Monday, January 5, 2009

On the origins of the US-Israeli special relationship

The best way to understand why a US-Israeli Special relationship exists is to study its history, that is, the how the relationship was formed.

The US and Israel were intimately tied together since Israel's declaration of Independence--The future Israeli's called Truman to inform him of the declaration prior to its publication. However, there wasn't a consensus in the higher levels of the US government on this issue. George Marshall famously stormed out of a meeting to protest the recognition of Israel, and almost all of the State Department thought that a prompt recognition of Israel would damage the US relationship with the Arab states. The larger point is that the prompt recognition of Israel by the US doesn't say much about the US-Israeli relationship--the Soviets did it to.

When Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, came into office in 1953, they fulled intended to be impartial in the Arab-Israeli conflict. For the first part half of their administration, this wasn't too difficult. The US even aided in the successful Suez Base negotiations with Egypt and Britain.

However, things changed between 1955 and 1958. For one, the rise of Gamal Nasir posed a political threat to Israel, and his purchase of arms from the Soviet bloc made in 1955 transformed him into a military threat to Israel. The US press did not like this, and immediately compared him to Hitler. Eisenhower ultimately resisted public pressure from the press to intervene in the Suez war, and was publicly opposed to Israeli actions. Neutrality prevailed.

Everything changed in 1958. Eisenhower intervened in Lebanon partly because he believed another Munich crisis was on the horizon. Moreover, the Eisenhower administration began viewing Israel as a strategic asset in the Middle East, and the US became closer to Israel while the Soviets became closer to the Arab states. In the second half of the second Eisenhower administration, they forged closer ties with Israel for strategic reasons.

However, this is not to say that culture had no influence--the memory of world war II allowed Israel's enemy, Nasser, to be compared to Hitler in the press. Jewish people were being publicly assimilated into American life, and many in the US praised Israel as a democracy. However, all of these cultural factors preceded the Eisenhower administration's decision to forge close ties to Israel.

The relationship endures because these cultural factors persisted after Israel became a strategic liability during the end of the cold war. The constant cultural attachment to Israel, which aided the strategic relationship, failed to die with along with the strategic rationale for supporting Israel.


  1. Your description of Eisenhower's role in the '56 Suez war is, I think, too passive (he "was publicly opposed to Israeli actions" you say). Yes, *and* the U.S. was the main force pressuring Israel, Britain, and France to withdraw their forces.

    Re the last point: I'm not at all sure the strategic rationale for U.S. support of Israel vanished with the end of the Cold War. Anyway, the strategic and 'cultural' rationales have gotten difficult to disentangle, for various reasons.