Iran and Russia are upping the ante in Syria, and President Barack Obama seems disinclined to challenge them. With all that is going on in the Middle East, and with daily Palestinian attacks against Israelis, this would seem a good time for President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to manage their differences and bury the hatchet in their upcoming meeting on Nov. 9. I suspect they will do so.
Tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship makes news because the two countries have seemed so close for so long. The irony is that for the first two decades of Israel’s existence, the U.S. was neither Israel’s most important economic or security partner. Germany and France assumed those roles, with German reparations being the key to the development of Israel’s economic infrastructure, and French weaponry being the mainstay of the Israeli military. John Kennedy would be the first president to sell a major defensive weapon system to Israel—the Hawk anti-aircraft missile—and Lyndon Johnson was the first to provide tanks and aircraft.
Fear of Arab reaction made the U.S. hesitate to become Israel’s main security partner. John Kennedy decided to break the taboo on providing arms, believing we could manage the Arab reaction. He was right: The Hawk sale drew no meaningful response from the Arabs, and the Saudis were far more concerned about an Egyptian-backed coup in Yemen at the time. So much so that they sought more American arms and assurances at the very moment Kennedy was crossing a security threshold with Israel.
Still, we would not institutionalize the security relationship with Israel until Ronald Reagan established, for the first time, a framework for military, intelligence and economic cooperation. He saw Israel as a natural partner not simply because it was a democracy, but also because it was threatened by the same forces that threatened the U.S. Every president since Reagan has developed further the architecture of our security cooperation, reflecting the understanding that Israel’s military assets enhanced our own in the region. Indeed, even those presidents who did not share Reagan’s emotional attachment to Israel built on his legacy, and our relationship with Israel became more deeply rooted.
There are other noteworthy points about the Reagan administration: President Reagan was the only American president to suspend arms shipments to Israel as a penalty for an Israeli action. While he understood Israel’s concerns about Iraq, its bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor surprised him, and, under pressure from his Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, he suspended F-16 shipments to Israel as punishment. Weinberger led a constituency within the administration that viewed Israel as a problem for the U.S. in the region and he constantly sought to distance us from it.
In every administration from Truman’s to Obama’s, there has been a constituency in our national security apparatus that viewed Israel not as an asset to the U.S. but a liability. Reagan’s was the first administration to have a countervailing constituency of national security experts who saw Israel as a partner and believed that cooperation not only served our interests but also that closer collaboration produced greater Israeli responsiveness to our concerns.
Since Reagan’s time, the balance between these constituencies, and the president’s own attitudes, have affected the approaches of different administrations toward Israel. Obviously, Israeli policies and circumstances in the region also affect the tone and substance of the relationship. The Bush 41 and Obama administrations bear many similarities: both presidents had a problem with Israeli settlement activities, both presidents tended to distrust their Israeli counterpart—Bush and Yitzhak Shamir, Obama and Netanyahu—and yet both presidents were responsive to Israel on security issues. Neither had a problem distancing from Israel and having public spats with his Israeli counterpart—though in Obama’s case while he criticized Israel early on its settlement activity, Netanyahu has vehemently challenged him on the Iran nuclear deal.
Bill Clinton and Bush 43 adopted a different approach. They instinctively felt it was a mistake to create a gap with Israel. Even when there were disagreements, they sought to keep them private and manage them. They each felt that as Israel’s one true friend in the world, we should not give succor to Israel’s enemies. To do so might erode Israel’s deterrent.
Moreover, neither thought that distancing from Israel would help us with the Arabs. They understood, correctly, that our key Arab friends focus first on their own survival. They may not be thrilled about our relationship with the Israelis, but their security is their priority and so long as Arab states see the U.S. as the ultimate guarantor of their security, they will not make their relationship with us dependent on the scope of our cooperation with Israel.
That is why Kennedy’s breaking the taboo on arms sales to Israel did not produce a reaction from the Arabs. Why Reagan’s establishing of strategic partnership with Israel did not affect our security relationships with key Arab states. And, indeed, why as our strategic partnership with Israel has deepened, so has our presence and security ties with the Gulf States.
We can expect this trend to continue, particularly at a time when Israel and key Arab states share threat perceptions about Iran and radical Islamists. Moreover, one other pattern is likely to repeat itself: after every president who distanced us from Israel, his successor has moved to remove the appearance of tension. Thus, whether President Obama’s successor is a Democrat or Republican, we will likely see him or her strike a different public posture toward Israel. And, no doubt, given the importance of the U.S. relationship to Israel, his or her Israeli counterpart will quickly reciprocate.
Ambassador Dennis Ross is the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute and author of Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama.