Iran, Israel and the United States -- what history tells us
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that Israel cannot afford to wait too long before acting to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, President Obama warns that acting “prematurely” would affect U.S. interests.
This is not the first time that an American president and Israeli prime minister have disagreed and, if history is any guide, the alliance between the two countries is likely to grow stronger rather than more distant regardless of how the Iranian threat is handled.
In 1956, Israel joined Britain and France in an attack on Egypt after years of Egyptian provocations. President Eisenhower was furious because the attack took place a week before the presidential election, he wasn’t consulted, and he feared the war could lead to a wider conflict that would involve the Soviets and undermine the future of the United Nations.
Immediately after his reelection, he began to threaten Israel with draconian sanctions if it did not withdraw from the territory it captured. Israel capitulated and withdrew.
Eisenhower’s failure to demand a quid pro quo from Egypt sowed the seeds of the next war.
A year later, when America’s Arab “allies” refused to help, Israel facilitated the U.S. shipment of supplies to help save the regime in Jordan. By the end of his term, Eisenhower’s views changed from viewing Israel as a liability to seeing it as a strategic asset and the only pro-Western power in the region.
Having learned its lesson from 1956, Israel consulted with the Johnson administration as Egypt again began to pose a threat in 1967.
Johnson asked Israel to give him time to organize an international response to Egypt’s closure of the Strait of Tiran and warned Prime Minister Levi Eshkol “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.”
Johnson failed to get international support to open the Straits and Israel decided it could not risk waiting to see if the U.S. could defuse the situation. Eshkol ordered a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria in June. During the war, the U.S. declared its neutrality and embargoed arms to Israel, but Israel won the war in six days without needing any U.S. help.
Israel’s decisive victory helped show the Americans it had the military might to help protect American interests in the region. By the end of Johnson’s term, the U.S. had become Israel’s principal arms supplier and relations were closer than ever.
Golda Meir did not want to risk being alone in 1973 and decided not to launch an attack when it became clear that Egypt and Syria were about to invade in October. The decision allowed the Arabs to push Israel to the brink of defeat. This time, Israel did need the United States’ help and President Nixon authorized an airlift that was critical to turning the tide in the war. From that point on, Israel began to receive billions of dollars in aid.
In 1980, Israel warned the Carter administration that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons. Just like today, the two sides disagreed over how much progress the Iraqis were making. Israel repeatedly said it would act if the U.S. didn’t, but Carter was unwilling to attack Iraq. Like Obama, he also was running for reelection, though it is not clear if that factored into his decision.
Ronald Reagan’s administration took essentially the same position and when Israel did attack Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, a furious Reagan suspended arms deliveries to Israel. The anger quickly dissipated, however, and Reagan established unprecedented levels of strategic cooperation with Israel by the end of his tenure.
A decade later, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney sent the Israeli Air Force commander who oversaw the operation, David Ivri, an enlarged black-and-white U.S. satellite photograph of Osirak, taken a few days after the IAF raid. Cheney wrote an inscription: “For Gen. David Ivri, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981--which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.”
Israelis would prefer that their positions be in harmony with those of the United States, but as Netanyahu and his predecessors have made clear, Israel will act according to its own interests. In the short-run, Americans may be unhappy, but the United States-Israel alliance has proven it can stand the strain of disagreements and will emerge stronger than ever.