The US and Israel have been involved in a special yet complicated relationship since the beginnings of the proposals for a Zionist state. Over the decades both sides have aided one another and have found mutual security in their actions. Aside from the strategic aspect of the partnership of the two states, Israel embodies an ideal deeply embroiled in American thought since the earliest years of the New World. With the help of America, Israel has succeeded in its primary mission, providing a state for its people, and no American administration has considered reversing the decision on 1947, which established Jewish sovereignty. Israel’s relationship with the United States lies at the heart of the Middle East conflict, as not only does America’s influence underpin Israel’s immense military power and hence unyielding attitude, but it may also be the key to any compromise. The basis of the US-Israel relationship is extralegal, not found in formal bilateral treaties or documents, but in the public and private statements of presidents and other government officials.
In 1917 there was a debate on whether or not the Balfour Declaration should be put forward, and on September 3rd the British cabinet voted to learn if American president Woodrow Wilson approved of it. This Balfour Declaration which was adopted by the British war cabinet on October 31, 1917 stated, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”. On September 10th Wilson’s Foreign Office official Colonel Edward House communicated to Lord Robert Cecil of the British cabinet that Wilson was reluctant to endorse it. Wilson was in an delicate situation as America was not at war with Turkey but rather its allies, so for him to publicly endorse the declaration would worsen US-Ottoman relations which were already strained due to the war. Chaim Weizmann who was the president of the Zionist organisation learned of this reluctance and cabled the declaration’s text to several Zionist leaders who were close to president Wilson in an attempt to change his mind. As a result, within 2 weeks the Zionists got Wilson to reverse his decision and in mid-October Wilson formally sent Britain his approval, telling them not to make it known publicly however. Wilson therefore risked harming US relations with the Ottomans in order to relieve the political pressure that was placed on him by Zionist leaders. Wilson’s approval is widely considered as decisive in the first step of the formulation of an Israeli state as well as the beginning of Israeli American relations, as one can only speculate whether the British would adopt the declaration without the American president’s approval.
Woodrow Wilson’s first two successors, Harding and Coolidge supported the Balfour Declaration as well, and in fact expanded the support for Zionism, becoming increasingly involved in the Zionist-Palestinian conflict throughout the 1920s. The actions of the White House and Congress during the Harding and Coolidge administrations in support of Zionism were taken despite Wilson’s claim of the people’s ‘rights to self-determination’, with these pro-Zionist steps being taken in spite of the 1920 and 1921 Arab riots.
During the 12 year presidency of Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945), British-Zionist relations deteriorated and the Zionists began looking more to America than to England for help. Roosevelt tried to avoid any involvement by only offering limited aid to Nazi victims, although Roosevelt did support the heavy immigration of Jews into Palestine just like the previous 3 administrations. As British-Zionist relations deteriorated even further during the Second World War, throughout the war, the Zionists had successfully worked on increasing their control over the American Jewish population, therefore sufficiently helping mobilise the American public opinion.
After the Nazi defeat and WW2, an estimated 1 million Jews were displaced around non-Soviet Europe (Jews behind the iron curtain were not allowed to leave the communist regime), leading America and the Truman administration to a deep involvement in solving the problem of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict. Truman was highly aware of his voters’ opinions and in 1945, US Jews were split between Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists, all sending Truman conflicting signals. Truman met with the representatives of all 3 camps on several occasions each time reiterating that he was too preoccupied with the cold war to increase involvement in the Jewish immigration problem. However Truman did notably state that the formation of a Jewish state would cause a Third World War. In October 4, 1946, there was a sign that Zionist influences in Washington had got to Truman, as Truman gave a speech stating that the US could support “a viable Jewish State in the area of Palestine”. In November, four heads of US diplomatic missions in Arab states met with Truman and warned him that his pro-Zionist statements threatened US interests. He reportedly replied, “I’m sorry gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism, I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”.
Formation of Israeli State
On February 17, 1947, Britain announced that it lacked authority to give Palestine to the Arabs or the Jews, or to divide it between them. Britain said it thus had no choice but to submit the issue to the UN, and it did, and the UN general assembly opened a special session in April. At that time the figures against US support for a Jewish state included Defence Secretary James Forrestal, Secretary of State George Marshall, other State department personnel, and consular officials in the Middle East, as they feared such support would not only lead the Arabs to cut their oil supplies, but also become Soviet allies. As a result of big pressure mounted on the Truman administration from Zionists in the US, ahead of the vote for the 1947 partition of Palestine, US government officials pressurised other states to vote ‘yes’. Michael Comay, the head of Jewish Agency’s New York office stated that during the last 48 hours before the final vote, presidential aides, members of congress and even Supreme court justices joined together in an intensive lobby to secure positive votes, with examples of this action including Supreme court justices cabling the Philippines president, threatening him with negative consequences regarding Philippines interest in America if he did not change his vote from ‘no’ to ‘yes’, Truman aid Nile orchestrated similar pressure on Liberia and France, which were other key votes. These votes were crucial in securing a ⅔ majority in favour of the partition when the vote was held on November 29. As a result, the Zionists now had a UN resolution that favoured a Jewish state and allotted 53.46% of Palestine to the Jews, even though they occupied only 5-6% of its territory. Israel then declared its statehood on May 14 1948. Because of the intense US lobbying most states viewed the partition plan as an American project.
Relations throughout the Arab Israeli wars
The day after the Israeli declaration of independence, five Arab states, Lebanon, Syria, Trans-Jordan, Egypt and Iraq declared war on Israel. The US supported Israel throughout the war through both arms sales as well as morally. Israel repeatedly violated the truce agreement signed on July 19, 1948, by continuing its major offensives in the Negev desert. Despite this and strong State department objections, Truman continued his support for Israel, in doing so sacrificing the basic rights of around 1.4 million Palestinians. In early 1949, the UN negotiated a series of armistices between Israel and the Arab states involved, leaving Israel in control of 77% of Palestinian land. Through its role in the UN, America helped take even more land than in the 1947 partition plan through truce violations.
The 1967 Arab Israeli war broke out in a hostile atmosphere where American policy was pointed towards punishing Egypt due to its association with the Soviet Union during the 1960s at the helm of the cold war, and aiding its enemies, among them Israel. The outbreak of war in June 1967 revealed the regional fragility at the time. Despite increasing demand for Arab oil, the 1967 war was a catalyst for US support for Israel increasing enormously. In fact, it is reported that the US encouraged Israel to attack Egypt in order to weaken president Nasser, who had well developed anti-imperialist tendencies. Furthermore, by defeating Nasser, Israel opened the way for conservative Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, Libya and Kuwait to use their financial resources to neutralise the threat to their nations coming from Nasser’s Egypt.
On the 6th of October, 1973, Egypt launched an attack on Israel through the Suez Canal, in addition to a powerful Syrian offensive on the Golan Heights. After initial Egyptian and Syrian successes, the battle started going Israel’s way from October 17. There was a cease-fire signed on the 24th, giving the US time to evaluate the situation. Several days later the US State Department announced the start of an airlift of military supplies to Israel to counter the Soviet airlift of supplies to Egypt and Syria. President Nixon therefore formally asked Congress for $2.2 billion in immediate military aid to Israel. For the first time the US had formally taken Israel’s side in an Arab Israeli conflict. However in 1974, Richard Nixon was replaced by Gerald Ford in the White House, who took a harder line on Israel and threatened a reduction of US support for Israel if it didn’t withdraw from Sinai, and reduce its aggression in the region. Jimmy Carter then set up a meeting in Camp David between Israeli and Egyptian presidents Ernest Begin and Anwar Sadat.
Ultimately, the talks succeeded, and Israel and Egypt signed the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty in 1979. Israel subsequently withdrew its troops and settlers from the Sinai, in exchange for normal relations with Egypt and a lasting peace, with last Israeli troops exiting on April 26, 1982.
The Nuclear Question
The prospect of nuclear war in the Middle East unleashed by Israel and beyond the capacity of the Bush administration to control was a real, but little publicised element of the 1990-91 crisis in the Persian Gulf. If nuclear war had occurred it would have transformed both the conflict and its consequences. The spectre of atomic warfare in the Middle East has placed the region’s nuclearization at the heart not only of US-Israeli relations, but also at the center of Israel’s drive to preserve its regional nuclear hegemony.
In December 1990, a senior air force officer pronounced that his branch of the armed services was ready “on every level, [including] non-conventional warfare capability.”9 The day that the US-led bombing of Iraq began, Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld warned that “if [Saddam Hussein] fires chemical weapons at Tel Aviv, someone in Tel Aviv may go crazy, and he knows it.”
Based on signals from Israeli leaders that they would enter the war against Iraq only if the latter breached the non-conventional threshold, the Bush administration wanted to destroy Iraq’s ballistic missile capability in order to forestall the use of these weapons for a chemical attack against Israel.
In America, views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more partisan than they’ve been since 1978, according to one study, which revealed that 79% of Republicans say their sympathies lie more with Israel than with the Palestinians, while only 27% of Democrats are more sympathetic to Israel. Another study revealed that, while a large majority of Democrats see Israel as a strategic asset, 55% of Democrats also see Israel as a strategic burden, and 60% of Democrats believe the United States should impose sanctions or take serious action in response to Israeli settlements. In the realm of trade, Israel’s trade to the United States is essential as the number of dollars created by exports from Israel create the highest number of U.S. jobs among its free-trading partners. For Israel, the United States remains a vital free- trading partner as it provides the country with an outlet for goods and services. Donald Trump is backing Netanyahu’s government with hardly a critical word regarding Israeli activity towards the Palestinian people, and in 2018 announced the opening of a US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. From the vantage point of the United States, Israel today behaves like a dependable ally in a threatening world.
To many observers, the US-Israeli connection appears to possess its own dynamism which seems to be drawing the United States almost inexorably into an increasing direct involvement in the complexities of the volatile Middle East. U.S.-Israel relations continue to be an important source of economic, potential and financial support to both countries a partnership that continues to grow with time. This varied connection between the two countries will have greater implications in the future, and should also provide a good buffer against shocks in the world economy.