America’s interests, Israel’s survival

Like most U.S. presidents, Obama is as 'friendly' as necessary to the Jewish state


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5As one might expect from a leader of Israel, Netanyahu does not have much patience for equivocation or any policy which threatens Israel's survival. He has a keen sense of history and fully understands that if Israel does not defend Jewish interests, no other country will. Hence his tough resolve that Iran's nuclear ambitions must be halted before it is no longer possible to do so.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/03/2012 (3851 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

5As one might expect from a leader of Israel, Netanyahu does not have much patience for equivocation or any policy which threatens Israel’s survival. He has a keen sense of history and fully understands that if Israel does not defend Jewish interests, no other country will. Hence his tough resolve that Iran’s nuclear ambitions must be halted before it is no longer possible to do so.

Israel is dependent on financial and military support from the United States. But as Netanyahu made clear in a recent speech in Washington, D.C., and during his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Israel must be the “master of its fate.”

The photographs and news clips of Obama and Netanyahu taken at the White House reveal two overly polite and self-assured politicians. Neither is willing to concede an inch and the tension in the room seems palpable. Suffice it to say that at no time during their gathering did the president refer to Netanyahu as Bibi, his popular nickname.

The Associated Press archives The Nixons welcome then-prime minister of Israel Golda Meir (centre) to the White House during a 1969 visit.

Obama’s relations with Netanyahu have been frosty, and that’s putting it mildly. At the G20 Summit held at Cannes in November 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, not knowing his microphone was live, complained to Obama that Netanyahu was “a liar.” Obama’s response was telling: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”

Such caustic comments have contributed to the widely held view, especially among American as well as Canadian Jews, that Obama is the least friendly American president to Israel in history. (It should be noted that during Obama’s presidency, U.S. financial aid to Israel for economic assistance and military needs have remained steady or increased, with the support of Congress.)

Does the historical record bear out this thesis that Obama is more critical of Israel than any of his predecessors? Is he less trustworthy as an ally?

In view of the current French hostility to Israel, it is ironic that from Israel’s establishment as a state in 1948 until just before the Six-Day War of June 1967, France was a much better friend to it than the United States. During the debate on the partition of Palestine in 1947, U.S. President Harry Truman was conflicted about supporting a Jewish state. He feared, like every president after him, that support for Israel would jeopardize American economic interests with Israel’s declared enemies — Arab countries rich with oil. There were serious questions as to whether Israel would become a socialist or communist stronghold. Truman also resented the pro-Israeli lobbying of American Jews and evangelical Christians, who regarded the Jewish return to the Holy Land as a messianic prophecy.

In the end, Truman did endorse the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, but did not offer much assistance in the way of arms or money when Israel was attacked in the war that followed its declaration of statehood in May 1948.

Not much changed during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s or in the two decades that followed. The U.S. viewed Israel and the entire Middle East through the lens of the Cold War and its need for oil. Containing the Soviet Union’s alleged military and economic ambitions for control of the region was paramount. Eisenhower, the former general, was pragmatic. As University of Haifa political scientist Zach Levey puts it, “To Eisenhower, the Arabs offered assets; Israel was only a liability.”

Similarly, John F. Kennedy, outwardly and intellectually a friendly supporter of Israel, wanted to mollify the Arab world, especially the bombastic Egyptian president Gamal Nasser. He worried, too, about the development of Israeli nuclear energy. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, annual aid to Israel never exceeded $13 million, low even for that era.

The consequential Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel greatly expanded its territory and reclaimed the old city of Jerusalem, altered America’s relations with Israel. Under Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, American support for Israel remained secondary to confronting the Soviet Union. Israel benefited militarily, however, because the Soviets took up the Arab cause and supplied Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, among other states with more sophisticated weaponry. When another war erupted in October 1973, Nixon, though under siege in Vietnam, ordered, “What ever it takes, save Israel.”

Jimmy Carter was guided by his faith and supporting Israel was a “significant moral principle,” says historian Michael Oren, now the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.

Yet Carter, then and later expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause, at the time being directed by Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was also carrying out terrorist attacks against Israel. Carter’s sense of fair play caused tension, though he was more than happy to take credit for negotiating the March 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the result more accurately of the compromises worked out between Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

It was the status quo during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In the 1990s and after, the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism intent on destroying Israel and the U.S. shifted the focus of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. American interests remained paramount, yet both Clinton and Bush spent considerable time on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, without success.

Perception is everything in politics and differences of opinion can be exacerbated by personality clashes. Such was the case between Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin, and so it is between the centre-left Democrat Obama and the centre-right Likudist Netanyahu.

By his actions and attitudes, Obama has not been as respectful as he should be of Netanyahu, and his bluntness and perceived arrogance rubs supporters of Israel the wrong way. Obama claims he has Israel’s “back,” and there is really no reason to doubt him. Yet on Iran and other issues in the Middle East, he has taken an America-first policy, as every other president before him has. Many of his predecessors, however, just did this a bit more tactfully.


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context. Levine’s latest book is William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny.

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