Israel and the United States

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President Harry Truman recognized Israel shortly after it declared independence on May 15, 1948, making the United States the first nation to do so. Yet Truman refused to sell Israel weapons to defend itself against the well-equipped invading Arab armies. It would be ten years before the United States sold any weapons to Israel. This contradiction epitomizes the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

The U.S. government has supported Israel's existence but has limited that support to avoid offending the Arab world.

After World War II, the plight of hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors languishing in displaced person camps in Europe captured worldwide attention. Truman pressured Britain to allow them to immigrate to Palestine, but increasing Arab hostility had prompted Britain to reverse its support for a Jewish state, as promised in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and curtail Jewish immigration. The Truman administration then pushed for international acceptance of a two-state solution in Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab. The administration's efforts reflected overwhelming domestic support for a Jewish state.

Arab leaders rejected partition and Arab armies invaded as British troops withdrew from Palestine. Numerous Americans sent money and other support to Israel, and several hundred American volunteers fought in the Israeli army, including Colonel Mickey Marcus, later portrayed in the 1966 film Cast a Giant Shadow. Other Hollywood films, particularly the 1960 film Exodus, based on the Leon Uris novel, also celebrated Israel's successful war of independence and struggle to build an egalitarian, democratic nation. This vision of Israelis as heroic underdogs desperately fighting for survival against tyrannical enemies dominated American thinking about Israel. Many Americans saw in Israel a reflection of their own nation's history. As Ronald Reagan later remarked, "There is no nation like us. Except Israel."

The Eisenhower administration, focused on fighting the Cold War, saw Israel as complicating its efforts to create an Arab equivalent of NATO. Relations between Israel and the United States remained strained throughout the 1950s, despite the efforts of American Jews who lobbied the government to help Israel. Relations improved in the 1960s, as Israel found a role for itself in the Cold War. As Soviet weapons and advisors poured into Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations steadily increased foreign aid to Israel, seeing it as an important bulwark of democracy in the region with a "special relationship" with the United States. The Middle East had become a site for the global battle between the Soviet Union and the United States.

As images and survivor accounts of the Holocaust became widespread in the 1950s and 1960s, more and more Americans expressed their support for Israel in terms of justice and compensation. Jews needed a place of refuge from persecution and a state of their own. Some supporters were also influenced by their Christian faith and saw in the rebirth of Israel the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. For them, as for many Jews, Israel's victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 seemed little short of miraculous, and support for Israel among Evangelical Christians soared afterward.

The Nixon administration continued to arm Israel to offset Soviet arms transfers to Arab states, and the United States replaced France as Israel's primary weapons supplier. Israel reciprocated with intelligence and information on Soviet weapons. Both superpowers rushed military equipment to their respective allies in the 1973 war, but Nixon's advisors wanted a "peace without victors." Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Nixon, threatened to withdraw U.S. aid unless Israel halted its successful counteroffensives. The resulting battlefield stalemate led to the Camp David peace settlement between Israel and Egypt. The two nations became the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. However, a broader peace settlement eluded the Carter and Reagan administrations.

Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, aimed at stopping attacks on northern Israel from across the border, and the 1987 Palestinian intifada, a campaign of violent protests and clashes that often pitted rock-throwing teenagers against Israeli soldiers, eroded Israel's moral position. On the other hand, Arab terrorism gained Israel's enemies little sympathy. Support for Israel among Americans remained strong despite the opposition of the growing Arab-American and Muslim communities, which included 200,000 Palestinians by the end of the 1990s. The Evangelical Christian movement gained in political acumen and continued to support Israel. Pro-Israel lobbying groups such as AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) also gained in political influence in Washington. Yet Israel's supporters in Congress failed to prevent military aid and weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia that dwarfed those sent to Israel. During the 1991 Gulf War, the United States prevented Israeli retaliation for Iraqi missile attacks and kept secret substantial Israeli support for the war so as not to offend its Arab allies. The special relationship with Israel endured, but within the limits imposed by U.S. foreign policy needs.

United States policy toward the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues to be affected by interest groups, public opinion, the legacy of the Holocaust on American culture, and the sense of a shared identity with Israel based on democratic values.


Druks, Herbert. The Uncertain Alliance: The U.S. and Israel from Kennedy to the Peace Process. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Druks, Herbert. The Uncertain Friendship: The U.S. and Israel from Roosevelt to Kennedy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Grose, Peter. Israel in the Mind of America. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Little, Douglas. American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Raviv, Dan, and Melman, Yossi. Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Stephen K. Stein

See also:Churches, Evangelical; Churches, Mainstream; Foreign Aid; Holocaust Guilt; Kissinger, Henry; Multiculturalism and Cold War; Muslims, Images of.