US presidents and Israel: Always expect the unexpected
US presidents and Israel: Always expect the unexpected

As we continue our path along the most interesting election cycle in modern American history, the Pro-Israel Community (which is largely non-Jewish and, regrettably, includes less than half of American Jewry) is engaged in well-meaning efforts to identify and support the most pro-Israel candidate among the combatants. It is a worthwhile exercise, and will ultimately boil down, as it has in the recent past, to support for the Republican nominee. There plainly is no Democratic candidate worthy of consideration.

But what do we get from a seemingly pro-Israel president, and what do we lose when a candidate is elected whose views are hostile to Israel? A look back at history suggests that the answer is surprisingly complex and unpredictable.

Let’s begin with the last president to serve before the creation of the State of Israel – Franklin Roosevelt. Perhaps no other president was as beloved by the American Jewish Community of his day as FDR, in large part because of the ignorance of that community to the events transpiring in war-torn Europe (we can thank the New York Times and the national media outlets for that).

While FDR presided over the Allied Forces’ victory over the Nazi regime, his presidency was marred by his refusal to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps – a simple and nearly cost-free initiative that would have saved millions of Jewish lives. His presidency was further tarnished by his refusal to permit the SS St. Louis (the “Voyage of the Damned”), carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees, to dock on US soil, thereby condemning the refugees to a return to Europe and many to an almost certain death.

Notwithstanding his other accomplishments and his unqualified support among the Jews of his time, FDR, by his actions and inactions, may have been the most anti-Semitic president to ever hold office. Certainly no other president was in a position to save so many Jewish lives and utterly failed in that opportunity.

Then came Harry Truman, the president who had the courage to immediately recognize the State of Israel after it declared its independence in 1948.  At least he was pro-Israel, right? Not exactly.

As Israel was prepared to announce its statehood simultaneously with the end of the British Mandate, Truman had accepted the advice of the State Department to deny Israel American recognition. Aware of this predicament, Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, traveled to Washington to beseech Truman to change his mind, but he could not obtain an audience with the President.

It was only after Eddie Jacobson, Truman’s close friend and former business partner from Missouri, came to Washington at the behest of Weizmann and pleaded with Truman to reconsider, that Harry Truman, in the face of continuing opposition from the Secretary of State, had his famous meeting with Weizmann and recognized the nascent State of Israel. Following that historical event, Truman had little ongoing interest in the Jewish State.

Truman was followed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces who defeated the Nazis in World War II. Eisenhower personally witnessed the liberation of the death camps and the lifeless condition of the Jewish inmates who had managed to survive. Surely, he would be supportive of Israel as a much-needed place of refuge for the Jews of Europe and North Africa. Again, not exactly.

To Eisenhower, Israel was an irritant in the broader picture of the geo-politics of the Middle East. Under Eisenhower, there was a complete embargo on the sale of arms by the US to Israel (in those days, Israel’s air force flew Mirage jets made in France, not the US Phantoms). And, when Israel captured the Sinai from Egypt in a defensive war in 1956, Eisenhower demanded that Israel unilaterally withdraw in exchange for nothing. He thus created a very dangerous mindset in the Middle East among Arab nations that they had little to lose by military offensives – the United States would not allow Israel to expand its borders.

John F. Kennedy followed Eisenhower in 1960.  Now, if ever there was a president to be feared by the pro-Israel camp, here he was. Kennedy’s father, Joseph, was an avowed anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer. As the US Ambassador to England, Joseph Kennedy wrote of how he admired Hitler’s strategy of uniting Germans around a common enemy – the Jews – and how the Jews were deserving of their isolation and discrimination. Think of how uncomfortable many are today with President Obama’s association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who preaches a virulently anti-Semitic message. But in 1960, that message had been articulated by the president’s father!  Surely the Jews would be in for a rough time under JFK. Again, not exactly.

Kennedy was the first American president to employ the rhetoric of America’s “special commitment” to Israel. More importantly, Kennedy ended the embargo on US arms sales to Israel that had been in place under Truman and Eisenhower. While Kennedy and Ben-Gurion had a spirited disagreement over Israel’s development of nuclear weapons, that debate, by all accounts, was driven by Kennedy’s fear of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East rather than any particular desire to limit Israel’s capabilities. JFK, whose father admired Adolf Hitler, became the first president who was undoubtedly pro-Israel.

Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office aboard Air Force One in 1963, just hours after JFK’s assassination. In his election campaign of 1964, support for Israel was hardly on anyone’s radar – the United States was enmeshed in an escalating and increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, and experiencing social upheaval at home. LBJ is best known, and either loved or hated, for two things: the expansion of the Vietnam War and the creation of the Great Society designed to improve social justice for American minorities. And yet his unqualified support for Israel makes him perhaps the most pro-Israel president in history.

LBJ didn’t seek out a role in the Arab-Israeli dispute. Rather, it was thrust upon him as the Arabs moved closer to war in 1967. LBJ made sure that Israel had the military support that it needed, and he did not interfere as the Six Day War came to a close, while Abba Eban, under tremendous international pressure, tap-danced around a demand for a cease-fire until Israel had unified Jerusalem and solidified its control of the Golan Heights. 

Most importantly, after Israel’s historic conquest of the Sinai, Judea, Samaria, the Gaza Strip and the Golan, LBJ, in contrast to Eisenhower in 1956, did not demand a unilateral return of the captured territory. Rather, he helped to broker UN Resolution 242, which contemplates Israeli withdrawal of “territories” (note the absence of the word “all”) in exchange for “secure boundaries.” LBJ clearly was a friend of Israel, although that friendship hardly could have been predicted by pro-Israel voters in 1964.  

Then came Richard Nixon. While we are not privy to the private files of all the presidents, one would be hard-pressed to find evidence of anti-Semitism more damning than the tapes of Nixon’s White House. President Nixon did not like Jews, plain and simple. And based upon his demonstrable anti-Semitism, it would have been reasonable to conclude that Nixon would have been the last person we would want to have in office should Israel face an existential threat.

But Israel did face an existential threat right in the middle of the Nixon presidency – the Yom Kippur War. Faced with its enemies advancing on three fronts and a severely depleted arsenal, Golda Meir called on the United States for urgent assistance and Nixon responded by authorizing the largest airlift of weapons and military supplies in the history of Middle Eastern warfare. Nixon, an avowed anti-Semite, is credited by many in the Israeli Government with being Israel’s greatest friend. He certainly came to Israel’s rescue in its hour of greatest need.

Following Nixon’s impeachment and the short-lived presidency of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter came to power. Carter was no friend of Israel but his religious background gave him an obsessive interest in the Middle East. Carter was determined to force Israel into a lopsided deal with the Palestinians but two things got in his way: (1) the election of Menachem Begin as Israel’s Prime Minister, and (2) the Iran hostage crisis. Begin was too strong for Carter and would not be bullied, and the hostage crisis occupied the last 14 months of the Carter presidency, precluding Carter from any diplomatic initiatives against Israel in favor of its Muslim opponents.

Carter did broker a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that was initiated with Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977 and culminated with a signed treaty in early 1979. In contrast to 1956, here Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for a peace accord that has remained in place for some 35 years and prompted a similar treaty with Jordan. One can debate the wisdom of “land for peace” exchanges, but it is not debatable that Israel’s security has been enhanced by its coordination with the Egyptian military.

Carter, whose anti-Zionism sentiments were only fully revealed after he left office, did little damage to Israel and, arguably, provided Israel with material assistance. Like Nixon, Carter delivered a far better outcome than one would have expected.  In both cases, the respective presidents’ anti-Semitism was never actualized.   

That brings us to Ronald Reagan – the greatest president since Lincoln, right? Everyone today in the Republican Party longs for the leadership of Reagan. But when it comes to Israel, there were two Reagans. One offered lofty rhetoric of the unbreakable friendship between Israel and the United States – rhetoric theretofore unspoken in the Republican Party that I was privileged to observe personally when President Reagan spoke at my father’s synagogue in October, 1984.  But then there was the Reagan who condemned Israel’s destruction of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, declared an embargo on the sale of US planes to Israel in response, caused the United States to sell highly sophisticated AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia in the face of bitter Israeli and Congressional opposition, and who laid a wreath at the cemetery of Nazi soldiers in Bitburg, Germany against the fervent pleas of Elie Wiesel.

Reagan, superficially, had his heart in the right place. But he often was influenced by anti-Israel advisors throughout his cabinet.

There’s an important lesson to be learned from the Reagan presidency. A well-intentioned president – and Reagan certainly fits this bill -- may be inadequate to counter the dangerous forces at play within the Departments of State and Defense.

As the first George Bush pursued the presidency, the Republican Party, buoyed by the charm and charisma of Reagan, had finally emerged as a legitimate option for pro-Israel voters. But the enthusiasm was short lived. President George H. W. Bush was steadfastly opposed to any building in Judea and Samaria, and sought to punish then Housing Minister Ariel Sharon by threatening to veto US loan guarantees of $10 billion – a financial accommodation by the United States that effectively cost America nothing – designed to help Israel finance the absorption of over one million Soviet Jews.

When AIPAC cried foul over Bush’s mean-spirited threat, the president revived the ancient canard of undue Jewish influence by referring to himself as “one little lonely guy” fighting against “powerful political forces.” Fortunately, Israel was not confronted by an existential crisis during his term in office.

The Clinton era ushered in a different relationship between the United States and Israel, oddly enough, perhaps too friendly. On the one hand, you had Bill Clinton, someone who genuinely admired and respected the State of Israel, but who was firmly committed to a “two state solution.” On the other side, there was Yitzchak Rabin (until his assassination in 1995) followed by Shimon Peres, then Bibi Netanyahu for 3 years, and concluding with Ehud Barak. In Rabin and Barak, Clinton had the opportunity to interface with Israel’s most decorated war heroes, both unfortunately being in the left wing Labor Party.

When Donald Trump promises to be “neutral” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, just consider how much better “neutrality” would have been than the aggressive approach adopted by Clinton and nearly achieved.
It was a prescription for disaster. With Rabin, Clinton achieved the “Oslo Accords” – a series of one-sided agreements that were greeted by the Palestinians with a brutal escalation of terrorism. And, with Barak’s encouragement, Clinton came up just short of reaching a complete settlement with Yasser Arafat at Camp David – a settlement where the Arabs were offered virtually all of Judea and Samaria as well as the Temple Mount. One can only wonder why this proposal was rejected by Arafat, but we must be grateful for his recalcitrance. The agreement plainly would have been suicidal for Israel.

President Clinton plainly had warm feelings for Israel but he injected himself into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations like no president before or since. Despite his good intentions, however, Clinton was more dangerous to the interests of Israel than any president since Eisenhower. When Donald Trump promises to be “neutral” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, just consider how much better “neutrality” would have been than the aggressive approach adopted by Clinton and nearly achieved.

The contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 was the closest election in history. Both candidates supported Israel, with neither standing out on this issue. As we moved into the Bush II era, however, something fundamentally changed: On September 11, 2001, the United States was tragically attacked by Muslim extremists. While most nations were shocked and expressed solidarity with America, the Palestinians were proudly celebrating in the streets. This unprovoked hatred affected President Bush deeply and he understood, like no president before him, just how absurd it was to expect the Israelis to make concessions to such villainous people.

When Ariel Sharon withdrew from Gaza in 2005, President Bush informed Sharon, by letter dated April 14, 2004, that the United States recognized the new “realities on the ground” (meaning the increased Jewish population) in Judea and Samara and that, in future negotiations, a return to the 1949 armistice lines was “unrealistic.”  

Unfortunately, Bush’s letter to Sharon was torn to shreds by Secretary of State Clinton as soon as she took office.

That brings us up to date as we now consider President Obama. As evident from this brief history, some presidents looked bad but ended up good, and some looked good but ended up bad. Obama, in contrast, looked bad and was bad. No president in history has been as openly hostile to Israel as Obama, and the agreement he reached with Iran has funneled billions of dollars to known terrorist groups and paved the way for a nuclear Iran.

Hillary Clinton, if elected, will continue where Obama left off. Those who support Israel should not give her their vote.

Despite Obama, Israel is at the apex of its military strength, technological prowess and economic vitality. But that is a testament to the resilience of the Israeli people and to Divine Providence. Israel’s neighborhood, and the entire world around it, is becoming increasingly dangerous, and our choice for the next president is more important than ever.

So what can we learn from history as we consider which Republican candidate to support? Plainly, no matter who is elected, the situation is highly fluid and dynamic and history tells us that a president’s course of action may be highly unpredictable. Nonetheless, we have learned to look for the following qualities in choosing our elected officials:

A keen sense of who is right and who is wrong in the Israel/Palestinian controversy;

A willingness to identify and confront evil rather than to excuse it;

A recognition that Israel knows what is best for it and, therefore, an unwillingness to pressure Israel to make unwanted concessions;

A willingness to keep Israel at a level of extreme military superiority relative to its neighbors, recognizing that Israel has never asked for US soldiers to be placed in harms way in its defense;

A recognition that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is all but irrelevant to the upheaval in the Muslim world. The real battles are between Sunnis and Shiites, and between radical Sunnis (ISIS) and more moderate Sunnis. There is no global imperative to solve the Israeli/Palestinian dispute – it will do little if anything to reduce the temperature in the Middle East;

A recognition that Congress has mandated since 1995 that the US Embassy be housed in Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital, and there is no good reason to further delay this legislative direction.

Having said all that, let’s gain some important perspective on the US presidency as it relates to the health of Israel. They say that in Israel, one who believes in miracles is a realist. Looking back some 90 years on the cast of characters who were privileged to hold the most powerful position on the face of the earth, it is nothing less than miraculous that Israel has continued to grow, prosper and flourish. The hand of God is everywhere to be seen in Israel’s development. We should, of course, try to pick the right president, but let’s not forget who’s really running the show. Let’s therefore include prayer, charity and good deeds as an essential part of a pro-Israel strategy.