The celebration of American Independence Day this week provides an opportunity to look back at the formative events over the first three decades of US-Israel relations, when the foundation stones were laid for the strong alliance we know today.
Moshav Kfar Truman and streets in cities across Israel are named after America’s 33rd president, and rightly so.
Harry S. Truman supported Jewish statehood in the November 1947 United Nations partition vote and followed up in May 1948 by becoming the first world leader to announce recognition (de facto) of the newborn Jewish state – a move that expeditiously followed David Ben-Gurion’s proclamation of independence.
In both cases, Truman overruled the advice of the State Department and the Pentagon, who worried about relations with the Arabs, the supply of oil, and the possibility that US troops would be called upon to protect the Jews. Seasoned professionals accused Truman of subjugating foreign policy to domestic political needs.
But if Truman was prioritizing politics – and which president running for reelection ignores political considerations? – it was not necessarily about the mythically all-powerful “Jewish vote.”
As Walter Russel Mead has pointed out in his recent book on the US-Israel relationship The Arc of a Covenant, Truman was less influenced by Jewish lobbying than by the need to ward off momentum for the left-wing presidential candidate Henry Wallace. To do this, Truman had to galvanize support for his reelection in organized labor and among liberal Democrats.
In the aftermath of the Nazi genocide, progressive America embraced Zionism, seeing the struggle of the long-persecuted Jews for a state of their own as an integral element in the liberal universalist agenda for a better world. Thus, for Truman, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt – the period’s progressive icon and a staunch public campaigner for Jewish statehood – was far more consequential politically than the indefatigable American Zionist leader Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.
Despite his service as supreme allied commander in World War Two, whose forces liberated Dachau and Belsen, not much in Israel is named after America’s 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Perhaps this is because of his administration’s pressure on Israel to relinquish its battlefield conquests following the October 1956 Sinai Campaign. Eisenhower demanded a return to the 1949 armistice lines, without Israel receiving either peace or recognition from Egypt.
For Washington, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser epitomized the future, his revolutionary Arab nationalism seen as an expression of the aspirations of millions across Asia and Africa to rid themselves of Western colonial domination.
And if America didn’t embrace Nasser, the Soviet Union surely would; therefore, Cold War strategy necessitated an American attempt to prevent the Arabs from entering Moscow’s orbit.
Nonetheless, in March 1960 during the last year of Eisenhower’s administration, Ben-Gurion became the first Israeli prime minister to visit the White House.
President John F. Kennedy never hosted Ben-Gurion at the White House, but he did meet him at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in May 1961. During their conversation, JFK alluded to his November 1960 razor-thin electoral victory, telling the prime minister that “your people” – American Jews – had helped him win the election.
America’s 35th president would be the first to agree to the direct sale of US weaponry to Israel. However, so as not to overly antagonize Arab opinion, the caveat was that Washington would only sell the IDF defensive equipment.
Kennedy’s August 1962 decision for the supply of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles broke with precedent and paved the way for the future massive supply of US arms to Israel.
Nixon’s strategic partner
Richard M. Nixon became America’s 37th president a year and a half after the IDF’s impressive battlefield victory in the June 1967 Six Day War.
Jerusalem’s enhanced stature in Washington manifested itself during the September 1970 Jordan crisis. The US, whose armed forces were overstretched by the ongoing Vietnam War, relied upon Israel’s military power to prevent the Soviet-backed Syrians and Palestinians from overthrowing the pro-Western regime of King Hussein. The IDF’s mobilization was enough for Syria to cease its invasion and withdraw forces from Jordan.
If American support for the Jewish state had previously been presented as a moral imperative, Israel was now afforded the status of strategic partner and national security asset.
During the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, Nixon’s second secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, repeatedly argued that Washington could not allow the Arabs’ Soviet-supplied arms to triumph over Israel’s American-made weaponry. Accordingly, Nixon ordered the emergency airlift of vital military supplies to Israel – Operation Nickel Grass.
In December 1969, William Rogers, Nixon’s first secretary of state, launched a plan for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines in return for an Arab declaration of nonbelligerency. Prime minister Golda Meir rejected the formula, asserting that Israel was being asked to deliver a complete withdrawal without receiving full peace, while Nasser continued to spurn any agreement with Israel.
But in August 1970, Rogers successfully brokered a more modest deal that brought an end to the ongoing War of Attrition along the Suez Canal – although it did not forestall the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War three years later.
Washington’s mediation moved into high gear with Kissinger’s post-Yom Kippur War shuttle diplomacy that led to disengagement agreements with Egypt (January 1974) and Syria (March 1974). The former initiating a process that eventually led to Egyptian-Israeli peace.
Carter’s hands-on approach
If US peacemaking started in earnest under Nixon, it reached a crescendo with Jimmy Carter.
America’s 39th president did not initially favor Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s November 1977 surprise visit to Jerusalem, concerned that Cairo’s peace initiative would complicate Washington’s plans for an international conference to achieve a comprehensive solution to the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
But upon seeing the impasse in the direct bilateral Egypt-Israel talks, Carter entered the negotiations with gusto.
In September 1978, he brought together Sadat and prime minister Menachem Begin at Camp David for thirteen days of intensive talks, with his intense pressure cooker diplomacy producing historic accords.
And when loose ends threatened to prevent finalizing a deal, Carter came to the Middle East, personally shuttling between Egypt and Israel to bridge the outstanding disagreements, this, ultimately delivered the March 1979 peace treaty. It was Israel’s first such agreement with an Arab country.
Successive presidents have tried to duplicate Carter’s achievement, but only a few have come close to matching the scope of his breakthrough.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.