It was recently reported that former Ambassador and now MK Michael Oren gave a talk at the Harvard Club in which he argued “Obama-ism” will not fade away when the president leaves office, and that he has ushered in a new era when the United States does not want to be the world’s policeman or use significant military force in the Middle East. Oren also reportedly said Israel must adapt its policy to this new American policy, which he suggested meant that Israel could act more independently while not being able to depend on the US. to have Israel’s back. Coincidentally, in June, I gave a presentation to the Association of Israel Studies entitled, “Can US-Israel Relations Survive Bibi and Barack,” which came to the opposite conclusion of Oren’s analysis.
History shows that policies toward Israel often change dramatically from one president to another, but the core values that underpin the alliance do not change and US-Israel relations remain steady. Moreover, the relationship is not built on the personal chemistry between presidents and prime ministers; today, it is interwoven in ties with Congress, state and local officials, trade, academia and a broad web of connections between individuals and institutions here and in Israel.
Let’s take a quick look at the history of relations by administration:
Harry Truman recognized Israel and was instrumental in the establishment of the state. He was followed by Dwight Eisenhower who was extremely hostile toward Israel and its prime minister throughout his first term. By his second term, however, his views changed almost 180 degrees and he left office believing Israel was America’s only reliable ally in the region. John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon were all very pro-Israel and progressively strengthened the alliance with Johnson establishing the principle of America guaranteeing Israel’s strategic advantage while becoming its main arms supplier, and Nixon setting the precedent for the exponential increase in foreign aid for Israel.
These mostly positive years were followed by Jimmy Carter’s term, which was marked by highs (Camp David and anti-boycott legislation) and lows (clashes over arms for Saudis, settlements and Palestinian statehood). Ultimately, Carter was seen as hostile to Israel, which led Jewish voters to abandon him in droves and help defeat his bid for reelection. Carter’s foreign policy and policy toward Israel were completely reversed by Ronald Reagan who brought an entirely different world view to the White House and a kishka-level appreciation of Israel. Despite ups and downs over Lebanon, the Golan Heights and AWACS, strategic cooperation was formalized with Menachem Begin, another prime minister who ruffled presidential feathers.
George H.W. Bush was nearly the polar opposite of his predecessor when it came to policy toward Israel. He had no deep attachment to Israel and his Secretary of State was openly hostile. Antagonism between Bush and Yitzhak Shamir was a source of ongoing tension, highlighted by the fight over loan guarantees for Israel. That too passed, however, when Yitzhak Rabin was elected. Jews who had high hopes for Bush at first, were disenchanted by his policies toward Israel; consequently, Jewish Republicans gravitated toward the charismatic Bill Clinton. Once again, the outcome on election day changed relations dramatically as one of the most anti-Israel presidents was replaced by one of the most pro-Israel. Eight years later, a new Republican president came to office with a radically different world view and yet George W. Bush proved as supportive of Israel, if not more so, than Clinton.
And then came Obama.
Before getting to Oren’s thesis that America has changed and that is why “Obama-ism” will continue, it is worth remembering that even the most pro-Israel presidents had testy relationships with their Israeli counterparts. For example:
- Ronald Reagan became embroiled in an all-out lobbying war with Begin over the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia, Reagan suspended arms sales to Israel for bombing Beirut, and he suspended strategic cooperation to express his anger over Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
- Bill Clinton kept most of his criticism of Israel private; however, he didn’t hesitate to condemn Netanyahu and toasted his defeat.
The US-Israel relationship has only grown stronger over the years despite presidents viewed as anti-Israel and pro-Israel presidents who had dustups with Israeli leaders.
Oren is not just concerned with US policy toward Israel; he apparently believes America has adopted a hands-off foreign policy. Much depends on the outcome of the election. Donald Trump has certainly expressed isolationist tendencies but it is hard to know what he would actually do when confronted with the realities of making foreign policy. Hillary Clinton has been much more direct about her foreign policy views and is likely to adopt a more muscular approach than Obama. The United States is not looking for any new wars, but Clinton is not going turn a blind eye to Syria or ISIS or Iran. Both candidates will also need an assertive strategy to fight the war with radical Islam and its supporters.
It would be a serious mistake for Israelis to believe they will be free to act without worrying about a disengaged America or that this detachment means Israel cannot count on the United States to come to Israel’s aid if needed. The United States is never too preoccupied to care about Israel’s actions. Even under the hands-off policy of Obama, the president has routinely expressing his anger over Israeli actions such as settlement construction and house demolitions. The next president will not turn a blind eye to Israeli policies that are viewed as harmful to US interests and will likely be as critical of settlements as Obama. What is less certain is whether the next president will emulate Obama’s public vitriol toward Israel or adopt Bill Clinton’s policy of criticizing Israel primarily behind closed doors.
The United States will also be at Israel’s side in any crisis. The president has a key role, but Congress will not be passive. As in the case of providing additional money for Iron Dome, the bipartisan consensus that Israel is an ally that merits our support has not changed.
The US-Israel relationship has gone from strength to strength in the 70 years since Truman backed the partition resolution to establish a Jewish state. The last eight years of “Obama-ism” may have been tougher than many (but certainly not all) that came before, but the alliance is intact. More important, history has shown that each president has their own world-view that shapes their policy toward Israel. The next president will be challenged to clean up the mess Obama has made of our Middle East policy; nevertheless, come January 20, “Obama-ism” will be nothing more than a bad memory.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.