During the past 10 months, the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government have clashed publicly over the Iran Nuclear Deal, causing stress in the U.S.-Israel relationship. With the conclusion of Barack Obama’s victory on the Iran pact, and with this past week’s intentionally amicable Obama-Netanyahu meeting at the White House, let us hope any damage to the alliance can be quickly repaired.
Sensing the imminent failure of congressional efforts to negate the P5+1 agreement, in late August, President Obama offered words of reconciliation. In validation of Israel’s security angst, the president acknowledged that “Israel has legitimate concerns about its security relative to Iran. I mean, you have a large country [Iran] with a significant military that has proclaimed that Israel shouldn’t exist, that has denied the Holocaust, that has financed Hezbollah, and, as a consequence, there are missiles that are pointed toward Tel Aviv.”
The president, contextualizing the tiff, noted that friends and allies ought not fear a vigorous debate. Obama insisted that “the everlasting bond between Israel and the U.S. is not political; it is not based upon convenience or temporary self-interest or policy. It grows out of deep ties that go back generations.”
Greater tranquility in the alliance is not only crucial to the well-being of the Jewish state; it also has deep resonance within American culture. This country’s connection to the ancient Israelites and to Zionism can be traced all the way back to the Puritans, who suffered persecution at the hands of the Anglican establishment. They looked to the Hebrew Bible and found a God who promised to rescue His people from exile and restore them to their Promised Land. The Puritans came to view themselves as the new Israelites. They viewed King George’s England as the modern-day Egypt. They crossed the Atlantic — which they likened to the Red Sea — and arrived at a new Canaan. The Puritans came to feel an obligation to help the descendants of the old Israelites, contemporary Jews, return to Israel.
The Puritans’ descendants, America’s founding fathers, continued this identification. Seeking a symbol for this great American venture, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proposed the image of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of bondage and into the Promised Land. Colonial Americans came to believe that being good Christians and good Americans meant supporting the divinely ordained mission to rescue the Jews from exile by “restoring” sovereignty to them in their ancient homeland.
“Restorationism” became prevalent at the highest levels of American political culture. America’s second president, John Adams, proclaimed his most fervent wish that 100,000 Jewish soldiers would triumphantly retake Palestine. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln stated that the American people wanted the Jews to be restored to their homeland. In 1917, having played a prominent role in Britain’s issuance of the Balfour Declaration promising a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Woodrow Wilson affirmed: “How proud I am that because of the teachings instilled in me by my father, it has been my privilege to restore the Holy Land to its rightful owners.”
When the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948, President Harry Truman was a member of the American Christian Committee for Jewish Restoration in Palestine. In making the United States the first government to recognize Israel’s existence as a sovereign nation, he was encouraged by White House chief counsel Clark Clifford, who quoted from Deuteronomy: “Behold, Israelites, says God, I have set that land before you; go in and possess the land which the Lord swore unto your ancestors….”
Restorationism has been warmly promoted by many subsequent presidents, notably Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, and George W. Bush. Most powerfully, Bill Clinton spent more time on trying to bring peace to Israel than he spent on any other issue in his second term. His pastor had told him that if he ever did anything to harm the Jewish people, God would not forgive him.
Alongside this deep history of faith is the U.S.-Israel legacy of shared democratic values and of shared military/intelligence/strategic objectives. We ought to be optimistic, in President Obama’s words, that the warm bipartisan alliance “will snap back into place.” Rapid healing of ties and the U.S. commitment to sustain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” was evident in Vice President Joe Biden’s address to the recent convention of the Union of Reform Judaism. “The core of our alliance is as solid as steel,” said Biden. “No one president or prime minister can alter that, no matter what they do.”