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Israel, Relations with


ISRAEL, RELATIONS WITH. The phrase "special relationship" describes U.S.-Israeli ties, suggesting an association uncommon in international affairs. The closeness of the bond between the two countries is extraordinary, and the U.S. commitment to Israel encompasses moral, religious, diplomatic, economic, and strategic dimensions. Israeli leaders have pursued such relations since the establishment of the Jewish state in May 1948, but no special relationship existed before the mid-1970s. By the early 1980s, a confluence of interests based mainly on Cold War considerations brought about an unwritten alliance that has allowed Israel to achieve a high degree of accord with the United States. However, the United States has dictated the extent of the commitment and the pace of its development. Israel is highly dependent upon the United States, and in the post–Cold War era, a continued convergence of major interests will determine the durability of the special nature of the relationship.

1948: Israel's Orientation and an American Moral Commitment

Upon attainment of statehood, Israel adopted a policy of nonalignment between East and West, pursuing close ties with both the United States and the Soviet Union in order to avoid choosing sides in the Cold War. In terms of both the nature of its regime and its view of the international system, Israel leaned clearly toward the United States. American public opinion recognized this affinity and assumed a moral responsibility toward the Jewish state, a responsibility attributable in great part to the Holocaust. Moreover, the religious orientation of many American Christians brought them to support modern Zionism. President Harry S. Truman supported the United Nations plan in 1947 for the partition of Palestine, thus over-riding the objections of the State Department and the Department of Defense and creating the basis for early recognition of the state of Israel. Yet, a general moral commitment brought the United States to provide neither a formal guarantee of its security nor arms to Israel. In fact, the United States imposed an arms embargo on the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict that it maintained in near-complete fashion until the early 1960s.

1949–1960: Economic Aid on a Background of Bilateral Tension

Between 1949 and 1959, about 10 percent of the capital that Israel imported came directly from the United States. In January 1949, the United States averted a collapse of the Israeli economy by extending $100 million in credits. By 1960, total U.S. economic aid (grants and loans) had reached $1.5 billion. This support was modest compared to later periods, but it heightened both Israel's perception and the fact of dependence upon the United States.

At the same time, the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower considered Israel the more aggressive of the sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict. His administration gave Israel vague assurances that the United States would not allow its destruction. But the United States saw in Israel an impediment to a Middle East policy, the main objective of which was to achieve closer relations with the Arab states in order to bring them into a pro-Western alliance and ensure a steady supply of oil. This administration opposed Israel's practice of severe retaliation in response to raids from Arab states, withheld diplomatic support when it viewed Israel's use of force as excessive (as in 1953, during a dispute over the waters of the Jordan River), and planned, with Britain, to require Israeli territorial concessions in order to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. In early 1957, President Eisenhower threatened Israel with sanctions to force it to withdraw from Egyptian territory it had conquered during the 1956 Sinai campaign, and U.S.-Israeli relations during the second Eisenhower administration (1957 to 1961) remained cool.

1961–1973: The Strategic Background to a Growing Accord

President John F. Kennedy adopted a more accommodating approach toward Israel, and in 1962 authorized the sale of U.S. Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. Yet, at the same time, he attempted to elicit Israeli agreement to a signifiant unilateral concession on the Palestinian refugee problem and took a tough stance toward Israel's nuclear development, warning Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in May 1963 that an Israeli nuclear option would disturb both global and regional stability.

President Lyndon Johnson's rapport with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol seemed to usher in a new period in U.S.-Israeli relations. In reality, Johnson was determined that the United States not become a purveyor of arms to Israel, a policy aimed at avoiding a far-reaching political commitment. Nevertheless, during the early-to-mid 1960s, the Soviet Union transferred arms on a large scale to Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, and offered to supply advanced arms to Jordan. In early 1966, the United States decided to sell Jordan jet fighters, and the Johnson administration, seeking to avoid a political battle with Israel's supporters in Washington, reluctantly agreed to sell Israel jet bombers (the A-4 Skyhawk) in what it stipulated would be a "one-time deal."

A close patron-client relationship that included a steady supply of modern arms emerged gradually after the Six Day War of 1967. By 1969, President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, had come to view Israel as a Cold War asset, and during the 1969–1970 Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition, supplied it with more advanced arms. In September 1970, during the large-scale clash between the Jordanian army and Palestinian guerrillas, Israel deterred Syria from employing its air force to support the armor with which the Syrians had invaded Jordan, thus earning Washington's appreciation for aiding the pro-Western monarchy. Yet, from 1971 to 1973, U.S. acquiescence to the lack of receptivity of the government of Golda Meir to negotiate with Egypt contributed to the stalemate that led to war in 1973. U.S.-Israeli relations had become much closer, but during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the United States again demonstrated that strategic interests, and not a nascent special relationship, determined its policies.

1973–1979: Toward Israeli-Egyptian Peace

The U.S. role during the 1973 war and the diplomatic process that eventually led to an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty demonstrate that even after the establishment of a patron-client relationship, in the framework of which Israel acquired nearly all of its military hardware from the United States, ties were much closer when Washington could reconcile support of Israel with its other policies in the Middle East. The United States flew arms to Israel during the 1973 war but prevented a defeat of Egypt on a scale that would have obviated a later U.S.-Egyptian rapprochement. From 1974 to 1976, the United States granted Israel $5.8 billion in combined civilian and military assistance, a level at which aid has since approximately remained. Yet, in 1975, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger warned that they would "reassess" relations, forcing Israel to sign an agreement that included partial withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. In 1978, at Camp David, President Jimmy Carter threatened to cut Israeli aid should they fail to evince more flexibility in the negotiations.

President Carter used the term "special" to describe the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and he maintained the high levels of support his predecessor had established. But he also called for the creation of a Palestinian "homeland" and reminded Israel that close relations did not mean U.S. acquiescence to the policies of Prime Minister Menachem Begin of the right wing Likud party, policies intended to perpetuate Israel's presence in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights.

1981–1992: Harmony and Discord

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the interests of Israel and the United States converged over a common view of the threat from the Soviet Union but diverged over problems of the Middle East. In June 1981, the Reagan administration condemned Israel for bombing Iraq's nuclear facility. Israel's (unsuccessful) opposition to the sale of sophisticated U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia in a manner that the administration considered interference further strained relations. The United States intended a strategic memorandum of understanding it signed with Israel in November 1981 to compensate for the U.S.-Saudi deal, and the memorandum noted agreement to "deter all threats from the Soviet Union in the region." But in December 1981, Washington suspended the memorandum in response to Israel's annexation of Jerusalem and the extension of Israeli law to the Golan Heights.

In the view of the Reagan administration, Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 exceeded the strategic exigency of ending the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) threat to Israel's northern region. The September

1982 Reagan Plan called for a halt to Israeli settlement of the occupied territories and opposed the extension of Israeli sovereignty. The administration referred to Palestinian self-determination in federation with Jordan, but its concern for the Palestinian people pointed out Washington's consistent disagreement with Israeli policies oriented toward any solution other than that of land-for-peace.

Such discord notwithstanding, by the mid-1980s the United States and Israel had achieved a high level of cooperation on strategic issues that included the reinstatement of the November 1981 memorandum. Israel became the only non-NATO country to contribute to the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, and cooperation increased despite the Pollard affair (espionage by a U.S. citizen who passed documents to Israeli handlers) and the U.S.-PLO dialogue. The U.S.-Israeli strategic consensus encompassed both governments' views of most major global and regional matters.

Following the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991, the Bush administration considered the time propitious for a Middle East peace initiative and viewed the policies of Israel's Likud-led government under Yitzhak Shamir the major obstacle to an accord. Israeli leaders took exception to U.S. relegation of their country to a passive role during the Gulf War. They also resented the Bush administration's suspension of a $10 billion guarantee of loans for Israel's absorption of immigrants as a means to pressure the Shamir government to participate in the peace conference at Madrid. In truth, despite tension between that administration and the Shamir government, the bilateral relationship was by then based on a long-term U.S. commitment and twenty years of close strategic ties, and during this period, the United States signed (in 1989 and 1992) additional strategic memoranda with Israel.

1993–2002: From Success at Oslo to Renewed Arab-Israeli Strife

U.S.-Israeli relations reached their highest point during the presidency of Bill Clinton and the prime ministership of the Labor Party's Yitzhak Rabin. The 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles and an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty the following year heightened both the perception and substance of an Israeli regional role that accorded well with the interests of the United States during the post–Cold War period. The Clinton administration placed the greater onus for lack of further progress toward peace during the years 1996–1999 upon Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud. In 1999, Ehud Barak led Israel's Labor Party back into a two-year period of leadership. Although Barak allowed the expansion of settlements in the territories, his willingness to consider a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights for peace with Syria, the removal in 2000 of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, and the far-reaching concessions he offered the Palestinians at a Camp David summit that year earned him the Clinton administration's enthusiastic support.

The administration of George W. Bush inherited a regional configuration that included ongoing U.S. hostility to Iraq's Saddam Hussein, concern for the stability of conservative Arab regimes, the view that Syria had rejected Israeli overtures, and the conviction that Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat bore responsibility for the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit. The United States wished to restart negotiations based on a land-for-peace formula that would include a dismantling of Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 border. Yet, no sharp deterioration in U.S.-Israeli relations attended the 2002 invasion of West Bank towns by an Israeli government under hardliner Ariel Sharon. The Palestinians' extensive use of terror in 2001 and 2002, including frequent suicide bombings, both deepened U.S.-Israeli cooperation and heightened the perception among the American public that, in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, the two countries have a very great deal in common.


Bar-Siman-Tov, Yaacov. "The United States and Israel since 1948: A 'Special Relationship?'" Diplomatic History 22, no. 2 (1998): 231–262.

Ben-Zvi, Abraham. Decade of Transition: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Origins of the American-Israeli Alliance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Bialer, Uri. Between East and West: Israel's Foreign Policy Orientation, 1948–1956. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Levey, Zach. Israel and the Western Powers, 1952–1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Organski, A. F. K. The $36 Billion Bargain: Strategy and Politics in U.S. Assistance to Israel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Safran, Nadav. Israel: The Embattled Ally. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1981.

Schoenbaum, David. The United States and the State of Israel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Spiegel, Steven. The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: Making America's Middle East Policy, from Truman to Reagan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.


See alsoArab Nations, Relations with ; Camp David Peace Accords ; Cold War ; Foreign Aid ; Foreign Policy ; Israel-Palestine Peace Accord ; Treaties with Foreign Nations .

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Israel, Relations with


During most of the Soviet period, Soviet-Israeli relations were strained if not broken. Although Moscow gave diplomatic and even military support (via Czechoslovakia) to Israel during its war of independence (19481949), by 1953 it had shifted to a pro-Arab position and it broke diplomatic relations with Israel during the June 1967 Six-Day War. From the mid-1960s until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the USSR, seeking to align the Arab world against the United States, called Israel the "lynchpin of U.S. imperialism in the region." Under Gorbachev, however, the USSR made a major shift in policy, taking an even-handed position in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and by 1991 had reestablished full diplomatic relations with Israel.

In the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Moscow and Jerusalem, already warming in the final years of the Soviet Union when Gorbachev was in power, continued to improve. Trade between the two countries rose to a billion dollars per year, Jews were free to emigrate from Russia to Israel, and the two countries even cooperated in the production of military equipment such as helicopters and airborne command-and-control aircraft (AWACS). On the diplomatic front, under both Yeltsin and Putin, Russia took a balanced position, unlike the pre-Gorbachev Soviet government, which consistently took a pro-Arab, anti-Israeli stand. However, during the period when Yevgeny Primakov was Russia's Foreign Minister and Prime Minister (19961999), there was a marked tilt toward the Arab position. Following Primakov's ouster and the renewed Russian involvement in a war against Islamic rebels in Chechnya (where Israel supported Russia diplomatically), Russia under Putin's leadership switched back to a balanced position. Some Russian leaders even compared the Islamic-based terrorism Israel faced, from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to the Islamic-based opposition Russia was battling in Chechnya.

The major problem in the Russian-Israeli relationship was the supply of Russian arms and military technologyincluding missile technologyto Iran. Given the fact that the clerical leadership of Iran called for Israel's destruction and supplied weapons to both Hezbollah and to the Palestinian Authority to fight Israel, Israel bitterly opposed the Russian sales. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran became Russia's number one ally in the Middle East, and Russia continued to supply Iran with arms.

One of the dynamic aspects of the Russian-Israeli relationship after 1991 was the role of the million-plus Jews from the former Soviet Union (FSU) who emigrated to Israel. They formed the largest Russian-speaking diaspora outside the FSU and constituted a major cultural bond between Israel and Russia. As the Russian vote became increasingly important in Israeli elections, candidates for the post of Israeli Prime Minister sought to cultivate this electorate by announcing their wish to improve ties with Russia. For its part, Moscow, especially under Putin, developed a special relationship with the Russian community in Israel and saw that community as a tool to enhance Russian-Israeli trade and hence improve the Russian economy. Below the level of official relations, the Russian mafia created ties (including money-laundering ties) with its Russian counterparts in Israel, and this led to joint efforts by the Russian and Israeli governments to fight crime, occasioning frequent mutual visits of the Ministers of the Interior of both countries to deal with this problem.

Another major change from Soviet times was Russia's willingness to follow the U.S. lead in seeking to end the Israeli-Arab conflict. Thus Russia supported the OSLO I and OSLO II peace agreements in tandem with U.S. efforts to end the Al-Aksa intifada through the U.S.backed Mitchell Report. Such action was facilitated in part by the decreasing importance to Russia of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which was pivotal to Moscow's policy in the Middle East during Soviet times, and in part by Russia's desire, especially under Putin, to demonstrate cooperation with the United States.

See also: jews; iran, relations with; iraq, relations with; refuseniks; united states, relations with


Freedman, Robert O. (2001). Russian Policy Toward the Middle East Since the Collapse of the Soviet Union: The Yeltsin Legacy and the Challenge for Putin (The Donald W. Treadgold Papers in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies, no. 33). Seattle: Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington.

Nizamedden, Talal. (1999). Russia and the Middle East. New York: St. Martin's.

Rumer, Eugene. (2000). Dangerous Drift: Russia's Middle East Policy. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Shaffer, Brenda. (2001). Partners in Need: The Strategic Relationship of Russia and Iran. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Vassiliev, Alexei. (1993). Russian Policy in the Middle East: From Messiasism to Pragmatism. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press.

Robert O. Freedman

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