RARELY, if ever, since President Truman hastened to recognize the
new state of Israel in 1948, have American prestige and leverage
been lower in the Middle East.
The seeming weakness of US muscle perceived by its friends and
allies in the area comes from years of disuse.
How did this happen? History has some answers.
First, American inconsistency and indecision. In 1944, eager to
bar the German and Japanese enemies from Arabia's rich oil supplies,
President Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabian King Abdelazziz ibn Saud
aboard the US Navy cruiser Quincy.
A kind of gentleman's agreement denied access to the Arabian
Peninsula's oil to the enemy Axis and guaranteed it to the United
States. Roosevelt told the Saudi king that the US, without
consulting Arab states, would brook no changes in the status of
Jewish and Arab terrorists and guerrillas soon drove out the
British by killing British soldiers. They killed each other, too.
Much of world Jewry fervently welcomed the new Israel as a haven
from the Holocaust. But Israel was born in conflict with its own
Palestinian Arabs, about 300,000 of whom fled or were ejected, and
in fighting the ill-equipped external Arab armies. Israel was
swiftly recognized, first by Moscow, then by Washington.
For a time, US administrations supported Israel at a distance.
Its main helper in the 1950s (once the brief support of the Soviet
bloc dried up) was France, from which it purchased secrets and
materials it needed to become an undeclared nuclear power.
The lowest point of the fluctuating Israeli influence on the US
came with President Eisenhower. After the US pressured Israel's
British and French allies to withdraw from Egyptian territory in
their unsuccessful 1956 war to seize the Suez Canal, Israel's
founding father, David Ben-Gurion, refused to pull Israeli forces
out of their new conquests in Sinai and Gaza, as the UN Security
Council had ordered.
So Eisenhower, in January 1957, threatened American Jewish
leaders and lobbyists with withdrawal of tax-free Israel bond sales
and other crucial privileges. Mr. Ben-Gurion reversed himself and
withdrew. Respect for the US was high throughout the area, even in
It sank after President Johnson in 1967 chose to challenge
neither an Israeli attack on the US Navy's intelligence ship
Liberty, nor the rapid Israeli conquests of territory in Egypt,
Syria, and Jordan which followed. President Carter reached an
Egyptian-Israeli settlement with the Camp David peace accords, after
the Arab-Israel war of 1973. An Arab oil embargo hit Americans with
rocketing prices. Massive US military aid rescued an Israel under
heavy pressure from the Egyptian and Syrian armies.
Egypt was the first Arab nation to recognize Israel. Subsequent
events also offered hope: Israel's first hesitant recognition of
limited autonomy for its Palestinian subjects and Jordanian King
Hussein's peace treaty with Israel, in 1994. There was US input in
US-Mideast relations dipped sharply in 1984. President Reagan
first sent, then withdrew, a US peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
Israeli forces were directed by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon
to destroy Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization
in Lebanon. They drove both out, after US mediation. But nearly 250
US marines and some of the CIA's best Mideast operatives were killed
by truck bombs in Beirut. This terrorism was the work of Shi'ite
Arab militants, controlled by the successful clerical Muslim
revolutionaries in Iran, who had taken US hostages both there and in
In 1979-89, Presidents Carter and Reagan waged the war to expel
the Soviets from Afghanistan, hastening the Soviet Union's breakup.
Thousands of young, extremist, and perennially anti-Communist
Muslims volunteered for the CIA's victorious proxy war. …