Today, it is taken for granted that the United States has a special relationship with Israel and that it has always been the case. In truth, powerful forces within the U.S. government opposed the establishment of Israel and have fought to diminish them for 70 years. Fortunately, U.S. presidents have recognized the Jewish state shares our values and interests and have built an unbreakable alliance in those seven decades.
Prior to World War II, the United States had little interest in the Middle East, leaving it to the British and French to fight for influence. Still, beginning with President Woodrow Wilson, American presidents endorsed the Balfour Declaration. State Department Arabists, taking a cue from their British counterparts, vigorously opposed the implementation of Balfour. Some were simply anti-Semitic, but others feared alienating the Arabs, were concerned that Jews might be Bolshevists, and worried the Soviet Union might gain influence with the Arabs if we sided with the Jews. After the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, and even before the Saudis were supplying any to the United States, Arabists became convinced our access to oil would be compromised if we supported Jewish independence.
When President Harry Truman decided to support partition and later recognized Israel eleven minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared independence, he faced intense opposition within his own cabinet. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal reiterated Arabist fears regarding oil supplies and Secretary of State George Marshall threatened not to vote for Truman’s reelection. Truman overruled them because he wanted to help Holocaust survivors, believed in redeeming past promises to support a Jewish state and he thought partitioning Palestine would lead to peace. Still, he was convinced to impose an arms embargo that severely hampered Israel’s ability to defend itself.
When Dwight Eisenhower became president, he brought with him many of the same negative attitudes toward a Jewish state expressed by the Arabists. They were reinforced by his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, and aggravated by Israel’s collusion with France and Britain in the Suez War. Though often mistakenly regarded as one of the most anti-Israel presidents, Eisenhower actually changed his position completely by the end of his second term. Instead of viewing Israel as a liability, he came to view the country as a strategic asset because it was the only pro-Western power in the region and Arab leaders had proved unable and unwilling to protect and advance American interests.
It was not until the mid-1960s that the United States began to openly support Israel. In 1966, the Johnson administration sold Israel tanks and Skyhawks aircraft, the first time the United State provided offensive weapons and publicly acknowledged arms sales to Israel. The Six-Day War subsequently proved Israel was a serious military power in the region. A year later, Johnson approved the sale of advanced Phantom jets to Israel, which established the precedent of ensuring Israel has a qualitative military edge over its adversaries.
The United States demonstrated its commitment to Israel’s security three years later during the Yom Kippur War. Early on it appeared Israel was in danger of being defeated and a U.S. airlift helped Israel turn the tide in the war. Richard Nixon also approved an emergency aid package that evolved into a multi-billion-dollar annual grant program.
The Carter administration was a mixed bag. On the positive side, Carter signed legislation to combat the Arab boycott and mediated the peace talks with Israel. On the other hand, he grudgingly accepted the Egyptian-Israeli peace initiative and nearly sabotaged it. He also flirted with the PLO while it was near the height of its terrorist activities and was especially critical of Israel.
Ronald Reagan immediately reversed the impression that a wedge could be driven between the United States and Israel. He had his run-ins with Menachem Begin over the sale of AWACs to Saudi Arabia and the war in Lebanon, but he also ushered in the formalization of the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance and signed the Free Trade Agreement.
After additional ups and, especially, downs over settlements with George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton restored the equilibrium by pursuing an unapologetically pro-Israel policy. With Israel’s assent, economic assistance was phased out and military aid increased.
George W. Bush confounded expectations he would be as critical of Israel as his father and instead continued Clinton’s approach of supporting Israel both publicly and privately. He was also the first president to put more of the onus on the Palestinians for the failure to advance the peace process.
The resilience of the U.S.-Israel relationship was tested during the Obama administration as the president took a particularly harsh approach toward his Israeli counterpart and adopted many of the worst ideas of the Arabists whose commitment to weaken the alliance has not abated. The atmosphere toward Israel was hostile for eight years and boiled over during the debate of the nuclear deal with Iran. Still, Obama provided Israel additional military hardware and signed a ten-year military aid deal.
President Donald Trump has been outspoken in his support for Israel and unhesitating in his criticism of Palestinian terrorism and intransigence. His decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv was a dramatic slap in the face to the Arabists who obstructed the move for 70 years. Instead of an administration full of critics of Israel, the Trump administration may have more pro-Israel officials in key positions from the White House to the UN to Foggy Bottom to the Pentagon than any of its predecessors.
The evolution in relations from the days before independence when it was unclear whether the United States would support a Jewish state has been remarkable. Contrary to the assertions of the Arabists, support for Israel did not result in Soviet domination of the Middle East, did not cost us access to oil and did not prevent America from building alliances with Arab states. Rather than a burden, Israel has proven to be a strategic asset to the United States.
Today, the depth and breadth of relations between the governments and peoples of our two countries are unprecedented and bipartisan. I have faith that 70 years from now, another writer will document how another list of presidents further strengthened the bonds between Israel and the United States.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and author/editor of 23 books including The Arab Lobby and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.