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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

70 Years of U.S.-Israel Relations: From Tentative Beginnings to Intimate Partnership


President Harry Truman receives an ornate bronze menorah as a birthday gift from David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of Israel, who called on the chief executive to discuss peace and economic development in the Middle East, May 8, 1951. (AP Photo/Henry Griffin)

“…[T]he U.S. and Israel's tremendous friendship has never been stronger, and our unwavering bond is built now on a foundation of mutual respect, shared democratic values, and aligned global interests, coupled, of course, with decades, now, of robust defense cooperation. I think our militaries have never worked more closely together than they do today, and this is exemplified through the recent joint exercises and trainings… It keeps the U.S. force and the Israeli defense forces fit for our times.”

            —U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, April 26, 2018


Today, when the United States and Israel enjoy a close strategic alliance and partnership across a wide range of pursuits, it seems hard to believe that this relationship was not always this close. In fact, during the first two decades of Israel’s existence, the United States maintained a relatively aloof relationship with Israel—and Israel saw other nations as closer strategic allies.


There is an important lesson here: Even when the U.S.-Israel relationship is thriving, it must never be taken for granted. It must be consistently strengthened and nurtured—by Congress, each administration, and in public and private partnerships. Luckily, the wide array of common values and interests shared by the United States and Israel help ensure that when properly fostered, this relationship will continue to grow despite inevitable challenges.


Tentative Beginnings


On Nov. 28, 1947—just one day before the historic United Nations (U.N.) resolution to partition the British Mandate for Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state—the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) issued a secret, 20-page report entitled “The Consequences of the Partition of Palestine.” The concluding paragraph of the report, which was partially declassified in 2013, stated:


“The U.N., having recommended partition, would have to consider the serious threat to the peace resulting from the recommendation. It would, in effect, be compelled to take steps to reinforce partition, with the major powers acting as the instruments of enforcement. The dangerous potentialities of such development to U.S.-Arab and U.S.-USSR relations need no emphasis.”


In opposing the establishment of a Jewish state, the CIA joined the two top U.S. government agencies dealing with foreign policy: the State Department and the Department of Defense. When U.S. President Harry Truman instructed his U.N. Ambassador to vote in favor of the partition resolution and became, on May 15, 1948, the first foreign leader to recognize Israel’s independence, he had to override all three agencies.


Yet the U.S.-Israel relations faced even more obstacles than the hostility of these top agencies. Partly due to this antagonism, President Truman granted Israel only de-facto recognition—full de-jurerecognition came only at the end of Israel’s War of Independence in 1949; Truman also refrained from lifting the Pentagon-imposed arms embargo, which prevented Israel from legally obtaining U.S. weapons throughout the war. Much to Israel’s fortune, resourceful supporters managed to obtain for Israel some major U.S. weapons—including three B-17 heavy bombers.


Incredibly, from today’s perspective, it was the Soviet Union that came to Israel’s rescue. It not only was the first country to grant Israel full de-jure recognition, but it also ordered its newly acquired satellite, Czechoslovakia, to supply Israel with shiploads of weapons, including warplanes. David Ben-Gurion—Israel’s first prime minister—stated on several occasions that the Soviet Union saved Israel from defeat in its War of Independence.


But the Soviet Union soon began supporting the other side of the Arab–Israeli conflict. Subsequently, from the mid-1950s until the Six-Day War of June 1967, France served as Israel’s top arms supplier. Israel won the 1967 war with French-made fighter jets; the first U.S.-supplied warplanes arrived in Israel only after the war was over. It was during this period of close French-Israeli relations that the U.S.-Israel relationship experienced its worst crisis to date: In February 1957, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower threatened in a private message to Ben-Gurion that he would approve trade sanctions against Israel, and might cut off all private assistance to Israel, unless Israel unconditionally withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip—the area it had captured in the 1956 Suez Crisis in collaboration with Britain and France.


The Turning Point


By the end of those six days in June 1967, Israel had defeated three major Arab armies and suddenly found itself in control of territories more than three times its pre-war size—with many repercussions that still reverberate. Israel’s decisive victory over Egypt and Syria—Moscow’s top proxies outside the Soviet Bloc—quickly changed America’s perception of Israel from strategic liability to strategic asset. This new perception was greatly reinforced when Israel generously shared with the United States vital information it had gleaned from new Soviet-made weapons it had captured during the war. That information was invaluable to the United States not only in the overall context of the Cold War, but also in the narrower context of the Vietnam War, where the North Vietnamese used similar Soviet-made weapons against the United States.


The Six-Day War was a turning point and has led to a durable change in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Whereas Israel’s detractors continued to claim that the growing U.S.-Israel cooperation was alienating Arabs and therefore undermined U.S. strategic interests, American policymakers and legislators understood the speciousness of this claim. Not only did Arab states continue to seek closer relations with the United States, with a brief exception in late 1973, but developments on the ground proved that the U.S. alliance with Israel was far more durable than that with any other country in the region.


The U.S. alliance with the Libyan monarchy, for example, complete with a large U.S. airbase in the country, collapsed overnight in 1969 when Muammar Gaddafi toppled the monarchy and turned Libya into an enemy of the United States. And a decade later, the U.S.-Iranian alliance, which was considered the pillar of America’s strategic interests in the Middle East, likewise collapsed when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini supplanted the pro-American monarchy with the Islamic Republic, one of whose first acts was to take 52 American diplomats hostage.


Thus, Israel was—and is—an exception. In addition to possessing the most powerful army in the region, it remains the only full-fledged democracy in the neighborhood. Its pro-American position is not susceptible to a military coup or a violent religious takeover. In fact, the Israelis are the only people in the region who genuinely like Americans, as consistently demonstrated by polling data. The U.S.-Israel alliance is therefore more deeply rooted, and more durable, than any other regional alliance.


Yet despite these well-known benefits, a close U.S.-Israel alliance did not always move forward smoothly. Since its creation 70 years ago, Israeli leaders have experienced disagreements—not infrequently escalating into public confrontations—with each of their American counterparts. But since the late 1960s, the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance has steadily grown despite several setbacks.


Supplying Combat Aircraft


Unlike his predecessors, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) harbored genuine affection for the Jewish state. He was the first president to approve the sale of warplanes to Israel: In 1966 he authorized the sale of older A-4 Skyhawk fighter bombers (which began arriving in Israel in late 1967), and in late 1968—following intensive lobbying by supporters of Israel—he approved the sale of then-top-of-the-line F-4 Phantom jet fighters. Although still informal, this was the first instance of the United States supporting Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) over its adversaries. Egypt later received Phantom jets as well—but only after it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.


Massive Airlift and Exponentially Increasing Military Aid


Despite limited affection for Israel, U.S. President Richard Nixon (1969-1974) understood its strategic value to the United States in the context of the Cold War. After Israel suffered heavy losses during the opening days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Nixon ordered an unprecedentedly large airlift to Israel of heavy equipment—including jet fighters and tanks from the United States’ own inventory—to counter the large-scale Soviet resupply of Egypt and Syria. The airlift helped Israel turn the tide and mount a powerful counterattack across the Suez Canal. At $2.5 billion, U.S. military aid to Israel under Nixon in 1974 exceeded by $1 billion the total military aid from 1948 through 1973.


This airlift and military aid stood in stark contrast to the Nixon administration’s early years, when Secretary of State William Rogers presented three plans entailing major Israeli withdrawals from the territory captured in the 1967 war; the plans were rejected by Israel (as well as by Egypt and the Soviet Union), causing serious tension between the two allies.


Deepening Commitment


Under U.S. President Gerald Ford (1974-1977), the U.S.-Israel relationship experienced a sharp turn from severe crisis to major breakthrough. In March 1975, the administration declared a “reassessment” of the relationship following Israel’s rejection of a U.S. proposal for a Sinai withdrawal. Arms deliveries to Israel, including F-15 jet fighters, were frozen, and all government exchanges with Israel were delayed or canceled. The reassessment was only lifted in late August following strong congressional opposition—including a letter from 76 U.S. senators urging its termination. In September, Egypt and Israel signed the U.S.-brokered Sinai Interim Agreement, which came closer to meeting Israeli requirements than the original U.S. proposal and paved the way for the 1979 peace treaty. The agreement was accompanied by a U.S.-Israeli Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), which included, among other items, a commitment from the administration to request $2.4 billion in aid to Israel in 1976, including $1.5 billion in military assistance—the largest amount ever other than the 1974 military aid provided to replenish Israel’s postwar inventory. The MOA also included important political commitments, laying the foundation for the deep strategic cooperation to come.


Brokering Peace with Egypt


U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) vividly demonstrated that even a president who disagreed strongly with the Israeli government and was willing to heavily pressure it could still be willing and able to make an essential contribution to Israel’s long-term security.


Carter strongly objected to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s settlement policy. He constantly pressured Begin to continue the three-month settlement freeze that he had accepted as part of the September 1978 Camp David Accords.


Yet by all accounts, it was Carter’s intensive and effective personal engagement that led to the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Four decades later, the treaty—a boon to Israeli security—still holds, despite major challenges, such as the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in 2012 and 2013. Moreover, Carter approved a 1980 $5.15 billion aid package to Israel, including $4 billion in military aid—both all-time highs.


Institutionalizing Strategic and Economic Cooperation


Even under U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), a friend of Israel who made major, long-lasting contributions to its security, relations soured on more than one occasion. In June 1981, he reacted to Israel’s destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor by suspending a shipment of F-16 fighter jets. Soon afterward, he suspended delivery of F-15 fighters following Israel’s bombing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Beirut. In October, he angered the Israelis by pushing the U.S. Senate to approve the sale to Saudi Arabia of advanced Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft. In December, he suspended the implementation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on strategic cooperation signed three weeks earlier over Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. And in mid-1982, he suspended the supply of cluster munitions to Israel in reaction to the siege of the PLO in Beirut.


Without minimizing the severity of these crises at the time, they ultimately proved to be ephemeral. The supply of the suspended military equipment was resumed, strategic cooperation was restored, and the Saudi AWACS planes have never been used against Israel. In contrast, the Reagan administration’s contributions to Israel’s security and economy were long-lasting. Much of today’s close strategic and economic cooperation between the two allies originated during the Reagan era.


The 1981 MOU on strategic cooperation was suspended within a month.  But strategic cooperation resumed in 1983, elevating the relationship to new heights. President Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir agreed that the United States and Israel would carry out joint planning and military exercises, while the United States could preposition military equipment in Israel. The U.S. also increased military aid to Israel by $425 million per year. Additionally, the two governments created a Joint Politico-Military Group (JPMG) as a framework for biannual meetings of high-level Israeli and American diplomats and defense officials. The JPMG meetings produced increasingly closer strategic cooperation in many spheres.


By 1985, two more groups were established: a Joint Security Assistance Planning Group (JSAP)—to discuss the size and composition of Israel's requirements for security assistance prior to the submission of the appropriate requests by the administration to the U.S. Congress; and a Joint Economic Development Group (JEDG)—to discuss both countries’ economic conditions and U.S. assistance to reform Israel’s economy. In 1985, Israel became the first country to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States, boosting mutual trade and investments.


Another important—and enduring—development during the Reagan presidency was the conversion in 1981 of the entire U.S. economic aid to Israel into an all-grant cash transfer (at Israel’s request, economic aid was subsequently phased out); military aid became all grant in 1985. 


During the second half of the 1980s, bilateral defense cooperation flourished. Increasingly, Israeli defense industries worked with major U.S. arms producers to compete jointly for U.S. and international defense contracts. Following Congress’ passing of legislation in February 1987, the Reagan administration granted Israel the status of a Major non-NATO Ally.


Lastly, the Reagan administration explicitly adopted a policy of ensuring that U.S. arms sales to the Middle East would not compromise Israel’s QME. In 2008, Congress passed legislation requiring the president to carry out an “empirical and qualitative assessment on an ongoing basis of the extent to which Israel possesses a qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel.” Further legislation in 2012 enshrined the U.S. commitment “to help the Government of Israel preserve its qualitative military edge amid rapid and uncertain regional political transformation.”


Increasing Implementation and Further Institutionalization of Strategic Cooperation


Under all subsequent presidencies, the frameworks for strategic cooperation created under Reagan were increasingly filled with new content, and a few new structures and institutions were established as well. Yet as in the past, each president has also had disagreements with Israel, sometimes leading to public disputes—mostly over Israeli settlement construction.


U.S. President George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) clashed with Prime Minister Shamir over settlements, leading to the denial of loan guarantees for Israeli absorption of Russian immigrants; yet in 1989, two agreements were concluded: one allowing the lending of U.S. military equipment to Israel in emergency circumstances, and a related agreement that the materiel to be prepositioned in Israel could be used by the IDF as well as by the U.S. armed services. And during the start of Operation Desert Storm in 1990, the president ordered the airlift to Israel of U.S. Patriot missile-defense systems and their American operators. He also agreed to maintain annual U.S. aid to Israel at the $3 billion level, including $1.8 in military aid.


U.S. President Bill Clinton (1993-2001)—a warm friend of Israel—clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, but allowed further development of strategic cooperation, including publicly announced joint exercises. In 1999, he signed a 10-year MOU expressing a political commitment to providing Israel with a total of $26.7 billion aid, including $21.3 billion in military assistance.


U.S. President George W. Bush (2001-2009), a warm friend of Israel as well, also criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s settlement policies. Yet he encouraged further strategic cooperation with Israel in all fields, and in 2008 signed with Israel a second 10-year MOU increasing the total aid, now all in the form of military assistance, to $30 billion.


U.S. President Barack Obama (2009-2017)—who often demonstrated his strong support for Israel’s security—frequently clashed with Netanyahu both over settlements and over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Most significantly, he allowed in 2016 the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring illegal all of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Yet he also signed in 2016 a third 10-year MOU further increasing total military grants to $38 billion—the largest aid package in U.S. history. During his presidency, U.S. funding and technical cooperation with Israel’s missile defense program were further institutionalized, and as part of QME, Israel was the first country outside the United States to obtain the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the most technologically advanced fighter jet ever made. In 2014, Congress passed the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, which upgraded Israel’s status from a Major non-NATO Ally to a Major Strategic Partner of the United States.


It is too early in his administration to fully assess U.S. President Donald Trump’s (2017-present) policy toward Israel. Trump has stirred great excitement in Israel by his early visit to Israel, his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem on May 14, 2018, Israel’s 70th birthday.


Conclusion


Today’s unique partnership between the world’s greatest superpower and a small democracy surviving in a hostile, authoritarian neighborhood nearly 6,000 miles away owes its existence to many factors—above all Israel’s astonishing success in establishing itself as an effective, reliable and stable U.S. ally in a region of vital strategic importance.

The U.S.-Israel alliance has steadily grown and expanded thanks to the dedicated work of Congress and the pro-Israel community.


Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report