The Highs and Lows of the “Special Relationship”
President Barack Obama has had a famously strained relationship with his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders have clashed on everything from the issue of Israeli settlements, the Middle East peace process in general, and perhaps most publicly, the president’s nuclear agreement with Iran. That fight took a new twist last month, when The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States intercepted communications between Netanyahu and his aides during the course of the Iran talks.
But Obama is not the first president to have friction with an Israeli leader. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates once said that “every president I worked for, at some point in his presidency, would get so pissed off at the Israelis that he couldn’t speak. It didn’t matter whether it was Jimmy Carter or Gerry Ford or Ronald Reagan or George Bush. Something would happen and they would … rant and rave around the Oval Office.”
So how does the current relationship between president and prime minister compare? Here are a few of the high and low points between U.S. and Israeli leaders dating back to the start of the relationship in 1948.
The U.S. recognizes Israel’s statehood
Eleven minutes after Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion proclaimed a new State of Israel, President Harry Truman went against the wishes of his own cabinet to recognize it — making the U.S. the first nation to do so.
It was a remarkable decision for the time: Most members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment had campaigned against it, arguing that partitioning land inhabited by Palestinians and establishing a Jewish state would do irreparable damage to the relationship between the U.S. and Arab nations. They instead supported a plan to turn Palestine over to United Nations trusteeship. Secretary of State George Marshall, a man Truman called “the greatest living American,” so strongly favored U.N. trusteeship that just two days before Israel’s declaration of independence he threatened to vote against Truman in the next election if he recognized the still-unnamed Jewish state.
Truman’s support for Israel would prove more symbolic than material: After recognizing its right to exist, he denied requests to provide arms or military support as Israel fought with neighbors. He insisted Israel return territory it won in battle against Egypt, Syria and Palestinians during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, and accept Palestinian refugees or face losing “one of their best friends.” Despite these tensions, Ben-Gurion would later tell Truman that his early support of Israel gave him an “immortal place in Jewish history.”
Tensions in the Sinai
Truman’s successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, maintained a cautious distance from Israel, believing that a strong American relationship with Arab nations would prevent the spread of Soviet influence in the Middle East.
Midway through his presidency, Eisenhower’s position would be tested by the Suez Crisis, which began when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, a vital waterway that had been owned and operated by an Anglo-French enterprise for decades.
Nasser’s move enraged French, British and Israeli leaders. Eisenhower pushed for a diplomatic resolution, but Israel secretly coordinated with England and France to invade Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Eisenhower felt betrayed, and responded by suspending loans and oil shipments. Israel resisted withdrawing from Sinai, an impasse so serious that Eisenhower would tell the American public that “the future of the United Nations and peace in the Middle East may be at stake.” Ben-Gurion would withdraw his forces soon after, albeit reluctantly.
Johnson expands arms trade with Israel
President John F. Kennedy took a warmer approach than Eisenhower, becoming the first U.S. president to provide a major weapons system to Israel, and describing the bond between the two nations as a “special relationship.” The special relationship would continue under President Lyndon Johnson, who in 1964 became the first president to officially welcome an Israeli leader to the White House. Other prime ministers had only visited on an informal basis.
In January 1968, just seven months after the six-day Arab-Israeli War expanded Israel’s territory and threw the Middle East into chaos, Johnson demonstrated America’s continued bond with Israel by issuing Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his wife a personal invitation to his Texas ranch. In his book “Doomed to Succeed,” former U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross said such an invitation was “highly prized for what it symbolized about the close, personal relations that the president had with a foreign leader.” During the summit, Johnson demanded answers from Eshkol about when Israel might return to the prewar borders. Eshkol refused to answer, according to Israeli journalist and historian Avi Raz in his book, “The Bride and the Dowry.” Raz writes that Johnson teased Eshkol, telling him, “You want a country that lives in peace. You want [a] piece of this and [a] piece of that.”
Notwithstanding tensions over the borders, it was on this visit that Eshkol extracted a commitment from Johnson to expand arms sales to Israel. The U.S. began selling F-4 Phantom fighter bombers to Israel to offset weapons that the Soviet Union was delivering to Syria and Egypt.
The oil embargo
Egypt and Syria took U.S. and Israeli intelligence by surprise when they launched the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, attacking Israel’s forces in the Sinai. Initially, Richard Nixon pushed for an end to the violence — also known as the Yom Kippur War — but when the Soviets airlifted supplies to the Egyptian and Syrian militaries, the administration responded in kind by sending weapons to Israel and asking Congress to approve a $2.2 billion aid package. In response, Arab oil countries embargoed oil to the U.S., a move that within three months quadrupled the cost of a barrel of oil.
In the days after the embargo was announced, Prime Minister Golda Meir resisted a cease-fire. Nixon feared that if fighting continued, the U.S. and Soviet Union would be drawn into direct conflict. He confronted Meir, threatening to cut off U.S. assistance. He later described the discussion in a television interview with journalist David Frost: “If I may paraphrase from the ‘Godfather,’ We gave ’em an offer, ah, that they, ah, could not refuse,” Nixon said.
In the weeks to come, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, tried to formulate an accord, but Israel resisted returning the land it had captured. In one meeting, Meir vented to Kissinger: “It’s ridiculous. They start a war and lose. And they want us to hand it to them.” Kissinger said the American political climate would not stomach that position: “It won’t take much to get the U.S. government to support a return to the ’67 borders.”
The friction would endure into the Ford administration. Ross writes that after several rounds of negotiations, Kissinger blew up at the Israelis, complaining that he was “wandering around here like a rug merchant” while the Israelis begrudged every meter of land he suggested returning to Egypt or Syria: “I’m trying to save you and you think you are doing me a favor when you are kind enough to give me a few more meters.”
It would take nearly two years, but eventually the U.S. would negotiate disengagement between Israel, Syria and Egypt. Toward the end, Kissinger reported that talks between him and the Israeli leadership had “taken on more the character of exchanges between adversaries than between friends.” The final agreement between Israel and Egypt came at a high cost to the U.S.: The Israelis signed on only once the U.S. promised to provide the Israelis billions in aid, oil security, and military assistance. (That deal laid the groundwork for what would be Israel’s first peace deal with a neighbor, an Israel-Egypt treaty painstakingly negotiated by the Carter administration). By the following year, 1976, Israel was the largest recipient of American foreign aid dollars. Forty years later, it still is.
Israel lobbies Congress, Reagan fires back
Ronald Reagan is remembered today as a friend of Israel: In his memoirs he wrote, “No conviction I’ve ever held has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.” But in the first years of his administration, the relationship between the two countries was punctuated by conflict.
In 1981, for example, Prime Minister Menachem Begin provoked international criticism when, amidst growing hostilities between Israel and Lebanon, Israel bombed PLO headquarters in Beirut, killing and wounding hundreds. Condemnation grew weeks later when Israel attacked a French-built nuclear reactor in Iraq. Reagan responded by temporarily suspending F-16 deliveries to Israel.
Tensions reached an apex in October of that year, after the Israelis directly lobbied Congress to block U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Reagan was pushing the sale, hoping to appease Saudi concerns that the U.S. would not allow its government to fall in the way Iran’s had in 1979. Israel opposed the sale, believing the Saudis could use the weapons to attack them. Reagan angrily told the press that “it is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.” The arms sale would eventually pass.
Bush delays loans
In their first meeting as heads of state, George H.W. Bush told Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that the U.S. was “unshakable in our commitment to Israel.” But their times in office would become marked by mutual distrust.
Tensions grew over the construction of Israeli settlements in land inhabited by Palestinians. With Israel absorbing hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews, Bush agreed to provide $400 million in loan guarantees on the condition that Israel make “best efforts” to itemize what it spent on settlements, which Bush was trying to limit, writes Ross, who served as Bush’s director of policy planning. The Israelis used the loans to increase settlement activity, but did not meet the Bush administration’s accounting requests. When they returned and asked Congress for $10 billion in additional guarantees, Bush balked, demanding a 120-day delay on the vote, so the settlement issue wouldn’t become anathema for pending peace talks between the Palestinians, Israel and its Arab neighbors.
In what The New York Times described as “a hurriedly scheduled news conference” on Sept. 12, 1991, Bush spoke in “unusually vehement terms” about Israel’s request, and threatened a veto. He complained that “something like a thousand lobbyists” were working against him, derailing the chance for peace talks to go forward. “A 120-day delay is not too much for a president to ask for with so much in the balance,” Bush said. “We must give peace a chance. We must give peace every chance.”
Bush prevailed and the loans were delayed for months, until Shamir was replaced in office by Yitzhak Rabin the following year. Many experts cite the tensions between Bush and Israel as a major factor in the fall of Bush’s Jewish support domestically, which dropped from 35 percent of the vote in 1988 to just 11 percent in the 1992 election.
Bill Clinton gets a handshake from Arafat and Rabin
Bill Clinton became president at an auspicious moment for Middle East peace: Israel had elected Rabin, who had made peace with the Palestinians a key part of his platform. And PLO leader Yasser Arafat was vocally advocating independence for Palestinians.
Ross, who served as the U.S. point person for the Middle East peace process under Clinton, wrote that in August 1993 he and Secretary of State Warren Christopher were surprised by a call from Rabin saying that the Israelis and Palestinians had been secretly meeting in Oslo and had come to a tentative agreement for a new peace process. Clinton embraced the breakthrough, and insisted that Arafat and Rabin — not their deputies — travel to the White House to publicly sign what became known as the Oslo Accord. His reasoning, as he described it in his autobiography “My Life”: “If they didn’t, no one in the region would believe they were fully committed to implementing the principles, and, if they did, a billion people across the globe would see them on television and they would leave the White House even more committed to peace than when they arrived.”
Clinton negotiated the terms of the meeting. Arafat wanted to wear the revolver he frequently carried at his hip, Clinton wrote: “I balked and sent word that he couldn’t bring the gun. He was here to make peace; the pistol would send the wrong message, and he certainly would be safe without it.” And Clinton insisted Rabin make the symbolically important gesture of shaking Arafat’s hand: “I told Yitzhak that if he was really committed to peace, he’d have to shake Arafat’s hand to prove it.”
On Sept. 13, in what would prove a seminal moment of the 20th century, that handshake occurred.
Clinton has said that his respect for Rabin continued to grow as Rabin worked toward peace both with the Palestinians and the government of Hafez al Assad in Syria, even as periodic attacks on Israel continued. “Whenever there was a terrible thing that happened [in Israel] and I would call him, he’d tell me what came to be known as Rabin’s Law in the White House: ‘We will fight terror as if there are no negotiations, and we will negotiate as if there is no terror,’” Clinton would later say.
Rabin’s reputation for diplomacy was further cemented when Israel reached a peace treaty with its neighbor Jordan in 1994, with Clinton as a witness. But negotiations with the Palestinians would be effectively derailed when Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a right wing Israeli Jew who opposed the Oslo peace process.
In November, Clinton spoke at a candlelight memorial in Tel Aviv commemorating the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination. “I came to love your prime minister,” Clinton told the 100,000-strong crowd. “The day he was killed was probably the worst day of my eight years as president.”
A new approach to Arafat
In the years after Rabin’s assassination, conservative leaders came to dominate Israeli politics. George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came into power within months of each other, and their bond grew stronger after the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush spoke to Sharon, who he described as “a leader who understood what it meant to fight terror,” shortly after the attacks. He later wrote that his views on Israel “came into sharper focus after 9/11. If the United States had the right to defend itself and prevent future attacks, other democracies had those rights, too.”
Bush’s Middle East policy would be heavily influenced by Sharon. Former diplomat Ross writes that Sharon felt “a complete meeting of the minds with the president” after Bush’s June 2002 speech in which he insisted the U.S. would only support a Palestinian state if Yasser Arafat was replaced as the Palestinian leader.
In 2003, Bush helped formulate the “Performance-Based Roadmap” for peace, which mandated an end to Palestinian attacks on Israel as a condition for statehood, and froze all Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory. Israeli officials later asserted that in private negotiations, Bush said some settlements would be allowed. In 2004 Bush wrote a letter assuring Sharon’s government of his backing, and that support continued even as the roadmap process stalled and Sharon’s government continued to build settlements.
After Sharon’s death in 2014, Bush called the former prime minister a “man of courage” and “warrior for the ages,” adding that he was honored to “call him friend.”