Opinion

From Truman to Trump: The Tragic Trajectory of the U.S.-Israeli Alliance

This year Israel marks its 70th anniversary. But, punctuated by Trump’s cartoonish Middle East policy, it's a melancholy milestone for America-Israel relations, marking the deterioration of the ethics and ideals that once bound them together

President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum. Jan. 25, 2018, in Davos, Switzerland
Evan Vucci/AP

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Israel’s war of independence against Arab enemies determined to crush it at birth. And it was 70 years ago in May that President Harry Truman extended recognition to the Jewish state, rejecting advice from his Secretary of State, George Marshall, but accepting the majority vote of the new United Nations organization in favour of partition.

This new year is also, of course, the second year of Donald Trump, and the tenth of Netanyahu (in the latter’s second period as Prime Minister of Israel).

The illiberal distortion of the original basis of the U.S.-Israel alliance, and Trump’s more generally cartoonish Middle East policy, are far from the most dangerous developments in the bewildering months since Trump took office. Yet they deserve attention as a melancholy milestone marking how far the United States and Israel have strayed from the temper and idealism that bound them together in 1948.

It was the temper and idealism of post-war American liberalism and Zionist Labour-Socialism. For Americans, liberalism was further impelled by  World War II, an inconceivably immense effort to extirpate the moral animus of fascism and the strategic challenge it engendered. For Israelis, it stemmed from the hunger for equality and human dignity Jews in Europe had long been denied. Genocidal racism in Europe required re-examining racist habits and social, legal and economic structures in the United States.

And so it was also that summer of 1948, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, that Hubert Humphrey, the young mayor of Minneapolis, invoked the world war that had just ended and the cold war just beginning, pointing to America’s emergence as "leader in the free world" that was "being challenged by the world of slavery."

Humphrey then proclaimed, against the segregationists in his own party: "The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."

It was John F. Kennedy, presiding over the first major American arms sales to Israel, who established the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance in something like its present form. And the young Kennedy’s partnership with the elder David Ben-Gurion was deeply rooted in a forward-looking liberal optimism.

Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, accompanied by then-Israeli ambassador to the United States Abba Eban, center, gives a present of a Hanukkah menorah to then-U.S. President Harry Truman. May 1, 1951
אי־פי

In part this was natural Democratic Party affinity for Israel’s pioneering socialism. With America still roiled by civil rights struggles, moreover, Israel was a lot more congenial than Arab partners like Saudi Arabia, which still practiced legalized slavery and demanded that American military personnel on its territory be certified Jew-free.

The contrast made Israel look particularly good to such liberals as Harris Wofford, Kennedy’s civil rights adviser, who pointed to the Israeli kibbutzim and labor unions as "models and teachers for the peoples seeking freedom in the developing world."

Certainly the Kennedy administration, like its immediate predecessors, was conscious of the tensions and contradictions in the liberal foundation of the relationship. Truman had been furious when the newly established Jewish state refused to readmit Palestinian refugees from the war. President Dwight Eisenhower was angrier still about the botched Israeli-French-British war to retake the Suez Canal, a huge embarrassment in the Cold War contest for hearts and minds in newly independent colonies.

JFK was even more sensitive to the importance of positioning the U.S. on the right side of anti-colonialism: as a young senator he had attacked the vestiges of European "imperialism" as manifest in France’s conduct of the war in Algeria; as President he courted Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser even while engaging Ben-Gurion.

Israelis take part in the 'March of Shame', a weekly protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and government corruption. Tel Aviv, December 23, 2017
AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ

Among post-war presidents, Kennedy was also perhaps the most imaginative worrier about the dangers of nuclear proliferation; his worries resulted, after his death, in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also put him at odds with an Israel suspected of developing nuclear weapons.

Thereafter, the special relationship between the United States and Israel deepened in many ways, but it also drifted away from its founding ethos.

Partly it was a shift from a values-based relationship to one based on strategic interest. As the strategic dimension expanded, the old ethical dimension shrank. This owed partly to the rise in both countries of religious conservatism, which, in the U.S., focused on Israel’s role in an eschatological biblical drama, rather than the egalitarian and pioneering spirit Americans had identified with in the preceding decades.

A Palestinian protester throws a stone at Israeli forces during protests against Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, near the West Bank Qalandia checkpoint. December 20, 2017
\ GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

Latterly, the moral factor was further displaced by the "startup nation" fixation, which was perfectly suited for the ethos of the moment: a tech bubble and distorted wealth distribution in both countries, reflecting the shared ambitions of tech and financial elites for ever greater levels of wealth accumulation, and indifference to the needs of their humbler compatriots. This too was a sign of the times. Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice, travelling as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State to the West Bank, was reminded of her childhood in the racist stronghold of Birmingham, Alabama.

Yet even with these changes in both societies, and the corrupting effects of permanent occupation, leaderships in both countries kept something of the founding ethic alive. Israeli prime ministers from Begin to Olmert sought peace, and one of them – Yitzhak Rabin – was murdered for his effort. Successive U.S. administrations, from Johnson to Obama, were partial to Israel in spite of its flaws, but they also were stewards of a liberal foreign-policy ethic that took Palestinian grievances seriously and expected Israel to negotiate an end to occupation.

Until now. The current Israeli Prime Minister, who in his last election campaign warned Jewish backers that Israeli Arab citizens were voting in droves, has found his partner in an American president who spews invective against Muslims, Mexicans and women, and insists that his loss of the popular vote resulted from colossal voter fraud.

One could strain to imagine a better future. It is possible that the current threats to democratic culture in both countries will prove temporary.

Both countries constitute, in their own fashion, impressive democratic achievements: the United States in its historical endurance; Israel as a young and unique democracy in a sea of authoritarian states.

In America the resistance to Trump’s depredations is strengthening; 2018 could be a decisive year. In Israel there are at least faint stirrings of resentment against a legally beleaguered Netanyahu that might offer the new Labour leader, a skilful, left-of-center populist who appeals to Israel’s Sephardic majority, an opportunity to form a government recommitted to a two state solution. Recent polling, however, calls his strength into question.

Such optimistic scenarios are therefore a stretch – particularly in regard to Israel, where democracy does not include West Bank Palestinians, and where demographic trends among Israeli citizens have been pushing the country steadily to the right.

Some friends of Israel take solace in the idea of a more transactional U.S.-Israel relationship that, in concert with a new Sunni coalition, helps Washington defend American interests in the Middle East. Yet the wonder of the relationship until recently was precisely that it transcended such considerations, even while accounting for them.

In any event, the current character of this U.S.-Israel partnership is part and parcel of the Trump-stamped defacement of post-war liberal order. It will require immense effort to repair both.

Steven Simon is a history professor at Amherst College. He served in the Clinton and Obama administrations on the National Security Council and in the State Department during the Reagan and Bush administrations. His new book, The Long Goodbye: The U.S. and Middle East from the Islamic Revolution to the Arab Spring, will be released by Penguin Random House in 2019

Dana H. Allin is Editor, Survival, Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and Adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy.

Allin and Simon are co-authors of Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of The U.S.-Israel Alliance (PublicAffairs, 2016).