The US & Israel

Since the founding of a Jewish homeland in 1948, America's unique friendship with Israel has weathered war and crises. It is now drawing more public scrutiny than it has in a generation.

In later years, his daughter Margaret would say it was the most difficult decision Harry Truman ever faced as president. Should he support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, or shouldn't he?

His advisers were split. Clark Clifford - Truman's debonair legal counsel - fervently believed he should. The Jews deserved a sanctuary after the horror of the Holocaust, Clifford argued. Besides, the new state would likely come to pass whether Truman urged it or not.

Secretary of State George Marshall felt otherwise. The retired general was a towering figure in the capital: Truman himself said "there wasn't a decoration big enough" to honor Marshall's leadership during World War II. At a White House meeting on May 12, 1948, Marshall objected to quick US recognition of a Jewish homeland. It would look as if Truman was angling for Jewish votes, he said, and might endanger access to Arab oil. He went so far as to say that if Truman went ahead and recognized the new state, then he, personally, would vote against him in the coming election.

It was an extraordinary rebuke to a sitting chief executive - and it didn't work. Two days later, Israel was born at the stroke of midnight, Jerusalem time. The United States announced its recognition of the new nation 11 minutes later.

Truman's support for Israel was far from unconditional. The US provided neither troops nor arms to help the new nation. It would take decades, a string of Arab-Israeli wars, and the context of the long struggle between the US and the Soviet Union to make the US-Israel relationship as close as it is today.

It was a fateful step nonetheless. Ever since, US policy in this volatile part of the world has juggled support of Israel with desire for access to oil fields controlled by Israel's often-hostile neighbors.

Today, the simmering resentments caused by this balancing act are relevant to Americans' daily lives in ways Truman could not have foreseen. Osama bin Laden has exploited the image of the US as Israel's bulwark and a quasi-imperial petroleum power to try to win support in the larger Arab world for his terrorist strikes against the US homeland.

Mr. bin Laden's depiction of the US as the hidden hand behind the region's miseries distorts, in many ways, America's role. Most US actions in the Middle East, historians say, were in pursuit of what presidents believed to be the nation's vital interests.

But answering the plaintive question "Why do they hate us?" may at least begin with the context of turning points of US involvement in the region. "The truth of the matter is that, from Washington's perspective, supporting Israel while ensuring security of Gulf oil supplies has been a very hard line to walk," says Ruhi Ramazani, a retired professor at the University of Virginia and renowned expert on the history of the modern Middle East.

before Israel: Snares of colonialism

Truth be told, bin Laden cites as grievances events that predate the rise of the US as a Middle East player. He begins with Western colonialism. In his chilling videotaped message made public after the beginning of the US bombing campaign in Afghanistan, he said that the Islamic world "has been tasting this humiliation and ... degradation for more than 80 years."

Bin Laden is referring to the period after World War I, when victors Britain and France were carving up the remains of the losing Ottoman Empire to suit themselves. With Britain's then-colonial secretary Winston Churchill playing a leading role, the allies created Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq, and other new states with arbitrary lines on the map. They imposed rulers with few legitimate ties to the ruled.

The exercise was carried out against the backdrop of the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 statement of British foreign secretary Alfred Balfour pledging British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. At the time, Western leaders failed to consider that this promise might set up a clash between Zionist and Palestinian Arab nationalism.

The result was a belt of instability and suppressed political aspirations that stretched from Constantinople to the Indian Ocean. This turmoil is far from forgotten; it is instead living history, the cause of innumerable modern fissures between Arabs, Israel, and the West.

Where was the US while this was going on? Turning inward.

"The US was basically neutral. It did not appear that the US had any great stake in Middle East affairs," says David Fromkin, a Boston University professor whose history of the region in that period is fittingly titled "A Peace to End All Peace."

By the next world war, US interests in the region had expanded. American oil companies saw the region as holding great promise, and, during the struggle against the Axis powers, US leaders came to agree. The war also saw the first major US military deployments to the area: Some 40,000 GIs were stationed in Iran alone.

In this period, Iran and its Arab neighbors saw the US as both a bulwark against invasion and a counter to the traditional power interests of Britain and Russia. Americans were the new kids in the casbah, and they were welcomed as champions of indigenous nationalism.

The US role as a symbol of hope was one that would last until the 1960s in many Muslim countries. "America was so idealized," says Mr. Ramazani.

1956 - The Suez Crisis: America as Egypt's white knight

Today, much of the Arab world sees the US solely as Israel's cosponsor, but that was not the case through Israel's early history.

The US did lobby on behalf of the United Nations' plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states upon the expiration of Britain's mandate over the area. But Truman's recognition of Israel was far from foreordained. He was much irritated by the intense pressure put upon him by pro-Zionist US relief organizations. And Marshall's opposition weighed heavily on the president.

"America played a marginal role in the birth of Israel," writes Oxford scholar Avi Shlaim in his concise history of the modern Middle East.

Two events altered this geopolitical equation: the decline of Britain as the Middle East's self-appointed protector, and the rise of the cold war.

The first of these was marked, ironically, by an event in which the US rebuked Israel, as well as Britain, and France, in the strongest terms: the Suez crisis.

It was October 1956. Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser had recently nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain and France - adamant that Egypt should not control a strategic waterway through which most of their oil imports passed - concocted a plot to unseat Nasser that was too clever by more than half.

Israel was a co-conspirator. The plan was this: The Israelis would invade the Sinai Peninsula. Britain and France would demand in a faux shocked response that the Israelis cease and desist. They would then parachute troops in to "defend" the canal, calling for both Egyptian and Israeli forces to pull back 10 miles. Nasser would certainly be deposed in the confusion.

The conspirators did not count on the reaction of President Dwight Eisenhower, who considered the whole adventure a bizarre bit of mid-Victorian gunboat diplomacy. On the evening of Oct. 30, as the plot was set in motion, Eisenhower sat in the White House, complaining bitterly to his staff. "I've just never seen great powers make such a complete mess and botch of things!" he said.

To Britain's shock, the Allied war leader threatened it with oil sanctions and forced the troika to eventually end its little war.

In the UN, the US was hailed at the time as defending a third-world nation - and an Arab one at that - against the West and Israel.

What was less realized at the time was that the Suez crisis also set the stage for the US to become one of the region's preeminent players - and therefore become more involved with Israel.

"With Suez, for the first time, the US is calling the shots in the Middle East," says Yehuda Lukacs, a professor of international relations at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Suez also paved the way for the cold war to come to the Mideast. The affair convinced Eisenhower that a move into the area by the Soviet Union would be disastrous to Europe and NATO, because of oil needs. He announced the Eisenhower Doctrine: The US would send weapons and cash to any Mideast nation threatened by communism.

The US had already begun to equate much Arab nationalism with communism. Thus the CIA in 1953 had helped to oust Iran's elected prime minister in favor of the reliably pro-Western Shah.

In this context, Israel - a reliable democracy, a nation with a strong domestic US constituency, a capitalist bastion - would become a natural partner.

1967-1973: Solidly in Israel's camp

On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 7, 1973, President Richard Nixon called Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to muse about the new war in the Middle East.

The day before, Egypt and Syria had launched a surprise attack on Israel. Kissinger learned of the strike only when an aide jolted him awake in a 35th-floor hotel suite at New York's Waldorf Towers. Now, 24 hours later, results were inconclusive. Israel had asked for a quick US resupply of Sidewinder missiles and ammunition.

Nixon warned Mr. Kissinger not to appear so pro-Israel that the Arab oil states, not part of the battle, would break ranks. The president was confident the Israelis would win, as, "thank God, they should." Then he lamented the logical outcome. The Israelis "will be even more impossible to deal with than before," Nixon moaned.

Thus began the 16 sometimes-harrowing days of the Yom Kippur War. Israel did not, in fact, win quickly, and the fight bogged down. The American resupply effort was slow in coming, but when it did it was massive, involving flights of US transport planes and an infusion of 20 F-4 Phantom jets.

But in a way, it marked the end, arguably, of the most pro-Israeli period in US foreign policy.

The 1967 Six Day War, six years earlier, had been an electric shock for much of the world. Israel's easy triumph over its Arab neighbors seemed to indicate an inevitable Israeli military superiority. Though Israel fought with many non-American weapons in 1967, it was for the last time. After that, the weapons and aid flowed in abundance.

"There's no question that the US was supporting Israel from the beginning, but the big bucks didn't come until after 1967," says Richard Murphy, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

After the 1967 Arab trouncing by Israel, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and, then, Richard Nixon believed that the Arabs would not dare attack Israel again for a very long time. That meant the territorial status quo - including Israel's hold on the Arab land it had occupied since 1967 - might be supported indefinitely.

Technically, the US was in favor of Israel trading the captured lands for peace with its neighbors. Such is the underlying premise of UN Resolution 242. But the cold war preoccupied America at this time, and the issue of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land was relatively low on its agenda.

Then came the Yom Kippur fighting - Syria's and Egypt's bid to take back its lost territory. Kissinger and his Soviet counterpart helped negotiate a cease fire, but the Israelis - whom Kissinger didn't consult at key moments - kept fighting. Soviet leaders threatened to send in their own troops as cease-fire enforcement.

In response, the US, enforcing its edict against any Soviet presence in the area, went to a worldwide nuclear alert. It probably ranks among the tensest moments of the cold war.

The Soviets backed down, but those days of brinkmanship changed the US role in the Middle East. Egypt and Syria, though defeated militarily, had reaped political gains. For the first time in years, the US began crafting policies that paid serious heed to non-oil Arab states. Negotiations for the return of lands captured by Israel became inevitable.

Post-1973: Era of bartering

In hindsight, the end of the 1973 war was the beginning of the hard-bargaining phase of US involvement in the Mideast. Most Americans are now all too familiar with this era's main elements: difficult negotiations, followed by dramatic agreement and soaring hopes, and then a crash back to earth, as the negotiating partners offered different versions of what they agreed to.

Consider the Camp David accords - still the most important Middle East pact to which the US has served as midwife. President Jimmy Carter had taken office promising a new look for US foreign policy. The hard realpolitik of the Nixon-Ford era, when everything was seen through the lens of the cold war, would be modified. In its place would be an attempt to deal with regional problems on their own terms. In the Middle East, that meant a comprehensive approach to Israeli-Arab differences, including some sort of solution for the problem of displaced Palestinians.

Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat had already kicked Soviet military advisers out of his country. Now he was ready to take another giant step toward the American camp. In September 1978, he accepted Mr. Carter's invitation to join Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for talks at the presidential retreat at Camp David.

After 16 days, the two leaders (at the time called "unguided missiles" by an unnamed State Department official) shook hands on a historic pact. Egypt would get back the Sinai, captured by Israel in 1967, in return for a pledge to normalize Egyptian-Israeli relations.

In a second part of the accords, Israel recognized the "legitimate rights" of the Palestinian people and agreed that the Palestinian problem needed to be solved in all its aspects.

Details of this solution, however, were to come later - and, of course, they did not. Mr. Begin apparently had no intention of letting go of the occupied territories where Palestinians lived, and as Carter's presidency began to sink under the weight of the energy crisis and the American hostages in Iran, US attention drifted elsewhere.

A Camp David agreement that "at first looked like a diplomatic triumph proved short-lived and shortsighted," writes Oxford's Mr. Shlaim.

Since then, the situation on the ground has changed only at the margins. Israel has continued to dot the territories with Jewish settlements, to the chagrin of a series of US presidents. The 1993 Oslo accords gave the Palestinians authority over some areas. But to many in the refugee camps, it has been too little, too late. Now the region is spiraling downward in a renewed cycle of violence.

Many Palestinians of this generation believe Israel will never grant them a full nation - only a half-state, with responsibility for water purification and garbage collection and little else.

Israelis worry that even this might be too much, and that the areas ceded so far could become a launching pad for terrorist and military action aimed at pushing the Jewish state back into the sea.

It is the emotions generated by this long cycle of shuttle diplomacy - of expectations raised and hopes dashed - that ordinary Arabs talk about when they say they understand why Al Qaeda terrorists hate the US. It is a hatred that Osama bin Laden expresses in fierce terms.

His videotaped statement of Oct. 7 ends with these words: "Neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine."

Translation: The US will be subject to terrorist attacks as long as it allies itself with Israel. Indeed, the danger might continue as long as Israel exists.

Whether resolving the plight of displaced Palestinians is truly one of bin Laden's main goals is an open question. Furthermore, it is virtually unthinkable that the US would ever sever, or significantly reduce, its ties with Israel, terrorist blackmail or no. Too many cultural and economic links bind the two democracies for that.

Other US allies in the region are authoritarian, or monarchies, or some combination of the two. In Saudi Arabia, the royal family could conceivably be overthrown by extremist religious factions, as happened to the Shah of Iran in 1979. That won't happen in Israel.

"It is the only really reliable regime in the area," says Shaul Gabbay of the Institute for the Study of Israel in the Middle East at the University of Denver.

Still, events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath have focused Americans' attention on their nation's ties with Israel to a degree not seen since the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

"The American public is now waking up to the cost of the relationship with Israel," says Professor Lukacs. "This is a question that has never been addressed in the past."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.