Friday, July 9, 2010

How the United States has benefited from its alliance with Israel Part I


by Gil Ehrenkranz


1st part of 4


This article reviews Israel's value as an American ally since 1967. It highlights the actions taken by Israel on behalf of the United States, including accommodating U.S. national interests at the expense of Israeli interests. The article explores the myth of Holocaust guilt as the primary reason for Israel's creation and contrasts the actions of other regional U.S. allies with those of Israel. The steadily declining tangible support for U.S. policies by American allies in the twenty-first century has served to magnify Israel's importance to the United States.


Amidst a budding nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the Obama administration is seen by many as "resetting" the relationship between the United States and its long-time ally, Israel.  This recalibration of the U.S.-Israel alliance is occurring while Israel is facing the first genuine threat to its existence since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  The threat emanates from the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The Iranian quest for nuclear arms production capability is nearly complete as most analysts estimate that Iran will have mastered the ability to produce nuclear weapons by 2013.

[i][1]  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated pronouncements of his hope that Israel will disappear are simply a more bellicose statement of the policy Iran has had towards Israel since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.[ii][2]  Yet with Iran on the verge of acquiring an ability to produce nuclear weapons, Israel can no longer afford to ignore Iranian intentions.  This article will focus on the history of Israel as a partner in its alliance with the United States.



Tensions in the relationship between the United States and Israel are nothing new.  While Ronald Reagan's tenure as president is remembered as being very pro-Israel, few remember that his first two years in office were filled with serious disagreements with Israel.  In 1981, he embargoed the delivery of F-16 aircraft to Israel in response to Israel's raid on the Osirak reactor in Iraq.[iii][3]  A year later, his administration unveiled a unilateral blueprint for Middle East peace without consulting Israel.  When it was finally presented simultaneously to Israel and its Arab neighbors, Prime Minister Begin was livid at Reagan's failure to consult with Israel.  Reagan also suspended diplomatic agreements with Israel following the Israeli Knesset vote to extend Israeli law to the Golan Heights.  The Reagan approach to Israel began to change, however, following the almost universal rejection of his peace plan among Arab states as well as Hizballah's attack, which killed hundreds of U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983.  Thus, Reagan's preconceived notions about the causes of Middle Eastern instability and the lack of peace did not survive his experience.  To his credit, Reagan recognized this and was able to shift U.S. policy from confrontation with Israel to one of cooperation.

The Clinton administration went through a similar learning curve, albeit a much slower one.  Between 1993 and 2001, no world leader was invited to the White House as often as Yasir Arafat.[iv][4]  Clinton and Secretary of State Albright clung to the belief that Arafat was interested in peaceful coexistence with Israel.  This belief even survived Arafat's continued refusal to rein in terrorist groups and his initiation of the Second Intifada. Unfortunately for Israel, Clinton did not recognize until late in 2000 that Arafat was an unreconstructed terrorist at heart.

President Obama has hinted that he would like to redefine the terms of the U.S. relationship with Israel.  This is not mere speculation.  While the Obama administration has reacted tepidly to serious policy challenges such as North Korean threats to use its atomic weapons and to the remarkable protests in Iran following a rigged election,[v][5] Obama has focused vigorously on forcing Israel to cease any construction in the West Bank, even going so far as to condemn Israel for announcing a new housing project in Jerusalem. The cessation demanded by the Obama administration has not even been balanced with any request whatsoever from the Palestinian side.  Presumably, by exerting pressure solely on Israel, he hopes to encourage the Palestinians and Arab states to embrace peace with Israel.  Thus far, the only effect of his policy change toward Israel has been to retard any progress toward peace, as the Palestinians and Arab states have hardened their positions.  They hope that Obama can deliver Israel solely on Arab terms.

The indicia of the changing relationship with Israel can be found in Obama's insistence on a complete halt to settlement construction and his Cairo speech to the Islamic world.  Prior to the Cairo speech, even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas never predicated the resumption of peace negotiations on a complete construction freeze and natural growth of existing settlements had imposed no impediment to engaging in discussions with Israel. Yet with Obama's call for a complete settlement freeze without any corresponding gesture on the Palestinians' part, Abbas has decided to "pocket" this Israeli concession prior to engaging in any meaningful discussions about peace.  The effect of Obama's insistence of a settlement freeze on the Palestinians has served only to make the resumption of negotiations more difficult.  But he has accomplished something that no Israeli politician has been able to do since the early 1970s.  Obama has united both the Israeli left and right wings in support of Prime Minister Netanyahu's opposition to a construction halt.  This unity has as much to do with Obama's June 2009 speech in Cairo as with his demand for unilateral Israeli concessions prior to commencing negotiations.


Obama's Cairo speech returned American policy back to the Clinton administration approach of assuming moral equivalence between the parties.  Thus, each statement seeming to castigate the Arab countries for terrorist acts was balanced by a criticism of Israel.  The fact that Obama was equating the targeting and murder of more than a thousand Israeli civilians since 2000 with Israeli construction of settlements was jarring to Israelis.  Yet this alone would not have been enough to unite the wide range of political parties in Israel.  After all, moral equivalence was part of both the Carter and Clinton administrations' mantra, and Israel had survived those.  It was Obama's complete acceptance of Palestinian propaganda concerning Israel's creation that alarmed Israelis most.  For more than half a century, the Palestinians sought to convince the world that Israel's creation was an act of usurpation of Palestinian land and that Israel owed its existence solely to European guilt over the Holocaust.  Given that Obama's only statement concerning Israel's creation was in connection with the Holocaust, the Palestinians may well count Obama as their most important convert.  What Obama (and those who vetted his speech beforehand) failed to realize was that Israeli independence owed far more to the fact that Jews had successfully revolted against British colonial occupation than to presumed multinational guilt over the Holocaust.  Even Winston Churchill understood this point and said, "It was the Irgun Zvai Leumi that caused the British evacuation from Palestine.  Members of the Irgun caused us so much trouble that we had to station eighty thousand troops in the country to cope with the situation. The military costs were too high for our economy to bear, and the Irgun was responsible for driving the costs to such a high level."[vi][6]  Had European guilt over the Holocaust been the deciding factor, Israel would have been created immediately after August 1945.  Instead, it was more than two years before a final partition plan was approved that Israel came into being in 1948.  Moreover, during Israel's War of Independence (1948-1949), no country sent troops to help protect Israel from annihilation.  For its part, the United States refused to sell any weapons to Israel.

The reality was that World War II delayed the creation of a Jewish State much as it had placed India's drive for independence in a state of suspended animation.  As soon as the war ended and no progress was made concerning Britain's departure from Palestine, the Jews of Mandate Palestine began their revolt against British rule in earnest.  It should be noted that whatever guilt Britain may have experienced in the post-war environment, such guilt did not even motivate it to lift the restrictions on the immigration of Holocaust survivors to Israel.  In fact, soon after the war's end in 1945, Britain rejected an appeal from President Truman to admit 100,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors into Palestine immediately.[vii][7]

In 1946, when death camp survivors attempted to reoccupy their own homes in Kielce, Poland, more than 39 of them were slaughtered by local residents. Before the year's end, more than 2,000 additional Jews were killed by Poles;[viii][8]  and for those Jews who had been prescient enough to open Swiss bank accounts in the 1930s, they found the Swiss banks uncooperative in releasing funds to account holders (or their heirs) after the war.[ix][9]  To the extent that any post-war European guilt existed at all, it is unclear that such guilt motivated many European countries to make amends to the Jewish people, including the 1947 vote to partition Palestine.  Furthermore, what is often overlooked is that the 1947 UN vote was an attempt to create two separate countries only one of which was the State of Israel.  Obama's Cairo speech distortion of the historical record regarding Israel's creation is what most disturbed Israelis.  For if Obama's and the Palestinians' position is correct, then what follows logically is that Israel's very creation was an act of aggression against the Palestinian Arabs and reflects a permanent moral stain for which Israel should now be forced to make amends.  Furthermore, if Obama believes what he said in Cairo, how can he continue the American policy of allying itself with Israel?  Israelis are wondering whether the current tensions with the Obama administration are a mere replay of past stresses with the United States or whether the alliance is in danger of fraying. It is the first time since President Eisenhower forced Israel to vacate the gains it had won in its 1956 war against Egypt that Israelis are facing the question of whether the United States will continue to be a friend.  Exacerbating their unease is the steady progress in the Iranian nuclear program coupled with the inaction of the international community.  While the question of whether the United States is preparing to lessen its support of Israel is pending, what of the role Israel has played as an ally over the years?



The existence of the informal alliance between Israel and the United States has sometimes been explained as being the result of domestic political pressure in the United States and the undue influence of The America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).[x][10]  Yet as David Verbeeten notes in his 2006 article, "How Important Is the Israel Lobby?" the myth of the all-powerful Israel lobby is, "a useful illusion."[xi][11]  For pro-Israel lobbyists, the specter of a powerful AIPAC represents a significant political resource while opponents of the Israel lobby use the myth of the invincible Israeli lobby to excuse U.S. support for Israel as merely the product of this all-powerful domestic lobby and not as the result of broad-based support within the United States for Israel.  Within the Arab world, the latter explanation makes more palatable U.S. support for Israel.  While AIPAC may be effective, it is hardly invincible.  In fact, on some very high profile issues of concern to Israel, AIPAC has either suffered defeat or been proven ineffectual.  For example, in 1981, AIPAC lobbied hard to prevent the planned sale of advanced AWACs to Saudi Arabia.  The sale went through as planned.  In fact, no major sale of arms to a country in a state of war with Israel has ever been defeated by the pro-Israel lobby.  Indeed, AIPAC's impotence on this issue has apparently resulted in a tactical change, as AIPAC appears to have given up the idea of opposing such sales altogether.

During the Bush administration, AIPAC lobbied for U.S. loan guarantees to house the hundreds of thousands of Jewish émigrés from Russia.  George Bush opposed the loan guarantees and such guarantees were not granted until a more pliable Israeli prime minister (Yitzchak Rabin) was elected.  AIPAC has been unable to convince either the Bush or Obama administrations to take forceful action to forestall Iranian nuclear ambitions or to permit the IAF to flyover Iraq for an attack on Iranian nuclear sites.  The reality is that broad-based support for Israel among Americans has been rather constant over the past 40 years.  In fact, a February 2008 Gallup Poll showed that 71 percent of those polled had either a very favorable or mostly favorable opinion of Israel.  Israel outranked India, France, and Egypt in this survey.  Only 14 percent of respondents characterized the Palestinian Authority with a very/mostly favorable rating.[xii][12]  Other commentators explain the foundation of the close Israeli-American relationship as based upon "shared values."  These values include a fundamental respect for human rights, an independent judicial system, a stable democratic form of government, and mutual admiration of the pioneering spirit manifest in both country's histories.   While these shared values played an important part in President Truman's decision to recognize the State of Israel in 1948, they do not adequately explain how the United States came to regard Israel as a valuable ally or the depth of the alliance.



Gil Ehrenkranz

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.





[i][1] "U.S. Juggles Two Iran Timetables," The Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2009, p. A2.

[ii][2] "Iranian's Oratoroy Reflects Devotion to '79 Revolution," The New York Times, December 20, 2005, p. A3.

[iii][3] "Israel Hits New U.S. Plane Suspension," The Boston Globe, August 12, 1981, p. 1.

[iv][4] "Bush to Meet with Sharon, Keeping Arafat at Arm's Length," The New York Times, June 20, 2001, p. A3.

[v][5] "Obama Warns Against Direct Involvement by the U.S. in Iran," The New York Times, June 16, 2009.

[vi][6]  Ben Hecht, Perfidy (New York: Messner, 1961), p. 40.

[vii][7] Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars (New York: Random House, 1982), p. 12.

[viii][8] "50 Years After Pogrom, City Shrinks at Memory," The New York Times, July 6, 1996.

[ix][9] "Saving History from the Shredder: Swiss Bank Guard Christoph Meili, No Hero at Home, Now Lives in California," The Nation, September 6, 1999.

[x][10] John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007).

[xi][11] "How Important Is the Israel Lobby?," Middle East Quarterly (Fall 2006).

[xii][12] Lydia Saad, "Americans' Most and Least Favored Nations,", March 3, 2008.

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