CBS News correspondent Dan Raviv traces Israel's up and down relationship with America's presidents, past and present.
When I had the honor of speaking last week at the annual fundraising gala for Gratz College, audience members asked with concern — as they always do — about the state of U.S.-Israel relations.
For six years now, I’ve heard similar questions, which boil down to this one: “Does Barack Obama not like Israel?”
Whether we are thinking of personal affection or political affinity, I don’t think it is fair to say that Obama has negative feelings toward the Jewish state. Toward Benjamin Netanyahu? That’s another matter. But, as a major backer of Netanyahu’s re-election campaign this year told me: “This, too, shall pass. We only have to live with Obama for less than two years.”
A lot can happen between now and the entry of a new president on Jan. 20, 2017, so it can be hoped and expected that the leaders of the United States and Israel will find ways to get along — but, personally and politically, they will not be good friends.
When assessing what is important, I like to review briefly the history since the establishment of modern Israel in 1948. It is a roller-coaster journey involving 12 American presidents.
We begin with Harry S. Truman, who put himself into a hall of heroes by deciding to recognize the newborn State of Israel. Many of his advisers told him not to, predicting that Israel would be erased by the Arab armies about to invade it.
Dwight D. Eisenhower found, to his displeasure, in 1956, that tiny Israel could do significant things. It united secretly with Britain and France in an invasion of Egypt. The Suez Campaign angered “Ike” so much that he forced the British, French and Israelis to withdraw; the experience taught America that it could not take its eye off Israel’s capabilities.
John F. Kennedy recognized an opportunity to make friendship with Israel part of a political strategy: to bind America’s Jews to the Democratic Party. He also sold weapons to Israel.
Lyndon Johnson was “philo-Semitic,” sincerely believing that Jews belonged in the land of the Bible. He also greatly admired Israel’s military prowess: defeating all its Arab neighbors in the Six-Day War of 1967 while America was bogged down in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon was not a philo-Semite — far from it. Yet he and Henry Kissinger viewed the world through a Cold War prism, and Israel took great care to be in the Western camp. Egypt and Syria put themselves in the Soviet orbit. Thus, in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Nixon ordered a massive resupply of military equipment to Israel — to show the Soviets that they and their client states could never win.
After Nixon was forced to resign in 1974, Gerald Ford became president. He had a rough relationship with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, because Ford and Kissinger insisted that Israel give up strategic territory in the Sinai Peninsula. When Ford announced a “reassessment” of America’s relations with Israel and froze arms deliveries, that was more severe than anything Obama has done.
While many American Jews dislike Jimmy Carter’s strong criticisms of Israeli actions in recent decades, the fact is that when an opportunity for peace arose — the dramatic visit to Israel by Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat — Carter mediated day and night with Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin, and the result was Israel’s first peace treaty.
Ronald Reagan was next, and while most Americans remember him as friendly toward Israel, there were some bitter disputes in his first two years. Reagan sold AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981, and Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, failed to stop the deal. The next year, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and some of the ugliness that ensued turned U.S. officials into critics.
After the first Gulf War in 1991, George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir went through a nasty dispute centered on who should be grateful to whom. The United States felt that it had defended Israel. Shamir contended that Israel acted with unprecedented restraint — not hitting back at Iraq — at Bush’s request. Yet Bush was insisting on a settlement building freeze in the West Bank and withheld loan guarantees Israel needed to absorb new immigrants.
Next was Bill Clinton, who greatly admired Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Clinton was delighted to host Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn to sign the Oslo Accords in 1993 — and witness Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. But his enthusiasm was struck down — with genuine anguish — when Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli in 1995. Clinton was frustrated in 2000, when he nearly worked out a deal between Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Arafat walked away.
George W. Bush was pro-Israel and applauded just about everything Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert did. Right-wing politicians in Israel loved the warm words from Washington, but nothing much happened that could lead to lasting peace and security.
Now we are in the Obama era. Since 1948, it has been a roller coaster. The ride will continue, come 2017; but we don’t yet know who will be enjoying — or suffering — it.
Dan Raviv is a CBS News correspondent whose books include Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance and the new Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.