Commentary Magazine


Does the U.S. Finally Understand Israel?

Has the Bush administration taken a new and promising turn in American policy toward Israel? Many people have thought so, and have pointed to signs that seem to illustrate that new turn. But in many respects, the administration’s diplomacy has also seemed to be cast from a traditional mold, with all of the mixed characteristics of both the recent and the not so recent past. Both lines were on vivid display during the crisis months of this past winter and spring.

Following an especially intense wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in February and March that culminated in a blast at a Netanya hotel on March 27, killing 29 civilians on the first night of Passover, Israel responded with a major incursion into the West Bank under the code name Operation Defensive Shield. Initially, President Bush appeared to approve of Israel’s actions. “Suicide bombers [operating] in the name of religion is simple terror,” Bush told reporters on the second day of the fighting, adding, “the civilized world must band together to stop this kind of activity if we expect there to be peace in the Middle East.” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer sharpened the point: “The President understands and respects Israel’s right to defend herself and to live in security.” Significantly, the administration declined to criticize Israel for massing its tanks around the offices of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and effectively placing Yasir Arafat under quarantine. Israeli forces, the Bush administration intimated, would be given sufficient time to do what they had set out to do, namely, destroy the infrastructure used by terrorists in launching attacks on civilians within Israel.

Almost immediately, however, a severe backlash to the Israeli military operation developed in Europe and the Arab world, and murmurs of discontent, if not second thoughts, seemed to surface within the American administration as well. In short order, Secretary of State Colin Powell was protesting that Israel was being too aggressive. By April 5, just a week after the operation began, President Bush himself was snapping, “enough is enough.” Suddenly, the administration publicly reconfirmed Arafat’s role as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, and Powell was dispatched to Ramallah to meet with the Palestinian leader and break his isolation. The administration also began to praise a Saudi “peace plan” that insisted on Israel’s return to the pre-1967 borders—a position long unacceptable to Jerusalem.

What was going on? As it happens, the two countervailing currents here discernible in microcosm have long been characteristic of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. In order to grasp what, if anything, is new in the Bush administration’s approach, one must first have an understanding of what came before.

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U.S. policy toward Israel as it has unfolded over a half-century might best be described as one of benign ambivalence, an ambivalence that has been visible from the outset and that has proved remarkably persistent. The ambivalence flows in part from the fact that the U.S. government itself has often been divided in its attitude.

Some influential agencies in Washington, especially the State Department and the Pentagon, have at different times been hostile toward Israel. Their objections have typically been framed in economic and strategic terms. In Israel’s earliest days, prominent voices in the State and Defense Departments warned that American support for the Jewish state would cause Arab nations to cease shipping their oil to the West and drive the Arabs into the arms of the Soviet Union. “Oil—that is the side we ought to be on,” remarked Defense Secretary James Forrestal in the late 1940’s. Secretary of State George Marshall swore not to vote for Harry Truman’s reelection in 1948 if the President recognized the new nation, and Marshall’s successor, John Foster Dulles, privately referred to Israel as “the millstone around our necks.”

Such antagonistic attitudes have been balanced, however, by a far greater degree of sympathy for Israel in Congress, a body broadly reflective of public opinion and sensitive to constituents’ interests. Most Presidents, too, have tended to be more on the approving side than not. A succession of chief executives has supported Israel not only out of electoral calculations but also out of respect for Israel’s military strength and a deep-seated identification with its democratic institutions. “The United States has a special relationship with Israel comparable only to that which it has with Britain,” John F. Kennedy once told Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir. Said Lyndon B. Johnson: “The United States is foursquare behind Israel . . . a friend in the truest sense.” Even Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose election owed virtually nothing to the Jewish vote, publicly declared his commitment to Israel’s security. Later Republican presidents—Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan—stood fast with Israel through moments of crisis and great danger.

Over the years, the equilibrium between the two opposing propensities in government has shifted in favor of the more sympathetic side, and U.S. policy toward Israel has, on the whole, turned increasingly obliging and supportive. The United States became a significant arms provider to Israel in 1965, when for the first time it agreed to sell it tanks and jets. In the wake of the Six-Day war in June 1967, and through both the 1968-1970 war of attrition and the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the flow of weapons steadily increased, and thereafter the U.S. became Israel’s main supplier. If American military aid amounted to only tens of millions of dollars annually in the 1960’s, today it is worth $3 billion a year. A large fraction of this money is earmarked for the purchase of American arms, which helps further to solidify ties, building a powerful lobby for continued military aid within American industry.

The burgeoning U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship has been accompanied by a tighter diplomatic partnership. In the 1940’s and 50’s, the bond between the two countries was not especially strong; David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, never set foot in the White House. But by 1967 the atmosphere had begun to shift. After the Six-Day war, the U.S. was instrumental in drafting UN Security Council Resolution 242, which responded to Israel’s demand for “secure and recognized borders” without requiring it to return all the territories that had fallen into its possession in that conflict. In subsequent years, a series of peace initiatives and separation-of-forces agreements, many of them fostered by the U.S., brought even closer coordination between the two countries. Increasingly sensitized to Israel’s concerns, American policymakers consented to forgo contacts with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) until it renounced terror and accepted Israel’s right to exist. By 1979 and the signing of the Camp David accords, the U.S. had become a full partner in guaranteeing peace between Israel and Egypt, its largest Arab neighbor.

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But if U.S. policy seems to have steadily shifted in Israel’s favor over recent decades, this is hardly to say that the two countries enjoy a harmonious relationship or always see eye to eye. Not only does the intra-governmental tension I alluded to earlier intrude reliably from time to time, and occasionally propel policy in an antagonistic direction, but there are a number of issues on which the viewpoints of the two countries, and their interests, have sharply diverged.

The status of Jerusalem is one area of disagreement. Although it is not something that American diplomats emphasize these days, the U.S. has never dissociated itself from the internationalization of the city as stipulated in the UN partition resolution of 1947. After Israel’s founding, American diplomats refrained from attending meetings at the Israeli foreign ministry in West Jerusalem, Israel’s declared capital. In the decades since the divided city was reunited by Israeli forces in June 1967, every American President has opposed Israel’s claim of sovereignty. Moreover, Presidents from Truman through Clinton have seriously considered proposals to place the city’s holy sites under international supervision. Though Congress has repeatedly called for the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and though presidential candidates from both parties (including George W. Bush) have repeatedly paid lip service to the idea, the site selected for that embassy remains vacant.

Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza are an even more contentious issue. Consecutive administrations have classified the West Bank and Gaza as “occupied” territories (Israel prefers the term “disputed”), rejected any Israeli claims to them, and condemned Israeli efforts to settle Jews on the land. Jimmy Carter went farthest, demanding a total freeze on settlement activity and calling the settlements “illegal.” A less strident formulation has been in use since the administration of George Bush, Sr.: the settlements are deemed “obstacles to peace”—or, in Bill Clinton’s emphatic phrase, “absolutely, absolutely an obstacle to peace.”

If such differences have been a continuing source of friction, far more charged are the issues arising from Israel’s military doctrine. The Jewish state has a longstanding policy of retaliating against terrorist acts and, in wartime, of striking preemptively. Neither of these approaches has sat well with the United States.

Almost immediately upon its founding, Israel was subjected to terrorist attacks across all of its borders. The response of the fledgling state was to mount reprisal raids not only against terrorist strongholds but also against the Arab countries that were hosting and encouraging the terrorists. Israeli leaders considered these operations a necessity, a way of ensuring that Jewish blood would not be shed with impunity and of deterring future assaults. They also insisted that their actions were fully legal under international statute, being an application of Israel’s right to self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

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The United States has seldom agreed. Reprisal raids “dangerously heighten existing tensions,” said John Foster Dulles in 1955. “The very insecurity of which Israel complains is aggravated by such a policy.” A decade later, Dean Rusk, Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of State, declared that “we cannot agree to or condone [Israeli] retaliatory action.” A decade after that, Jimmy Carter expressed grave reservations about Israel’s reprisal operations in Lebanon following the murder of 35 of its civilians in a terrorist attack on a bus; the Carter administration sponsored a UN Security Council resolution demanding that Israel “immediately cease its military action” without so much as a mention of the terrorism that had prompted it. In 1996, President Clinton leaned hard on Israel for Operation Grapes of Wrath, mounted in response to Hizbullah attacks on its northern border. And, most recently, as we have seen, there was the mixed reaction to Operation Defensive Shield.

In pressing Israel toward what they call “restraint,” U.S. officials have on some occasions complained that Israeli retaliation has been “disproportionate” to what provoked it. More generally, they have also worried aloud that such actions might prove disruptive to larger U.S. economic and strategic concerns. During the cold war, it was said that our vital oil supplies were being put at risk, as well as our need to involve the Arab states on our side of the East-West conflict. In the post-cold-war era, the rationale has been that Israel’s military incursions will fan the flames of radical Islam and thus potentially destabilize moderate Arab regimes.

If the United States has routinely expressed strong disapproval of Israeli retaliatory actions and tried to limit their scale and scope, it has also, on every occasion, vigorously opposed and sometimes thwarted Israel’s war-making. In the Suez crisis of 1956, President Eisenhower was furious over Israel’s participation in the Anglo-French military campaign against Egypt (even though Egypt had recently acquired massive amounts of weaponry from the USSR and was tying itself closer to the Kremlin). Eisenhower threatened Jerusalem with economic sanctions and compelled it to withdraw from the territory it had seized.

Even in 1967 and 1973, with Arab armies poised on Israel’s borders, the U.S. cautioned Israel not to strike first. “I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities,” Johnson wrote to Israeli leaders on June 3, two days before the outbreak of the Six-Day war. Six years later, in 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Israelis that “If you fire the first shot, you won’t have a dogcatcher in this country supporting you. . . . Don’t preempt.” During the Lebanon war in 1982, President Reagan warned Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin that “a refusal by Israel to accept a cease-fire will aggravate further the serious threat to world peace.” In the Persian Gulf war, the administration of George Bush exerted intense pressure on the government of Yitzhak Shamir not to retaliate for Iraqi Scud attacks on Tel Aviv.

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Continuing through presidential and congressional elections, the rise of powerful lobbies, changing demographic and economic trends, the violent vicissitudes of the Middle East, and tectonic shifts in world politics, America’s policy of benign ambivalence has thus persisted, unimpeded. This consistency is especially astonishing when one considers that, in almost every respect, ambivalence has proved counterproductive.

For one thing, Arab leaders have drawn conclusions from U.S. policy that are seldom those intended by Washington. Friction between Israel and the U.S. is almost always perceived among Arabs as an opening to be exploited in their ongoing war against the Jewish state. Although U.S. policymakers believe that leaning on Israel is a means of maintaining tranquility, in the Arab world such pressure tends to foster the belief that the United States will at the very least keep Israel on a tight leash and perhaps coerce it into accepting terms more favorable to the Arab side. In this way, U.S. ambivalence reinforces Arab recalcitrance and sets in motion a vicious cycle: the harder the U.S. pushes Israel to make concessions in the name of “peace,” the more elusive real peace becomes.

Israeli leaders, for their part, have discovered another set of lessons from Washington’s consistent inconsistencies. They cannot help noticing that, for the most part, Israel has not been rewarded for exercising forbearance. Indeed, on those occasions when Israel has buckled to American pressure, and especially when it has refrained from responding to provocations, it has earned not gratitude or leniency but additional pressure.

Israel endured huge casualties and suffered a major military reversal in the Yom Kippur war of October 1973 because it consented to Henry Kissinger’s plea not to strike Egypt first. In the aftermath, it was “rewarded” by an American insistence that it withdraw from the territory it had succeeded in capturing. In the Persian Gulf war, the pattern was much the same: Israel submitted to the U.S. demand that it not respond to Iraq’s Scud missile attacks, but the end of the war failed to bring about a warmer U.S.-Israel relationship. To the contrary, running directly against Israel’s diplomatic objectives, George Bush embarked upon a major campaign to twist Israel’s arm to sacrifice “territory for peace.”

Having met with condemnation for even limited counteroffensives against terrorism, Israeli leaders have repeatedly drawn another conclusion: that they have little to lose by launching larger-scale operations. This is precisely what happened in 1956, 1967, and 1982 when, exasperated by America’s refusal to sanction any exercise of its right to self-defense, Israel went to war. In this sense, Operation Defensive Shield, a major military action embarked upon after fourteen full months of relentless terrorism and in the face of American pressure to show restraint, was itself part of a broader pattern.

And here is a final irony: on those occasions when Israel has asserted, and exercised, its right to self-defense, the American reaction, after an initial burst of anger, has almost always been one of heightened respect. Despite Lyndon Johnson’s unequivocal warning not to launch a preemptive strike, the June 1967 war yielded major improvements in U.S.-Israel relations. Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak in 1981 was also condemned by the U.S. in the strongest terms, which did not stop strategic cooperation between the two countries from flourishing in its aftermath. Today, Israel’s bombing of the Osirak reactor is universally praised as necessary and heroic; without it, Saddam Hussein might already have developed nuclear weapons.

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What, then, are the chances that George W. Bush and his team will think afresh about the tortuous history of U.S. policy, and will embark on a new and less ambivalent course? The answer is by no means clear.

On one side of the ledger, there is the unmistakable fact that, not long after taking office, Bush indicated his intention to part with the habits of his predecessors and declined to place Arab-Israeli negotiations at center stage. This was indeed a welcome shift away from a policy that in the past almost inevitably led to major diplomatic clashes with Israel—and to little or no movement toward its stated goal. Nor, Bush made it clear, would progress in peace negotiations be a prerequisite for closer U.S. ties with Israel; these would be strengthened regardless of where negotiations stood. Finally, the President made plain his frustration with continuing Palestinian violence and rejectionism, and with Yasir Arafat in particular. Under Bill Clinton, Arafat had been the foreign leader most frequently invited to the White House; Bush shut him out entirely.

The catastrophe of September 11 served only to reinforce this seeming new tendency in American policy. There was, to begin with, the sheer psychological impact of thousands of Americans dying at the hands of Arab extremists ideologically linked to those who had been murdering Israelis. The ensuing U.S. campaign against terrorism brought renewed attention to the similarities between the two countries’ situation, with many in the United States expressing a greater sympathy for Israel’s plight. In the following months, Bush directed the State Department to add Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to the U.S. list of terrorist organizations; this was the first time that an American President had publicly labeled an enemy of Israel as an enemy of the United States.

Most significant of all were Bush’s own words explaining the scope of the U.S. war on terrorism in his address to a joint session of Congress:

Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.

September 11 thus put the United States squarely on Israel’s side in its conflict with those of its neighbors who had been harboring and supporting terrorists for decades.

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For a President who had received very few votes from American Jews, George W. Bush’s support of Israel has rightly struck observers as something extraordinary. At times it has been so open and passionate that many have concluded it flows not primarily, or not only, from strategic considerations but directly from the heart.

That may well be the case. But in matters of state, sentiment only carries one so far. Not only were there sharp zigzags in the administration’s public rhetoric this past spring, there are also mounting signs that, in an effort to appease opinion in Europe and in the Arab world, and get on with the war on terror, Washington may be contemplating imposing some sort of solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute—precisely the sort of initiative that has boomeranged in the past and that George W. Bush pointedly eschewed upon taking office.

One cannot now say with any confidence how all this will play out. What one can say is that, seen from the long view, Israel’s relationship with the United States is at one of its historic high points. It is unfortunately another question whether ambivalence, with all its costs, has truly had its day.

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About the Author

Michael B. Oren is a senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.




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