Shock Waves in Israel
The terrorist attacks of September 11 sent shock waves through Israel. The Jewish state understood better than any other player in the various affected groups the psychological and physical costs of terrorism. But more than sympathy shaped the Israelis’ response. Israel quickly began to worry that this unprecedented attack on American soil might dramatically affect future relations with the United States.
On the one hand, the 9/11 attacks might help Americans better understand the pressure, fear, and heartbreak that Israelis experienced on a daily basis. Since its founding in 1948, more than 1300 Israelis had been killed in hundreds of terrorist attacks.10 As a percentage of its population, that figure is the equivalent of 55,000 Americans dead from terrorist attacks. But the attacks on America, and the highly visible trauma they induced, might also inspire other terrorists to multiply their efforts—against Israeli as well as American targets.
US Aid to Israel
The United States was one of Israel’s earliest and most ardent supporters in part as a reaction to the guilt the country felt in doing little to change the outcome of the Holocaust despite President Roosevelt's knowledge of the Nazi atrocities at that time. President Harry S. Truman recognized the Jewish nation immediately after it declared its independence in 1948, and the United States quickly became Israel’s most important ally on the global stage. But the extent and form of American support varied over time. Initially, American support was primarily economic in nature. Believing that Israel could defend itself, America offered little direct military assistance. And realizing that lopsided policies might push Arab countries into the Soviet orbit, tilting the balance of power in the Cold War, the United States carefully balanced its aid to Israel with comparable foreign aid packages to friendly Arab states. The move was economically strategic - the Arab states had oil that the burgeoning U.S. auto industry desperately wanted liquid (so to speak), globally available, and relatively inexpensive.
But during the 1960s, American Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were convinced to increase their aid to Israel—both military and economic—by evidence that the Soviets were building stronger ties and stronger militaries in the Arab world. American Hawk anti-aircraft missiles and Phantom jets added technological muscle to Israel’s defense. And American economic aid to Israel roughly doubled.12 It was during this era that Israel began to develop sophisticated technology development skills and a healthy working partnership was created between the Department of Defense and the IDF where military intelligence in a variety of forms was shared.
Yet even while America’s assistance to Israel increased, the United States still tried to carve out the perception of a position of neutrality in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. During the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel defeated the allied military forces of virtually every Arab nation, the United States refused to provide Israel direct support.
In 1973, however, the United States was forced into a position of more direct and overt support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War - a war in which Israel was caught largely off guard and in a demonstrably weak position of defense. As Egyptian and Syrian armies pushed deep into Israel following a surprise attack during the Jewish high holidays, American policymakers hesitated only briefly before providing crucial logistical assistance—airlifting supplies to the besieged Israelis—and pledging to provide all the planes and tanks needed to rebuild Israel’s army once the fighting ceased. That the Vietnam War was in full tilt at this time and the U.S. weapons manufacturing facilities had scaled to produce large volumes of defense equipment made these pledges easier to fulfill.
Driving President Richard Nixon’s decision to intervene on Israel’s behalf in 1973 was the conviction that the Soviet influence in Egypt had to be countered by a strengthened pro-American Israel. From this point forward, American-Israeli relations were on a different plane. Economic aid increased dramatically to $1.2 billion annually and military assistance increased even more, to $1.8 billion a year. In addition, the United States abandoned its more balanced policies of the past in favor of ensuring that Israel’s military maintained a “qualitative edge” over its Arab and Iranian neighbors. Toward this end, moreover, the United States offered more than money. Israel was granted NATO-like status and invited to participate in joint military exercises. (To this day, there remains an Israeli-American "top gun school" air fight which happens annually over the Dead Sea.) From this point forward, Israel became a vital and overt bastion of America’s global security network.13
US Diplomatic Efforts
Despite America’s increased support for Israel, however, American policymakers still dreamed of negotiating more stable relationships in the region. Therefore, even while increasing its aid to Israel, the United States tried to establish itself as an “honest broker” in the Mideast conflict. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter climaxed an opening round of negotiations with an historic summit at Camp David, bringing together Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In the agreements they signed, Israel pledged to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, seized from Egypt during Six-Day War, and the two countries adopted a framework for future discussions on Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—territories also seized by Israel during the Six-Day War, from Jordan and Egypt respectively.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton followed Carter’s example by mediating talks, initiated months earlier in Norway, between Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. In the resulting Oslo Accords, Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the PLO acknowledged Israel’s sovereignty. The two leaders further agreed to a framework for future discussion surrounding the gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and the extension of supervised autonomy to the Palestinians.
The talks mediated by the United States in the 1970s and 1990s yielded significant breakthroughs in Israeli-Arab relations. Progress was painfully slow and gains achieved one year were often partially undone the next. Most dramatically, less conciliatory elements within both the Israeli and Palestinian camps have tried to derail, through assassination, the peacemaking efforts of their governments’ leaders. In 1981, Egyptian President Sadat was killed by Arab extremists opposed to the Camp David Accords; in 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was killed by an Israeli hardliner who opposed all plans for the abandonment of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
Still, the progress advanced by American diplomatic efforts was real. Egypt formerly led the Arab coalitions determined to destroy Israel; more recently, the country has been a voice of moderation in the region. Twenty years ago, neither Israel nor the PLO acknowledged the legitimacy or permanency of the other; today there are channels of communication, real if admittedly fragile, open between them. Yet maintaining its status as an honest broker in this dispute has been difficult for the Americans—especially given America’s historic commitment to Israel. On more than one occasion, the United States has had to carefully balance its commitments to Israel and its commitments to peace in the region. Sadly, the first foreign minister in Egypt's transitional government has promised to roll back many of the promises Egypt had made towards peace.
In an effort to strengthen moderate Arab governments and win their cooperation in the peace process, almost every American president has approved some sort of arms sales to Arab countries. And individual presidents have broken with Israel on specific issues. George H. W. Bush challenged Israel’s permanent claim to all of Jerusalem in 1990; instead he spoke out against settlements in the eastern half of the city, implying that the Holy ground should be part of future negotiations with the Palestinians. And President Bill Clinton criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank as violations of the spirit of the Oslo Accords. In 2011, Netanyahu and President Barack Obama got into a very public argument over Netanyahu’s objection to an Obama statement that a future Israeli-Palestinian settlement should be based on a two-state solution in which “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed swaps". In addition, Obama never asked Palestinians to acknowledge Israel's right to exist or rescind their demands to flood Israel with Palestinians.
Obama's remarks and the backdrop of his 20 year relationship with his openly anti-Jewish church and its pastor marked an all time low in Jewish relationships with an American president.
September 11 and US-Israel Relations
The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were thus framed by a long relationship between the United States and Israel. And as the Israelis soon realized, America’s new War on Terror did add a new layer to an already complex situation.
Within months of the attacks on New York and Washington, Israeli officials did try to draw connection between their renewed battles with Palestinian nationalists and America’s new war on Al Qaeda. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended an Israeli attack against PLO headquarters in language intended to resonate in post 9/11 America. “This will not be a short war,” he said, “we will not have stability for a while.”14
But despite this overture, tensions between Israel and the United States grew in the years following 9/11. And the primary point of contention was an old one—new Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinians argued that the new settlements violated the spirit of the Oslo Accords—they strengthened the Israeli presence in these disputed regions, contrary to agreements that more and more of the West bank should eventually be turned over to the Palestinians for self-government.
In 2010, the issue brought US-Israel relations to an unusually tense place. American officials denounced settlement plans as unacceptable and—more forcefully than in the past—suggested that Israel, not the Palestinians, might be the primary obstacles to peace in the region.
Israeli officials cried foul. They suggested that the new construction only allowed for the “natural growth” of existing settlements—and they argued that recurring Palestinian attacks had done far more than their settlements to derail the peace process launched in 1993. Israel tried to outline the difficulty in policing border smuggling of weapons without a meaningful presence in the West Bank - operationally the security of the country was noted as an almost impossible difficulty task to manage.
In waging the War on Terror, American troops have been sent into combat in two Muslim countries. And the objective in both deployments was the establishment of a moderate government open to relations with the West and willing to take aggressive steps to control radical Islamic factions within its own population. These efforts can only be achieved if these moderate governments, and the population whose support they must cultivate, are convinced that the United States is indeed an honest broker.
The recent discovery that Pakistan was harboring Osama Bin Laden and many other Al Qaeda players directly involved in the 9/11 bombings appears to have given resolution to America's commitment and need for a strong Israel.