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 influence.
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 support Jews.
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 1959.

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 numbers."
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 Israel.

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 Accords.
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.

Further Reading

Alteras, Isaac. Eisenhower and Israel: United States-Israeli Relations, 1953-1960.
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993.
Bar-Siman-Tov, Yaacov, with commentary by David Schoenbaum and Peter Hahn. "The United States and Israel since 1948: A 'Special Relationship'? Diplomatic History. Vol. 22, pp. 231-282.
Bass, Warren. Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Ben-Zvi, Abraham. United States and Israel: The Limits of the Special Relationship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Druks, Herbert. Uncertain Alliance: The U.S. and Israel from Kennedy to the Peace Process. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Hahn, Peter. Caught in the Middle East: U.S. Policy toward the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1945-1961. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Levey, Zach. Israel and the Western Powers, 1952-1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Mart, Michelle. Eye on Israel: How America Came to View the Jewish State as an Ally. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.
Schoenbaum, David. United States and the State of Israel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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