Examining the evolution of US-Israeli relations

Israel’s interests, particularly in displacing Palestinians and annexing their land, are at odds with America’s interests which require peace in the Middle East

US President Harry Truman (left) with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in the Oval Office on May 8, 1951.
US President Harry Truman (left) with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in the Oval Office on May 8, 1951.

Examining the evolution of US-Israeli relations

When the State of Israel was proclaimed on 15 May 1948, numerous American politicians, including then US Secretary of State George Marshall, counselled President Harry Truman against recognising Israel.

Marshall was concerned that such recognition might impair America's relations with Arab nations progressing towards independence. Despite this, Truman, anticipating the need for Jewish support in the forthcoming 1949 presidential elections, disregarded Marshall's advice.

Contrary to a common misconception, the United States was not the first nation to acknowledge Israel's sovereignty. It was the Soviet Union that first recognised Israel, believing the new state would adopt socialism and align with its sphere of influence.

The Soviet Union even provided Israel with arms. This alignment, however, was short-lived and dissolved before the 1956 Tripartite Aggression against Egypt.

From the Free Officers' Revolution in 1952 to the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956, Egypt's relations with the United States strengthened, exemplified by the US pledge to finance the High Dam Project.

First President of Egyptian Republic General Mohamed Naguib (C) salutes the cheering crowd, 21 June 1953 in Cairo, along with vice president of Council Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Read more: This day in history: The birth of the Egyptian Republic

This development infuriated Israel, leading to a series of bombings in Egypt in 1955, including attacks on American cultural centres. These acts aimed to portray Egypt as politically unstable and harbouring anti-American sentiment.

Upon uncovering the Israeli cells responsible for the bombings, Egypt executed two of the perpetrators. This action prompted a retaliatory strike by Israel against the Egyptian army in Gaza, resulting in 32 casualties.

In response, Egypt sought to purchase weapons from the United States. The US refusal led Moscow to seize the opportunity to strengthen ties with Egypt by supplying weapons through Czechoslovakia.

However, Israel did not significantly influence US foreign policy during this period. American politicians were cautious about advancing relations with Israel, fearing it could complicate their dealings with Arab nations.

Between 1952 and 1967, Israel primarily depended on France for military armament, including nuclear weapons, marking a time when its relationship with the US was not as strong or special as it is today.

This is evidenced in several instances: In 1956, US President Dwight Eisenhower demanded an immediate halt to the British and French aggression against Egypt.

Later, his successor, John F. Kennedy, opposed Israel's military nuclear programme. In 1962, Kennedy sent an American inspection team to investigate Israel's nuclear capabilities, but Israel successfully concealed its programme.

Israel did not significantly influence US foreign policy between 1952 and 1967. American politicians were cautious about advancing relations with Israel, fearing it could complicate their dealings with Arab nations.

Israel's strategic importance emerges

Israel's strategic significance to the United States was solidified following its triumph over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the 1967 war. At that time, the US was contending with the Soviet Union's support for the Viet Cong, who were inflicting substantial losses on American forces in Vietnam.

The US recognised that Israel's victory — especially against Egypt — had undermined Soviet influence. Consequently, Israel was seen as a pivotal ally in serving American interests in the Middle East, necessitating US support and alliance.

This dynamic involved leveraging Israel to promote US interests in the region rather than the US serving Israel's interests. This distinction in the relationship between the two countries was evident in numerous instances up until more recent times.

During the 1973 War, Israel aimed to expand the Deversoir Gap, obliterate the Egyptian Third Army, and secure a decisive victory against Egypt. However, the United States, despite providing Israel with a critical military airlift at the war's onset, opposed these objectives.

The US sought to use the conflict as a political instrument to facilitate a peace agreement. This approach ultimately led to the Camp David Accords in 1979, brokered by US President Jimmy Carter, establishing a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (L), Israeli Premier Menachem Begin (R) and US President Jimmy Carter (C) shake hands after a press conference in the East Room of the White House on September 17, 1978.

Read more: Anwar Sadat: The Egyptian president who made peace with Israel and paid with his life

Realigning priorities: Restraining Israel

During President Ronald Reagan's tenure, his administration included influential neoconservatives like Alexander Haig, Secretary of Defense; Jean Kirkpatrick, US Ambassador to the United Nations; Richard Perle, Assistant Secretary of Defence; and Paul Wolfowitz, Director of Planning at the State Department.

These individuals — known for their close ties to Israel — played a significant role in shaping Reagan's policies, including his approval of Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 under the pretext that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was acting on behalf of the Soviet Union.

However, Reagan dismissed these advisors in his second term, recognising that the Lebanon invasion had inflicted considerable political and military damage on the United States.

American researcher Noah Lanard notes that Reagan admonished Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, warning that the ongoing conflict in Lebanon could jeopardise the future relationship between the two countries. Reagan described the war as a "holocaust," suggesting that "the symbol of war was becoming a picture of a 7-month-old baby with its arms blown off."

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War signalled a shift in Israel's strategic importance to the United States. With the Cold War over, America's reliance on Israel lessened — especially as most Arab countries, excluding Iraq and Libya, maintained favourable relations with the US.

Read more: How the Soviet Union collapse impacted the Arab world

This change was evident during the Gulf War when the US asked Israel not to retaliate against Iraqi missile attacks in order to maintain the coalition to liberate Kuwait.

In 1991, Israel was compelled to participate in the Madrid Peace Conference, despite the reluctance of its right-wing government led by Yitzhak Shamir, comparable in its political stance to Netanyahu's contemporary government.

US President George Bush delivers his opening speech at the Middle East Peace Conference, at the Real Madrid Palace, on October 30, 1991.

President George H. W. Bush exerted pressure on Israel, threatening to withhold loan guarantees needed for the resettlement of Russian Jews unless Israel agreed to attend the conference.

Reflecting on this period, James Baker remarked on the personal strain of these interactions, noting his discomfort in meeting alone with Shamir.

The American stance, which was somewhat critical of the policies of Yitzhak Shamir's government in Israel, paved the way for the electoral success of Yitzhak Rabin's administration.

In contrast to the extremist Likud Party, Rabin's government, which had ruled Israel from 1977 to 1992, demonstrated a readiness to engage in peace talks with the Arabs, culminating in the Oslo Accords with the PLO.

Despite a general bias towards Israel, successive American administrations up to the time of Presidents Trump and Biden strived to differentiate their policies towards the Arabs and Palestinians from those of Israel. This differentiation was evident in the policies of Presidents Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama.

All these administrations refused to recognise Israel's sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. They consistently viewed settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories as illegal and contrary to international law. Furthermore, these administrations occasionally adopted policies that were directly opposed to those of Israel.

Israel's strategic significance to the US was solidified following its triumph over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the 1967 war. The US recognised that Israel's victory had undermined Soviet influence at a time when the Viet Cong were inflicting substantial losses on US troops in Vietnam.

US President Bill Clinton (C) stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (L) on September 13, 1993, after signing the Oslo Accords.

Read more: 30 years after Oslo, Palestinian state elusive as ever

President Clinton, following the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000, proposed a peace initiative. Though the proposal did not fully align with the desires of the Arabs and Palestinians, it also diverged from Israel's expectations.

President George W. Bush insisted on holding legislative elections in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, despite Israel's opposition. Towards the end of his term, President Obama encouraged New Zealand, Senegal, Venezuela, and Malaysia to propose a resolution to the UN Security Council.

This resolution, Number 2334, called for a halt to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and declared the existing settlements illegal. Fourteen countries supported it, while the United States abstained from voting.

Additionally, despite the American bias towards Israel, particularly since the June 1967 war and influenced by the Cold War dynamics, the United States has consistently prioritised its interests over those of its ally, Israel. Many Arab analysts and commentators have often overlooked this distinction in interest.

Qualitative change in the US-Israeli relationship

The subordination of America's interests to those of Israel, resulting in their complete convergence, is a recent development in US policy. This trend began during President Donald Trump's administration and continued under his successor, Joe Biden. Biden even conspicuously intensified Trump's pro-Israel bias, with each president having distinct motivations.

President Donald Trump aimed to satisfy his electoral base of evangelical Christians who support Israel for religious and ideological reasons.

To this end, he granted Israel more than it sought: recognising Jerusalem as the capital, closing the US consulate in East Jerusalem that served Palestinians, acknowledging Israel's annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, shutting the PLO office in Washington, and declaring that Israeli settlement building did not hinder peace. 

He also unveiled a "peace" initiative that permitted Israel to annex 30% of the West Bank territory. These actions were capped by fostering relationships between Arab nations and Israel before any peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Biden takes Israel relationship to new level

Contrasting with President Trump, who was driven by immediate domestic interests, President Joe Biden harbours strong ideological convictions about the necessity of supporting Israel, regardless of the consequences.

This stance is why he diverged from Trump in almost all international issues except those concerning Israel. For instance, Biden maintained Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and did not reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem or the PLO office in Washington.

He largely ignored the Palestinian issue, instead focusing on continuing Trump's efforts to expand Arab-Israeli agreements. Nevertheless, Biden was eager to adopt a different approach from Trump on various other matters, including the war in Yemen and policies towards Russia, China, and several domestic American issues.

This explains why President Biden fully embraced the Israeli narrative of the events on 7 October, including debunked reports of children being beheaded, women raped, and bodies burned.

Subsequently, he quickly dispatched his Secretary of State to Israel, who supported Israel's stance on relocating Palestinians from Gaza to Egypt. Biden visited Israel on 18 October and participated in a war cabinet meeting, an unprecedented event in US history.

Following this, the US adopted positions that provoked not only Arab nations but also the global community. In the Security Council, the US was the sole member opposing a ceasefire in Gaza despite allegations of war crimes by Israel.

On a second attempt, the US diluted the resolution's impact before it was passed, choosing to abstain from voting. In the UN General Assembly, the US was among fewer than ten countries voting against a ceasefire resolution that 154 countries supported.

Moreover, Biden's support for Israel extended beyond political to military protection, unprecedented even compared to the 1973 October War, when Israel faced severe challenges.

He deployed aircraft carriers to protect Israel and supplied it with 2,000-pound bombs — munitions not even used by the US in its campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.

Despite Washington's general restraint from using bombs larger than 500 pounds, it saw no reason to prevent Israel from using 2,000-pound bombs in Gaza, leading to the destruction of entire neighbourhoods. 

AFPTV video footage shows Palestinians checking the destruction in the aftermath of an Israeli strike on the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on November 1, 2023.

In pictures: Israel rains death and destruction on Gaza

Although Congress was poised to approve a military aid package for Israel, Biden circumvented this process, sending the aid under an emergency law.

Contrasting with Trump, who was driven by immediate domestic interests, Biden harbours strong ideological convictions about the necessity of supporting Israel, regardless of the consequences.

Biden and Netanyahu

Noah Lanard provides insight into a policy detrimental to America's interests in the Middle East. He explains that Biden's relationship with Israel was forged in the early 1980s when he was a young Senator, influenced by Henry Jackson, a neoconservative Senate member.

During a subsequent visit to Israel, Biden met Netanyahu, fostering a strong friendship. Biden assured Netanyahu of his support, indicating that Netanyahu could rely upon him for any assistance Israel might require from Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) welcomes US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023.

In the early 1990s, while vying for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Biden criticised President Bush Sr. for pressuring Israel to attend the Madrid Peace Conference.

As Vice President under Obama, during a 2010 visit to Israel, Biden encountered a tense situation when Israel announced new settlement construction. Obama, through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urged Israel to reverse this decision to prevent straining US-Israel relations.

However, Biden, then in Israel, promised to address the matter upon returning to Washington. During discussions on Security Council Resolution No. 2334, proposed by the US, Biden and Jack Lew, the Treasury Secretary under Obama, were the only ones advocating for a veto. Jack Lew is now the US ambassador to Israel.

Biden v America: Diverging interests

America's interests lie in maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East, avoiding new regional conflicts to focus on Russia and China, fostering good relations with key Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, and preventing the resurgence of terrorist movements.

In contrast, Israel's interests, particularly in displacing Palestinians and annexing their land, are at odds with America's interests.

The current US administration's apparent prioritisation of Israel's interests over those of the United States in the Middle East, particularly in relation to key Arab nations, represents a significant and concerning shift.

This development warrants scrutiny and necessitates concerted efforts to counteract, ensuring that US policies align with its broader strategic interests in the region.

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