How Special Is the U.S.-Israel Relationship?

In his famed "Iron Curtain" speech delivered at Fulton, Missouri in March 1946, Winston Churchill popularized the term "special relationship" to describe American-British ties that had developed during World War II. Over time, others then applied the notion of a special relationship to U.S. connections with a host of other foreign states, including Canada, Panama, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Ireland, Germany, Liberia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, the Philippines, China, and Japan.

While each of these is special in its own way, the most special relationship of all is undoubtedly the one with Israel, as politicians1 and analysts2 both recognize. By "special relationship" they mean that relations between the two countries have over the last half century blossomed not just into a thick forest of diplomatic and military links, but also into a unique range of economic, academic, religious and personal bonds. From a comparative perspective, the United States and Israel may well be the most extraordinary tie in international politics.

Of course, relations are not all positive. Such events as Israel's participation in the Suez operation in 1956, the fight over selling AWACS to Saudi Arabia in 1981, the Lebanese massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, and the intifada all raised high tensions. Politicians sometimes openly vent their frustrations, as when Prime Minister Menachem Begin declared Israel not to be a "banana republic" and George Bush portrayed himself as "one lonely guy" facing "some powerful political forces" (an allusion to the Israel lobby).3 But the tenor of U.S.-Israel relations as a whole is not just highly positive but also very deep.


To begin with, the two states cooperate in a surprisingly balanced way on a broad range of international issues. Of course, the United States serves as Israel's great power patron, paying many billions to solidify Israeli-Egyptian peace and generally promoting Israel's acceptance worldwide. (Sometimes, however, this can take tortuous paths: Washington exerted strenuously for the Vatican to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in December 19934 and two months later urged the Kyrgyz government not to fulfill its public intention to open an embassy in Jerusalem.)5 In addition, Israel also has considerable influence in Washington. The mid-1980s attempt by Washington to improve relations with Iran, dubbed Iran/contra, began life as an Israeli project. Israel's good relations with Turkey go far to explain the latter's much higher standing in the United States than in Europe.

There happens to be a convenient quantitative index of the way Israel stands out as an American ally: voting records at the United Nations General Assembly. Israel has for many years been far ahead of all other states in terms of voting most often with the United States. According to figures compiled by the U.S. government, Israel in 1996 agreed with Washington on 95 percent of all significant votes, far beyond the number-two state (Latvia, at 81 percent) and such close American allies as the United Kingdom (79 percent), France (78 percent), Canada (73 percent) and Japan (72 percent). By comparison, the top Arab country -- Kuwait -- voted with the United States only 45 percent of the time. Typically, when only one or two states stand with Washington, Israel is one of them. For example, in November 1992, when the United Nations condemned the Torricelli Bill (which bans foreign subsidiaries of American companies trading with Cuba) by a vote of 59 to 3 with 79 abstentions, only Israel and Romania joined the United States.


For many years, U.S.-Israel military ties were non-existent. From Israel's creation in 1948 until the mid-1960s, State Department and Pentagon officials argued against even providing American arms to Israel out of concern that American arms to Israel would provoke the Arabs to ask the Soviets and Chinese for more weapons, which in turn would stimulate a Middle East arms race. Also, as the ill-fated Baghdad Pact (a 1955 alliance of pro-Western regimes) showed, they hoped to organize the rest of the Middle East against the Soviet Union. U.S. policy began to shift in 1962, when the Kennedy administration, over the objection of the State Department, approved the sale of HAWK anti-aircraft missiles to Israel. Subsequent military sales before the Six-Day War of 1967 were intended to avoid any state in the area gaining a military advantage over others.

U.S. policy fundamentally changed after the 1967 war: now it was to give Israel a qualitative military edge over its neighbors. Lyndon Johnson's 1968 agreement to sell Phantom jets to Israel marked this change, and in addition established the United States as Israel's principal arms supplier. Still, these sales resulted from a consideration of Israel's needs and from domestic political considerations, not from an assessment of U.S. security interests; American officials viewed Israel as lacking the military might to contribute to the NATO policy of containment, and so having no role in defending the West.

This perception began to change in 1970, when the Nixon administration called on Israel for help to bolster King Husayn of Jordan. Soon thereafter, as it became clear that no Arab state would contribute to Western defense in the Middle East, the Carter administration began to implement an implicit form of strategic cooperation by letting Israel sell military equipment to the United States and engage in limited joint exercises. Ronald Reagan broke new ground by seeing Israel as a potential contributor to the cold war. As he wrote prior to his election: "Only by full appreciation of the critical role the State of Israel plays in our strategic calculus can we build the foundation for thwarting Moscow's designs on territories and resources vital to our security and our national well-being."6 To a great extent, the two Reagan administrations' policy accorded with this outlook.

When Secretary of State Alexander Haig tried to create a "strategic consensus" in the Middle East to oppose Soviet expansionism, the Israelis eagerly joined in while Arab states stayed away (insisting that their greatest problem was not communism, but Zionism). Jerusalem began to reap the benefits of this approach on November 31, 1981, when it signed with Washington a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) termed "strategic cooperation." For all its limitations (no joint exercises or regular means of cooperation), the MOU for the first time formally recognized Israel as a strategic ally of the United States.

A new MOU two years later created two groups: the Joint Political-Military Group (JPMG) to discuss means of countering Soviet threats;7 and the Joint Security Assistance Planning Group (JSAP) to oversee security assistance. When Congress designated Israel as a major non-NATO ally in 1987, Israeli industries could compete equally with those of NATO countries for contracts to produce some military items. The next year, a new MOU encompassed all prior agreements. By the end of Reagan's second term, the United States had pre-positioned equipment in Israel, regularly held joint training exercises, began co-development of the Arrow Anti-Tactical Ballistic Missile, and was engaged in a host of other cooperative military endeavors.

These strategic ties have further grown in the past eight years. A Joint Anti-Terrorism Working Group came into existence in 1996, as did a hotline between the Pentagon and the Israeli defense ministry. In early 1997, Israel linked up to the U.S. missile-warning satellite system, which provides it with real-time warnings of hostile missiles. The U.S. government continues to fund the research and development of Israeli weapons systems and military equipment.8

This plethora of agreements, when added to the institutionalized military-to-military contacts, amount to a remarkable web of connections, one that may be unique for two states that lack a mutual defense treaty.


The growth of aid programs, trade, joint efforts, and American intervention in the Israeli economic system have made the United States and Israel remarkably interdependent.

In the economic sphere too, the relationship started slowly. The U.S. government provided Israel with a total of $3.2 billion in aid during the 25 years between 1949 and 1973; in the 23 years since 1974, Israel has received nearly $75 billion, making it far and away the largest per-capita recipient. Israel has become an affluent country with a personal income rivaling Great Britain's, so the American willingness to provide aid to Israel is no longer based purely on need. Rather, the aid today is closely tied to the peace process; any hint of a reduction is resisted on the grounds that it endangers Israel's confidence and so its willingness to take risks for peace. This makes U.S. aid to Israel unlike any other. Although an increasing number of voices, especially among conservatives in both countries, express skepticism about the continuation of aid, it remains a mainstay of the two countries' relations.

Secondly, the U.S. government signed its first ever free-trade agreement (FTA) in 1985 --with Israel, of course. This unprecedented treaty opened up the entire U.S. market to Israel by gradually eliminating tariffs.9 Further, the FTA served as the model for the subsequent agreements with Canada and Mexico. Revealingly, while the latter two met with political opposition (and especially the Mexican one, which was part of the contentious North American Free Trade Agreement), the Israeli one did not; in fact, the Senate vote on the agreement was unanimous. Like most trade agreements, the FTA with Israel has generated its share of trade disputes, but it has also achieved the intended purpose of increasing the volume of trade: the total two-way trade came to about $4.7 billion in 1985 and reached over $11 billion in 1995, with U.S. exports to Israel doubling in the last decade. Nor did economic cooperation end with the FTA. For example, the two states signed an agricultural trade agreement in November 1996.

Thirdly, the governments have created institutions to stimulate joint research and development. The Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD), established in 1977 and capitalized with $55 million from each country, funds joint U.S.-Israel teams in the development and commercialization of innovative, nondefense technological products, such as computer software, instrumentation, communications, medical devices, and semiconductors. BIRD has funded more than four hundred joint high-tech R&D projects; it estimates that products developed from these ventures have generated total sales of more than $4.5 billion and tax revenues of more than $200 million in the United States alone, and created an estimated twenty thousand American jobs. BIRD served as the model for a variety of other joint institutions dealing with agriculture,10 high technology,11 and Jordan.12

Lastly, in 1984, at a time of economic distress in Israel (450 percent annual inflation, a huge foreign debt, meager foreign reserves, high unemployment) Secretary of State George Shultz suggested the creation of an American-Israeli Joint Economic Development Group (JEDG) to work on Israel's economic challenges. The JEDG played a pivotal role in the formulation of Israel's ambitious and successful economic stabilization plan that included budget cuts, tighter control of the money supply, and devaluation of the shekel. When Israel took these and other steps, Reagan approved a $1.5 billion emergency aid program, which helped save the Israeli economy from collapse and stimulate a recovery that reduced inflation from triple digits to the low double digits. These steps laid the groundwork for Israel to have one of the world's fastest growth rates a decade later. The dialogue with Israel that began in 1984 continues to the present; for example, agreements were reached in 1996 to establish joint frameworks for assessing means of implementing the rapid privatization of the Israeli economy and expanding the capital market.

It is not unusual for the United States to instruct other nations on how to stabilize their economies (witness the recent case of Mexico); however, the Israeli case was unusual in that the U.S. Treasury, not the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, provided financial assistance. More remarkable, the disbursement (along with $3 billion in non-emergency economic and military aid) provoked no real opposition (the Senate vote was 75-19, the House vote was part of a continuing resolution). Israel may be the only case of a country willingly cooperating with the United States on the development of its macroeconomic policy.


Israeli intellectuals are uniquely attuned to the life of the mind in the United States. Probably more Israelis show up as leading authors in the United States than do their counterparts from any non-English-language country and include such figures as Abba Eban, Amos Oz, and David Grossman. In certain fields such as Biblical studies and Middle East studies, Israel scholars not only enjoy a larger role than any other foreign nationality but drive the research agenda in the United States. Several universities, including Georgetown, a Jesuit institution, have regular slots for a visiting Israel scholar -- something that may well be unique.

Many U.S. colleges have student- and faculty-exchange programs with Israeli institutions, and several have joint degree programs. So numerous are American students in Israel that whole university divisions there exist to service mostly American students, for example the Rothberg School for Overseas Students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Nor is the connection limited to Jewish Americans; in one unusual program, the organization formally known as United Negro College Fund The College Fund/UNCF runs the UNCF/Israel Exchange Program in cooperation with Jewish and Israel institutions to send black American students to Israel to spend a summer month at work in a kibbutz, a month teaching English to disadvantaged Israelis, and a month studying at Hebrew University.

The academic relationship also has a governmental side. The two states created the Binational Science Foundation (BSF) in 1972 to promote research cooperation between scientists in the two countries, laying the groundwork for a vast array of nonstrategic relationships. The BSF boasts a $100 million endowment and has awarded more than 2,000 grants, involving approximately 2,000 scientists from more than 300 American research institutions. The success of the BSF has spawned a host of other institutions, including the International Arid Lands Consortium, an independent nonprofit organization formed to explore the problems and solutions of arid and semiarid regions.


Although U.S.-Israel cooperative agreements date back to 1950, Feb 19, exchange of official publs their number and scope dramatically expanded during the Reagan administration, when nearly every U.S. government agency and its Israeli counterpart signed agreements. Thus, the U.S. Forest Service signed several MOUs with the Jewish National Fund for cooperation in firefighting, conservation, and land management. The Department of Energy renewed its agreement with its counterpart to focus on commercialization of promising technologies. More such agreements continue to be signed: in 1996, the Security Exchange Commission and Israel's Securities Authority agreed to cooperate in the enforcement of each other's security regulations. The FBI announced plans in 1996 to open an office in Tel Aviv. Other agencies with agreements include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Labor, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services. If many of these MOUs are little more than pieces of paper, they do symbolize something important: an interest in cooperation broader and deeper than the United States has with any other country.

More unusual yet, Americans and Israelis have many standing arrangements at the state and local level. Governors now routinely lead delegations of business leaders, educators, and cultural-affairs officials to Israel. The major milestone here occurred in 1984, when the Texas Israel Exchange came into existence to promote projects between the Texas Department of Agriculture and Israel's Ministry of Agriculture. At least another nineteen states followed suit with agreements to increase trade, tourism, research, and culture. For example, North Carolina signed a broad agreement in 1993 that in just three years led to such projects as North Carolina-Israel Development Centers in both places, an Israeli center for people with autism based on a North Carolina model, an art exchange that will result in the largest exhibition of Israeli visual arts ever displayed outside Israel, and the adoption by the state's third largest school district of a peer tutoring program developed by Hebrew University.


Jews have a well known special interest in Israel, but so do Christians. A substantial majority of Christian Americans consistently sympathizes with Israel, which it does not see as just another country but as a key source of the shared Judeo-Christian heritage.

The special feeling for Israel translates directly into policy. While the U.S. public dislikes foreign aid in general, polls show that "most Americans strongly support" economic and military aid to Israel.13


The general rule about states not interfering in each other's affairs goes out the window in this most family-like of relationships. Yitzhak Rabin supported Gerald Ford in 1972 and George Bush in 1992. JP 14 Oct 92 #187 For his part, Bill Clinton did everything he reasonably could, including a virtual joint campaign appearance, to aid the reelection of Shimon Peres. In 1992, Secretary of State James Baker precipitated a parliamentary election in Israel; and the Lubavicher rebbe in Brooklyn then had a substantial say about the outcome of that election. NYer 28 Mar 94 Neither side, interestingly, takes this interference much amiss. On learning of American efforts to keep the Labor in a coalition government with Likud in 1989, an unnamed Israeli official responsed calmly:

Because of the intensity and intimacy of the relationship between our two countries, we have gotten used to such intervention and do not see it as meddling.14

It strains the imagination to think of an official in any other country making such a statement.

At times, Israelis beg for American interference to sway their domestic politics. In 1982, Prime Minister Begin's critics appealed to the U.S. government for cuts in American aid as a means to change his policies on the West Bank. In 1988, four of Israel's best-known writers (Yehuda Amichai, Amos Elon, Amos Oz, and A. B. Yehoshua) published a statement calling on American Jews and "on all friends of Israel in the United States to speak up" about Israeli policies on the West Bank. More remarkably, they argued that "By their very silence, [American Jews] are massively intervening in Israeli politics."15 A leading Israeli newspaper published an opinion piece in 1992 that called continued pressure on Israel "the most important condition for advancing the entire [peace] process."16

The exceptional U.S.-Israel bond permits Israelis to develop some outsized expectations of their sway in the United States. In 1994, Israel's Minister of Health Ephraim Sneh had the temerity to instruct the U.S. government about what Israel would tolerate in its relation with the Arabs: "The United States has proven itself to be a reliable and faithful partner to the Israelis; it will not move forward in its own relations with Arab states before they make real progress in peace talks with Israel."17 Shortly before his death in 1995, Yitzhak Rabin actually instructed American Jews against exercising their rights as citizens to lobby Congress as they saw fit: "to try to influence the American Congress against the policy of the democratically elected government of Israel is something that should not be tolerated."18

Even more striking, Israeli leaders sometimes feel entitled to dispose of U.S. funds. Reports surfaced in 1994 about the Israelis seeking $5 billion by way of compensation for withdrawing from the Golan Heights and estimating that the Syrians require the same sum.19 At other times, Israelis made it clear they expected a payoff for Syria as well. Abraham Tamir, one of Israel's negotiators with Egypt, actually said that "If Clinton and the United States really want peace between Israel and Syria, they will have to pay for it."20

So strong are U.S.-Israel relations that those who wish Israel ill, or the more moderate among them, adopt pro-Israel language to make their point more effectively. John Bryant, a liberal congressman from Dallas, proposed withholding funds from Israel in 1991 unless the settlements on the West Bank were halted. Justifying his bill, Bryant claimed he wanted "to protect the people of Israel from the extreme policies" of the Likud government.21Using nearly identical language, one of Israel's most determined enemies in the United States, Talcott Seelye, explained his opposition to Likud policies not because they harmed the United States but because he found them "antithetical to Israel's long-term interests"!22 The anti-Israel crowd also adopts another ploy, claiming that its criticism of Israel betokens the depth of their respect for the Jewish state. George McGovern sought to transform incessant criticism of Israel into something positive by stating that "If I set a higher standard for Israel and my own country than for others, that is a measure of respect for the values that undergird these two nations."23 As Norman Podhoretz observed in 1987, "to judge by the protestations that invariably accompany chastisements of Israel nowadays, never has a nation been blessed with so many loving friends."24


These are only some of the most visible connections between the two countries: there are many others. For example, a larger percentage of Israelis have close relatives in the United States than do the citizens of any other country, which makes America a most familiar place. Israel is the only country where Americans are allowed to hold public office and still keep their U.S. citizenship. Grace Halsell WRMEA Jul/Aug 93, p. 19 The first formal contact between the Clinton transition team and a foreign representative in 1992 was with the Israeli ambassador. Middle East politics intrude so deeply into American public life, and especially New York City's,

One can sometimes get the impression, reading the headlines, that New York should be considered a department of the Middle East. At other times, it seems that the Middle East -- or, at any rate, Israel -- is a division of the city.25

These pervasive ties create a durable context which absorb many of the vagaries of current politics. Take the election of Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel in May 1996, an event might have augered a deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations. Netanyahu's platform on the peace process was at odds with American policy. Within weeks of Netanyahu's victory it became clear that the overall relationship was as close as ever. Netanyahu visited the United States in a near triumphal tour, charming Clinton, addressing a joint session of Congress, and causing gridlock on the streets of Manhattan. Differences between leaders in Israel and the United States are relatively narrow, being primarily about disagreements over the means to common ends. Certain issues, such as unilateral Israeli actions in Jerusalem and building settlements, have consistently provoked tensions -- most recently the building at Har Homa. These spats produce some public and private recriminations, but do not much affect the overall relationship.

In the worst case, an American administration may seek to pressure the Israelis and might even reduce the level of cooperation (for example, by suspending arms deliveries or reducing strategic cooperation), but the ties today are so broad and deep that the alliance is unlikely to crack. Unlike Dwight Eisenhower in 1956-57, no president today can credibly threaten a cutoff of aid, for Congress would not support such action. Economic, academic, and personal relations between citizens of the two countries are largely immune to political vagaries. Further development of this remarkable relationship might be retarded, but not reversed.

1 Jimmy Carter used the term special relationship" in 1977, Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, and Warren Christopher in 1993; all are quoted in Bernard Reich, "The United States and Israel: The Nature of a Special Relationship," in David W. Lesch, The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Assessment (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1996), pp. 233, 248.
2 For example, Mohamed Al-Kiswani and Mohamed Khawas, The U.S. and Israel: A Very Special Relationship (London: Zed Press, 1984); Bernard Reich, The United States and Israel: Influence in the Special Relationship (New York: Praeger, 1984); Claudia Wright, Spy, Steal, and Smuggle : Israel's Special Relationship with the United States (Belmont, Mass.: AAUG Press, 1986); and Abraham Ben-Zvi, The United States and Israel: The Limits of the Special Relationship (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). Ben-Zvi develops what he calls the "special relationship" paradigm" (pp. 14-27) which he contrasts with the "American national interest" paradigm.
3 The New York Times, Dec. 21, 1981, Sept. 13, 1991.
4 The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Thomas Melady, tells how, "[I]n a most unusual diplomatic procedure," he was instructed to promote these ties, then how he and his wife "thanked God" and celebrated with a bottle of champagne on hearing of their establishment. See Thomas Patrick Melady, "Vatican-Israeli Link: How the U.S. Helped," Crisis, March 1994, p. 9.
5 Davar, Feb. 21, 1993.
6 The Washington Post, Aug. 15, 1979.
7 Despite this mission, the JPMG almost immediately focused primarily on bilateral U.S.-Israel concerns.
8 Such as the Arrow missile, the Nautilus Tactical High Energy Laser, the Barak ship self-defense missile system, Bradley Reactive Armor Tiles, Crash-Attenuating Seats, the Have-Nap missile, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
9 In 1996, the FTA was amended to permit the president to reduce tariffs on goods and services from Gaza and the West Bank.
10 The Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD), was established in 1978, again with equal contributions of $55 million. It has funded 725 projects that have led to new technologies in drip irrigation, pesticides, fish farming, livestock, poultry, disease control, and farm equipment.
11 The U.S.-Israel Science & Technology Commission (USISTC), established in 1993 with the promise of $15 million from each government over three years, encourages high-tech industries in both countries to engage in joint projects; foster scientific exchanges between universities and research institutions; promote development of agricultural and environmental technologies; and assist in the adaptation of military technology to civilian production.
12 The United States, Jordan, and Israel created TRIDE (Trilateral Industrial Development) in 1996 to encourage economic cooperation as a pillar of the peace process. Modeled after BIRD, TRIDE supports joint-venture projects by private-sector firms from the three countries.
13 Eytan Gilboa draws this conclusion from a review of forty years of polling data in American Public Opinion Toward Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1987), p. 308.
14 The New York Times, July 12, 1989.
15 "Silence of American Jews Supports Wrong Side," The New York Times, Feb. 21, 1988.
16 Ran Kislev, writing in Ha'aretz, Nov. 9, 1992.
17 Talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as paraphrased in Peacewatch, Aug. 9, 1994.
18 Jewish Exponent (Philadelphia), July 14, 1995.
19 Israel: Ha'aretz, May 8, 1994. Syria: Dore Gold quoted in The Christian Science Monitor, 28 October 1994.
20 John West, "Israel, Syria see U.S. as a Guarantor of Peace," Reuter, Oct. 25, 1994.
21 The Jerusalem Report, July 11, 1991. The same pattern exists in other countries too. For example, David Mellor, a one-time British minister and a hostile critic of Israel, portrayed himself as "a candid friend" of the Jewish state in 1988 (The Jerusalem Report, Sept. 10, 1992).
22 Quoted in Robert D. Kaplan, The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite (New York: Free Press, 1993), p. 141.
23 "McGovern Replies to NER Story," Near East Report, July 19, 1993.
24 The New York Post, December 22, 1987. Gary Dorrien The Neoconservative Mind, 196, 422
25 Andy Logan, "Middle East on the Hudson," The New Yorker, Mar. 28, 1994. Logan cites Rashid Baz's drive-by shooting of Hasidic students, Baruch Goldstein and Meir Kahane's origins in the city, Kahane's assination in the city, and the World Trade Center bombing.