Ups and Downs

A History of U.S.-Israel Breakups and Makeups

The U.S.-Israeli friendship is genuine, but Obama and Bibi are sorely testing it beyond its traditional tensions.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, administration anger against Israel and its prickly prime minister metastasized. “Fuck the Jews,” a leading official reportedly muttered. “They’ll vote for us anyway.” “We’re conducting foreign policy, this isn’t a synagogue,” the Secretary of State seethed, moaning that “instead of having a lubricant” for the peace process like Yitzhak Rabin, America is stuck with “sandpaper like Netanyahu.” “Netanyahu just drove us crazy… because he was just unbelievably difficult,” the Secretary of State continued, recalling recent negotiations. Israel’s Prime Minister has declared this “one of the worst periods in American-Israeli relations.”

OK, reality check. George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, James A. Baker III allegedly cursed the Jews—because “they won’t vote for us,” with “us” meaning Republicans. The synagogue crack came from the first Jewish Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. The anti-Netanyahu rant came from Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, in her newly released Miller Center Oral History. And the sobered Israeli prime minister was Yitzhak Rabin, recalling the “reassessment” of U.S.-Israel relations President Gerald Ford imposed 40 years ago this spring, freezing all governmental interactions to bully Israel into what became the September 1975 Sinai disengagement with Egypt.

Tensions between Israel and the U.S., despite their enduring friendship, are not new. But the escalating enmity between Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu has broken the usual pattern whereby familiarity with Israel for most presidents breeds the opposite of contempt. Most recent presidents have left office more closely allied to Israel than before.

The warm, end-of-term feelings shape impressions of presidents as enthusiastically, uncritically, pro-Israel. That false historical memory makes the periodic tensions seem more surprising, and is triggering many fears about this current clash as unprecedented and catastrophic.

When Ronald Reagan left office, many hailed him as Israel’s best friend. In fact, Reagan’s sale of sophisticated AWACS jets to Saudi Arabia in 1981 spawned an intense lobbying effort by a terrified pro-Israel community. Contrary to the jaundiced narrative of AIPAC’s supposedly mysterious power, AIPAC lost. Saudi Arabia got its planes. Other tensions in Reagan’s first two years concerned Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in June 1981 and Israel’s invasion of south Lebanon a year later.

These clashes triggered a U.S.-Israel hysteria. Israel’s mortal enemies and the decades-long delegitimization campaign questioning Israel’s right to exist—predating the 1967 war—have long put too much talk about Israel, among friends and enemies, in a binary to-be-or-not-to-be vise of good versus evil, to live or not to live. In the 1980s, these recurring warnings that the relationship was doomed mingled with fears that the overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish electorate had little influence over the Republican leader. Yet, by 1987, in Moscow, Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, was hosting a Passover Seder for oppressed Russian Jewish refuseniks hoping to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Ultimately, Reagan, most concerned about containing the Soviets, embraced Israel as America’s reliable democratic ally, a useful bulwark against the “Evil Empire.”

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, had even testier relations with Israel, leading to Baker’s harsh comments. The key fight centered on Bush’s attempt to link loan guarantees Israel needed to limits on settlement growth. Still, in 1990, Bush thanked Israel for not counterattacking against Saddam Hussein, after he launched SCUDs against Tel Aviv during the first Persian Gulf War. In 1991, Bush pushed aggressively to get the U.N. to rescind its infamous resolution calling Zionism a form of racism. Finally, in 1992, Bush granted the loan guarantees.

Bill Clinton entered office as an Israel enthusiast. Still, tensions developed over the peace process, especially when Netanyahu became prime minister for the first time, as Albright’s recollections illustrate. Ultimately, when Clinton left office, he was furious with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians for scuttling a peace deal. During the administration’s dying days, making his unprecedented 24th White House visit, Arafat tried flattering the president, calling him a “great man.” “I am not a great man,” Clinton replied, “I am a failure. And you have made me one.” Trying to explain Arafat’s “error of historic proportions,” Clinton would speculate, “Perhaps he simply couldn’t make the final jump from revolutionary to statesman.”

George W. Bush, remembered today as even more of a pro-Israel cheerleader than Reagan, started his tenure often discouraging Israel from retaliating against Palestinian terrorism, which exploded as the peace process imploded. Only after Sept. 11 sensitized Bush to Islamist terror, and after the Karine-A incident of January 2002 in which Israel intercepted a shipment of weapons from Iran to the Palestinian Authority, did Bush change. That turning point came when Arafat lied directly to the Texan president, denying any connection to the weapons. Arafat did not know that the paper trail linking him to the Karine-A deal was on Bush’s desk. The Israelis had publicized the weapons seized, but “neglected” to mention the paperwork they found and rushed over to the White House.

This, then, was the pattern Obama inherited. Amid strong, mutually beneficial military, diplomatic, cultural, economic, and personal ties, occasional tensions erupted, often early in the presidency, usually reflecting differing calculations regarding what Israel felt it had to do to defend itself and what the U.S. felt Israel should do to solve the Palestinian problem. Inevitably, these brouhahas would feed hysterical pronouncements about the relationship being doomed.

Obama got that part right. However, the usual turnaround, due to growing presidential faith in Israel, reinforced by growing disgust with Palestinian terror, has not happened. Instead, ideological conflicts over settlements, the peace process, and Iran, poisoned by toxic personal chemistry, have escalated tensions. Although Netanyahu is most responsible for causing this latest Congressional Address Mess, Obama has allowed the power struggle to intensify and the invective to escalate.

Netanyahu’s arrogant actions risk making the traditionally bipartisan U.S. relationship with Israel highly partisan. Bibi has somehow figured out how to get some Democrats who were wandering from the president’s Iran policy back into the president’s camp, out of blind party loyalty. Meanwhile, Obama needs to explain why democratic Israel, even when it stumbles, annoys him more than theocratic Iran, with its malevolent, Death to America, Hanging-Obama-in Effigy thuggishness.

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Still, the American-Israel relationship will survive. The shared Islamist enemies, the common democratic values, and the shared interests economically, militarily, culturally, existentially, have made for a robust, multi-dimensional, and genuinely mutual relationship. Bottom line, both countries need each other.

So Bibi and Obama, repent! Perhaps it is not too late for a reconciliation, and a reversion to the usual pattern. Mature leaders in Israel and the United States should take a cleansing breath, figure out how to de-escalate tensions rather than intensifying the name-calling, and remember: Israel and the U.S. are true friends.