American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict has reflected dueling impulses at the heart of US-Middle East relations since World War II: growing support for Zionism and Israeli statehood on the one hand, the need for cheap oil resources and strong alliances with Arab states on the other, unfolding alongside the ebb and flow of concerns over Soviet influence in the region during the Cold War. These tensions have tracked with successive Arab–Israeli conflagrations, from the 1948 war through the international conflicts of 1967 and 1973, as well as shifting modes of intervention in Lebanon, and more recently, the Palestinian uprisings in the occupied territories and several wars on the Gaza Strip. US policy has been shaped by diverging priorities in domestic and foreign policy, a halting recognition of the need to tackle Palestinian national aspirations, and a burgeoning peace process which has drawn American diplomats into the position of mediating between the parties. Against the backdrop of regional upheaval, this long history of involvement continues into the 21st century as the unresolved conflict between Israel and the Arab world faces a host of new challenges.
Olivia L. Sohns
Moral, political, and strategic factors have contributed to the emergence and durability of the U.S.-Israel alliance. It took decades for American support for Israel to evolve from “a moral stance” to treating Israel as a “strategic asset” to adopting a policy of “strategic cooperation.” The United States supported Israel’s creation in 1948 not only because of the lobbying efforts of American Jews but also due to humanitarian considerations stemming from the Holocaust. Beginning in the 1950s, Israel sought to portray itself as an ally of the United States on grounds that America and Israel were fellow liberal democracies and shared a common Judeo-Christian cultural heritage. By the mid-1960s, Israel was considered a strategic proxy of American power in the Middle East in the Cold War, while the Soviet Union armed the radical Arab nationalist states and endorsed a Palestinian “people’s wars of national liberation” against Israel. Over the subsequent decades, Israel repeatedly sought to demonstrate that it was allied with the United States in opposing instability in the region that might threaten U.S. interests. Israel also sought to portray itself as a liberal democracy despite its continued occupation of territories that it conquered in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the rise of regional instability and radicalism in the Middle East following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring of 2011, Israel’s expertise in the realms of counterterrorism and homeland security provided a further basis for U.S.-Israel military-strategic cooperation. Although American and Israeli interests are not identical, and there have been disagreements between the two countries regarding the best means to secure comprehensive Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian peace, the foundations of the relationship are strong enough to overcome crises that would imperil a less robust alliance.
A remarkably large number of nonstate actors played important and often unheralded roles in the creation of the state of Israel. The American labor movement was one such actor, assisting the Jewish community in Palestine to develop a political and social infrastructure in the “Yishuv” years before statehood, and then continuing to do so afterward. This movement, consisting of various labor federations, unions, and fraternal orders, aided the Zionist cause through a unique combination of financial and political resources. American labor organizations, especially those in the Jewish labor movement, helped lay the groundwork for the formation of a Jewish state by nurturing a labor movement in Palestine and influencing the US policymaking apparatus. They aided this process through land purchases for Jewish worker cooperatives in Palestine, the construction of trade schools and cultural centers there, and massive economic aid to the Histadrut, the General Federation of Jewish Workers in Palestine. American labor organizations also lobbied congressional allies, the White House, and local officials to generate policies assisting the Yishuv. They even pressured the British government during its mandate over Palestine and lobbied United Nations (UN) member states to vote for the partition of Palestine in 1947 and Israel’s recognition in 1948. Jewish labor leadership within the American garment industry played the key role in mobilizing the larger labor movement to support a Jewish state. Initially, however, most Jewish labor leaders did not support this effort because many descended from the “Bund” or General Jewish Workers’ Union of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, a Jewish socialist party founded in 1897. Like any other nationalist movement, Bundists viewed Zionism as a diversion of the labor movement’s fight against capitalism. Instead, Bundists emphasized Jewish culture as a vehicle to spread socialism to the Jewish masses. Yet, in time, two practical concerns developed that would move Bundists to embrace assistance to the Yishuv and, ultimately, to the state of Israel. First, finding Jewish refugees a haven from persecution and, second, a commitment to assisting a burgeoning trade union movement in Palestine.
Sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Harry S. Truman faced the daunting tasks of winning the war and ensuring future peace and stability. Chided by critics for his lack of foreign policy experience but championed by supporters for his straightforward decision-making, Truman guided the United States from World War to Cold War. The Truman presidency marked a new era in American foreign relations, with the United States emerging from World War II unmatched in economic strength and military power. The country assumed a leadership position in a postwar world primarily shaped by growing antagonism with the Soviet Union. Truman pursued an interventionist foreign policy that took measures to contain Soviet influence in Europe and stem the spread of communism in Asia. Under his leadership, the United States witnessed the dawn of the atomic age, approved billions of dollars in economic aid to rebuild Europe, supported the creation of multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, recognized the state of Israel, and intervened in the Korean peninsula. The challenges Truman confronted and the policies he implemented laid the foundation for 20th-century US foreign relations throughout the Cold War and beyond.
After World War II, the United States backed multinational private oil companies known as the “Seven Sisters”—five American companies (including Standard Oil of New Jersey and Texaco), one British (British Petroleum), and one Anglo-Dutch (Shell)—in their efforts to control Middle East oil and feed rising demand for oil products in the West. In 1960 oil-producing states in Latin America and the Middle East formed the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to protest what they regarded as the inequitable dominance of the private oil companies. Between 1969 and 1973 changing geopolitical and economic conditions shifted the balance of power from the Seven Sisters to OPEC. Following the first “oil shock” of 1973–1974, OPEC assumed control over the production and price of oil, ending the rule of the companies and humbling the United States, which suddenly found itself dependent upon OPEC for its energy security. Yet this dependence was complicated by a close relationship between the United States and major oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, which continued to adopt pro-US strategic positions even as they squeezed out the companies. Following the Iranian Revolution (1978–1979), the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988), and the First Iraq War (1990–1991), the antagonism that colored US relations with OPEC evolved into a more comfortable, if wary, recognition of the new normal, where OPEC supplied the United States with crude oil while acknowledging the United States’ role in maintaining the security of the international energy system.