The Special relationship between Israel and the United States did not begin when Israel became a state in 1948 as some have posited. In the cold war atmosphere in post World War II, America was focused on the descending iron curtain over Eastern Europe. It was only when the cold war seemed to make its way into the middle East that the United States became more involved in the region. The close association that exists today between Israel and the United States grew out of mutual interests and common enemies. The growth of the American special relationship with Israel had more to do with preventing the spread of Soviet influence in the Middle East and defending the all important western oil reserves than actually protecting Israel for some lofty moral reason.

After Israel’s violent beginning in 1948, The United States established a policy of not supplying arms to either side. The signing of the Tripartite Declaration in 1950 between United States, England and France insured that no western power would arm the belligerents of the Middle east in an effort to prevent another war.  President Eisenhower remarking about a possible arms race said in 1956, “Now, the great thing the United States is trying to avoid is the initiation of an arms race in that region.”[1]  The U.S. refusal to aid Egypt in particular sparked the Soviet Union’s entrance into the region in mid 1955.  The Soviets took full advantage of not participating in the Western powers agreement and other diplomatic errors committed by the United States. American policy unintentionally drove the Egyptian government to seek support from the Soviet Union after a disagreement arose over an American decision not to fund the building of the Aswan Dam. After a series of failed attempts to entice President Nasser back into the American sphere, Egypt nestled itself firmly into Soviet clientism. With the Soviet factor now in the Middle East compounded by Egyptian bravado, the war American policy was designed to avoid broke out in October of 1956.

After the war the United States still kept with its policy and refused to send any arms to the region. Moreover, the Eisenhower administration condemned any other nation that attempted to do so.  In the United Nations, ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge demanded members,  “refrain from giving assistance which might continue to prolong hostilities.”[2]  Since it was clear that America was powerless to prevent the Soviets from supplying Nasser’s Egypt, this demand was meant to prevent Israel from obtaining a suitable defense against its enemies. Lodge’s demand was directed at the French, Israel’s main supplier of military equipment until the June war of 1967. [3] France broke with the Tripartite agreement by the mid 50s because it needed allies in its struggle to maintain colonial Algeria. Out of a genuine fear of being destroyed Israel jumped at the chance to ally itself with France.  Not happy with the situation President Eisenhower seemed diplomatically unable to do anything about it. Eisenhower was the last American president not to supply weapons to Israel.

By 1962 the Soviets had established themselves as a permanent influence in the region. So close to Western oil interests seriously concerned American policy makers. In a conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir during that year, President John F. Kennedy called the American relationship with Israel “special.”  He defined it as an essential component of American Near East policy. “I think it is quite clear that in case of an invasion the United States would come to the support of Israel,” Kennedy told Meir. [4] Although the Israelis politely declined the offer the implication was obvious. Successful Soviet influence in the area forced American policy to reverse itself from the Eisenhower policy only a few years earlier. The security and safety of the State of Israel had become important to the United States. This period marks the beginning of the special relationship between the United States and Israel.

Realizing the previous administration’s mistakes with Middle East policy President Kennedy understood that supporting democracies around the world could help in holding Soviet prestige to a minimum. Since the Eisenhower approach obviously failed, Kennedy shifted American policy from not participating in an arms race to creating the beginning of a strategic military balance in hopes that this would avoid more war.

Sometime after September 26, 1962, a number of Hawk missiles (short range defensive surface to air missiles) [5] were sold to Israel to offset Israeli concerns about the growing military advantage taking place in Egypt. Opposition to the sale from within and without was heavy but as long as the Soviet Union was supplying Israel’s enemies, the United States believed it was justified in providing Israel with a suitable defense. The white house sent the following note to all of the diplomatic missions in the Middle East, and also to London, Paris, and Ankara:

We have been consistently hesitant (to ) become (a) major supplier of sophisticated weapons in the NE. Despite long-standing Israel requests (the) U.S. previously resisted this step. However in view (of the) build-up of offensive air and missile capability in the area we (are) obliged to respond sympathetically (to) Israel’s request for short-range purely defensive ground-to-air interceptor missiles. (The ) USSR has already agreed (to) supply such missiles to Iraq and probably (the) UAR. [6]

Because of the Hawk missile sale opposition, Lyndon Johnson, like Eisenhower earlier, was extremely sensitive to introducing more weapons, especially sophisticated weapons into the Middle East. But unlike Eisenhower he was not totally opposed to arming Israel if necessary.  Like his predecessors he tried to diplomatically convince the Soviets to curb their buildup of the Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis.  Llewellyn E. Thompson, American Ambassador to the Soviet Union speaking with  Anatoliy F. Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, told him on January 9, 1967:

 

 We know from past experience that resort to arms is an ever-present danger in the Middle East. Not only does such action not resolve the problem, but it poses the danger of the spread of war beyond the confines of the area. The President has watched with growing concern the extensive delivery of arms to the area from the Soviet Union.[7]

The Soviets once again answered “Niet” to American proposals of a combined nonproliferation of weapons to the region.  During the time preceding the outbreak of the June, 1967 war President Johnson elected to act more in the tradition of Kennedy rather than Eisenhower and completed an arms deal with the Israelis in May of 1966 hoping the strategic balance would avoid another war. Johnson administration trepidation turned to reality on June 5, 1967. As a result of Egyptian threats to end Israel’s existence the Israelis launched a preemptive strike plunging the area into its second war in a little more than a decade.

A complete and total one-sided Israeli victory introduced some new elements into the Arab-Israeli dynamic, which had a direct effect on the relationship between the United States and Israel. Israel’s stunning victory during the Six Day War produced a quiet elation among American Pentagon personnel.  It was seen as a triumph of superior American military technology over the Soviets. And, this perception was not lost on the Arab world. Israel’s victory cost the Soviet Union some coveted prestige in the area. Therefore, one might conclude from the Six Day War that American military machinery in the hands of the victorious Israelis did indeed serve American interests. A policy designed to avoid war because it was perceived not to be in American interests once again provoked a military confrontation as it did in 1956, but this time war worked to boost American prestige in the area. It was war and not diplomacy that reduced Soviet prestige among the Arab states.

Because of growing opposition of support for Israel, closer U.S. ties with the Jewish State called for further clarification of U.S. policy concerning the Middle East during the Nixon administration. President Nixon described American Middle East policy   “as far as our own policy toward the Mideast is concerned…we are neither pro-Arab nor pro-Israel. We are pro-peace.”[8]  U.S. perceptions of Soviet intentions during this time were clear. A national intelligence estimate issued on November 9, 1968 stated, “The main Soviet objective in the Middle East remains essentially the same as before the June War—to win for the USSR a position as dominant foreign power in the area.” [9] For the United States the issue was somewhat more complicated. While genuinely wanting to continue to use Israel as a hedge against Soviet expansionism, presidential administrations during the 1960s also wanted to maintain good relations with Israel’s neighbors. The main source of the industrialized world’s oil reserves, the Middle East was a vital component in American foreign policy.[10] This same policy also concluded that American  interests would be best served with a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Therefore, since 1960 the policy was not pro-Israel and anti-Arab, as opponents to the “special relationship” have argued. It was as President Nixon described it as pro peace and one could also argue anti-Soviet.

Recognizing the benefits resulting from the Six Day War victory, American policy was now committed to a strong Israel. President Nixon told an audience in 1970,  “The United states is prepared to supply military equipment necessary to support the efforts of friendly governments, like Israel’s to defend the safety of their people.” [11]  The special relationship between the United States and Israel had matured. President Nixon’s commitment was tested during 1973 War. With Israel initially losing ground to its enemies, during the second and third week of the war Nixon re-supplied Israel with the equipment they needed to militarily defeat Syria and Egypt. William Quandt has noted “Without any positive indication that a cease-fire agreement was in sight, President Nixon took the responsibility of ordering a full-scale airlift of military equipment to Israel.” [12]

Because of cold war initiatives America and Israel became allies quickly out of common interests to both sides. During the span of fourteen years, and four presidents, American Middle East policy went from not supplying weapons to Israel at any price to supplying the Israelis with exactly what they needed to defeat any threat to their existence. With the relationship between the two countries now developed, America became Israel’s guarantor to its existence. By 1976, Israel became the single largest recipient of American foreign aid in the world. And, it has remained so until this day. The benefits of this relationship has been formal  peace treaties with two of Israel’s four main belligerents, Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 with no major war taking place in the region since 1973. Without Israel holding a clear military edge during this time it is doubtful this progress would have been possible.

 

 

[1] Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1956, Washington D. C.: Federal register Division, National Archives and Records Service General Services Administration, 1958, p. 289-290. In struggling to justify the decision not to arm Israel and  therefore to keep pace with Soviet arms to Egypt, Eisenhower went on to comment during this news conference, “We do not believe that it is possible to assure peace in that area merely by rushing some arms to a nation that, at the most, can absorb only that amount that 1,700,000 people, where as on the other side, there are some 40 million people.” P. 290. No follow-up question was allowed so the meaning of this statement was never clarified. Therefore, it can only be surmised that Israel’s tiny size in comparison to its enemies defined it as an insignificant nation to the Eisenhower administration. In view of the Soviets arming Egypt, the historian is compelled to ask the  question, could the Sinai War of 1956  been avoided if American policy had not faltered and allowed the Soviet Union to take a foothold in Egypt?

 [2] Herman Finer, Dulles over Suez: The Theory and Practice of his Diplomacy. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. 1964, p. 368

 [3] France broke with the Tripartite agreement by 1953 and began to supply Israel with rudimentary weapons. France needed allies in the Middle East since rebellion had broken out in Algeria.

[4]Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XVIII, 1961-1963,   Near East, 1962-1963,  Memorandum of Conversation, December 27, 1962.  Nina J. Noring, ed., Glenn W. LaFatasie, Gen. Ed., Near East, Vol. XVIII, U.S Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1995, p. 280. The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel… P. 281. 

[5] FRUS Vol XVIII, entry 461, September 26, 1962, Phillips Talbot of the State Department in a meeting with the ambassador of the United  Arab Republic, told of the U.S. “willingness in principle to sell short range defensive surface to air missiles” to Israel. The sale was consummated a short time after that meeting.

[6] FRUS, 1961-1963 Volume XVIII, p. 95. this note was sent to missions all over the Middle East, London Paris and Ankara.

[7] FRUS, 1964-1968  Volume XIV,  263. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the Soviet Union, David C. Humphrey and Charles S. Sampson, Eds., David S. Patterson, General Ed. P.628 Llewellyn E. Thompson, American Ambassador talking with Anatoliy F. Dobrynin on January 9, 1967:

[8] “The Presidents News Conference of January 30, 1970,” Public Papers of Presidents of the United States, Richard Nixon: Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, 1970, Washington: United States Government Printing house, P.37.

 [9] Foreign Relations United States, Volume XIV, The Soviet Union,  David C. Humphrey and Charles S. Sampson, eds., David S. Patterson, Gen. Ed., Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001,  p. 493. From the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) 11-9-68, “Soviet Interests and Activities in Arab states.” This was as it appeared in FRUS Vol. XIV, Editorial note, no. 262, p. 626

[10] Foreign Relations United States, Volume XIV, 1955-1957, Arab-Israeli Dispute, Carl N. Raether, ed., John P. Clennon, Ed. in Chief, Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1989. Entry 396, Telegram From the Delegation at the Foreign Ministers Meetings to the Department of State, Geneva, November 10, 1955. p. 728. “The Western policy must be based upon the need to have most of the inhabitants of this large area (the oil producing Middle East) with the West and upon their willingness to let the West have easy access to their oil fields.”

[11] Public Papers of President Richard Nixon, 1970,  “Message to the National Emergency Conference on Peace in the Middle East,”  January 26, 1970, p. 12.

[12] William Quandt, Peace Process, American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967, Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001, P.113. “Without any positive indication that a cease-fire agreement was in sight, President Nixon took the responsibility of ordering a full-scale airlift of military equipment to Israel.”

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