Obama-Netanyahu tensions: Not as bad as 5 other US-Israel low points

Will US-Israel relations fray over Iran? Not likely – they've seen worse. Here are five noteworthy hiccups in the 'special relationship' since Israel's founding in 1948.

1.1956 Suez fallout: Eisenhower threatens to withhold aid

US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, meet in Ike's hotel suite. They were in town for the UN's 15th General Assembly meetings. (AP/File)

When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, Israel invaded Egypt and quickly captured the vast Sinai peninsula. This provoked an international backlash. The United Nations Security Council issued a resolution calling on Israel to withdraw in exchange for a UN protection force in the Sinai.

Israel mostly complied, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted that Israeli forces withdraw completely. In February 1957, he threatened to withhold more than $100 million in annual US aid if they didn’t.

Within less than a month, all Israeli troops had left, and by late March oil was flowing through the Suez once again.

While Eisenhower took a firm stance, believing that “the future of the United Nations and peace in the Middle East may be at stake,” throughout the crisis he emphasized America’s friendship with Israel.

“I need not assure you of the deep interest which the United States has in your country, nor recall the various elements of our policy of support to Israel in so many ways,” he wrote in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion on Nov. 7, 1956. “It is in this context that I urge you to comply with the resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly dealing with the current crisis and to make your decision known immediately. It would be a matter of the greatest regret to all my countrymen if Israeli policy on a matter of such grave concern to the world should in any way impair the friendly cooperation between our two countries.”

1975 ‘reassessment’ of America’s ties with Israel

As elsewhere, many of the United States' moves in the Middle East in the 1970s were shaped by cold-war calculations. When Egypt’s relationship with the Soviets fell apart, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saw an opportunity to pull Cairo more firmly into the American camp by helping it regain the Sinai, which Israel had recaptured in 1967 and successfully defended in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

From 1973-75, Mr. Kissinger embarked on a flurry of shuttle diplomacy, securing a cease-fire and an Israeli agreement to pull back from the banks of the Suez. But in March 1975, while trying to negotiate a fuller withdrawal, Kissinger lost his temper with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who refused to cede strategic passes in the Sinai as well as oil fields that provided Israel with roughly 60 percent of its oil

“You don’t understand, I’m trying to save you,” Kissinger reportedly said, according to an account in Commentary Magazine. “You are making me, the Secretary of State of the United States of America, wander around the Middle East like a Levantine rug merchant….Are you out of your mind?”

The President Gerald Ford sent Rabin a letter informing him that “I have given instructions for a reassessment of United States policy in the region, including our relations with Israel…” The US also put the brakes on an Israeli request for F-15 fighter planes and froze scheduled arms deliveries.

But US senators rallied in support of Israel, and while President Ford stood firm on withdrawing from the passes, he added enticements including $2 billion in financial aid to Israel. In September an agreement was reached, under which Israel and Egypt agreed that American “technicians” and the UN would oversee the strategic passes. By the end of the decade, Israel and Egypt signed a formal peace treaty mediated by President Jimmy Carter.

1981: Israeli strike on Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq

Israel’s 1981 surprise strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor known as Osirak put President Ronald Reagan in a tough spot.

While Reagan was a strong supporter of Israel, Iraq had recently become a de facto friend by going to war with America’s enemy, Iran. The fact that Israel had used US-supplied fighter planes to hit the Iraqi plant boded ill for that nascent friendship.

“Eager to dispel any semblance of collusion in an attack against America’s new de facto ally, Reagan delayed the delivery of additional jet fighters to Israel,” writes historian Michael Oren in his 2007 book “Power, Faith, and Fantasy” on America’s involvement in the Middle East. “He also permitted America’s pertinacious ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, to confer with her Iraqi counterpart in drafting a Security Council condemnation of the raid.”

But the raid “did not, in the end, impair US-Israel relations … ” concludes Dr. Oren, who has since become the Israeli ambassador to the US.

1991-92: Delay of US aid over Israeli settlements

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir is seen in this May 1991 file photo in Jerusalem. (Nati Harnick/AP/File)

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, an émigré from Poland whose parents had died in the Holocaust, was intent on bringing as many new immigrants to Israel as possible. When the Ethiopian government collapsed in 1991, he had 14,000 Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel. And he convinced the US to stop accepting Soviet Jews as refugees, funneling more than 1 million Soviet Jews to Israel instead.

But all of this cost money. During the end of President George H.W. Bush’s term, Mr. Shamir sought loan guarantees of $10 billion from the US to help cover the resettlement costs, which included building new homes and roads, finding jobs, and providing services for the new immigrants. (The mechanism was akin to co-signing a mortgage, in which a wealthier party with better credit can help a party with more modest funds to secure lower interest rates.)

The Bush administration was concerned, however, that the funding would be used to build new settlements that could jeopardize peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the end, Shamir – a staunch believer that the West Bank and Gaza rightfully belonged to the Jews – never accepted Bush’s terms to freeze settlement expansion in exchange for the loan guarantees. But in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin replaced him, Bush agreed to the full $10 billion in loan guarantees in exchange for only limited curtailment of settlement building – perhaps because he viewed Rabin’s centrist government as more supportive of America’s peacemaking efforts in the region. 

The following year, Rabin signed the 1993 Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

2010: Settlement flap during Biden visit

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as President Obama speaks during their meeting in March, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Despite the Oslo Accords, however, the population of Israeli settlements in the West Bank nearly tripled over the next two decades – from 115,000 to more than 300,000 – and the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem grew to more than 200,000.

Building in both areas, which Israel captured in the 1967 war, is considered illegal under international law and many see it as prejudicing an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

When President Obama took office in 2009, his administration called for a full settlement freeze. But in an incident widely seen as Israel thumbing its nose at that demand, Israeli officials announced approval for 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden in March 2010.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton scolded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a 43-minute phone call about the "insult" caused to Biden. While Congress gave Mr. Netanyahu a warm welcome when he arrived in Washington the next week, the White House departed from protocol and refused to allow photo ops or issue statements about his visit. 

According to one account, Obama curtly presented Netanyahu with a list of demands and when he stalled, the American president abruptly left to have dinner with his family.

The next month, it was reported that Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, told Israeli consul generals on a conference call that relations between the two countries were at a 35-year low. Ambassador Oren denied having made that remark, however, and both sides seemed to make an effort to smooth out the relationship.

While differing timetables over Iran have brought US-Israel tensions back to the fore in recent months, much of that has been attributed to personality differences and election campaigning rather than a fundamental breakdown in ties. Obama is on the homestretch of his reelection campaign, and Netanyahu is expected to announce early elections before the end of the year.