US-Israel Relations Still Hang by a Thread
Sometimes, history’s turning points depend on small things. The 2000 presidential election outcome hinged on the interpretation of “hanging chads” from a small number of Florida ballots. So too US recognition of Israel in 1948, which, figuratively at least, hung by a thread. The thread was the long-time friendship between President Truman and Eddie Jacobson, Truman’s partner in a haberdashery in Kansas City that went bankrupt in 1922.
In March 1948, Jacobson leveraged his friendship with Truman to gain an Oval Office meeting where he convinced a reluctant president to meet with Chaim Weizmann about Jewish aspirations in Palestine. The voluble Truman was steamed by his Zionist critics and admiring of Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who soon threatened to resign if Truman recognized Israel. Jacobson countered by invoking the courage of Truman’s hero, President Andrew Jackson. The rest is history.
Because the Constitution gives the president the power to conduct foreign policy, US-Israel relations ever since 1948 have been “president-centric”:
- The relationship languished during the 1950s because President Eisenhower allowed his secretary of state, Wall Street lawyer John Foster Dulles, to make US Mideast policy.
- It revived in 1961 after President Kennedy met David Ben-Gurion in the White House.
- Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger assured Israel’s survival and ultimate triumph during 1973’s Yom Kippur War.
- Jimmy Carter brought a Protestant Sunday School view of history unfriendly to Jews and Israel to the White House, reinforced by his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. His brokering of 1978’s Begin-Sadat Camp David Summit was followed by 1979’s black-Jewish estrangement when UN Ambassador Andrew Young was forced to resign after an unauthorized meeting with the PLO.
- Reagan was predisposed to be a friend of Israel ever since his Hollywood years. But his new administration was rocked in 1981 by a fight over whether to sell AWACS surveillance planes to anti-Israel Saudi Arabia. Later, pro-Israel Secretary of State George Schulz and anti-Israel Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger contended for influence.
- George H.W. Bush improved Israel’s strategic situation by defeating Saddam Hussein in 1990’s Gulf War. But his Secretary of State James Baker did not like Israel despite laying the foundations for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
- Bill Clinton reaped the political benefits when he hosted 1993’s Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn. Yet he ultimately failed as honest broker at another Israeli-Palestinian summit in 2000.
- Never an enemy of Israel, President George W. Bush bonded with Ariel Sharon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
- Barack Obama’s coolness toward Zionism probably went back to his college years at Columbia University. As president, he gave lip service to Israel as a haven for Holocaust survivors, but never really appreciated the Jewish people’s millennia-long history in the Holy Land.
- As a real estate developer, Donald Trump survived turf wars in Manhattan with the help of Jewish advisers. Later through Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner his Jewish ties became familial.
- As the 2020 presidential election looms, the political landscape has been changed radically by the emergence of the anti-Israel BDS Movement and eroding support for Israel in the Democratic Party where three leading candidates — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg — are competing with each other in promising to use US aid to pressure Israel. On the other side, pro-Israel Evangelical Christians have mobilized for Israel as Republicans.
The reelection of Donald Trump might be better for Israel. Except for the caveat that Trump’s “Putin First” withdrawal from Syria plus flirtations with the Taliban and possibly even Tehran don’t bode well.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press. 2015).