The Highs and Lows of American Leaders and Israel

As January 20 comes closer, President-elect Biden’s incoming administration has been planning the many policies it plans to roll out. But as his foreign policy team considers their game plan in the Middle East, they may benefit from reflecting on the longstanding religious, military and diplomatic history behind the U.S.–Israel relationship.

Four hundred years ago, in 1620, this glorious journey began in shared values, developing into one of history’s most enduring international alliances — although not one without some disappointments and dramatic moments. Both Israel’s supporters and detractors will be keenly watching the new Biden administration’s approach.

Religious Foundations

Long prior to the 1948 rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the modern state of Israel, the Holy Land was a matter of deep religious affinity. The earliest colonial settlers, for instance, modeled their arrival to the new world in 1620 after the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt. William Bradford, the religious leader on the Mayflower, became the first and most important governor of the Plymouth colony in New England. He declared, “Come let us proclaim the word of the Zion in the new Promised Land.” A decade later, John Winthrop, leading the Puritans to America, sermonized, “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us…for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.”

These early expressions of Christian Zionism in colonial America reflected the biblical philosophy expressed in the very first chapters of the Old Testament, where God promises Abraham the land of Israel (Genesis 15:18). The settlers of the new world modeled themselves on the ancient Israelites seeking a promised land of freedom.

But the Colonial American commitment to the scriptures went even further. American Christians often used biblical names for their new towns and their children. The first American universities taught the Hebrew Bible. Future President James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution, studied Hebrew and the scriptures at the college of New Jersey (Princeton University).

Even the case for independence was embedded in the Bible. Thomas Jefferson proposed in 1776 that the original Great Seal of the United States illustrate the Israelites’ exodus out of slavery and bondage from Egypt. Benjamin Franklin promoted the image of Moses parting the Red Sea with Pharaoh on his heels with the motto, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

1776: The committee which drafted the Declaration of Independence. From left: Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826), Roger Sherman (1721 – 1793), Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), Robert R Livingston (1746 – 1813) and John Adams (1735 – 1826). Original Artwork: Printed by Currier & Ives. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Not only did Americans express affection for biblical Israelites and Hebrew scripture, but they granted Jews unparalleled constitutional rights to religious liberty as full and equal citizens. In his famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, President George Washington wrote, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

Political Support for Statehood

Although legal safeguards did not always guarantee treatment without discrimination, when it came to Israel, establishment theology actually went even further than shared religious inspiration. The most important American leaders sought to reverse European notions of replacement theology, the idea that the Church superseded the Jews as the inheritors of God’s love and protection. Instead, Christian Zionism made the return of Jews to their ancient homeland in Judea “as an Independent Nation” a moral imperative.

Some 77 years before Theodor Herzl published “The Jewish State” in 1896, support for a Jewish homeland was endorsed by former President John Adams and his son, President John Quincy Adams. The prominent biblical scholar Professor George Bush, a Christian Hebraist at New York University (and ancestor to another father-son pair of presidents), advocated the return of the Jews to “the land of their fathers” in his 1848 book, “The Valley of the Vision, or the Dry Bones of Israel Revived.” President Abraham Lincoln, too, expressed the “noble dream” of the restoration of the Jews to Palestine and was reported to have said to his wife before his assassination, “We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior. There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.”

In 1891, concerned by Czar Alexander III’s pogroms against the Jewish population of Russia, 413 prominent Americans — including the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — petitioned President Benjamin Harrison to organize the first international conference “to consider the Israelite claim to Palestine as their ancient home.”

In the early twentieth century, President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the British Balfour Declaration, stating in 1917, “I did it because to think that the son of Presbyterian ministers would have the honor of restoring the Jews to their holy land.” Congress unanimously endorsed the Balfour Declaration, and 33 states, representing roughly 85% of the U.S. population, also adopted resolutions supporting the creation of a Jewish state. These petitions were welcomed by several presidents, including Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

circa 1916: Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) the 28th President of the United States of America. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The arrival of World War II and the shocking mass murder of European Jewry accelerated the decline of the few prominent American voices antipathetic to Jews and spurred sympathy for the establishment of a sanctuary for the Jewish people.

However, in early 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Saudi King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud to secure a major U.S. energy relationship with Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, FDR welcomed the idea of an Arab mission to the United States to challenge the growing American political sentiment in support of Jewish statehood.

But President Harry S. Truman, influenced by both his religious background and his personal friendship with his Jewish army buddy and business partner Eddie Jacobson, lobbied for the land partition resolution and led the United States to be the first nation to recognize the new Jewish State — 11 minutes after Israel declared its independence.

Ups and Downs in the U.S.-Israel Relationship

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as the Commander of Allied Forces in World War II, helped rescue the Jews who survived the Holocaust and carefully documented their suffering. American sympathy and support for the Jewish state became a consistent theme by American presidents ever since.

However, “Ike” himself hoped that Arab states could become reliable allies of the United States in the Cold War. And so, during the Suez Crisis of 1956, he distanced himself from Israel and sided with Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Unfortunately, Nasser was playing him, and he illegally nationalized the Suez Canal Company and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Pretending to be pro-American, Nasser secured American support for massive radio broadcast technology but used it to rally the Arab world in fierce anti-Americanism. He also dangled a military alliance with the United States but secretly plotted his strong alignment with the Soviets.

To his credit, Eisenhower quickly recognized his diplomatic defeats and soon dedicated the United States to become the dominant global power influencing the Middle East. He began to build a new coalition against the Soviets, one rooted in closer ties to the much more reliable Israelis.

President John F. Kennedy renewed the robust public expression of support for Israel because, as he said to the Zionist Organization of America in 1960, “Israel was not created in order to disappear — Israel will endure and flourish.”

JFK’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, also held deep sympathy for Israel, which stemmed from a long family history of Christian affinity for the Jews and from his own humanitarian efforts to rescue Jews during World War II. Like the founding fathers, Johnson spoke of “the Bible stories … woven into [his] childhood memories as the gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of persecution is also woven into our souls.”

During the 1973 Yom Kippur war, President Richard M. Nixon asserted that the United States stands by its friends and that “Israel is one of its friends.” Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir urgently called Nixon for support she believed was critical to the Jewish state’s survival. Even in the face of an Arab oil embargo, Nixon ordered the commencement of Operation Nickel Grass, the strategic airlift operation that shipped tons of planes, tanks, artillery, ammunition and supplies to help Israel survive the surprise attack from the Soviet-backed Egyptian and Syrian forces.

President Jimmy Carter viewed his religious commitments as motivating his support for a peace process, although he postured himself as a “neutral broker.” He was seen as controversial for his antagonism to Prime Minister Menachem Begin but did oversee the 1978 Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

President Ronald Reagan had no illusions about the Palestinian cause and promoted Israel as both a moral ally and a strategic asset to the United States. Reagan granted Israel the status of a major non-NATO ally (in the likes of South Korea and Japan) and launched a ballistic missile defense program, the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983; some of that technological research has led to the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and the Arrow Missile Defense programs, which have been critical to Israeli defense.

Reagan promoted Israel as both a moral ally and a strategic asset to the United States.

President George H. W. Bush, however, had a much more difficult relationship with Israel. Although he was personally supportive of the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry and dedicated to the liberty of Soviet Jewry, his White House displayed hostility to the pro-Israel community. For example, in 1991, Bush pushed for the Madrid Peace Conference to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it yielded little progress. He refused to approve $10 billion in loan guarantees to help Israel settle a wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and he demanded that Israel freeze settlement building. Bush even went public with his complaints about Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Bush temporarily won the loan guarantee battle but lost his 1992 re-election bid with only 10% of the Jewish vote.

President William J. Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin soon succeeded Bush and Shamir, and they were more careful to build personal and public rapport, evidenced by Clinton’s sympathy upon the assassination of Rabin. Clinton promoted the Oslo Peace Process, which had mixed results at best. Although Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was revived and continued its long strategic terror campaign against Israel. Clinton was unable to secure a peace agreement from Yasser Arafat at the Camp David Summit of 2000.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton attends a rally marking the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin November 12, 2005 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

President George W. Bush struck a much more realistic approach to the Palestinians and a much warmer alliance with the Israelis. After 9/11, Bush essentially abandoned false promises of a peace process in favor of a dedicated military and diplomatic war on jihadist terror.

Obama and Trump

These lows to highs in the U.S.-Israel relationship could not be more evident than in the approach of the two most recent presidents.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States formally established “daylight” between it and Israel. Nowhere was this more evident than his pursuit of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear threat, which, despite the administration’s claimed desire to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, were widely viewed as an abandonment of Israeli concerns, regional fears over Iranian conventional terrorism and U.S. Congressional advice. Although Obama did boost Israeli military funding, he also downgraded joint U.S.-Israeli military exercises, was hostile towards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leaked Israeli attack plans to Iran and Syria.

When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama counseled Israeli restraint after Palestinian terrorism, failed to close the Washington office of the PLO or to expel its ambassador and called for negotiations for a Palestinian state based on Israel’s indefensible 1967 borders. Obama also refused to veto U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which labeled Israeli settlement activity a “flagrant violation of international law” with “no legal validity.”

In his recently published autobiography, “A Promised Land,” Obama notes the “explicitly anti-Semitic” content in Arab politicians’ denunciations of Israel but fails to acknowledge the decades-long economic boycotts and military campaigns by the regional Arab states against Israel. Although Obama wrote that he is “fiercely protective of the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own,” he reveals a bias when he refers to the Temple Mount as “one of Islam’s holiest sites” without ever mentioning its central importance in Judaism.

President Donald J. Trump built an unparalleled record of collaboration with Israel. Trump moved the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (making the United States the first nation to open its new embassy in the holy city), recognized Israeli sovereignty over the strategic Golan Heights, stopped funding the corrupt United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, closed the PLO mission in Washington, D.C., ended U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as it continued to pay stipends to Palestinian terrorists or their families, increased U.S. military aid to Israel, promoted a mutual defense treaty with Israel and clarified that Israeli settlements were not “per se” illegal under international law. Trump also presented a peace plan that recognized many Israeli settlements, although the plan was not accepted by the Palestinians.

The Trump Administration also withdrew the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in protest of its bias against Israel.

When it came to Iran, President Trump withdrew from the Iran Deal and embarked on a “maximum pressure” campaign that crippled Iran’s economy (Trump had expressed a desire to craft a tougher deal but was unable to fulfill it in one term). Trump also formally designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization — an action that recognizes the IRGC’s role in financing, promoting, directing and implementing the government’s global terrorist campaign — and conducted effective counterterrorism operations against IRGC General Qassem Soleimani, among others.

Trump also helped normalize relations between Israel and the Arab world (Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco), in part by rejecting the premises of Oslo — that appeasement of Palestinians would have to come before there could be any broader progress on Arab-Israeli peace. As a result, Israel and Serbia and Kosovo have established relations, and Israel is now in serious discussions with Saudi Arabia on a range of improved relations.

The Administration to Come

When U.S. President Harry S. Truman recognized Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948, over the objections of his State Department, he entered Jewish history. Soon after he left office, in November 1953, Jacobson introduced Truman to leaders at the Jewish Theological Seminary by saying, “This is the man who helped create the state of Israel.” Truman asserted, “What do you mean, ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus.”

Truman was honest, not immodest. As a boy, he had studied the Hebrew Bible, which celebrated Cyrus II (“the Great”) for defeating the Babylonian empire in 539 B.C. and subsidizing the Jewish community’s return to Jerusalem. Since then, Cyrus has been the symbol of the righteous gentile ruler who promoted the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and promoted Jewish security against enemies.

Today, one hopes that the new U.S. administration will learn the lessons of the highs and lows of prior ones, and that Mr. Biden will continue to strengthen U.S.–Israel relations. 

Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.


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