President Biden is proving himself, by some measures, the most pro-Israel president in American history.
Starting on the very day of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, Biden has emotionally expressed his solidarity with Israel and affirmed its need to fight fire with fire. He has expedited military assistance and, most dramatically, he flew to Israel and sat as part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet. While there certainly is a time-honored tradition of a “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel, Biden has gone where no other U.S. president ever has gone during one of Israel’s wars—not only physically but also politically and strategically.
Biden’s predecessors have traditionally decided how to handle Arab-Israeli wars by making calculations about geopolitics and American politics. Often they prioritized limiting the impact of these wars on U.S. strategic goals. The domestic political position of each president also shaped his actions. Biden’s support for Israel, by contrast, has been more fulsome and less qualified. It’s also less clear that he’s acting in a way congruent with U.S. strategy and his own political needs.
In November 1947, the United Nations (UN) voted to create a Jewish state—and a Palestinian one—out of what had been Britain’s Palestine mandate, and war erupted in the Holy Land. President Harry S. Truman conferred recognition on the State of Israel after its leaders declared independence in May 1948. Truman may have hoped to reap a political benefit with Jewish voters as he stood for election later that year. Even so, he refrained, then and afterward, from providing military assistance to Israel. Truman wished to prevent an arms race in the Middle East and he did not want to completely estrange the Arab states.
In 1956, Israel conspired with France and Great Britain to attack Egypt. Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula, which it coveted as a security buffer against Egypt’s military.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was livid over what he saw as his European allies’ deceit and Israel’s mischief. Eisenhower’s focus was the Cold War and he was convinced that Britain and France’s imperialist effort to repress Egyptian nationalism, abetted by Israel for its own purposes, would increase Soviet influence in Asia and Africa. The invasion occurred only days before Eisenhower won a huge reelection victory, and his strong political position domestically encouraged him to take the diplomatic offensive. He put the screws to the three invading states and forced Israel to retreat from the Sinai in 1957.
In contrast to Eisenhower, a decade later, when Israeli fears about aggression from Arab states prompted another war in the Middle East, President Lyndon B. Johnson sympathized with Israel. Even so, he carefully calibrated his expression of support. Johnson wrote to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, “I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.”
Johnson took care to place some distance between the U.S. and Israel’s military decisions. He might have prevented the war by sending American troops on a peacekeeping mission to Israel’s borders, but there was no way he was going to plunge the U.S. into what might become a war zone. He didn’t want to own Israel’s war and probably hoped to maintain his government’s credibility as a diplomatic broker after the war ended—with Israel again taking the Sinai, in addition to Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Syria’s Golan Heights.
The U.S. supported subsequent U.N. efforts to set the table for a land-for-peace deal between Israel and the Arab states. However, the Arab world’s rejection of negotiations with Israel enabled Israel to begin solidifying its hold on these newly conquered lands and forestalled, at least in the near term, any potential mediation by the Americans. Johnson navigated the diplomacy of the Middle East conflict shrewdly and it played no role in his eventual downfall over his war in Vietnam.
In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, seeking to win back lost territories and bargaining power. President Richard M. Nixon—operating with great political latitude after his landslide reelection the previous year—gave Israel unstinting military aid. Nixon’s unqualified material support for Israel is the only approximation of Biden’s full-on allyship today. Yet the October War of 1973 was a conventional war between armies, not a conflict like the current one, in which the great majority of the dead killed by both parties are civilians.
The Cold War had also taken a new turn and Nixon saw the war as a proxy conflict between East and West. While Nixon’s actions brought the U.S. and the Soviets perilously close to a confrontation, in the end his support for Israel helped make the war a draw. This outcome prepared the way for the later peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, as each state proved its military potency, while each also now recognized that their country could not overwhelm the other on the battlefield.
By the 1980s, the conflict between Israel and the Arab world shifted to a new front and new players. Tensions had intensified amid attacks by Palestinian groups against northern Israel and the political threat that the Palestinian nationalist movement—based in Lebanon—posed to Israeli control of the West Bank. President Ronald Reagan gave Israel the green light to invade Lebanon and decimate the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel’s prime minister, Menachem Begin, likened to Nazi Germany.
But the entire U.S. government was shocked when Israeli General Ariel Sharon laid siege to Beirut, exceeding the plans he had shared with the Americans. Reagan, staunchly pro-Israel, felt used. The public outcry against Israel’s shelling of civilian neighborhoods added to Reagan’s alienation from Israel’s behavior. He told Begin that Israel was perpetrating a “holocaust” and he demanded that the prime minister reverse Israel’s cut-off of water and electricity to Beirut. Begin was outraged, but he complied with Reagan’s wishes.
Although a first-term president, Reagan proved willing to chastise Israel when he deemed his ally’s actions reckless and beyond decency’s bounds. He expressed care and compassion about the deaths of Arab civilians, especially children. Reagan later succeeded in pressing the PLO to foreswear terrorism and thus brought the group into international diplomacy, helping build the path toward the Oslo Peace Accords of the 1990s.
Today, Biden confronts a situation different than his predecessors faced. The grisly killings of 1,200 people, mostly Israeli civilians, as well as the kidnapping of hundreds, by Hamas on Oct. 7 were unprecedented. It is not surprising that Israel’s response has been ferocious and vastly larger than its past reprisals. Yet Biden seems to have pushed aside the strategic and political considerations that guided past American leaders’ responses to Israel’s wars. He joined himself at the hip politically with Netanyahu and echoed Israel’s talking points faithfully. However, after criticism for appearing to write Israel a blank check, Biden worked to broker the release of Hamas’s hostages in exchange for a limited ceasefire and the freeing of Palestinian prisoners from Israel.
Biden has expressed concern over Israel’s lack of a clear and plausible endgame for Gaza, but he nonetheless gave Israel a bright green light to wage war there to root out Hamas. As he stated it, his revulsion over Hamas’s “pure evil” and his heartfelt embrace of the framing of this terrorism as a continuation of age-old violent hatred against the Jewish people gave him no alternative.
In the eyes of the world, there is no space between the American president and the Israeli war, and this reality poses strategic and political risks. American efforts to persuade other states that Russia’s siege of Ukrainian cities is atrocious may now fall on deaf ears, considering Biden’s support for Israel’s siege of Gaza, which has killed well over 10,000 people. Biden’s fervent defense of Israel’s war also threatens the president’s support among younger, more diverse Americans, who empathize with the Palestinians in a way that Americans of Biden’s generation scarcely comprehend. His statements of concern over Palestinian deaths have been belated and unemotional, creating a vivid contrast with his rousing declarations that he, as America’s leader, will keep faith with Israel and with Jewish life.
We don’t yet know if Biden can pave a road to peace out of war or whether his actions will destabilize domestic or international affairs dangerously. He faces a challenge in seeking to claw back perceptions of a rush to approve Israel’s war with no true red lines, although he shows signs of seeking to create a more balanced perception. Up to now, Biden has redefined what American support looks like during an Israeli war.
Doug Rossinow is professor of history at Metro State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. The author of works including The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s (2015), he is writing Promised Land: The Worlds of American Zionism, 1942–2022, to be published by Oxford University Press. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.
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Write to Doug Rossinow / Made by History at email@example.com