This Week in History: First US presidential visit to Israel

Twenty-six years after the creation of the State of Israel, Nixon was the 1st sitting US president to set foot on its shores and in the hills of Jerusalem.

richard nixon_311 reuters (photo credit: Michael Urban / Reuters)
richard nixon_311 reuters
(photo credit: Michael Urban / Reuters)
On June 16, 1974, US President Richard Nixon made the first visit to Israel by a sitting US president. The visit, coming just over six months after the Yom Kippur War, was part of a wider trip to Middle Eastern countries meant to consolidate US influence in the region, solidify the ceasefire and separation of forces agreements brokered at the end of the Yom Kippur War, and do damage control in the aftermath of the painful 1973 Oil Crisis. The visit to Israel was the first of eight such trips made by five US presidents, and helped set a precedent in the relationship between the two countries.
Nixon’s 24-hour visit to Israel came on the heels of stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Less than a year after the end of the Yom Kippur War, the United States had been intensely engaged in attempts to broker a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Then-US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who accompanied Nixon on his trip, had for months been conducting “shuttle diplomacy” between Israel and the Arab states in still failed attempts at strengthening the ceasefire and separation of forces agreements that ended the war.
The United States had played a decisive role in Israel’s ultimate victory during the Yom Kippur War. As Israel ran dangerously low on ammunition and military hardware, Nixon had ordered a massive airlift of matériel. Over 500 cargo flights brought more than 20,000 tons of military hardware and ammunition from the United States and its military bases overseas. As a result, Nixon is often remembered in Israel for this life-saving aid when the country needed it most.
Despite the aid and support, however, the relationship between the 37th US president and Israel was far from ideal. Initially embarrassing the Israeli government by refusing to make the customary visit to Yad Vashem, when Nixon finally did agree to stop at the Holocaust museum, he declined to wear a kippa. Furthermore, his reception in Israel was vastly different from those he received in Arab states on the same trip. In Egypt, the US president was received by thousands of Cairenes as he rode through the capital’s streets in an open-air car with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Upon his arrival in Israel, Nixon was given a 15-minute ceremony at the airport, which although warm, did not compare to the reception he received in the rest of the region.
The visit itself represented a slight shift in relations between the two countries. Although there had always existed a “special relationship” between Washington and Jerusalem, the Yom Kippur War airlift was one of the strongest showings of US readiness to defend Israel to date. Following the war, however, the United States was determined to expand its influence beyond Israel into the neighboring Arab states in order to counter Soviet influence. One account of this shift is told by historian Noam Kochavi; in private meetings between the US president and Israeli leaders, Nixon said: "The days when Israel felt very comfortable with a relationship … where we supported Israel … were going to be Israel's best friend … where your immediate warlike neighbors were considered enemies of the United States, those day [are over]." The US was attempting to assume the role of honest broker, both for its own Cold War interests and in the interests of attaining regional peace.
One of the issues that most concerned Israel at the time of Nixon’s visit, as expressed in the headline of The Jerusalem Post on the eve of the president’s visit, was that the US intended to help the Egyptians attain atomic power in order to sway it from Soviet influence. Although in hindsight this was not the main theme of US efforts at the time in the region, it reflected the fear in Israel that Washington intended to increase the scope of its economic and military aid to Israel’s enemies.

Beyond the context of Middle East peace following the Yom Kippur War and American efforts at reversing Soviet gains in the region, there is one other lens that Nixon’s visit to Israel must be viewed through. At the time of his visit, Nixon was embroiled in two serious domestic issues – the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal. Historians - as well as American media at the time - have pointed to the Middle East trip as one final push by the American president to divert attention from his domestic troubles by racking up diplomatic gains to positively affect his legacy prior to being forced from office. Despite his and Kissinger’s efforts, however, no major breakthroughs were made during the trip, and Nixon was forced to resign from the presidency just two months after returning from the region.
However, despite the lack of concrete results stemming from Nixon’s 1974 trip to Jerusalem, perhaps the most consequential aspect of his sojourn was the visit itself. Twenty-six years after the establishment of the State of Israel, Richard Nixon was the first sitting US president to set foot on its shores and in the hills of Jerusalem. Though not every succeeding president has made the trip, Nixon’s and the subsequent visits by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have set expectations in Israel (as well as in certain American political circles) for the sitting US president to meet his counterparts not only in Washington but also in Jerusalem.