The Obama administration recently negotiated a six-month interim agreement with regard to Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel commented that softening global sanctions in exchange for slowing Iran’s pace of weaponizing represents only “minimal risks” to the United States. On behalf of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted with alarm. He pointed to Iran’s past record of non-compliance as well as to the threat posed by Iran’s nukes to Israel’s existence.
Netanyahu’s supporters lauded his courage in standing up even to Israel’s most important ally. The prime minister’s detractors criticized what they perceived as an unprecedented imperiling of the special U.S.-Israel relationship.
An alternative view is reflected in the memoirs of Henry Kissinger: “Israel is dependent on the U.S. as no other country is on a friendly power…and yet Israel’s obstinacy [periodic disagreements with American foreign policy], maddening as it can be, serves the purposes of both of our countries best.” Off-and-on U.S.-Israel debates at times have proven to be mutually beneficial.
For example, when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, threatening Israel’s commercial link with world markets, the Jewish state appealed to the United States to intervene. After failing to persuade President Eisenhower and his advisers, along with England and France, Israel took action to re-open the sea lanes. The Eisenhower administration reacted by demanding an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from both Gaza and and Sharm el-Sheik. Sanctions were threatened if Israel did not comply, and by early 1957 Israel withdrew. Nevertheless, the clash between allies served as a wake-up call for an upgrade in joint planning.
Ten years later, in May of 1967, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to all Israeli shipping and all ships bound for Eilat. This blockade once again cut off Israel's only supply route with Asia and stopped the flow of oil. President Johnson agreed with the Jewish state that this constituted an act of war. However, the president urged Israel not to take unilateral military action and imposed an arms embargo on the region. The president subsequently failed to mount an international flotilla to break Egypt’s blockade. On June 5 Israel broke ranks with U.S. policy and launched a preemptive strike. Ultimately, LBJ came to regard the military prowess demonstrated by Israel during the Six-Day War as an asset, leading to stronger bilateral ties.
In the days before Yom Kippur in 1973, Egyptian and Syrian troops began massing on Israel’s borders. President Nixon warned Prime Minister Golda Meir not to call up Israel’s reserves, lest it be interpreted as an act of war. After the Arab armies attacked and Israeli casualties mounted, Golda justified her actions to her critics in the Knesset: “You know very well my hands were tied by the Americans.” She had feared that a 1967-style preemptive Israeli action would cause the United States to refuse to resupply Israel’s armed forces during a war and would imperil future U.S. military aid. Grateful for Israeli compliance, the Nixon administration massively restocked the Israeli Defense Force and committed to an annual aid package exceeding $2 billion.
Early in 1981, Israel bombed the recently completed Iraqi nuclear weapons facility. This strike followed failed efforts to persuade the Carter administration to take preventive action. Again, Israel was warned by America not to act alone. In the aftermath of the strike, the United States suspended its delivery of military aircraft and other materials. America’s new president, Ronald Reagan, wrote in his diary, “I can understand [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s fear but I feel he took the wrong option. He should have told us and the French; we could have done something to remove the threat.” Begin countered, “Our American friends differed with our experts as to the exact timing the Iraqi reactor would go ‘hot’…. [B]ut we had incontrovertible evidence that the reactor was going to go lethal…and with an enemy as savage as a nuclear Iraq, tens of thousands of our children could have been annihilated or mutilated in one go.”
Over time, the United States came to appreciate the outcome. During 1991’s Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, U.S. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney expressed public gratitude to the IDF for the 1981 air strike.
In 1991, at a time of rising tension between Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President George H.W. Bush, Iraq invaded Kuwait. In response, the United States assembled a global coalition of forces. Israel expressed concerns that an all-too-weakened Iraq would open the door to Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. America also asked Israel not to preempt or respond to Iraqi missile attacks, lest America’s Arab alliances become splintered. Reading the diplomatic signs carefully, Shamir decided to absorb dozens of SCUD hits, even though it harmed Israel’s deterrent capacity. In the process, Israel gained the gratitude of the White House; a potential diplomatic crisis had been averted. Closer ties forged the context for the Oslo Accords two years later.
In 2006, Israel broke ranks with U.S. policy planners over a nuclear reactor that the North Koreans were building for Syria. Agreeing with Israel’s assessment about the seriousness of this emerging threat, President George W. Bush nevertheless wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: “We are not going to take military action; we are going instead to the UN…. I have decided on the diplomatic option backed by the threat of force.” With dismay, Olmert replied, “This leaves me surprised and disappointed. And I cannot accept it. We told you from the first day [of my administration]…that the reactor had to go away…. It would change the entire region, and our national security cannot accept it. You are telling me that you will not act; so we will act.” The public silence of the world community toward Israel’s obliteration of the Syrian reactor indicated unofficial assent.
In preventing an Iranian nuclear program, the interaction of conflicting U.S. and Israeli foreign policy has been crucial. The Obama administration has restrained an Israeli military strike. Relentless Israeli private diplomacy, intelligence gathering, and public relations campaigns have made possible painful sanctions, the Geneva interim agreement, and the prospect of a comprehensive accord. As noted by Israeli diplomat Yehuda Avner,
“The interests of a superpower and of a regional ministate are not always easy to reconcile, and are on occasion unbridgeable.” Nevertheless, the interplay of ideas often can prove beneficial to both and ought to continue.