America's Special Relationship with Israel
For decades, as Israel has struggled to survive, we have rejoiced in your triumphs and shared in your agonies. In the years since Israel was founded, Americans of every faith have admired and supported you. … In times of war and times of peace, every President of the United States since Harry Truman, and every Congress has understood the importance of Israel. The survival of Israel is important not only to our interests, but to every single value we hold dear as a people.
-- President William Jefferson Clinton
Address to the Israeli Knesset
October 27, 1994
Since 1948, one of the few elements of American foreign policy to remain relatively unchanged has been the United States’ staunch support of and friendship towards Israel. This friendship, often referred to as the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel, has prompted America to provide unprecedented levels of economic and military support throughout the last fifty years. In return, there has been much cooperation between American and Israeli military and intelligence services in the Middle East region. Beyond a mere quid-pro-quo military arrangement, however, the friendship has fostered an environment of social, economic, and political cooperation between the nations.
Of course, this alliance has by no means been entirely positive: U.S. friendship with Israel has necessitated its involvement in the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict concerning Arab-Palestinian territory under Israeli occupation. Indeed, the United States has historically been one of the strongest advocates of a peaceful settlement between Jews and Arabs, and has played a crucial role as a mediator in various negotiations and accords.
More disturbing, though, is a recent backlash of anti-Americanism throughout the Arab world that a sizable minority of Americans blame at least partly upon the United States’ alliance with and aid towards Israel. All in all, it is fair to say that friendship with Israel, for good and for ill, has been a centerpiece of American policy in the Middle East. Because this special relationship has had such a significant effect upon international relations since 1950, it is important to consider both the roots of the friendship and the ways in which has been maintained throughout the last several decades.
Viewed as a whole, the U.S.-Israeli alliance has been founded upon the twin bases of strategic and socio-political interests. In turn, the latter can be subdivided into domestic political considerations, economic interests, cultural sympathy and humanitarianism. And yet, exactly how these diverse factors have been woven into a fabric of cooperation between the American and Israeli peoples is not quite so clear-cut.
In the context of world-scale international politics in the late-20th century, it is natural to assume that strategic interests relating to the United States’ Cold War versus the Soviet Union were particularly influential in shaping America’s foreign policy stance towards Israel; indeed, that such interests have played an significant role is undeniable. However, to emphasize Cold War strategy as the most important foundation of the United States’ Israel policy is to make an oversimplification that does not necessarily stand up to historical scrutiny. At times the U.S.-Israel alliance has proved explicitly contrary to America’s strategic interests, and yet the relationship has persisted even through periods of diplomatic tension, albeit waxing and waning in strength. On the whole, although strategic conditions were of great importance in the establishment of America’s “special relationship” with Israel, the maintenance of this alliance has depended primarily on social and political factors beyond mere Cold War strategy. In large part, these more subtle social and political forces are demonstrative of the extent to which friendly relations with Israel have become entrenched in the United States’ socio-political consciousness.
The Foundations of Alliance
As President Clinton mentioned in his 1994 address to Israel’s Knesset, support for Israel is an American political tradition dating back to the presidency of Harry S. Truman. However, it is important to recognize the distinction between a friendly, supportive diplomatic stance and the more dramatic multithreaded alliance that emerged between the two nations by the mid-1960s. This fundamental paradigm shift in U.S.-Israel relations developed only gradually during the 1950s, climaxing during the administration of John F. Kennedy. Nonetheless, American attitudes towards the founding of Israel, and in particular the policies of President Truman during Israel’s War for Independence in 1948, were the foundations for further friendship and cooperation between the American and Israeli peoples in later decades. Indeed it is fair to say that the United States has been supportive of Israel from its very beginnings, ultimately playing a key role in Israel’s achieving independence. However, despite a clear potential for friendship between the nations, strategic and political concerns prevented the formation of a strong alliance at this very early stage.
Historically, Americans have been supportive, but not unflinchingly so, in their attitudes towards Zionism. Not only have a number of American Jews been particularly influential in Zionism as a worldwide movement – most notably Louis A. Brandeis – but also the United States itself played an important role in establishing that movement’s legitimacy, despite internal division about the matter. Perhaps the most significant instance of this pre-Israel Zionist policy was Congress’s 1922 adoption of a resolution confirming Britain’s well-known Balfour Declaration, supporting “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine (although, notably, nothing is said of a nation-state). However, in general, the United States conformed to a Western European standard in remaining “largely indifferent or even hostile” to the proto-Israeli national body. This was due in large part to America’s 20th century’s foreign policy shift towards alliance with Great Britain, the reigning colonial power in the Near East region. While, on the whole, mainstream American society was probably fundamentally indifferent to Zionism before World War II, such political considerations set the stage for a deeply ambivalent post-War policy towards the “Palestine situation.” Indeed, President Truman maintained Franklin D. Roosevelt’s conservative stance towards Jews hoping to immigrate to Palestine for much of his first term in office. More interesting is the somewhat dramatic reversal of this policy that occurred in 1948, with Israel’s War for Independence.
President Truman’s de facto recognition of Israel within minutes of its declaration of independence must not be construed as demonstrative of homogeneous support for Zionism within the American political community. Rather, Truman’s own cabinet was bitterly divided about the matter, with particularly strong opposition from Secretary of State George C. Marshall. However, as with later cooperation between the nations, Truman’s decision was motivated by a combination of strategic, political, and cultural interests.
In terms of foreign policy and military strategy, it is clear that the looming shadow of growing Soviet power weighed heavily upon the Truman administration as they developed their Palestine policy. Anticipating the impending Cold War between the superpowers, officials understood that maintaining spheres of influence in various parts of the world would be central towards “defending democracy” from Communism. Given the USSR’s proximity to and influence in the Middle East, that a Jewish Israel would represent a bastion of Western Democratic values in the region was a powerful argument in favor of American support for the new state. With America not yet dependent on Arab oil, the risk of alienating Arab nations seemed small compared to the threat of growing Soviet influence.
And yet, the division among Truman’s advisors demonstrates that international strategic considerations alone could not shift administration policy significantly towards Israel. Instead, the deciding factors proved to be significant popular support for Israel – approximately two thirds of Americans supported the founding of Israel, a fact that may have applied political pressure to Truman in the 1948 election year – as well as widespread American humanitarian concern for Jewish Holocaust survivors, many of whom sought to make a new homeland in Israel. Truman’s own justification for recognizing Israel began the theme of “shared values” that would eventually characterize the special relationship between Israel and America.
As such, even at this early stage, strategic considerations were influential but not decisive in shaping the United States’ attitudes towards the new Jewish State. And yet, while recognition of Israel as an independent nation was an important step towards a bilateral alliance between the nations, such a relationship was still relatively far-off. Not only did Truman refuse to lift an arms embargo of Israel, but he also condemned the Israeli plan for resettlement of Arab-Palestinian refugees: “I am rather disgusted with the manner in which the Jews are approaching the refugee problem.” Despite mounting domestic political pressure, Truman continued this relatively conservative approach towards friendship with Israel after his reelection. Ultimately, the true alliance took another ten years to develop.
America’s policy towards Israel during Eisenhower’s administration began solely as a natural continuation of Truman’s pursuit of strategic advantage in the Middle East. Middle Eastern Studies expert Harry N. Howard, a public servant in foreign relations at the time, wrote:
The Eisenhower administration, 1953-61, basically continued the policies of its predecessor in the Middle East, although there was a much more balanced policy relative to the perennial Arab-Israel conflict, and certainly more stress on the development of regional security pacts in the interest of containment of the Soviet Union.
Essentially, Eisenhower was committed to finding allies in the Middle East other than Israel, in the hopes that America might maintain influence in the region without alienating strategically valuable Arab allies. Along with members of his cabinet such as Secretary of State John F. Dulles, Eisenhower’s administration saw the Arab-Israeli dispute “as one of the primary hurdles to a pro-American world,” and was determined to correct this policy imbalance. To this end, he continued Truman’s policy of an arms embargo on Israel, and worked to support the newly established Baghdad Pact, an alliance of Middle Eastern Arab states. With regard to Israel, his administration adopted the strategies of “coercion and deterrence,” using America’s clout as a superpower to force Israel into unilaterally abandoning territory in the Negev, ceasing military raids into Egypt and Jordan, and accepting Palestinian refugees. That is, during the period from 1953-56, the United States and Israel did not move towards closer social and military alliance, and the nations remained in an essentially superpower-client relationship.
Indeed, at times their interaction became openly hostile, such the case of the 1956 crisis involving a British, French, and Israeli invasion of the Sinai Peninsula (Egyptian territory) in order to gain control of the Suez Canal. Despite a strong desire to maintain freedom of passage through the canal, and hence an important role in the events leading up to the invasion, the United States expressed condemnation for the Israeli action, hoping that they would be able to vie with the USSR for influence in Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Arab-Nationalist government of Egypt. However, what is relevant to the discussion of the birth of the special relationship is not the pro-Arab course that Eisenhower took, but rather why he did not hesitate taking it. For the most part, Americans were indifferent to United States policy in the Middle East, holding no position with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In fact, Eisenhower’s anti-Israel foreign policy hurt him only slightly in the 1956 election, when American Jews voted overwhelmingly for Adlai Stevenson. However, Eisenhower won reelection without their votes, demonstrating that his focus upon the strategic dimension of policy towards Israel did not cause him undue political damage. Thus, Eisenhower’s first-term Israel policy was almost entirely dominated by strategic considerations; only beginning in 1956 did a combination of political and strategic developments in the region establish a foundation for friendship between Israel and America.
Abraham Ben-Zvi identifies Eisenhower’s second term, the period from 1957-61, as one of “strategic convergence”:
(While a) first glance at American-Israeli relations as they were delineated during President Eisenhower’s second term suggests that the administration remained committed…to most of the…policy lines that had previously characterized its thinking… a careful review of the period 1957-60 suggests that beneath the façade of consistency, the American posture towards the whole region, and toward Israel in particular, gradually changed. The heart of this subtle policy shift was a 1957 announcement made by the United States that is often called the Eisenhower Doctrine.
Modeled on the Truman Doctrine, and approved by Congress in March of 1957, this stated that the President of the United States had a prerogative to aid nations or groups of nations in the Middle East who were struggling to “maintain national independence” in the face of the Communist threat. (The group of nations Eisenhower had in mind was the Baghdad Pact.) However, “whatever the good intentions of the Eisenhower Doctrine as originally conceived, states in the area, generally, were not ready to accept its implications.”
The result was an American failure to achieve with Arab nations the kind of “bilateral security arrangements” espoused in the Doctrine; combined with a series of political crises in Arab nations throughout 1957-58, this seemed to give Israel an opportunity to win back American favor, as they were perhaps the only viable ally remaining in the region. Immediately, Israel began a concerted effort to shape American public opinion in Israel’s favor, a process completed through a combination of propaganda and calculated military withdrawals in the Sinai. When crises toppled the governments of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq by 1958, and the Baghdad Pact lost legitimacy among Arab nations in 1959, America was effectively forced into a strategic shift toward Israel. Meanwhile, Nasser’s pan-Arab movement was gaining strength, but Eisenhower was no longer able to look towards Egypt for an ally because Marxism and the Soviet Union were becoming considerably more influential among Nasserites.
At the same time, Israel remained “the only staunchly pro-Western state in the region,” as Secretary of State Dulles attested in his 1958 letter to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion:
The heart of the matter...is the urgent necessity to strengthen the bulwarks of international order and justice against the forces of lawlessness and destruction which currently are at work in the Middle East. We have been glad that Israel shares this purpose, as illustrated by your deeply appreciated acquiescence in the use of Israel's airspace by United States and UK aircraft in their mission in support of Jordan.... The critical situation in the Middle East today gives Israel manifold opportunities to contribute, from its resources of spiritual strength and determination of purpose, to a stable international order.Thus, Eisenhower found himself pushed unwillingly into a situation where alliance with Israel seemed to be a strategic necessity. This would lay the groundwork for future cooperation between the nations, although it is important to note that for the rest of his term, Eisenhower remained relatively chilly toward Israel: he did not lift the arms embargo or increase aid to the Jewish State.
It is apparent, then, that American policy towards Israel during Eisenhower’s presidency was almost entirely dominated by strategic concerns - any domestic social or political concerns were of minimal import, or were manufactured by the Israeli and American administrations to suit their strategic purposes. During Eisenhower’s first term, this purely strategic view of the Middle East served to maintain a distant relationship between the U.S. and Israel, but after 1956, it laid a solid foundation for future alliance between the nations. This stands in contrast to conditions during the Truman era, when strategic concerns were not sufficient to justify American support of Israel in their own right. Indeed, the establishment of the special relationship itself, although primarily a military alliance entered into for strategic reasons, would also require the role of super-strategic factors.
The United States’ gradual, albeit inconsistent, drift towards Israel culminated during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who established the special relationship in 1962 by selling them defensive Hawk Missiles – a relatively advanced weapons system, the sale of which had been forbidden by the longstanding arms embargo. Throughout the months leading up to the sale, the topic was hotly debated within the Kennedy administration, with the State Department reluctant to sell the weapons, and even more unwilling to enter into a serious military relationship with Israel. However, a State Department reevaluation of American strategy in the Middle East recommended that America pursue such an alliance, despite a few lingering doubts.
The reason for this sudden policy shift, which soon led to the successful Hawk sale, was growing diplomatic tension between Nasser’s government in Egypt, upsetting the balance between American and Soviet influence in the Middle East, and encouraging Kennedy to seek a more reliable ally in Israel. In addition, the Soviet Union had provided arms to the United Arab Republic, as well as long-range bombers to Nasser’s Egypt, presenting a direct threat to Israel, which lacked sufficient aerial defenses. Facing this situation, Kennedy felt obligated to restore the military balance of power between Jews and Arabs in the region.
Thus, strategic interests redirected American attention towards Israel, and Israel – for its part – leapt at the opportunity to become even closer to America. (It was already receiving more economic assistance from the United States than any other nation). Similarly, strategic issues enabled Israel to cement their military alliance with America into the special friendship that soon developed. Because the Hawk sale occurred just months prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the ultimate form of the U.S.-Israeli alliance was somewhat up in the air. However, during that crisis, Egypt-U.S. relations worsened even more dramatically, prompting Kennedy to abandon his remaining reservations concerning the plight of Arab Palestinian refugees. In this manner, the United States entered into the complete friendship and cooperation with Israel that has persisted between the countries ever since.
Despite the dominant role of strategic considerations in bringing about the special relationship paradigm-shift, social and political concerns were also important. Socially, Americans remained more sympathetic towards Jews than Arabs throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, mostly because of their shared “Western, democratic values.” This provided a basis of popular support for Kennedy’s foreign policy shift. In addition, specific political considerations may have been at work. Some historians have suggested that a Democratic desire to win key states with large Jewish populations (New York, Pennsylvania, California, etc.) was a deciding factor in Kennedy’s decision to sell the Hawk missiles. This theory is supported by the fact that American Jews had voted for Kennedy by an overwhelming 82% to 18% margin, suggesting to the president that his reelection might be in jeopardy if he did not please his Jewish constituency.
In addition, the 1960s saw the beginning period of ascendancy for the previously insignificant American Israel Public Affairs Committee – the Israeli lobby – which pushed to block rapprochement between Washington and Nasser’s government in Cairo. However, Ben-Zvi’s reinterpretation of the Eisenhower administration’s Middle East policy seems to largely refute this political argument, demonstrating that the shift towards alliance with Israel began back in 1957-8, some time before the Democrats regained the White House. Regardless of whether it was the most significant factor, however, it cannot be denied that Kennedy was a master politician, and understood the political impact of his foreign policy. Thus, the 1962 inception of the special relationship may have been due partly to a socio-political slant towards Israel in America. Nonetheless, the primary motivation was certainly strategic: it was in the United States’ best interests to rework its foreign policy in the Middle East, resulting in the Israeli-U.S. alliance as we know it.
The Special Relationship from 1962-1988
Since 1962, this special relationship has remained a centerpiece of the foreign policies of both Israel and the United States. In Israel, this can only be interpreted as an eagerness to maintain those elements of the friendship most beneficial to Israelis; specifically, the unprecedented levels of financial aid, military assistance, and diplomatic support. However, the alliance has never been a solely one-sided arrangement. Israel has provided a powerful military ally for the United States at various times, and its military and intelligence organizations routinely cooperate with their American counterparts to pursue mutually beneficial goals. Combined with the continuation of the Cold War until 1989, these factors have often made the Israeli alliance a strategic asset for America.
And yet Israel’s strategic value has by no means remained consistent in the forty years since the Hawk sale. Indeed, throughout the Cold War, both Israel’s (real and perceived) strategic value and American popular support for the friendship have fluctuated significantly. However, despite this inconsistency and several very serious diplomatic crises that have challenged the alliance, the special relationship has persisted relatively unscathed. This long-term viability demonstrates an entrenched base of social and political support for Israel within America, which has enabled the alliance to remain even when wider popular support diminished.
The first major challenge to Israeli-American friendship occurred shortly after the establishment of the alliance, when Kennedy confronted the Israeli government about a secret Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona which the U.S. intelligence community had discovered. In an era when the only nuclear powers were the United States and the Soviet Union, Kennedy worried that the Dimona reactor was intended as part of a future weapons program. Hence, while Ben-Gurion sought “warmer ties” with the United States, Kennedy was ready and willing to challenge the Prime Minister. The result was a series of attempts by the Kennedy administration to secure a promise from Ben-Gurion that Israel would submit the Dimona reactor to a regular inspections program; ultimately, however, he failed to do so.
Despite the friendliness established by the Hawk sale in 1962, nuclear proliferation was a pet issue for Kennedy, and so he applied immense pressure to Israel to achieve an inspections agreement. Unfortunately, such inspections proved worthless, but both Kennedy and Johnson were so displeased by the troublesome negotiations with Israel that they were willing to let the issue drop, more or less unsettled. Thus, the conflict actually strengthened the special relationship between the countries, rather than weakening it, as Israel put on a friendly façade of innocence for U.S. inspectors, and America adopted a strategy of pointedly ignoring the obvious: that Israel had become a nuclear power.
The Dimona crisis proved to be a good example of the subsequent trend in U.S.-Israel relations. Even when American strategic interests dictated a standoff, a political reluctance to challenge a nation that quickly became a cultural ally of the United States prevented a deterioration of the special friendship.
Despite the threat of nuclear proliferation, American policy towards Israel in the 1960s was actually characterized by an increase in Israel’s strategic value. As a result, American public and diplomatic support for Israel reached higher levels than ever, and the special relationship thrived. Following the assassination of President Kennedy – Israeli reaction to which demonstrated the extent that Israel and America had reached alignment in their social and cultural, as well as strategic, interests – the latter half of the decade was dominated by Israel’s Six Days’ War with its Arab neighbor states.
In some ways, the war itself was precipitated by American passivity towards the Arab-Israeli conflict in the wake of strengthened relations with Israel. Preoccupied with other matters, President Johnson was willing to deprioritize Arab-Israeli tensions; when these escalated to the brink of armed conflict, he found himself unable to avert the war, and the Soviet Union found itself similarly powerless. However, even though the conflict was ultimately resolved in the United Nations via negotiations between the superpowers, Israel’s stunning six-day defeat of combined Arab forces led to another reassessment of its strategic value to the United States. Not only did Israel appear militarily capable, but also the more radical Arab regimes were growing closer to the USSR.
Following the 1967 war, America shifted its policy of maintaining arms equality in the Middle East, instead giving the Israelis a qualitative edge by selling them advanced Phantom jets in 1968. Meanwhile, as international relations made Israel more strategically valuable, motivating the Johnson administration to strengthen U.S.-Israeli ties, the American public also expressed approval for Israel, identifying more strongly with Jews than with Arabs. American Jews, in particular, were more vocal in their support for Israel, as a result of a contemporary trend towards stronger ethnic identification. Thus, the late 1960s saw concurrent peaks in American strategic and socio-political sympathy for Israel, strengthening the alliance.
In contrast, the U.S.-Israel alliance began to prove strategically detrimental to the United States during the 1970s, prompting Ford to make a “reassessment” of the special relationship following the 1973 Yom Kippur War crisis. However, because social ties between the nations remained strong, and because American political support for a pro-Israel foreign policy was growing more and more potent, the alliance was able to persist even through this period of challenge. Even by the end of the 1960s, some American foreign policy experts realized that although Israel represented a powerful military ally, its conflict with the Arabs damaged American credibility; the United States’ attempt to straddle both alliance with Israel and friendship with Arab nations had been largely unsuccessful.
The decade then closed with an escalation of Egyptian-Israeli tensions over the Sinai territory won in 1967, as Egyptian President Nasser sought to bring about an Israeli withdrawal while pursuing an anti-American pan-Arabist policy. When Nasser died in 1970, to be replaced by Anwar Sadat, most parties expected some sort of settlement, as Nasser had been the most fervent pan-Arabist in the Middle East and was most committed to resisting American influence in the region. However, Sadat surprised all parties, including the U.S. and Soviet Union, by going to war in 1973 – that is, America’s support for Israel was now a serious threat to peace between the superpowers.
While America supplied assistance that enabled Israel to survive the Yom Kippur War, and foreign policy disaster was averted, the strategic liability of America’s position was made clear by OPEC’s attempt to use economic coercion to prevent an increase in U.S. military aid to Israel. Following this war, Presidents Nixon and Ford both recognized the need for significant progress on the Arab-Israeli peace front in order for the special relationship to remain viable.
Ironically, as Israel’s strategic value declined in the 1970s, Israeli-American ties grew stronger! Not only did post-1973 U.S. aid to Israel grow to unprecedented levels, but social and academic ties between the two countries were bolstered as well. In addition, while popular identification with Israel rather than the Arabs declined slightly following the war (possibly as a result of Israel’s strategic devaluation, and an increased American focus on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict), American political support for pro-Israel foreign policy increased. The 1976 election of the Democratic Jimmy Carter seemed to be a mandate for continued economic and military support of Israel, despite the decline of its strategic significance.
Thus, although international relations during the 1970s seemed to present a serious challenge to the special relationship paradigm, social and political considerations kept the friendship strong. American commitment to Israel continued not only in terms of foreign aid, but also in its deep involvement as mediator in the 1979 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Undoubtedly, the Middle East remained extremely important to American leaders as a potential venue for U.S.-USSR conflict, but this did not prevent the maintenance and expansion of the U.S.-Israel special relationship.
Under Reagan, the alliance swung back to a primarily military and strategic dimension. Although certain foreign relations crises came between the allies during this period – the most notable being America’s sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia in 1981, and Israel’s Lebanon War in 1983 – again, social and political forces in America preserved the friendship. In particular, Reagan recognized the strategic importance of the Middle East, and was the first president to explicitly state Israel’s potential value as a military ally in the Cold War.
With the special relationship relatively secure already, Israel and Egypt having made remarkable progress in the Camp David talks, the American public remained relatively supportive of their ally. In addition, after 1982 the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) began consolidating its political influence in Congress to shape continued friendly relations between the nations, which helped overcome public opposition to Israel’s course of action in Lebanon in 1983.
Also noteworthy during Regan’s presidency were several “Memoranda of Understanding” between the United States and Israel, informal agreements committing the nations to increased cooperation beyond the military and intelligence sphere. Reagan also signed a free trade agreement with Israel, cementing economic ties between the nations beyond mere financial assistance. Thus, the Reagan administration period in U.S.-Israel relations may be compared to the Kennedy era; a combination of entrenched socio-political support and strategic potential kept the alliance strong, despite several crises that threatened to uproot it. Reagan’s staunch backing of Israel also represented the beginning of political shift in America that moved much of Israel’s popular support base from liberal Democrats towards conservatives in the Republican Party.
The Alliance in Recent Years
Throughout much of the history of the modern State of Israel, the Cold War had been an ever-present factor; American support for Israel was grounded in the common theme of protecting American interests in the Middle East from the threats of communism and the Soviet Union. Thus, the decline and fall of communism in the late 1980s removed much of America’s primary strategic motivation for alliance with Israel. Just as international relations in the 1970s necessitated a reevaluation of Israel’s strategic value, so did late-1980s conditions lead to crisis in the U.S.-Israel friendship.
The impetus for this problem was twofold. First, the 1988 elections of President George Bush in America and of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Israel placed ideologically incompatible leaders in charge of the two allies. Second, this period witnessed the first Palestinian Intifada, bringing the refugee situation – which had festered for forty years unresolved by Israel – to the forefront of American attention. However, once again a solid social and political foundation enabled the special relationship to survive the turmoil it faced during the Bush administration, winning back strong American support under Bill Clinton.
The “chillyness” between Bush and Shamir went beyond personal animosity. Shamir was dismayed when Bush went “behind his back,” reaching agreements with the non-ruling Labor Party (under Yitzhak Rabin) to offer concessions to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Combined with a lashback from American liberals against Israeli suppression of Palestinian Arabs, this served to undermine American support for the special relationship paradigm. Even more threatening, perhaps, was the first Gulf War, when United States interests in protecting Kuwait and disarming Iraq placed Israel in severe jeopardy, vulnerable as it was to Iraqi missile attack.
However, ultimately, a combination of factors ended this period’s threat to the alliance. First, the United States led a successful campaign in Iraq, bolstering Israel’s national security. In addition, the 1992 elections brought President Clinton opposite Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, between which leaders there soon developed an “exceptional rapport.”
Meanwhile, American politics in general shifted in favor of pro-Israel foreign policy. Not only did the AIPAC become widely recognized as among the most powerful Congressional lobbies during this period, but the trend of “conservative Zionism” begun by Reagan continued. Although the Democratic Clinton was particularly commited to Israel in his foreign policy, liberals, by and large, have been more critical of Israel and its approach to the Palestinian problem than have been conservatives. The Christian Right, in particular, has become a devoted supporter of Israel in the years between the Gulf Wars.
Compounding such political development, social ties between America and Israel have remained strong, as evident in continued commitment to Israel among American Jews, as well as economic and cultural cooperation between the countries. These social and political trends maintained the special relationship through the tumultuous period from 1988-1992, and cemented it under Clinton; President George W. Bush has demonstrated similar devotion to Israel since 2000. Clearly, the reduction in Israel’s strategic value following the end of the Cold War has not made the U.S.-Israel alliance obsolete, demonstrating the significance of factors beyond foreign policy strategy in preserving that relationship.
While at its inception, the friendship between the United States and Israel was motivated primarily by strategic considerations, it is apparent that domestic politics and social factors also played a significant role. Similarly, the maintenance of that alliance even through periods such as the 1970s and the late 1980s – when Israel’s strategic value lessened – shows that friendly relations with Israel have become an integral part of the United States’ social and political establishment. This entrenched support for Israel within American society has even kept the alliance strong in the post-Cold War era, with the primary strategic motivation for bilateral military support gone.
Considering the extent to which this alliance has influenced American foreign policy in the late-20th and early-21st centuries, it is important to understand how the foundations of the special relationship go deeper than strategic interest. Involvement with Israel has not always been beneficial for America, and yet the two nations have remained bound by a common culture and shared values, as well as the interests of American Jews. Since the first Gulf War, American commitment to Israel has taken several forms, but primarily, it has consisted of remaining supportive of Israel as it struggles to deal with the Palestinian Arabs struggling for national independence.
President Clinton took an active role in this process, helping organize and mediate the productive Oslo summit meeting between Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Unfortunately, since 2000, this progress in solving the Palestinian problem has been reversed by the Second Intifada, renewing Arab-Israeli tensions throughout the Middle East.
In recent years, American political support for Israel has remained strong under the Republican administration of George W. Bush, who has been unflinching in his defense of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies. This confirms the shift towards a conservative basis of support for Israel within America. At the same time, however, America liberals have become increasingly sympathetic for the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Given these developments, as well as changes in American foreign relations with regard to Arab nations in the Middle East, the United States may be drifting towards another period when support for Israel is strategically detrimental to its interests. It is impossible to say whether political and cultural conditions in the United States and Israel will allow the close ties of friendship that have characterized the special relationship since 1962 to persist.
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