Avi Shlaim’s The Iron Wall contains many interesting references to Israel’s relations with the United States of America. Although the narrative focus of the book lingers only intermittently and generally quite briefly on Israel’s relationship with the US, the moments when it does so are revealing. Here is a summarized chronology of those points in the book which have struck me as being of particular significance:
In April 1952, Ben-Gurion spoke to his senior officials about Israel’s vital interests and stated: "First and foremost, we have to see to Israel’s needs, whether or not this brings improvement in our relations with the Arabs. The second factor in our existence is American Jewry and its relationship with us (and the state of America, since these Jews live in it). The third thing — peace with the Arabs. This is the order of priorities." (~ The Iron Wall, p.78)
In 1956, after the Suez invasion, "President Eisenhower was fuming with anger at having been deceived [by Britain, France, and Israel]… Privately [foreign minister] Abba Eban was told that if Israel did not withdraw, all official aid from the US government and private aid from American Jewry would be cut off and that the United States would not oppose the expulsion of Israel from the UN." (~ The Iron Wall, p. 181)
In 1963/4, after President Kennedy had "continued to tilt America’s Middle Eastern policy in Israel’s favor" (p. 211), "Israel’s relations with America continued to improve when Lyndon Johnson became President…In early June [prime minister] Eshkol went on a state visit to the United States, an honor that had been denied to Ben-Gurion…. No less important than the contribution the visit made to Israel’s power of military deterrence, said Eshkol, was the enhancement of its power for political deterrence. The visit thus carried Israel a significant step closer to the goal that had persistently eluded Ben-Gurion, namely, an American guarantee of the country’s territorial integrity" (~ The Iron Wall, p. 222)
1975 saw an early documented instance of Israel calling the bluff of American threats. Writing about the negotiations for peace with Egypt and Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy mission to this end, Shlaim states, "On 21 March, President Ford sent Rabin a very tough message, warning that the failure of Kissinger’s mission would have far-reaching consequences for the region and for US-Israel relations. The message achieved the opposite effect to the one intended. Even the waverers in the cabinet now resolved that the negotiating team must remain adamant in its policy. Kissinger’s mission failed, and Kissinger blamed Israel for the failure."
In the steps which were subsequently taken to mend fences, both a public and a secret u2018memorandum of agreement’ between Israel and the US were signed. In the public document the United States pledged American support "on an on-going and long-term basis to Israel’s military equipment and other defense requirements, to its energy requirements and to its economic needs." In the secret document, the United States "confirmed that it would not negotiate with or recognize the PLO, nor initiate any moves in the Middle East without prior consultation with Israel… Israel now had an alliance with America in all but name. The cost of the agreement to the United States was roughly $4 billion annually for the next three years, or 200 percent above the existing level of American aid to Israel. The package was criticized in some American quarters as being excessive, and even extortionate…" (~ The Iron Wall, p. 338)
In 1977, President Carter became "the first American president to champion the Palestinian right to self-determination… Convinced that the PLO was ready for compromise, he used the terms PLO and Palestinians interchangeably…" (~ The Iron Wall, p. 350)
By 1982, we have Ronald Reagan — and it may seem surprising to read this — continuing in similar vein: "He said that the departure of the Palestinians from Beirut dramatized more than ever the homelessness of the Palestinian people. His plan was for self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan. He ruled out both a Palestinian state and annexation to Israel. Additional Israeli settlements in the territories would be an obstacle to peace, said Reagan" (~ The Iron Wall, p. 415)
May 1989 saw the speech of James Baker at the annual convention of AIPAC. "In a pointed reference to Shamir’s ideology, Baker said u2018For Israel, now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel. Israeli interest in the West Bank and Gaza — security and otherwise — can be accommodated in a settlement based on Resolution 242. Forswear annexation. Stop settlement activity. Allow schools to reopen. Reach out to the Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights.’ Baker’s speech was not well-received by his large American-Jewish audience, and it raised worries in Israel." (~ The Iron Wall, p. 469).
Murray Rothbard had the following to say about James Baker and the position of George Bush Sr. on US-Israel relations, just before the Presidential elections of in 1992 which pitted George Bush Sr. against Bill Clinton:
"Bush has by far the most pro-American policy on the Middle East since Jack Kennedy; he is the only president since Kennedy not to serve as a lick-spittle for the State of Israel, the only one not to function as an abject tool of the powerful Zionist lobby, led by AIPAC (the American Israel Political Action Committee, which somehow escapes being a registered agent of the State of Israel). The greatest credit, of course, goes to Secretary of State James Baker, who formulated this policy, and maintained it under the most vicious pressure. But Bush deserves credit for picking Baker and backing him up; further, with only a little stretching, Bush/Baker can take credit for the Israeli election that deposed the little monster Shamir, and brought in a more rational government in Israel. Bush-Baker stood firm on delaying the $10 billion loan guarantee until Zionist settlements are slowed down on the Arab lands of the West Bank." (Murray N. Rothbard, The Irrepressible Rothbard, "Working our way back to the President").
– August 1990 to January 1991 saw the Gulf Crisis. Shlaim comments (my own comments are in italics):
"Likud leaders used the invasion [of Kuwait by Iraq] to drive home their point that Iraq was a greater threat to Middle Eastern stability than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They compared Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler (sounds familiar?) …This analogy was usually accompanied by calls on the Western world, and especially the United States, to intervene in order to stop the Iraqi dictator in his tracks. The underlying fear was that unless the Western powers intervened, a showdown between Israel and Iraq would become inevitable sooner or later, and the unstated hope was that Israel’s greatest ally would seize the opportunity to defeat Israel’s powerful enemy." (It is salutary to remember that these words were written in 1999 and referred to policies which were being advocated in 1990/91)
One of the peculiarities of the Gulf crisis was that Israel found itself on the same side as the great majority of the Arab states… But there was fundamental difference…. The Arabs …wanted the reversal of the Iraqi aggression… while Israel wanted the destruction of the Iraqi war machine and war-making potential. Syria in particular was worried that the destruction of Iraqi power would tilt the overall Arab-Israeli military equation in Israel’s favour. It was precisely for this reason that Israel wanted to see a thoroughgoing devastation of Iraq. Some Israeli experts, including Rabin, were of the opinion that nothing short of unconventional arms would stop Iraq in the wake of its invasion of Kuwait."
~ The Iron Wall, p. 474
- In February 1991, Operation Desert Storm was brought to a close with the executive decision not to press on to Baghdad. "From Israel’s point of view, Operation Desert Storm ended too soon. Israel’s objectives were three-fold: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the destruction of Iraq’s war machine, and the neutralization of its capacity to develop weapons of mass destruction (sounds familiar too…). The first aim was not achieved by the [first] Gulf War, and the last two were achieved only in part."
"The most important consequence of the Gulf War for Israel, however, concerned its special relationship with America. One way of looking at the Gulf War is to say that Israel was the greatest beneficiary because, without having to lift a finger itself, it witnessed the defeat of its most formidable foe at the hands of its most faithful friend. But such a view involves a serious oversimplification. For Israel had traditionally been regarded, not least by itself, as a strategic partner and a strategic asset to the United States in the Middle East. The Gulf conflict was a real eye-opener in this respect. Here was a conflict that threatened America’s most vital interests in the region, and the best service that Israel could render its senior partner was to refrain from doing anything. Far from being a strategic asset, Israel was widely perceived as an embarrassment and a liability."
(~ The Iron Wall, p. 483/4)
At this point, things had come almost full circle to the moment (in 1958) when John Foster Dulles had described the Jewish state privately as "this millstone round our necks" (~ The Iron Wall, p. 204). But the Democrat administration of Bill Clinton was yet to come:
- 1992: "As soon as Bill Clinton entered the White House, the pro-Israeli bias in American policy became more pronounced. The even-handed approach of the Bush administration was replaced by an Israel-first approach reminiscent of the Reagan days. Clinton refused to put pressure on Israel and adopted a hands-off approach to the peace process" (~ The Iron Wall, p. 511).
Shlaim outlines a case for seeing Bill Clinton’s u2018master of ceremonies’ role in the Oslo accords as being more showmanship than real substance. I plead ignorance and leave the question open. What is certain is that the arrival of Democrat administrations has tended to be viewed with greater delight in Israel than the arrival of Republican ones, and the public positions of Democratic Party candidates for the forthcoming presidential elections would seem to justify such an attitude. However, the administration of George Bush the younger may yet turn out to be the exception which proves the rule.
Richard Wall (send him mail) has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics & Political Science, and lives in Estoril, Portugal, where he currently works as a freelance writer and translator.