US president visiting Israel: A dream now commonplace - opinion

Although now seemingly a routine occurrence, it is easy to forget that for more than a quarter-century, consecutive American presidents refrained from visiting the Jewish state.

 AFTER ADDRESSING the Knesset, then-US president George W. Bush receives applause from Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres, and Dalia Itzik, who served as Knesset speaker, in 2008. (photo credit: LIOR MIZRAHI/FLASH90)
AFTER ADDRESSING the Knesset, then-US president George W. Bush receives applause from Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres, and Dalia Itzik, who served as Knesset speaker, in 2008.
(photo credit: LIOR MIZRAHI/FLASH90)

Israelis were delighted to see US President Joe Biden touch down at Ben-Gurion Airport, his visit reminding them of Israel’s robust alliance with the world’s preeminent power. Although now seemingly a routine occurrence, it is easy to forget that for more than a quarter-century, consecutive American presidents refrained from visiting the Jewish state.

President Harry Truman played a crucial role in Israel’s rebirth, indicating beforehand that US recognition would immediately follow Israel’s declaration of independence. Truman may have embraced the cause of Jewish statehood, seeing himself as a modern incarnation of Persia’s Cyrus the Great, but he never set foot in Israel. 

President Dwight Eisenhower had been supreme allied commander in World War II, and his armies had liberated Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau. However, he and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, feared that embracing Israel too closely would push the Arab states into the arms of the Soviet Union. Consequently, they adopted a policy of cordial standoff-ishness that excluded the possibility of a presidential visit.   

In the final year of Eisenhower’s second term, “Ike” met with David Ben-Gurion at the White House, the first such meeting granted to an Israeli prime minister. 

John F. Kennedy, free of his father’s notorious antisemitism, sought to improve the atmosphere in the relationship and met with Ben-Gurion at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel at the beginning of his presidency. It is possible that Kennedy first wanted to reach an agreement on the sensitive issue of Dimona before hosting the Israeli leader at the White House – let alone embarking upon a trip to Israel.  

FOUNDING PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion in conversation with US president John F. Kennedy, 1961 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)FOUNDING PRIME MINISTER David Ben-Gurion in conversation with US president John F. Kennedy, 1961 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Lyndon Johnson also never visited but he was the first president to have an Israeli prime minister, Levi Eshkol, welcomed to the White House with a ceremonial honor guard. 

Under president Richard Nixon, the US-Israel relationship was upgraded into a strategic partnership. The turning point was “Black September” in 1970, when, at America’s behest, Israel mobilized to deter Damascus from pursuing an invasion into Jordan. Syria understood the message and withdrew its forces, and the pro-Western King Hussein was saved. Nixon appreciated prime minister Golda Meir’s readiness to augment American power, overstretched due to the war in Vietnam.

Meir’s actions paid a dividend in 1973 when Nixon oversaw the Yom Kippur War airlift that provided Israel with desperately needed supplies.

While Nixon became known for his antisemitic slurs (as can be clearly heard in the tapes of his White House conversations), in June 1974 he became the first sitting president to travel to the Jewish state. 

At the time, secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” had just produced Israeli disengagement agreements with Egypt and Syria, and the Watergate-embattled Nixon was eager to wallow in his administration’s successes on the world stage. But the visit didn’t alter Nixon’s fate; he was forced to resign from the presidency barely two months after returning from Jerusalem.

His successor, president Gerald Ford, came to Israel after the end of his term in office. Ford presided over the difficult “reassessment” period in US-Israel ties, when Washington publicly expressed displeasure at the perceived intransigence of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government in the negotiations with Egypt.

President Jimmy Carter came to Israel in March 1979, when he shuttled between Jerusalem and Cairo to finalize a peace agreement. Carter’s relationship with prime minister Menachem Begin was often testy, but the president’s dogged perseverance paid off with the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which became Carter’s preeminent foreign policy achievement. 

Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush did not visit Israel during their terms in office. Reagan was an instinctive friend of Israel, and Bush’s efforts produced the 1991 Madrid Arab-Israel peace conference. Nevertheless, both leaders were more than happy to send their secretaries of state to Jerusalem, preferring to meet Israeli prime ministers at the White House.

The start of multiple visits

Bill Clinton was the first president to visit Israel on multiple occasions. He first came in October 1994 for the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in Wadi Araba. In November 1995, he arrived for a second time, joining mourners in Jerusalem for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. The closing words of the president’s eulogy, “Shalom, Haver” became ubiquitous bumper stickers across Israel.

Clinton’s third visit was in March 1996, two months before Israeli elections, in a thinly disguised (and unsuccessful) attempt to boost the dwindling political fortunes of prime minister Shimon Peres. His last presidential visit was in December 1998, as part of the post-Wye River summit implementation, during which he met with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza.

That last visit occurred during a climactic moment in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and understandably, like Nixon in 1974, Clinton was keen for the public to view him conducting high-level diplomacy. 

George W. Bush visited Israel twice during his presidency. In January 2008, he came to bolster the dialogue between prime minister Ehud Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, returning that May to be part of the celebrations marking Israel’s 60th year of independence.  

President Barack Obama traveled to the Middle East in June 2009 where he addressed the Muslim world from Cairo University. Obama controversially chose to avoid an Israel stopover, deliberately seeking to signal “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem.

Obama ended up visiting Israel at the beginning of his second term, hoping to open the door for incoming-secretary of state John Kerry’s (ultimately ill-fated) effort to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

In May 2017, Donald Trump chose to make his first international trip as president to the Middle East, combining visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel. In Riyadh, Trump met with Arab leaders from across the region. In Jerusalem, he broke the taboo on American presidents visiting the Western Wall.

Biden’s presence this week is designed to showcase the strength of the US-Israel partnership. In addition, the president’s visit conveniently serves as a public cushion for his Saudi rapprochement, following a period of strained Riyadh-Washington ties due to Biden’s overt criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And perhaps, Biden, like Clinton in 1996, also wants to buttress the political standing of an Israeli prime minister who many see as a more comfortable fit for his Democratic administration.

Yet, as we have seen, Biden is not the first president, and won’t be the last, to utilize an Israel visit to advance disparate goals.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the chair of the Abba Eban Institute. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.