tier" - Greece, Turkey and Iran, three countries on the frontlines
of the budding Cold War, against the Soviet Union. The Levant, Iraq
and Egypt were perceived as primarily areas of British
The British withdrawal from its Palestinian mandate, however,
forced the United States to confront the question of a possible
Jewish state. Throughout 1947 and into 1948, U.S. officials
encouraged a solution through the United Nations (UN), though
without ever specifying the terms of a preferred settlement. The
Israeli declaration of independence forced the U.S. to adopt a more
proactive policy: Overriding the recommendation of Secretary of
State George Marshall, Truman extended diplomatic recognition to
the new state.
Political concerns, obviously, played some role in Truman's
decision: The defection of the heavily Democratic Jewish vote would
have doomed what was already an unlikely bid for re-election. Yet
two other motives trumped domestic politics for the president.
First, the administration feared giving the Soviet Union an
advantage in the Cold War - as expected, the Soviets also quickly
recognized the Israeli government. Second, for humanitarian reasons
in the aftermath of the Holocaust, congressional and public
pressure strongly favored the U.S. providing what it could to
Recognition did not entail a close diplomatic relationship between
the two countries. Post-independence Israel obtained most of its
arms from Western Europe, not the U.S. And after winning a
surprising re-election in 1948, Truman focused his international
attention on the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO), the effects of the Communist triumph in China and then the
Korean War (1950-1953).
If distracted, Truman at least generally sympathized with Israel,
as did most of his key White House aides. The same could not be
said of his successor. Dwight Eisenhower tilted U.S. foreign policy
decisively toward the Arab states (and Iran), which he saw as
potential allies in the Cold War and economically vital to an
expanding U.S. economy. Israel seemed, if anything, an obstacle to
achieving U.S. aims. Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster
Dulles, publicly identified the three principal obstacles to peace
in the Middle East: the "tragic plight" of Arab refugees; the "pall
of fear" created by Israeli expansion; and the lack of fixed,
permanent boundaries. Little doubt existed which state he blamed
for the region's problems.
The Eisenhower administration opposed Israel in decisive ways
(chiefly after the joint Israeli-British-French intervention in the
Suez, in 1956), but also behind the scenes. The U.S. supplied
Israel with less than $1 million in military aid during
Eisenhower's eight years in office, and economic assistance to
Israel fell from over $50 million in 1954 to under $20 million by
II. 1961-1974: Laying the Foundations
The Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations established the
foundations of the modern U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership;
Lyndon B. Johnson was an especially important figure. Unlike
Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy saw Israel as something of a Cold War
asset, not a liability. The new president, for whom the Third World
formed the primary Cold War battleground, implemented the teachings
of a host of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and
Harvard academics, led by MIT Professor Walt Rostow. The MIT
economist contended that underdeveloped nations that successfully
transitioned to a capitalist economy and a democratic political
structure would resist Communist takeovers; while they evolved
through that stage of economic growth, however, they required U.S.
military assistance. In the world of the early 1960s, the only
country in the Middle East or North Africa that seemed to prove
Rostow's (dubious, in retrospect) thesis was Israel. Reversing
Eisenhower's policy, Kennedy authorized the first significant U.S.
arms sale to Israel (in 1962), though he cautioned Israeli Prime
Minister David Ben-Gurion and his government not to consider the
move as a precedent.
At the same time, Israel contradicted another key tenet of
Kennedy's foreign policy - nuclear non-proliferation. With China
and France about to test their own nuclear weapons, the
administration desperately hoped to keep the world's nuclear "club"
at no more than five nations. Yet Ben-Gurion had committed to
developing an Israeli bomb in the late 1950s. Throughout Kennedy's
tenure in office, the Israeli government deflected U.S. demands for
full inspection rights to the Dimona (Negev Desert) facility, and
the issue remained unresolved at the time of Kennedy's death.
Shortly after Kennedy's assassination, Johnson told an Israeli
diplomat, "You have lost a very great friend. But you have found a
better one." During his time in the White House, Johnson became the
first president to welcome an Israeli prime minister for a state
visit (Levi Eshkol, in 1964). He authorized three major arms sales
to Israel (1965, 1966 and 1968). And during the Six-Day War, he
defended Israel, at considerable diplomatic cost and despite the
Israelis' sinking of the U.S.S. Liberty. During a 1967 summit
meeting, Soviet Premier Alexey Kosygin said that "he couldn't
understand why we'd want to support the Jews - 3 million people
when there are 100 million Arabs." "I told him," Johnson recalled
in a phone call a few hours later, "that numbers do not determine
what was right. We tried to do what was right regardless of the
Personal concerns, rather than issues of grand strategy, mostly
explained Johnson's pro-Israel posture. Even though he came from a
Texas environment populated by few Jews and fewer Zionists, Johnson
had worked closely with a variety of pro-Israel figures - attorney
Abe Fortas, labor leader David Dubinsky, fundraiser Arthur Krim -
before coming to the presidency. Johnson also entertained a
romantic view of Israel, envisioning it as a frontier state not
unlike his home territory of Texas. Johnson aide John Roche
explained the attraction: "I look at the Israelis as Texans, and
[Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser as Santa Ana."
If Johnson's backing for Israel lacked a solid theoretical
rationalization, the policy of his successor, Richard Nixon, was
based almost exclusively on realpolitik. Yet, just as Johnson had
done, Nixon provided critical support for Israel during an
Israeli-Arab conflict, on this occasion by authorizing an airlift
of U.S. supplies to Israel in the chaotic early hours of the 1973
war. Also, in a move of questionable constitutionality, Secretary
of State Henry Kissinger - without informing the president first of
his decision - raised the nuclear alert of U.S. forces in the
Mediterranean to deter a possible Soviet intervention against
III. 1974-2000: New Issues
The 1967 and 1973 wars fundamentally changed Israel's image in
America, in three important ways. First, the aftermath of the 1973
conflict brought home to American citizens the economic cost of
strong support of Israel. The Arabs' oil embargo had tripled the
price of gasoline, triggering shortages and, eventually,
double-digit inflation. Second, Israel's annexation of East
Jerusalem and funding of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and
Gaza made Israel appear not as the underdog - a favorite storyline
in U.S. popular culture - but an occupying, imperialist power. This
viewpoint intensified after 1977, when the Likud Party abandoned
all pretenses that the settlements were merely strategic outposts
necessary to bolster Israeli security. Finally, Arab and
Arab-American political power in the U.S. increased. In 1972, South
Dakota voters made James Abourezk the first Arab-American elected
to the U.S. Senate, where he strongly criticized Israel. On the
diplomatic front, the oil shock and the Iranian revolution made the
U.S.-Saudi alliance all the more critical, and the Saudi government
used its leverage to bolster its influence among U.S. policymakers
and the opinion elite.
In this more complicated Middle East situation, U.S. attitudes
toward Israel became more erratic. In the Gallup Poll for the years
between 1977 and 1999, for instance, the percentage of Americans
who said they sympathized with Israel varied wildly. The figure
ranged from a low of 32% in 1982 (during the Israeli invasion of
Lebanon) to a high of 64% in February 1991, as Scud missiles
targeted the nation, but Israel complied with U.S. requests not to
retaliate against Iraq.
The new environment led U.S. supporters of Israel, such as the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to step up their
political efforts. AIPAC's work played a critical role in ousting
two Illinois Republicans - Representative Paul Findley in 1982 and
Senator Charles Percy in 1984 - who had shown some sympathy for the
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Despite AIPAC's influence, U.S. policy toward Israel exhibited
considerable swings in the two decades following Nixon's
resignation. In 1981, the intensive efforts of the Israel lobby
could not induce Congress to block U.S. President Ronald Reagan's
decision to sell five AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, in what was
then the largest foreign military sale package in U.S. history.
Hard-line Israeli leaders - Defense Minister Ariel Sharon in the
early 1980s, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir amidst the first
intifada in the late 1980s - had, at best, tense relations with
Washington. And longtime PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat moved from a
persona non grata in the U.S. during the First Gulf War -when the
PLO supported the Iraqis - to having President Bill Clinton welcome
him to the White House lawn for the signing of the 1993 Oslo
Close cultural relations between the two societies had existed
since 1948, largely due to the connections fostered by American
Jews. But in the 1990s and beyond, other factors integrated Israel
and the U.S. more tightly. Israel's embrace of the Internet and
high technology paralleled the course taken in the U.S. to
technological change. Similarly, both societies championed economic
globalization and a more internationalist approach to culture - at
least among secular Jews in Israel and states that normally vote
Democrat in the U.S.
IV. 2000-Present: Common Foes?
Two events consolidated what had been the sometimes inconsistent
U.S. sympathy for Israel. First, after the failure in 2000 of the
peace talks at Camp David, the Palestinians launched the second
intifada. Regardless of its strategic or political rationale, the
Palestinians' decision to employ suicide attacks against Israeli
civilians polarized U.S. public opinion against their cause. Then,
on September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four U.S.
commercial jets, flying two of them into the World Trade Center and
one into the Pentagon, and one crashed in Pennsylvania, killing in
total around 3,000 civilians. The suicide attacks seemed to
validate a longtime Israeli assertion that the U.S. and Israel
faced a common threat of Islamic terrorism.
After the launching of the second intifada, sympathy for Israel
among the U.S. public surged: The average Gallup Poll figure
between 2000 and 2006 was 12% higher than the number from 1993
through 1999. Moreover, a solid majority of Americans came to see
Israel not only as a moral but also as a strategic ally: In the
2007 poll, 55% of the U.S. public viewed Israel as a "vital
friend," as opposed to 43% for the United Kingdom and 36% for
Canada. After 2000, strong criticism of Israel became increasingly
confined to the ideological fringes - coming more from the extreme
left than from the right for the first time in U.S. history. The
Christian fundamentalists, whose community in the early 20th
century had featured strong doses of anti-Semitism, now embraced
Israel as they turned their animus to radical Islam, helping to
explain the decline of far-right hostility to Israel.
The power of this new, solidly pro-Israel consensus is striking: As
of 2008, it has encompassed virtually every member of Congress and
every serious presidential candidate from both parties, ranging
from Democrat John Edwards on the left to Republican Mike Huckabee
on the right.
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