George Mitchell knows how to bring peace to troubled regions. He was the primary architect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for peace in Northern Ireland. But when he served as US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace from 2009 to 2011—working to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—diplomacy did not prevail. Now, for the first time, Mitchell offers his insider account of how the Israelis and the Palestinians have progressed (and regressed) in their negotiations through the years and outlines the specific concessions each side must make to finally achieve lasting peace.
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About the Author
Alon Sachar has worked to advance Middle East peace under two US administrations. He served as an adviser to the US Ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro in Tel Aviv from 2011-2012, and to President Obama’s Special Envoys for Middle East Peace, George J. Mitchell and David Hale, from 2009 to 2011. In those capacities, Alon participated in negotiations with Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states. From 2006 to 2009, he served in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, focusing on the US bilateral relationships with Israel and the Palestinians as well as Arab-Israeli relations. Alon has also worked out of the US Consulate in Jerusalem, which serves as the US diplomatic mission to the Palestinians. Today, Alon is a lawyer based in California where he was born and raised. He is the author, with George J. Mitchell, of A Path to Peace.
Read an Excerpt
A Path to Peace
The exchange between Begin and Reagan—the “saddest” of the Israeli prime minister’s life—took place in 1982. Reagan’s timing was not random. Israel had just withdrawn the last of its troops from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in accordance with the peace treaty between the two nations. Two months after the withdrawal the Israeli Army invaded Lebanon in an effort to push out Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization. From there the Palestinians had launched attacks on Israel’s northern cities and towns. Israel’s military operation in Lebanon lasted for months, ending only with U.S. mediation and when the PLO agreed to leave Lebanese territory.
With Israel out of the Sinai, the violence in Lebanon reduced, a pro-Western government set to be inaugurated in Beirut, and the PLO on the run, President Reagan decided to adopt a “fresh start” initiative. He hoped to capitalize on what suddenly appeared to be a favorable regional environment. The core of the initiative was a comprehensive diplomatic solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors, to be achieved in part by providing autonomy for Palestinians in parts of the West Bank.1
But Begin immediately and categorically rejected the Reagan Plan. Relinquishing control of any of the West Bank was antithetical to his ideological commitment to Israeli control of biblical Jewish lands, and he had just paid a heavy price to push the PLO away from Israel’s northern borders. Palestinian autonomy, Begin worried, would bring them right back.
• • •
U.S. and Israeli policy disagreements have existed since the relationship first began. President Harry Truman (1945–53) is often celebrated for initiating our close and strategic partnership with Israel. But that good relationship was not a foregone conclusion in the decades following Israel’s independence.
From the outset of his administration, President Truman concerned himself with the plight of Jewish refugees, the survivors of Hitler’s Final Solution who remained stranded in dilapidated displaced persons camps in Europe. Israelis have never forgotten that he was the first world leader to recognize their fledgling state, just eleven minutes after their 1948 declaration of independence. “At our last meeting,” recalled David Ben-Gurion, a founding father of Israel and its first prime minister, “I told [Truman] that as a foreigner I could not judge what would be his place in American history; but his helpfulness to us, his constant sympathy with our aims in Israel, his courageous decision to recognize our new State so quickly and his steadfast support since then had given him an immortal place in Jewish history. As I said that, tears suddenly sprang to his eyes. And his eyes were still wet when he bade me goodbye.”2
The early years of the U.S. relationship with Israel took place within the context of the cold war. With Soviet influence entrenched in eastern and central Europe, Asia, and beyond, the United States believed it urgent to prevent the Soviets from gaining a foothold in the Middle East. Even with his sympathies, Truman’s decision to recognize Israel was not easy or automatic; because he feared that either Israel or the Arab states would be pushed into the arms of the Soviets his initial inclination was for a binational arrangement in which Jews and Arabs would coexist. Therefore his decision to recognize Israel surprised even some of the most senior officials in his administration.3
One day after Israel’s declaration of independence, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia4 began military action against the new state. This first of several Arab-Israeli wars lasted ten months; Israel was ultimately victorious, and without U.S. military assistance as Truman had imposed an arms embargo on both sides. The policy of pursuing balance in America’s relationship with the Arab states and Israel continued for decades.
In 1956 President Dwight Eisenhower did what today is unimaginable: he threatened to break off ties with Israel altogether. This crisis in relations followed a combined surprise attack by France, Britain, and Israel to gain control of the Suez Canal, which had just been seized and nationalized by Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Because the Canal provided the shortest route for ships traveling between Europe and Asia, its geopolitical significance at the time, and even today, cannot be overstated.
France and Britain had their own reasons for initiating the war, not least of which was to protect their influence and interests in the region. The British government was the largest shareholder in the Suez Canal and British and French shippers among its largest patrons. Israel believed Nasser’s populism and celebrity status posed a threat to its existence. Nasser had become the charismatic face of pan-Arab nationalism, positioning himself as the leader who would unite the Arab world and destroy Israel. To that end, Egypt had for years supported a steady stream of Palestinian guerrilla attacks into Israel, and enforced a blockade against Israel’s southern port city on the Red Sea. Following Egypt’s nationalization of the Canal, Nasser banned its use by Israel.
Eisenhower worried that armed conflict would enhance Soviet influence in the Middle East. Though wary of Nasser and his arms deals with the Soviet Union, Eisenhower disfavored war and preferred a diplomatic solution to the Suez crisis. He immediately and unambiguously cautioned the British and the French against armed conflict. When they did not heed his warning and proceeded to involve Israel in their plans, Eisenhower was shocked and angered. With the Soviet Union threatening to engage militarily in support of Nasser, Eisenhower scrambled to end the war in a way that preserved regional balance. But by then Israeli forces had taken full control of Sinai.
Over strong objections from the Israelis, Eisenhower pushed through a United Nations resolution calling for their full and immediate withdrawal. He warned Israel that failing to comply with the resolution would “impair the friendly cooperation between our two countries.”5 Eisenhower went so far as to threaten to cut off U.S. assistance to Israel, to seek Israel’s eviction from the UN, and to withhold U.S. support in the event of an attack by Soviet-allied forces. Ben-Gurion desperately sought a meeting with the president to explain his position, that Israel was reluctant to simply withdraw its forces without clear assurances of its security and its continuing right to navigate the Canal and other international waters. But Eisenhower refused to meet until after Israel agreed to withdraw. Ben-Gurion complied, but bitterly.6
The Suez crisis was the lowest moment in U.S. relations with Israel. Efforts to prevent the Middle East from becoming yet another cold war arena had failed, for the Soviet Union made inroads. Cairo, Baghdad, and other Arab capitals drew closer to Moscow.
• • •
In the land of King David, Israel believed that resisting Arab Goliaths would require a giant ally of its own. And America came to view Israelis as partners in curbing and offsetting Soviet influence. Under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations Israel received its first large-scale shipments of sophisticated American weapons systems, including antiaircraft missiles, tanks, and jet fighter planes. The sales were intended to help Israel maintain its defenses against the larger and better armed Arab states still bent on its destruction and also to counterbalance Soviet arms pouring into the region. In return Israel provided the United States with intelligence information about Soviet weapons systems and the USSR’s posture in the Middle East.
President John F. Kennedy told Israel’s foreign minister Golda Meir, “The United States has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to what it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.” He was the first president to speak of this “special relationship” by name. But he also said, “For us to play properly the role we are called upon to play, we cannot afford the luxury of identifying Israel . . . as our exclusive friends . . . and letting other countries go.”7 To preserve its influence in the region, the United States also supplied certain Arab states, such as Jordan, with arms.8
Tension developed when the United States feared Israeli actions might destabilize the balance in the region, as when Kennedy and Ben-Gurion clashed over Israel’s nuclear program. Kennedy worried about a broader nuclear arms race; Ben-Gurion viewed the arms race as inevitable absent U.S.-Soviet détente and was determined to own the ultimate weapon of deterrence before his neighbors could. Frustrated, Kennedy warned Israel in a bluntly worded letter that U.S. support “would be seriously jeopardized” and that Israel risked isolation from the West if it pursued nuclear weapons. The disagreement ultimately played a role in Ben-Gurion’s resignation as prime minister.9 By the time President Lyndon Johnson assumed power, Israel had agreed to allow American inspectors to examine its nuclear capability.10
As have many other U.S. presidents, Johnson had deep and emotional ties to the Jewish state. He spoke of his admiration for Israel’s commitment to democratic values and of the “gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of persecution.” When asked by Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin why the United States supported Israel, a country of only 3 million people, when there were 80 million Arabs, Johnson replied, “Because it is right.”11
Johnson was the first U.S. president to host an Israeli prime minister at the White House and the first to directly supply Israel with offensive military weapons. Like his predecessors, Johnson was in part reacting to Soviet moves in the Middle East. He worried that an imbalance in power between the Israelis and the Arabs would invite an Arab attack and instigate a regional war that would threaten U.S. interests. But close ties between Johnson and Israel did not mean the absence of disagreement.
In 1966 the West Bank was under the control of Jordan. Although they tried, Jordanian forces could not prevent Palestinian guerrilla groups from launching attacks against Israel. One land mine killed three Israeli soldiers and provoked a heavy Israeli cross-border response with tanks and hundreds of troops. It was meant as a show of strength and a warning to Palestinian militants against continued attacks. However, Johnson was deeply troubled by Israel’s action and was critical in public; he worried that the move undercut King Hussein of Jordan, America’s closest Arab ally at the time, so he joined the Soviet Union in support of a UN Security Council resolution that deplored the move and warned of further Security Council action were it to be repeated.
Even during the escalation that led to the Six-Day War in 1967 Johnson warned Israel against making any rash moves. In the preceding years Nasser had continued calling for a united Arab war against Israel, organizing a coalition of states under his direct or indirect control. He gave speeches to crowds of tens of thousands extolling the virtue of ridding the Middle East of the Jewish state and reinstated a blockade against Israel in the Straits of Tiran.12 When he ordered a massive buildup of Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula, Israel launched a preemptive and decisive strike against Egypt. At Nasser’s request, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon joined the conflict, with broad support across the Middle East, initiating a multifront war from the south, north, and east.
The all-out, regional war that Johnson feared had become a reality, but his concern that the United States would be drawn in turned out to be unfounded. By the war’s end Israel had captured the entire Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. Unlike Eisenhower, Johnson would not force the Israelis to withdraw without security guarantees. His administration viewed Israel’s greatly strengthened position as leverage for a peace treaty with the Arabs.
But instead of peace the decade following the Six-Day War saw even greater escalation of hostilities. The Arabs issued their infamous Three No’s—“No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel”—and Israel would not agree to retreat from its more fortified positions.
President Richard Nixon assured his counterpart, Prime Minister Golda Meir, of his desire to see “a strong Israel because he did not want the United States to have to fight Israel’s battles.”13 He felt that the Arabs, and Nasser specifically, would not make peace with Israel until they realized they could not destroy it. So as long as he was president, he promised, “Israel would never be weak militarily.”14 The country had to have “a technological military margin to more than offset her hostile neighbors’ numerical superiority.”15
Yet, at least initially, the Nixon administration blocked arms supplies, to Israel’s frustration. Nixon’s hope was to slow down the arms race, even as the Soviet Union was undertaking a massive rearmament of Egypt, even sending in military personnel. In the years following the Six-Day War, Nasser had engaged in a war of attrition against Israel; a constant barrage of attacks on Israeli positions in the Sinai met with fierce Israeli retaliation.
Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970. By then the Nixon administration had secured a cease-fire between Egypt and Israel, though both remained on edge. Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, began to loosen ties with the Soviets to see what he could get out of the United States in return. He also was more receptive to U.S. overtures for peace. When the Nixon administration saw an opening and pursued a diplomatic initiative, Meir equivocated. She feared that a full withdrawal from the Sinai, one of Sadat’s conditions, would leave Israel far too vulnerable. “I understand the difficulties Israel faces in exchanging something concrete—territories—for promises and guarantees,” Nixon told the Israelis in March 1973. “But you should remember that your pipeline of military supplies is liable to dry up. Under no circumstances will that happen as long as I am president of the United States. But I won’t serve forever.”16
In September 1973, on the Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise coordinated attack on Israel. During the first weeks of that war Nixon withheld arms from Israel in the hope that a military stalemate would lead to a peace agreement. But as the Egyptians were gaining the upper hand in Sinai and the Soviets were not reciprocating his restraint, Nixon acknowledged that an Israeli defeat was intolerable. According to his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, “The judgment was that if another American-armed country were defeated by Soviet-armed countries, the inevitable lesson that anybody around the world would have to draw is to rely increasingly on the Soviet Union.”17
Nixon initiated a large-scale operation to arm the Israelis despite concerns over a possible Soviet response. “We are going to get blamed just as much for three planes as for three hundred,” he told Kissinger.18 So he ordered the military to “use every [plane] we have—everything that will fly.” The United States flew 567 airlift missions, delivering over 22,000 tons of supplies, with another 90,000 tons of arms delivered to Israel by sea.19 Even before the full arms supply reached them, Israel was beginning to gain the upper hand. With U.S. help, Israel was able to hold off the Syrians and push beyond the Sinai Peninsula toward Cairo.
Without consulting Israel, however, Kissinger met with his Soviet counterpart to secure a cease-fire. The two superpowers eventually agreed on a Security Council resolution to end the hostilities, which the Israelis felt was premature. Israel had suffered high casualties in the Yom Kippur War and feared that anything short of a clear victory would leave them vulnerable to continued Arab aggression. Yet, despite those concerns, Israel complied with the cease-fire.
In the months following the war Kissinger engaged in urgent shuttle diplomacy in an effort to forge a lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and the Arabs, in no small part in hope of reducing Soviet influence in the region. Little progress was made by the time the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign. And although Israel ultimately staved off the combined Arab forces, Prime Minister Meir was blamed for being ill prepared for the war and resigned.
She was succeeded by Yitzhak Rabin. When President Gerald Ford first welcomed Rabin to the White House, in 1974, he made clear that the United States “continue[d] to stand with Israel,” promising, “We are committed to Israel’s survival and security. The United States for a quarter of a century has had an excellent relationship with the State of Israel. We have cooperated in many, many fields—in your security, in the well-being of the Middle East, and in leading what we all hope is a lasting peace throughout the world.”20 Kissinger became Ford’s secretary of state and continued to pursue an agreement between Israel and Egypt. He believed the “Soviets [would] be happy” if there were no such agreement.21
Rabin faced intense internal opposition to the U.S. proposals. His cabinet calculated that the withdrawals Kissinger was requesting of Israel did not match the security concessions being requested of Egypt; in fact Cairo would not even agree to declare an official end to hostilities. But Kissinger trusted that Sadat wanted to make progress with U.S. help, shifting Egypt away from Soviet influence. He believed Israel’s stance was harming U.S. interests as well as its own. This prompted the Ford administration to undertake a public “reassessment” of U.S. relations with Israel. Ford wrote to Rabin to “express [his] profound disappointment over Israel’s attitude in the course of the negotiations” and insisted, “Failure of the negotiations will have a far-reaching impact on the region and on our relations.”22
By the end of Ford’s presidency, in 1975, Kissinger had managed to secure the Sinai Interim Agreement,23 in which Egypt and Israel agreed that the conflicts between them would “not be resolved by military force but by peaceful means.” Israel committed to moving its forces farther away from the Suez Canal and accepted the creation of a UN buffer zone. To secure Rabin’s support, the United States provided Israel with substantial security assurances, including $2 billion in aid and a commitment for annual assistance thereafter. Every president since has honored that commitment.
A full-fledged peace agreement between Israel and Egypt followed, in 1979. Most historians have come to believe that were it not for Egypt’s success in the 1973 War, this peace treaty would not have happened. The war not only tempered Israel’s confidence but also helped elevate Sadat’s status and legitimacy throughout the Arab world, enabling him to embark on his historic visit to Jerusalem and to become the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel.
Nearly a year after the signing of the historic treaty on the White House lawn, President Jimmy Carter emphasized in the strongest possible terms, “Our aid for Israel is not only altruistic; indeed, our close relationship with Israel is in the moral and the strategic interest of the United States.” Carter was referring not just to America’s support for a Jewish homeland, but to the importance of the relationship amid the cold war and to regional stability and ongoing intelligence and defense cooperation. “There is a mutual relationship and there is a mutual benefit and there is a mutual commitment, which has been impressed very deeply in my mind and also in the minds of the leaders of my Government and the Government of Israel.”24
Notwithstanding those remarks , Carter had a sometimes tense relationship with the Israelis. His administration wanted to build on the success of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement with a comprehensive settlement between Israel and all the Arab states that would include resolution of the Palestinian issue. In 1977 Prime Minister Rabin, who would later become the face of Israel’s peace movement, objected when Carter became the first U.S. president to speak of a Palestinian homeland as part of a comprehensive peace accord. And after Israelis elected Menachem Begin as prime minister later that year, their first right-wing leader in history, Begin and Carter often clashed on the Palestinian issue and on Israeli settlements.25
Even before assuming the presidency, Reagan viewed the strategic partnership with Israel with some urgency. The fall of America’s ally in Iran to the Islamic Revolution, he said, “has increased Israel’s value as perhaps the only remaining strategic asset in the region on which the United States can truly rely; other pro-Western states in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf kingdoms, are weak and vulnerable.”26 Reagan pursued a number of initiatives aimed at broadening and strengthening the U.S.-Israeli partnership: he entered into the Strategic Cooperation Agreement, formed the Joint Political Military Group, initiated a series of joint military exercises, and built two American War Reserve Stock facilities in Israel. Also during Reagan’s tenure the United States entered into a free trade agreement with Israel, and provided $1.5 billion in loan guarantees, in which the United States served as a guarantor of Israeli debt, enabling them to borrow funds at lower interest rates than otherwise possible. Perhaps most important, Reagan worked with Congress to grant Israel major non-NATO ally status.
Reagan is now viewed as being staunchly pro-Israel, yet there were many moments of deep tension between the two countries during his presidency. In 1981, for instance, when Israel launched a covert military attack against an Iraqi nuclear facility to prevent Iraq from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Reagan’s administration criticized Israel and suspended promised deliveries of F-16 fighter planes. Fearing accusations of collusion with Israel, Reagan supported a UN Security Council resolution that condemned Israel’s actions as a “clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct.” A few months later Israel’s Knesset ratified the Golan Heights Law, which officially extended Israeli law into Syrian territory captured in the 1967 War. But the United States considered this to be occupied territory, so the Reagan administration suspended the Strategic Cooperation Agreement and again delayed the shipment of F-16s.
Begin and Reagan also clashed over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Israel’s goal was to deny the PLO space for launching continued attacks in the north of Israel. Though Reagan was sympathetic, he believed the invasion of Lebanon went too far. As Israeli forces encircled Beirut, Reagan told Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s foreign minister, “If you invade West Beirut, it would have the most grave, most grievous consequences for our relationship.”27 And, as previously noted, once the 1982 war in Lebanon ended, Begin reacted harshly to Reagan’s proposed “fresh start” initiative for regional peace through Palestinian autonomy.
• • •
By the time President George H. W. Bush assumed office, the First Palestinian Intifada had erupted in the West Bank and Gaza. In his first meeting with Yitzhak Shamir, who was now prime minister, Bush affirmed that the United States was “unshakable in our commitment to Israel.”28 Early in his term, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker were occupied with events in Europe and the elevation of Mikhail Gorbachev, who would turn out to be the Soviet Union’s last leader. But the administration continued the political and military dialogues with Israel initiated by Reagan; helped Israel reestablish diplomatic relations with several dozen African and Asian countries; secured the release of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Ethiopia, Syria, and the Soviet Union; and increased assistance to Israel to cover damage inflicted by the barrage of scud missiles launched by Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War.
While Bush supported continued high levels of military assistance to Israel, he also supported a number of UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli actions against Palestinians during the Intifada. Baker said bluntly, “Now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of greater Israel. Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza—security and otherwise—can be accommodated in a settlement based on [UN Security Council] Resolution 242. Forswear annexation. Stop settlement activity. Allow schools to be reopened. Reach out to the Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights.”29
Withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, though, was inconceivable to Israelis at the time. Resolution 242 called for an exchange of land for peace. But many Israelis argued that 242 did not apply to the West Bank or Gaza, that Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt and withdrawal from Sinai was enough. Baker’s comments were discomforting to Israel and to many of its supporters.
Following the First Gulf War, Bush and Baker resumed efforts that had begun under Reagan to launch a dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians. Arab-Israeli diplomacy was no longer seen through the lens of the cold war, but it mattered no less. Prime Minister Shamir’s initial response to meeting with Palestinian leaders, though, was simply to say no.30 At the time, the PLO, with Arafat as its chairman, was widely regarded as a terrorist organization, given a streak of airplane hijackings and bombings of Israeli and Jewish civilian targets worldwide. Eventually, following many efforts by Bush and Baker, Israeli and Palestinian representatives met at the Madrid peace talks of 1991.
No political agreements were reached at Madrid and significant disagreements between the United States and Israel on the peace process remained. Bush and Baker vigorously opposed settlement activity in particular. When Shamir’s government persisted in creating and expanding settlements, Bush refused to support an Israeli request for an additional $10 billion in loan guarantees. When Shamir lost reelection in 1992, this was due in part to his strained relations with the United States.
Shamir’s successor, a reelected Yitzhak Rabin, won on a platform of peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors and with the Palestinians. In September 1993 President Clinton hosted Rabin and Arafat at a ceremony celebrating the first of several agreements known as the Oslo Accords, in which Israel began withdrawing from parts of the West Bank and Gaza and committed to further negotiations to end the conflict. And in 1994 Clinton presided over talks that led to peace between Israel and Jordan.
Clinton was widely admired and respected in Israel, which he called “a shining example for people around the world who are on the frontline of the struggle for democracy in their own lands.” At a news conference with Rabin in 1993 he asserted, “Our relationship is also based on our common interest in a more stable and peaceful Middle East, a Middle East that will finally accord Israel the recognition and acceptance that its people have yearned for so long and have been too long denied. . . . I believe strongly in the benefit to American interests from strengthened relationships with Israel.”31 Yet even Clinton’s relationship with Israeli leaders was at times strained.
Rabin was tragically assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli extremist opposed to his concessions in Oslo. In 1996, after a string of terror attacks against Israelis, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister on a platform of opposition to the Oslo Accords. Although after his election he pledged to adhere to Oslo’s provisions, Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of violating its terms, thereby justifying his delayed implementation of Israeli requirements under the Accords. This gave rise to deep personal tension between him and Clinton. So strained were the relations that Netanyahu complained, “We are being vilified and scorned and misrepresented.”32 At one point he bypassed the president and went directly to Congress to garner support for his opposition to additional Israeli concessions. Thereafter meetings between the two leaders were publicly canceled.33 Clinton eventually secured an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on Israel’s partial withdrawals from the West Bank city of Hebron in 1997 and later to further withdrawals in the 1998 Wye Agreement, meant to resurrect the stalled Oslo Accords.
The subsequent failure of peace negotiations between Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, and Arafat at Camp David in 2000 was followed by the Second Palestinian Intifada, a period of widespread violence. Arafat was blamed for the failed negotiations, and President George W. Bush sympathized deeply with Israeli anxiety over Palestinian suicide attacks, which were particularly resonant in America’s new post-September 11 reality. “We will speak up for our principles,” Bush said, “and we will stand up for our friends in the world. And one of our most important friends is the State of Israel. . . . At the first meeting of my National Security Council, I told them a top foreign policy priority is the safety and security of Israel. My Administration will be steadfast in supporting Israel against terrorism and violence, and in seeking the peace for which all Israelis pray.”34 During Bush’s presidency the United States committed to providing Israel with an average of $3 billion annually in security assistance as well as an additional $8 billion in loan guarantees.
Yet even the Bush administration did not always agree with Israel. In response to settlement activity, for example, Bush cut the amount of loan guarantees available by hundreds of millions of dollars. During the first year of the Second Intifada, to protest the use of U.S. equipment in the killing of Palestinian leaders that Israel accused of being involved in terror attacks, Bush imposed an arms embargo on spare parts for U.S.-made helicopters. At the same time he prepared to unveil a plan to help put the peace process back on track and to end the violence. While the plan was ultimately shelved following the attacks of September 11, Prime Minister Sharon accused Bush of selling out Israel to appease the Palestinians and other Arabs.35 The White House angrily labeled Sharon’s remarks “unacceptable.”
In 2002 Bush became the first U.S. president to make the establishment of a viable Palestinian state an explicit foreign policy objective.36 After unveiling his Roadmap for Peace, which, among other things, called on Israel to freeze settlement activity, he obtained a supportive UN Security Council resolution and united the international community behind his plan.
• • •
Too often in the never-ending political debate in our country, the attitudes of U.S. administrations toward Israel are expressed in binary terms, as either too close to or too distant from, too friendly with or too hostile toward Israel. The relationship is viewed in the same zero-sum terms that are used to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Too many hold the view that President Obama has distanced the United States from Israel to the detriment of our relationship, Israel’s interests, and Middle East peace. Some attribute this supposed distancing to an effort to improve relations with the Arab world. It is true that Obama came into office intent on improving America’s strained relations with Arabs and Muslims. But he did not believe that doing so had to come at the expense of close relations with Israel.
To the contrary, in June 2009 he traveled to Cairo to deliver a much anticipated and widely televised speech, titled “A New Beginning.” To the Arab audience gathered before him at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the millions watching on television, and to the entire Arab and Muslim world he hoped would hear him, Obama spoke of the deep relationship between the United States and Israel based on “cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied. Threatening Israel with destruction—or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews—is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis the most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.” He called on the Palestinians to “abandon violence” and “focus on what they can build.” The broader Arab world, he said, should “recognize Israel’s legitimacy and choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.”37 Those are words almost all U.S. presidents have used in speeches to Jewish organizations in the United States, but not directly to Arabs and Muslims.
Many Israelis and their U.S. supporters, however, did not hear those words, or if they did, they discounted them. They were concerned that President Obama spoke of centuries of discrimination, pogroms, and the Holocaust as the justification of Israel’s existence, but did not mention the historical and ancient Jewish connection to the land—a critical component of their narrative. They read the press accounts that focused on the president’s outreach to Muslims and were disappointed that he did not visit Israel on the same trip. In retrospect he should have done so, but some accused him of distancing himself from the Israeli people when he had done just the opposite.
During his tenure as president, Obama has provided Israel with unprecedented levels of military support with the intent to bolster Israel’s security and ensure Israel’s military superiority over its neighbors. Maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, as the policy is known, has been the priority of successive U.S. administrations.
Under President Obama, the United States regularly conducts joint military exercises with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and has provided Israel with over $23 billion in military aid.38 Most of that aid is in accordance with the ten-year commitment President Bush made to provide Israel an average of $3 billion each year through 2018. Obama followed through with the commitment, pushed for an additional $225 million to help the Israelis expedite production and deployment of their Iron Dome missile defense system, and approved sales to Israel of the most sensitive and advanced American weapons systems, including the newly released F-35 fighter planes.39 In September 2016, President Obama approved a new ten-year aid commitment, increasing America’s annual assistance to Israel from $3 billion to $3.8 billion between 2019 through 2028. Israeli officials have repeatedly said that under Obama U.S.-Israeli security ties are the best they have ever been.40 Obama is the first president in decades under whose tenure no UN Security Council resolution opposed by Israel has been passed.41
Israeli prime ministers not only have the weight of tragedy-ridden Jewish history to contend with, but they must deal with the reality that many Arabs prefer that Israel not exist at all. And as in all democratic societies, Israel’s leaders must handle competing domestic concerns and interests, in their case amplified by a multiparty system that requires the government to be the product of a coalition of small political parties, often with competing agendas. As a result U.S. presidents inevitably confront Israeli counterparts who are not as amenable or agreeable as they would like. There always have been and always will be some disagreements.
However, those disagreements have accompanied the U.S.-Israel relationship since day one. They are mostly about strategy, tactics, and personalities, not about the fundamentals of America’s relationship with Israel and our commitment to its survival as a Jewish and democratic state.
Obama, like most presidents before him, came into office fully aware that enhancing Israel’s ability to secure and defend itself is morally sound and a necessary factor in improving relations between Israel and the Arabs. That was true when Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan. It has been true in the many interim agreements Israel has signed with the Palestinians. It is equally true, however, that while every U.S. president since 1948 has pursued Arab-Israeli peace, none has been fully successful and all have emerged bruised.