The US was the first country to offer de facto recognition to the new Israeli government when the Jewish state declared independence on 14 May 1948. Seventy-five years later, Washington has long been Israel’s strongest military and diplomatic ally.
But it wasn’t always that way. For the first two decades after independence, Israel’s primary foreign ally was France, which supplied almost all of its major weapons including planes, tanks and ships as well as building the nuclear plant from which it developed atomic weapons.
Neither did the US offer the same diplomatic cover it does today. When Israel invaded Egypt with the British and French during the 1956 Suez crisis, Washington joined Moscow at the United Nations to force Israel and its allies to withdraw.
For many years, US aid to Israel was limited to loans to buy food through the economic hardship in the years after independence.
So what changed and why?
As tensions rose ahead of the 1967 six-day war, Paris imposed an arms embargo on the region and refused to deliver 50 fighter jets Israel had paid for. After the war, France sided with Arab countries, in part to improve relations after its defeat in the colonial war in Algeria.
President Lyndon Johnson was sympathetic to Israel’s position but hesitant about supplying large amounts of weapons out of concern about a regional conflict drawing in the Soviet Union.
Following Israel’s stunning victory and occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Washington concluded that Arab nations had moved into the Soviet camp and so increased weapons sales to the Jewish state, including Phantom jet fighters.
Johnson committed the US to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge” and opened the door to decades of weapons sales that helped build the Israeli military into the strongest force in the Middle East.
Did the US support Israel’s development of nuclear weapons?
In the late 1950s, France built Israel a larger reactor capable of producing plutonium and a reprocessing plant at a secret facility at Dimona in the Negev desert which provided the basic tools to develop a nuclear weapon. Israel told the US the nuclear plant had only a “peaceful purpose” but in 1960 the CIA concluded that it would be used to produce plutonium for weapons.
In 1963, President John F Kennedy demanded Israel allow regular US inspections of Dimona and warned that failure to present “reliable information” about the nuclear plant would “seriously jeopardise” Washington’s support for Israel, according to a 2019 report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Israel agreed to inspections but, after Kennedy’s assassination, the Johnson administration was less firm on the issue and the inspections stopped in 1969. By then, US officials concluded that Israel was indeed developing an atomic bomb despite its claims to the contrary.
When did the US get into the business of trying to broker peace agreements?
When Egypt and Syria attacked Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur holiday, President Richard Nixon was alarmed by Israeli hints about using nuclear weapons as its forces were initially forced into retreat. Nixon ordered an airlift of military supplies to Israel.
After the tide of war turned, the US was keen to limit the scale of Egyptian losses in part to keep the Soviets out of the conflict but also to bolster American influence over the Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat. That in turn laid the ground for the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement later in the decade.
The failure of the Israeli government to pre-empt the Yom Kippur war forced a political realignment that saw the rightwing Likud party take power for the first time with Menachem Begin as prime minister. Begin extended an invitation to Sadat, via the US, to visit Jerusalem and the Egyptian president addressed the Israeli parliament.
President Jimmy Carter engineered months of negotiations that culminated in the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, and laid the ground for the final Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in March 1979 which saw Israel withdraw from the Sinai. But Begin rebuffed Carter’s attempts to reach an agreement for Israel to give up the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967.
If Carter wanted peace, what did Ronald Reagan want?
Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, was more interested in selling guns than brokering peace.
Military support for Israel solidified under the Reagan administration which also began a more vigorous diplomatic defence of Israel – particularly shielding it from criticism at the United Nations.
The two countries signed strategic military agreements and Washington began stockpiling weapons in Israel officially assigned to US forces but which could quickly be handed to the Israelis.
There were tensions. Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 was done without US approval and prompted Reagan to suspend some weapons shipments. The US administration also soured on Israeli’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
But Washington continued to protect Israel at the UN, including vetoing a Soviet move in the security council to impose an arms embargo. Still, the Reagan administration shocked Israel by talking to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation, a terrorist group in Israeli eyes.
What happened to all the peace initiatives?
A succession of presidents thought they could be the one to finally pull off an Israel-Palestine peace deal.
President Bill Clinton arguably came closest when he oversaw a series of talks and agreements that culminated in the 1993 Oslo peace accords establishing the Palestinian Authority with limited governance over parts of the occupied territories as a step toward a final deal.
But the assassination in 1995 of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the accords, opened the way to the rise to power of Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly opposed a Palestinian state and did his best to scupper Oslo.
Clinton had one last shot at a deal at the 2000 Camp David summit between the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, and the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak. When those talks failed, Clinton blamed Arafat. But some of the Clinton officials present at the talks said the Israeli offer fell short of what was required for an agreement.
One of the Israeli negotiators, the foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, later said that if he were a Palestinian he would have rejected the Camp David proposals. In 2005, former US state department official Aaron David Miller, who played a key role in the Clinton peace efforts, said that Washington had not acted as a neutral arbiter but as “Israel’s attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations”.
Clinton’s successor, President George W Bush, launched his own peace effort, the “road map”, although he pushed the plan in part to offset the diplomatic damage done by the US invasion of Iraq.
Israel’s prime minster, Ariel Sharon, could not defy the White House and so praised the Bush plan and then set about sabotaging it by setting conditions. He also used the withdrawal of Jewish settlements and Israeli military bases from Gaza in 2005 as a means to freeze the road map in “formaldehyde … so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians”, in the words of Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weissglas.
Why were relations so bad between Israel and President Obama?
President Barack Obama oversaw the biggest ever package of military aid to Israel, worth $38bn over a decade, but was still regarded as an unreliable ally, particularly by prime minister Netanyahu.
Israeli officials were angered when Obama chose to make his first visit to the region as president to Cairo where he made a speech promising the Muslim world a “new beginning” after the Iraq war. Obama and Netanyahu had a testy meeting at the White House where the president said he wanted a freeze in Jewish settlement construction and Israel to take peace talks with the Palestinians seriously.
Some Obama administration officials wanted him to set a deadline for Netanyahu to agree to talks or face the US coming up with its own plan for a Palestinian state. But that determination fell away as the Israeli leader mobilised political support in the US, particularly among Republicans happy to bash Obama.
Netanyahu also openly opposed the US deal with Iran to contain its nuclear programme as a “historic mistake” that would allow Tehran to develop atomic weapons. The Israeli leader took the unprecedented step of openly criticising White House policy in an address to Congress.
Obama fired a parting shot in his last month in office when the US unusually declined to veto a UN security council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction. Netanyahu responded by saying he was looking forward to the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House.
So Netanyahu got along with Trump?
By the end of his term as president, Donald Trump was deeply unpopular across much of the world. Israel was an exception after he moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognising the city as Israel’s capital which most countries do not.
The Trump administration negotiated deals to normalise relations between Israel and several Arab countries. It also came up with its own Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal which allowed Israel to annex about 30% of the West Bank. The plan included a vision of a Palestinian state made up of several enclaves surrounded by Israeli territory that bore a strong resemblance to proposals by the Israeli right that have been described as replicating apartheid South Africa’s black homeland system.
Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said that after the president suggested Netanyahu might be the real obstacle to peace with the Palestinians, the Israeli leader produced a doctored video of the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas supposedly calling for the murder of children. Trump’s position then swung against the Palestinians.
The following year, Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.