We are at that periodic occurrence, a crisis in Israeli/U.S. relations. This one revolves around White House pique over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation by House Speaker, John Boehner, to address the U.S. Congress on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, an issue on which the White House and Jerusalem have been divided for some time.
But any remotely careful analysis of the U.S./Israeli relationship will show that Jerusalem and the White House (but rarely the Congress and, by extension, the U.S. electorate) have often clashed on issues deemed vital to Israel’s security and existence. In fact, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared Israel’s very independence in the face of strong opposition from U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall.
Though personally favorable to Israel and quick to extend recognition to the new Jewish state when it emerged in May 1948, President Harry Truman imposed an arms embargo during Israel’s 1948-49 war of survival against six Arab nations. The embargo hurt Israel, which had few sources of weaponry, rather than the Arabs, who enjoyed many.
In 1956, Israel conquered the Sinai from the Egyptians, following six years of constant attacks by terrorist bands (fedayeen) sponsored by Egypt. Nonetheless, the Eisenhower Administration insisted on Israel withdrawing completely from Sinai without any peace treaty or recognition demanded from Egypt and threatened Israel with sanctions if it failed to comply.
In 1967, Egypt imposed a blockade on Israel’s southern port at Eilat. Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban asked President Lyndon Johnson to honor U.S. commitments made in 1957 to ensure free passage of Israeli shipping and break the blockade. Johnson refused.
When Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria in 1973 the U.S. pressured Israel into ending the war prematurely when Israeli forces were on the road to Damascus and Cairo. This prevented Israel from reaping a more decisive military victory.
During the Carter Administration, the U.S. voted for UN Security Council resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw from Lebanon following an Israeli incursion in 1978 — despite the fact that Lebanon had been the launching pad for major terrorist attacks on Israel — and condemning Israel’s annexation of the eastern half of Jerusalem; both vitally important issues to Israel.
In 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor. This was condemned by the Reagan Administration, even though a nuclear-armed Saddam would have posed a mortal threat to Israel.
Successive U.S. administrations have opposed Israeli settlement in the territories conquered in 1967, leading to recurrent tensions and crises in the relationship. In 1992, the first Bush administration even withheld loan guarantees to Israel in protest of Israeli settlement policies.
During the Oslo peace process (1993-2000), the Clinton administration often pressured Israel to make one-sided concessions of territory, arms, assets and even the releasing of imprisoned Palestinian terrorists, while ignoring Palestinian failure to comply with its obligations to stop terrorism and end the incitement to hatred and murder that feeds it. Securing new agreements was preferred to holding Palestinians to past ones, as U.S. chief negotiator Dennis Ross subsequently admitted.
The U.S. has criticized Israel’s security fence and both President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell pressured Israel to curtail military incursions against terrorist strongholds, most notably during Israel’s offensive in Jenin in 2002. Despite U.S. understanding that the PA has been a haven and launching pad for terrorists, the Bush Administration pressed Israel to resume negotiations and make concessions to the PA.
So why the panic about the latest crisis? When the U.S. President and Israel do not agree on a policy bearing on the existence and security of Israel, there is bound to be a crisis. Yet none of these crises ruptured the U.S./Israeli relationship; indeed, they often served as the unlikely preludes to a stronger relationship.
The U.S./Israeli relationship became truly strategic in the 1970s, only years after the crisis that led to the Six Day War. The early ructions between the two countries in the first years of the Reagan Administration settled into an expanded and harmonious strategic relationship for its remainder.
President Obama has sought to cast Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation to address Congress as a slap in the face. But it isn’t. The issue is entirely a product of Obama’s policy on Iran, which engenders bipartisan concern in Israel. Put simply, President Obama seems willing to tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapons threshold capacity — but Israel is not. Of course there’s a crisis.
Obama was glad to have British Prime Minister David Cameron urging Members of Congress last month in support of his Iran policy, but is peeved to have Netanyahu there critiquing it. In the end, however, the two countries are bound in an alliance by a range of common interests which even a difference in major policy can temporarily sour, but not sunder.
Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Daniel Mandel is author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel (London: Routledge, 2004) and director of the ZOA’s Center for Middle East Policy