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U.S./Israel: The United States And Israel: A Close, 50-Year Relationship

  • Andrew Tully

Since Israel's founding in 1948, every U.S. president has supported the state during its wars with its Arab neighbors. U.S. support persists even now, as Israel wages a controversial battle against Palestinian insurgents in the territories Israel has occupied since 1967. It's a policy that has brought the United States under increasing criticism in the Arab world and elsewhere. Why do American-Israeli ties remain so strong?

Washington, 27 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, addressing the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush gave Israel a clear signal of his support in its continuing battle against the Palestinian intifada.

"The United States is strongly committed, and I am strongly committed, to the security of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state," Bush said on 18 May. "Israel is a democracy and a friend and has every right to defend itself from terror."

Bush's speech went on to stress the United States' commitment to establishing a Palestinian state. But critics say that despite such attempts to balance his statements, Bush's policy overwhelmingly appears to favor Israel.

Observers cite Bush's decision last month to support a plan by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that would allow some Jewish settlements to remain in the West Bank, and to reject the right of displaced Palestinians to return to their ancestral homes in what is now Israel proper.

The United States has also stopped short of condemning Israel's recent incursions into an Palestinian refugee camp -- which left dozens of people dead and many more homeless -- as well as its targeted assassinations of two top officials from the militant group Hamas.
Some observers believe it was during the 1960s and '70s that the U.S.-Israeli partnership took on the strategic quality that characterizes it today.


It is a stance that -- along with the Iraq war -- has contributed to Washington's growing unpopularity in much of the Arab world.

U.S. support for Israel has always been strong. Nearly half the vetoes the United States has used in the United Nations Security Council over the past three decades have been to shield Israel from resolutions.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Israel was the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in 2003, with $2.1 billion in military aid and $600 million in economic aid.

Josh Block is a spokesman for AIPAC, the group Bush addressed in his speech last week. He said Americans and Israelis share a cultural and political affinity based on a common appreciation for equal rights for all people, regardless of race, sex, or national origin.

He rejects suggestions that groups like AIPAC use their warm ties with Washington to affect American policy in the Mideast.

Citing a recent decision by the House of Representatives to impose economic sanctions on Syria in response to its reported support of terrorist groups, Block said the United States clearly pursues its own policy agenda in the Mideast -- not Israel's.

"No one persuades 408 members of the House of Representatives to vote to impose sanctions on Syria," he said. According to Block, "Regimes like Iran -- who are investing no money in human capital but instead are spending their money on nuclear weapons; regimes like Saudi Arabia, who have spent billions of dollars on spreading ideologies of radical Islam -- are responsible for their own fates."

The United States has supported the state of Israel since its founding in 1948. But some observers say it was during the 1960s and '70s that the partnership took on the strategic quality that continues to characterize it today.

Raeed Tayeh is communications director for American Muslims for Jerusalem, a Washington-based advocacy group for Palestinian rights. He said the United States came to see Israel as a critical Cold War ally in a region dominated by hostile, Soviet-backed countries.

It was during this period, Tayeh said, that Washington began giving Israel billions of dollars in economic and military aid and the pro-Israel lobby became influential.

"Once the Cold War ended, the power of the pro-Israel lobby did not end, it only intensified, particularly since there was not a counterbalance," Tayeh said. "There was no serious pro-Palestinian lobby at the time. So the [pro-Israel lobbyists] had a monopoly on the issue."

Tayeh said the natural affinity between Israel and the United States, with its European and Judeo-Christian traditions, is reinforced by what he calls the modern "myth" that Israel was a homeland for a people left homeless after World War II-- and not a home for the Palestinians.

"These myths that were told to the American people over and over again have created this frame of reference that is very difficult to penetrate when you try to explain the Palestinian narrative of displacement, of massacres, of home demolitions, of occupation," Tayeh said. "It's as if people want to put their hands over their ears because if they hear it, they'll be forced to change the way they think and the way they view the current conflict."

Many Americans -- of varying ages and religious faiths -- have religious and cultural ties with Israel. Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in the U.S. capital. He said some of Israel's strongest support comes from evangelical Christians -- who take Judeo-Christian scripture as the literal word of God.

"For evangelical Christians there's a very strong interest in the Old Testament," Brown said. "Obviously, for American Jews there's a strong religious tie. For people of the generation that remembers World War II and the Holocaust, I think there's a strong moral imperative. Right now, the group that probably is most enthusiastic in its support is probably some elements within the evangelical Christian community."

But Brown said there is much more to the relationship between some U.S. citizens and Israel than spiritual belief. He says many Americans also respect Israel's five decades of liberal democracy, which is unique in a region where authoritarian rule is the norm.

Brown said such similarities tend to make Americans less receptive to Palestinian complaints of mistreatment at the hands of the Israelis.

At the same time, however, he believes the American public is less enthusiastic in its support of Israel than the United States' political leaders -- a reflection of the strong influence of the pro-Israeli lobby on Congress and the White House.

"On Capitol Hill, Israel -- especially at times when it seems besieged or under attack -- is virtually sacrosanct, and you'll find very, very few congressmen willing to go beyond very ginger criticism of Israeli policy," Brown said. "In the broader public, if you look at public-opinion polls, that's not always the case. And I would say right now, [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon's image in the United States is not good. Perhaps the only leader with a more negative image might be [Palestinian leader] Yassir Arafat."
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