The strength of the Jewish lobby and its privileged journalistic and financial position in the U.S., the role of Protestant millenarian Zionism, Israel as a strategic asset in a troubled and vital region, similar histories and institutions, post-Holocaust guilt, mutual benefits and converging interests, have all been taken, singly or in combination, as reasons for America's close support to Israel over the years. These various elements surely did playa role in ensuring that the U.S. generally chose Israel over its opponents, in confrontation with the Arab countries and the Palestinians. The two states have a great deal in common: they are both settler democracies, whose existence and political operation has been based on the elimination, displacement or expulsion of an indigenous people.┬╣ This underlying "original sin" has created a similar ethos on the part of both peoples, with resultant mutual sympathies. The U.S. shared in the general feeling of guilt in Western nations over the Holocaust. The Zionist lobby in the United States is a powerful one, and has in the 20th century done much to set the U.S. foreign policy agenda, at least with regard to Middle Eastern questions. Israel and the U.S. have had a shared interest in thwarting the success of Arab nationalist and revolutionary movements.
But the fact of the matter is that U.S. support for the Zionist movement and Israel has not been historically monolithic, having shifted in quality and in intensity over the years. There have, in fact, been three major phases in U.S. support for the Zionist movement and Israel, the third of which, somewhat' curiously, continues to the present day.

Roosevelt and Truman

From the Balfour Declaration to the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945/ the U.S. did not take the lead in supporting the Zionist movement. Its progress tended to be viewed with great sympathy, between the two world wars. But the United States, an isolationist power, took a back seat to Britain and Europe in relations with the Zionist movement, and allowed the United Kingdom to carry the brunt of implementing the Balfour Declaration, through its mandate over Palestine. Furthermore, the U.S. was competing with Britain for influence in the region, because of the growing importance of oil, and it was conscious of the need to preserve its good relations with Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, and the contradictions involved in actively supporting the Zionists' settlement and state-building project. These contradictions continued to be played out through the wart as reflected in the discussions over the future of Palestine between Churchill and Roosevelt leading up to the issuance of the Atlantic Charter, the former insisting that Palestine be excluded from the list of states to be granted self-determination. The Zionists, on the other hand, led by Ben-Gurion, were actively courting the U.S. and, therefore, slighting the British government (a veritable "diplomatic revolution" on the part of the movement).2 The new reality was reflected in the famous Zionist Baltimore program of 1942. On the eve of his death, Roosevelt was still trying to bridge the mounting contradictions of U.S. Middle Eastern policy.3
Truman soon inaugurated a new phase, as he led the way to the establishment of the Jewish state in 1947-1948. But even at that stage, Israel had other friends among the powers, the Soviet Union at first/ and then France. And the U.S. still had an interest in appearing to be evenhanded in its dealings with the Jewish state, on the one hand, and the Arabs, on the other; of course, the Palestinian question did not exist for the international community, except as one of a number of post-war issues. And in 1956, President Eisenhower (acting in concert with the Soviet Union) forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula following the Suez Campaign.
A variety of reasons for this have been suggested: Eisenhower was concerned with consolidating the Baghdad Pact, involving regimes which, because of their instability and unpopularity, could not afford to be seen to acquiesce in Israeli expansionism; Israel had overstepped the bounds of the permissible by entering a coalition with the two major if declining colonial powers, whose spheres of interest needed to slip gracefully into the American sphere of interest; Israel had participated in an unacceptable escalation of the Cold War confrontation (indeed, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev offered the apocalyptic vision of rockets "raining down" on London if the French, British and Israelis did not withdraw from Egypt); Secretary of State John Foster Dulles saw Israeli intervention as counterproductive in terms of achieving his main short-term goal in the Middle East, the toppling of Gamal Abdel Nasser;4 Israel's friends in the United States felt that it had moved too soon, its strategic superiority (air force, nuclear weapons and their delivery systems) not yet having been sufficiently developed.
The third phase, which has carried over to the present day, began with the Kennedy administration, when support became more firmly anchored, and then automatic, in tandem with the move to establish Israel as the regional leader. Kennedy helped to consolidate Israel's nuclear capability (a previously French-supported program),5 and thus to define, for the long term, the strategic configuration in the Middle East, given that the U.S. president then moved vigorously to bring about nuclear nonproliferation agreements. These would make it much harder for new members to join the club.

Keeping Order in the Cold War

The new approach was part and parcel of the ambitious plans for reducing the reliance on the doctrine of massive (nuclear) retaliation (hence the interest in Israel's autonomous nuclear capability), and carrying out global programs of counterinsurgency warfare, particularly in Latin America and,
of course, in Vietnam. This policy required a series of regional policemen to keep order in the context of the Cold War. Various key actors were singled out. For the Middle East, it would be Israel (in conjunction, if possible, with an Arab or at least an Islamic partner). And Israel would serve the additional purpose of distributing the weaponry and the technical training required to repress peoples' wars. President Johnson, having the necessary intelligence-based information regarding Israeli military preponderance, gave his green light for the June 1967 war, and supported the cease-fire which consolidated enormous military gains; Reagan's secretary of state, Alexander Haig, urged Begin on in the initial invasion and subsequent move toward Beirut in June 1982; Nixon re-supplied Israel with a massive airlift in October 1973, which created the basis for its counteroffensive on the Sinai front, even as he provided the satellite pictures of the Egyptian forces which revealed the famous gap in its lines in the Deversoir area of the Suez Canal;6 and all along, U.S. administrations, since the 1960s, have provided firm diplomatic, political and logistical support for Israel's positions in its negotiations with the Arab states and the Palestinians. It was in fact during and after the October 1973 war that u.s. military assistance to Israel increased dramatically to a level of between $1 and $2 billion per year, at which it has remained ever since.
Civilian assistance has a longer history and likewise climbed, but not as steeply, towards its present level of $1.2 billion. Far from declining in the wake of the peace or non-belligerency accords, such as those signed with Egypt, the PLO and Jordan, aid levels remained firm or even increased (quite dramatically following Camp David). On the other hand, U.S. assistance to those three Arab parties increased considerably when they signed their treaties with Israel, but not to any comparable degree, and mainly in the economic field. President Bush managed to apply some pressure on the Shamir government to get it to the negotiating table (he owed it to the Arab members of his anti-Saddam coalition), and also, by withholding $12 billion in housing loan guarantees, contributed to the victory of Rabin in 1992. But that technique would only work once, and Clinton's clumsy efforts on behalf of Shimon Peres, which were not backed up with financial threats or measures, backfired, and may even, because they were so half-hearted yet overt, have contributed the winning edge to Netanyahu. There is obviously no love lost between these two men and their administrations (they are, in their personal morae, perhaps a bit too similar, or should one say, as similar as Little Rock and Philadelphia can ever hope to be), but Clinton has made it clear again and again that he will do nothing to force Israel to implement the various signed accords in their letter (further redeployment) or in their spirit (a halt to settlement activity).

Why Unconditional Support for Israel?

The question then arises as to why a relationship which has a history (that is to say, that it has a beginning and that it went through various stages) appears in the meantime to have become an intrinsic and unconditional one. As of the early 1960s and until the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the two countries became involved in increasingly active and complex common activities, particularly in the clandestine (and largely illegal) field of counter┬Činsurgency? Israel was an active participant in the financing and training of the anti-communist military dictatorships and their repressive apparatus in Latin America from Honduras and Guatemala through Argentina and Chile; it heavily supported Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and, thereafter, the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary war against the Sandinistas. It was in this context a key player in the Iran-Contra affair. And prior to that, it had heavily supported Iran under the Shah, as well as the Kurdish insurgency in Iraq during the 1970s. Israel was likewise the vital link between the United States, inhibited (although not always very much so) by the U.N.-mandated boycott of South Africa, and the apartheid regime. It had excellent relations with the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, and with Mobutu in Zaire. All of these relations were in the context of specific missions on behalf of the leader of the Western world, in its struggle for influence with the Soviet Union. The question is: why has unconditional support for Israel in the international arena continued beyond the end of the Cold War, when it made strategic sense and proved its worth, particularly in stymieing revolutionary movements in Latin America and Africa?
There are several reasons for this. On the one hand there are fears, nurtured in American academic circles, that the collapse of the Soviet Union will inevitably lead to the rise of one or more new rivals to U.S. hegemony, heretofore an iron-clad law of international relations. These rivals have been rather skillfully defined, in particular regarding the Middle East, as the "collective forces of Islam"8 or as one or more Islamic states. The previous "pivotal states" and "special allies"9 cannot now be discarded as vestiges of bipolar superpower confrontation. On the contrary, they need to be strengthened for the struggle ahead. And, of course, the psychological factors that have conditioned the closeness of the U.S. and Israel over time are even more strongly felt when, as at present, emphasis on cultural contradictions within and among societies dominate political discourse.

No Overt Alliance

But what seems most of all to paralyze thinking in the U.S. on the matter of support to Israel, even when the latter's policies contribute to local and regional instability, tension and even violence, is paradoxically the fact that there is no institutionalized security arrangement between them. There is no overt alliance, with written clauses, which does not mean that there are not a good many secret agreements, particularly regarding the disposition and use of force and weaponry (notably nuclear bombs) in the event of war. The reasons for the absence of such ties, similar to those which link the U.S. to so many of its allies all over the globe, are numerous, complicated and, because they have not been widely analyzed, somewhat obscure.10 But its effects are clear, in the context of the strong bonds of sympathy which exist. It permits Israel to get away with excesses which would be impossible in the framework of a well-delineated relationship.
The widespread use by the Israeli military of forbidden weapons (such as booby-traps and fragmentation bombs) supplied by the United States, in the 1982 Lebanon war could be, and duly was, deplored by the U.S. But there are not the same means available to deter and to respond to objectionable behavior. Just as one shudders to contemplate what might have been the level of conflict between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean had there not been the strictures of common NATO membership, one may legitimately wonder what excesses might have been prevented or limited had the U.S.-Israeli relationship been codified.
Because of a connection to which no formal limits have been set, Israel, as the weaker party, can and does act as though there were no limits at all. Nor do the U.S. and Israel join temporary coalitions together, such as that of the Korean, the Vietnam, or Gulf wars. This likewise leaves it in a sense free to act unilaterally, confident of u.s. support. The failure of Israel to continue on the road to peace with the PLO, Syria and Lebanon since 1996, thus setting the clock back to where it was before 1991, and placing the stability of the region at risk, leaves the world, and singularly the United States, at a loss what to do.

Not Purely Defensive

There are no institutionalized commitments; but the organic ties which bind the two nations are such that, in spearheading the latest escalation with Iraq, the rallying-cry was the alleged capacity of Saddam to blow Tel Aviv to smithereens. This was dearly a considerable overstatement of the situation, as the French and Russian governments did not fail to point out. But the purpose was achieved. Opinion in the U.S. (and pc ssibly elsewhere) was instantly mobilized. No matter that the Gulf states ,are much closer (and thus more vulnerable) to such an attack, and that, unlike Israel, they do not themselves have the means to deter it, but must rely on the presence of u.s. forces in and near their countries, and on commitments in the framework of the anti-Baghdad coalition headed by the United States. It appears in this instance that the U.S.-Iraqi confrontation is to a great extent fueled by the one partner with which the U.S. has no conventional relationship: Israel.
Certainly, the two parties are unanimous in not wishing to institutionalize their relationship. This leaves both of them with the illusion of greater freedom, to act unilaterally and to push their common goals forward without limits. Alliances tend nowadays to be defensive ones. This is true of NATO, just as it was of the Warsaw Pact. Perhaps the reason why the relationship between the U.S. and Israel will not be institutionalized is that its nature is not purely defensive. At any rate, this is one of the reasons why its manifestations and potential are so destabilizing, so unlimited, and so disconcerting. This is true even though the intensity of the relationship, as we have shown, has a beginning and should therefore have an end. One can predict an eventual toning-down of the unconditionally of the relationship for the day when Israel has reached a definitive peace with Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. At that time, the U.S. will have to offer some guarantees, and the codification of the relationship might be conducive to greater evenhandedness. This is probably precisely the reason why Israel is not anxious for that day to dawn.


1. The US Declaration of Independence, in one of the accusations leveled against King George III which justified the secession of the thirteen colonies, the fact that he "was endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions:' a style reminiscent of the creators of Israel in their self-justification (for example Menachem Begin in The Revolt, who refers to Palestinian forces in 1948 as "Nazis").
2. Cf. Elias Sanbar, Palestine 1948: l'expulsion, Paris, 1984, pp. 89-97.
3. As reflected in his letter to King Ibn Saud of April 5, in which he promises not to act on the question of Palestine without consulting the Arabs.
4. Cf. Samir Kassir and Farouk Mardam-Bey, Itineraires de Paris a Jerusalem: la France et le conflict israelo-arabe, Paris, 1992, p. 189.
5. Cf. PR. Kumaraswamy, "Israel, China and the U.S.: The Patriot Controversy," Israel Affairs 3(2), 1996, pp. 12-33. The progressive transition from French to American support coincided with the winding down of French colonialism and the assumption by the U.S. of the colonial-imperial burdens of the French and British around the world, culminating in De Gaulle's condemnation of Israel's role in the June 1967 war, and the ending of arms shipments.
6. Mohamed Abdel Ghani El-Gamasi, The October War: Memoirs of Field Marshal EI-Gamasi of Egypt, Cairo, 1993, p. 281.
7. Cf. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, The Israeli Connection: Who Israel Arms and Why, New York,1987.
8. "The twentieth-century conflict between liberal democracy and Marxist-Leninism is only a fleeting and superficial historical phenomenon compared to the continuing and deeply conflictual relation between Islam and Christianity": Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, 1996, p. 208. While this assertion contradicts the realities of most recent conflicts and slaughters from Rwanda to Croatia to Somalia to Ecuador/Peru to Algeria, it is grist to the mill of the arms industry, just as the same author's advocacy of the heavy bombing of Vietnam (in the context of the "strategic hamlet" theory) was in the 1960s. And it is testimony to his, and to the U.S. military-intellectual-industrial complex's quick conversion from the ideological to the civilizational crusader.
9. Robert S. Chase, Emily B. Hill, and Paul Kennedy, "Pivotal States and U.S. Strategy," Foreign Affairs 75(2), 1996, pp. 33-51. The authors count Israel as a "special ally" rather than a "pivotal state," apparently because it is small and stable rather than large and unstable.
10. Curiously, a variety of works allude to the fact that what binds the two countries together is more than an alliance, a kind of "Bruderschaft" of existential proportions, but none of them to my knowledge has identified the correlate phenomenon, the lack of an alliance, as part of the phenomenon; e.g. Camille Mansour, Beyond Alliance: Israel and U.S. Foreign Policy, New York, 1994.