The U.S./Israeli relationship has never been easy

This article first appeared on the History News Network.

The latest flap between the United States government and the Israeli government, at the end of the Obama Administration, over the United Nations resolution about Israeli settlements on the West Bank is nothing really new, as the relationship between Israel and the United States has always been fraught with controversy and tension, no matter who is the leader of Israel and who is President of the United States.

The United States has always ensured the survival of Israel, but the two governments have regularly disagreed about tactics, strategy and policy, and this will continue into the future, assuredly.

We will see what transpires now that President Donald Trump, who has committed himself to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian question, has finished his visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and had talks with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, which took place in May at the White House.

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Israel has always been favored in military and economic aid, even at the point of major criticism by those who feel Israel has received a “free hand,” but there have been many cases of behind the scenes confrontations, and sometimes these have spilled out into the news media, causing embarrassment and undermining, temporarily, the public image of the American-Israeli relationship.

GettyImages-687249136 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Donald Trump in Tel Aviv on May 23, 2017 in Jerusalem, Israel. Kobi Gideon/Israel Government Press Office via Getty

The history of the relationship between Presidential administrations and Israel is very telling.

Harry Truman

Even before Israel was declared a nation in 1948, there was tension over the apparent unwillingness of the administration of Harry Truman to accept a partition of Palestine to create a Jewish nation.

So there is evidence that the Zionist terrorist group, the Stern Gang, plotted to attempt an assassination of Truman through letter bombs, as reported by the President’s daughter Margaret, and discussed in my chapter on Truman in Assassinations , although even now the charge is hard to prove since there are no other sources that claim this to be reality.

Truman ultimately recognized the nation of Israel within about 11 minutes of its declaration in 1948, with much of the credit for the support being given to his Jewish friend, Eddie Jacobson, who was able to convince Truman to ignore the pleas of Secretary of State George C. Marshall and United Nations Ambassador Warren Austin not to take such action.

The State Department, with strong ties to the Arab oil interests then and since, has always had a strong effect on shaping US policy, and causing stress, therefore, between Israel and the United States. There was great resistance to what Truman did, but he followed through on May 14, 1948.

Israel became the major recipient of foreign aid over the next nearly 70 years, with strong backing from members of both political parties in Congress, who saw Israel as a bulwark of democracy, and a supporter of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the Holy Land. Aid to Israel caused great conflict with Arab nations and Muslims worldwide. And it was often felt that Israel’s unique position in American politics gave succeeding administrations occasional headaches.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Eisenhower irritated Israel when he intervened in the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, forcing the withdrawal of British, French, and Israeli forces from the occupation of the Canal, a move that Eisenhower thought was essential to keep Egypt and its leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, from turning to the Soviet Union in this crucial moment in the Cold War struggle between Russia and the United States.

Israel’s government was not pleased by the intervention, which also irritated two major NATO allies, Great Britain and France. Foreign aid however kept flowing to Israel, even in the midst of disagreements.

John F. Kennedy

President Kennedy increased aid to Israel, but was furious that David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli Prime Minister, would not agree to stop nuclear development, which Israel kept hidden from the United States. The American government had strong suspicions it was indeed occurring.

It caused a lot of tension, even though publicly the Kennedy Administration remained friendly. This public-private difference in relations continued under Lyndon B. Johnson, even before the Israeli war with its Arab neighbors in 1967.

Lyndon B. Johnson

President Johnson threatened to establish a conventional arms embargo over the issue of nuclear weapons, but stuck by Israel during the Six Day War (June 5-10, 1967) in which Israel gained territory from Egypt, Syria and Jordan, including the Sinai Desert, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

The US fully backed Israel in this brief war, but there was the odd incident of the USS Liberty , a US Navy Intelligence ship, in Egyptian waters, which was attacked by Israel, killing 34 and wounding 171 Americans on board. Israel said it was a mistake, just a result of “friendly fire,” but suspicions still remain after nearly 50 years about this tragic incident.

Richard Nixon

Under President Nixon, Israel’s refusal to consider withdrawal from the occupied territories under United Nations Resolution 242 caused new stress. The US came to Israel’s rescue in the Yom Kippur 18 Day War in October 1973, letting the Soviet Union know that if it intervened with troops on behalf of the Arabs the result could be nuclear war.

But the interactions between Prime Minister Golda Meir and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger demonstrated a long-range problem that remains unresolved to this day. This was the refusal of any Israeli government to promise to withdraw from the 67 borders, other than by defeat, militarily, in any conflict. The 1973 war led to partial withdrawal from the Sinai Desert due to Egyptian advances as the war came to an end.

Gerald Ford

Under President Ford, tensions grew when the American government was unable to gain Israeli acceptance of further withdrawals from the Sinai, but finally, after an arms shipment was halted and reassessment of relations was suggested, Israel agreed to demands and made an agreement with Egypt in September 1975.

But the difficult relationship between ongoing Secretary of State Kissinger and the Israeli government made any further progress on the Middle East with Israel much more difficult.

Jimmy Carter

President Carter came into office determined to resolve the Middle East crisis over the occupied territories but his primary focus was to get the Arab nations to recognize the Jewish nation and its right to exist. So he brought about what seemed to many a miraculous development, the ten days of meetings at Camp David, Maryland between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat. This led to recognition of the two nations and the establishment of diplomatic ties. Afterwards Sadat visited Israel and Israel agreed to withdraw more forces from the occupied territories.

This development led to the Nobel Peace Prize for both Begin and Sadat, and was considered Carter’s number one accomplishment in foreign policy. But no progress was made on the Palestinian problem in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank or the status of Jerusalem.

The growing problem of Palestinian terrorism continued throughout the mid to late 1970s. Many Israelis and American Jews felt Carter was the most anti-Israel of any President, at least until Barack Obama, but the arms sales and foreign aid always continued despite disagreements.

Ronald Reagan

President Reagan came into office with a very pro-Israel viewpoint, as he and Israel’s government agreed on the issues of terrorism, security cooperation, and the threat of the Soviet Union. But two of the top Reagan cabinet members, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George P. Shultz, had been closely tied to Arab interests in their business dealings before joining the administration.

When Israel attacked the Iraqi nuclear facilities of Saddam Hussein in 1982, the US government objected, halting the shipment of military aircraft to Israel. When the Lebanon War occurred the same year, the siege of Beirut led to Reagan administration criticism of Israel’s military actions, and the suspension of shipments of cluster munitions to Israel.

Israel was unhappy with the Shultz pressure for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1988, and the earlier decision to imprison Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard with a life term in 1987; many Reagan connected officials vehemently opposed his release for decades (he was finally released in 2015). This was the only time an American was sent to prison for spying for a nation that was a friend and ally of the United States.

George H. W. Bush

One of the most tense times between Israel and the US came during the first Bush Administration.

Secretary of State James Baker promoted a hard line policy toward Israel, with the support of the President. The promotion of Israeli-Arab peace negotiations became a prime motive after the Persian Gulf War of 1991, with the Bush Administration succeeding in convincing Israel not to join the war against Saddam Hussein, which would have alienated key Arab allies the US had lined up.

After the war Bush and Baker pressured Israel’s Likud government led by Yitzhak Shamir to begin negotiating withdrawal from the territories gained in 1967. When the Labor government under Yitzhak Rabin came to power in 1992, relations started to improve.

The first Palestinian Intifada, which extended from the late Reagan administration to the Clinton Presidency added to tensions between the two nations.

Bill Clinton

The Clinton administration enjoyed warm relations with Rabin’s Labor government. In 1993 the administration encouraged both the Israelis and Palestinians to recognize each others’ governments.

In 1995, Clinton negotiated an Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that ended in the Israeli-Palestinian accords reached at Oslo, Norway. Clinton also was able to bring about recognition and diplomatic relations between Israel and Jordan in 1994.

When Prime Minister Rabin was slain in November 1995, Clinton attended the funeral and afterwards supported increasing aid to Israel. But when Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister in 1996 the US-Israeli relationship briefly soured.

In 1999, relations again improved when Labor leader Ehud Barak became prime minister. Clinton mediated meetings at Camp David between Barak and PLO leader Yasser Arafat that held out the hope of a Middle East settlement, but no agreement was reached.

George W. Bush

The second Bush Administration started off well with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2001, but tensions developed when Israel continued to build settlements in the West Bank, while the Second Intifada Palestinian uprising continued to be an issue for Israel from 2000 to 2005.

When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and some small settlements on the West Bank, the relationship between the two nations improved. But overall little progress was made to change the Middle East conflict over Bush’s eight years in office.

Barack Obama

The eight years of the Obama Presidency coincided with the longest time in office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been unable to get along well with Bill Clinton in the mid 1990s. Netanyahu did not hide the fact that he favored the Republican Party opposition to the Democratic President, making clear his preference for GOP nominees John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

But despite their clear disdain for each other personally, Obama provided Netanyahu with bunker buster bombs in 2009 and vetoed a UN resolution in 2011 designed to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

But in 2010, there were difficult moments as Obama pressured Israel to suspend building housing units in the West Bank and to agree to freeze all construction in East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu had a series of tense meetings in the White House. The new Defense Secretary in 2011, Leon Panetta, was harshly critical of Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate. Obama made a speech that year calling for a return to the pre-’67 borders with mutually agreed land swaps, which Netanyahu vehemently opposed.

In 2015 US-Israeli relations hit a dramatic low after Obama struck an agreement with Iran to reduce its uranium stockpile by 98 percent in exchange for the return of billions of Iranian funds.

At the invitation of the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, Netanyahu delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress denouncing the pact. Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry bitterly criticized Israel at the end of 2016 for its settlement policies, just as the US decided to abstain on a UN resolution calling for an end to such settlements.

Despite the mutual bitterness, the Obama administration agreed to provide full funding for an IRON DOME system to prevent missile attacks on Israel and negotiated a $38 billion arms assistance pact, the largest bilateral arms deal in US history.

It could be argued that Obama did more positive actions for Israel than any President since Carter, although not all Israeli supporters in America would see it that way. As Donald Trump became President American Jews were divided about the US-Israeli relationship. (Seventy percent of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton.)

What this short history review shows is that when the government of Israel was on the left politically, much more progress and cooperation was possible, while it was much more difficult under right wing Israeli leaders, and particularly, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Overall, it could be argued that the most productive times came under Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, all Democratic Presidents.

Donald Trump

No one can be sure how the relationship will evolve under President Trump.While Trump has always stated that he is a strong supporter of Israel, he caused a surprised look on Benjamin Netanyahu’s face when they met for the first time after Trump’s election when Trump stated that he wants an agreement that meets the needs of both sides. This suggests that conflict over the occupied territories, now in its fiftieth year, will continue.

The new revelation that Trump shared Israeli intelligence on ISIS with Russia in the Oval Office may have effected the meeting of Trump with Benjamin Netanyahu on May 22, as it was seen as a new problem between Israel and the new administration.

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers).

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