Would Israel exist without America?
There is a common misnomer going around that Israel wouldn’t exist without America. Here are the historical facts.
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There is no question that the State of Israel has benefitted tremendously from its relationship with the United States, which is still the world’s military and economic superpower.
But most people don’t realize that, in the years leading up to and after the founding of the Jewish state, America was not a “staunch supporter” of Israel. Far from it.
Support for Zionism among American Jews was minimal, until the involvement of famous lawyer Louis Brandeis in the Federation of American Zionists, starting in 1912. And while Woodrow Wilson (the U.S. president from 1913 to 1921) was sympathetic to the plight of Jews in Europe and favorable to Zionist objectives, he did not change any U.S. State Department policies to support Zionist aims.
In 1944, two attempts by the U.S. Congress to pass resolutions declaring government support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine were protested by the Departments of War and State, due to World War II considerations and Arab opposition to the creation of a Jewish state. The resolutions were permanently dropped.
As the end of the British mandate in Palestine approached around the mid-1940s, the decision to recognize the Jewish state remained contentious among Americans, with significant disagreement between U.S. President Harry Truman, his domestic and campaign adviser, Clark Clifford, and both the State Department and Defense Department.
Meanwhile, as the Zionists were gearing up to declare their independence in 1948, they needed the British to withdraw from their mandate in Palestine. Surprisingly, though, the specific impetus for British troops to leave the region didn’t come from Arabs or Jews.
It came from an insanely harsh European winter in 1946, including one of the worst British blizzards of the 20th century, which paralyzed Britain and crushed its already fragile post-World War II economy, precipitating retrenchment of its global empire. This freak weather event opened up the space for the United Nations to partition the land in Palestine between its Jews and Arabs in 1947, for the Zionists to declare independence one year later, and then for President Truman to recognize the state that same year.
But then rapidly changing geopolitical circumstances took place across the Middle East, and U.S. policy was generally geared toward:
Supporting Arab states’ independence
Aiding the development of oil-producing countries
Halting Soviet influence from gaining a foothold in Greece, Turkey, and Iran
Preventing an arms race in the region
All of these policies ultimately meant maintaining a neutral stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict, so much so that the U.S. put the fledgling Jewish state under an arms embargo. It was only after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War that America started seriously selling arms to the Israelis, who essentially proved their value as an ally by virtue of this victory.
“Israel did not grow strong because it had an American alliance. It acquired an American alliance because it had grown strong,” according to Walter Russell Mead, a Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Yale University.1
In the 1950s, the United States provided Israel with moderate amounts of economic aid, mostly as loans for basic foodstuffs. France became Israel’s main arms supplier at this time and equipped the Jewish state with advanced military equipment and technology.
During the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Israeli military invaded Egypt and was soon followed by French and British forces. For differing reasons, France, Israel, and Britain signed a secret agreement to topple Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser by regaining control of the Suez Canal, following its nationalization, and to occupy parts of western Sinai assuring free passage of shipping (for Israel) in the Gulf of Aqaba.
In response, the United States, with support from the Soviet Union at the United Nations, intervened on behalf of Egypt to force a withdrawal. Eager to increase its influence in the region and prevent Nasser from shifting to the Soviet Bloc, U.S. policy was to remain neutral in Arab-Israeli hostilities and not become too closely aligned with Israel.
Seven years later, in 1963, American and Israeli leaders were engaged in a high-stakes battle of wills over the Jewish state’s nuclear program. The tensions were invisible to the publics of both countries, and only a few senior officials were aware of the severity of the situation. Former Israel Air Force commander Major General Dan Tolkowsky seriously entertained the fear that U.S. President John F. Kennedy might send airborne troops to Dimona, the home of Israel’s nuclear complex.
In a letter written to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Kennedy fleshed out his insistence on biannual visits to Israel’s nuclear facilities with a set of detailed technical conditions. This was akin to an ultimatum: If the U.S. government could not obtain “reliable information” on the state of the Dimona project, Washington’s “commitment to and support of Israel” could be “seriously jeopardized.”
But the letter was never presented to Ben-Gurion. The telegram with Kennedy’s letter arrived in Tel Aviv on Saturday, June 15th, the day before Ben-Gurion announced his resignation, a decision that stunned Israelis and the world. Beyond citing “personal reasons,” Ben-Gurion never explained what led him to resign, and he denied that his move was related to any specific policy issues. To this day, though, the question of Kennedy’s Dimona pressure playing a role remains one hypothesis.
Levi Eshkol, who succeeded Ben-Gurion as Israel’s prime minister, noted that, while he hoped the U.S.-Israeli friendship would grow under his watch, “Israel would do what it had to do for its national security and to safeguard its sovereign rights.”
In the end, the confrontation between Kennedy and two Israeli prime ministers resulted in a series of six American inspections of the Dimona nuclear complex, once a year starting in 1964, but they were never conducted under the strict conditions Kennedy laid out in his letters.
While Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, remained committed to the cause of nuclear nonproliferation and supported American inspection visits at Dimona, he was much less concerned about holding the Israelis to Kennedy’s terms. In retrospect, this change of attitude may have saved the Israeli nuclear program.
Meanwhile, in May 1967, Egyptian announced that the Straits of Tiran would again be closed to Israeli vessels. Israel claimed that this was an act of war and attacked Egypt in what became known as the Six-Day War, during which the U.S. maintained a neutral country status.
General Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Air Force chief of staff, informed the American naval attaché in Tel Aviv that Israel would defend its coast with every means at its disposal, including sinking unidentified ships. He asked the U.S. to keep its ships away from Israel’s shores, or at least inform Israel of their exact positions.
Three days later, Israeli jets and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty, an American Navy intelligence ship in Egyptian waters, killing 34 and wounding 171. Israel stated that the Liberty was mistaken as an Egyptian vessel, and thus an instance of friendly fire. The U.S. government accepted it as such, although the incident raised much controversy, and some still believe it was deliberate.
So, if not by America’s support, how did Israel become the power it’s known to be today?
During the 1800s and early 1900s, wealthy Western European Jewish philanthropists funded land purchases in Palestine by poor Eastern European Jews, who fled violent antisemitism across the Russian Empire. Most of these land purchases were done at the individual level, but there were instances when Ottoman governors themselves approved deals for Jews to buy land in Ottoman-era Palestine.
In 1917, the Balfour Declaration was a public statement issued by the British government during the First World War, announcing its support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, still an Ottoman region with a minority Jewish population at the time.
Also in 1917, a senior British army officer named Edmund Allenby arrived in Palestine. Following three failed attempts at conquering Gaza, he defeated the Ottomans later that year, and then conquered Jerusalem.
The military campaign over the Holy Land ended following the Battle of Megiddo in 1918, which essentially marked the conclusion of World War I. By defeating the Ottomans, Allenby effectively created the modern Middle East, paving the way for countries like Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq to come into existence.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin reversed his long-standing opposition to Zionism and tried to mobilize worldwide Jewish support for the Soviet war effort. A Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was set up in Moscow. Many thousands of Jewish refugees fled the Nazis and entered the Soviet Union during the war. In 1947, the Soviets told the United Nations that they supported the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.
In the 1950s, one of the greatest shares of Israel’s income came from German war reparations, growing to 86-percent of the Jewish state’s GDP in 1956.
Also in the 1950s, Shimon Peres (a 29-year-old Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Defense) was tasked with helping to engineer and implement the Sinai-Suez campaign, among the most daring and unlikely military triumphs since World War II. It was 1956 and, as the campaign unfolded, Peres had something of an epiphany.
At a villa in France — where Israeli, British, and French officials had gathered to finalize planning for the campaign — Peres approached the French foreign and defense ministers and made a proposal everyone knew would be rejected out-of-hand. To everyone’s surprise (including his) the French officials agreed: France would help Israel establish its own nuclear energy program.
Obstacle after obstacle had to be overcome, including resistance from the majority of Israel’s leadership, Soviet spying on the construction site, and serious concerns from the U.S. government, culminating in a tense sit-down between Peres and President Kennedy.
In 1957, Israel was set to sign an agreement with France: The French Atomic Energy Commission, after four years of negotiations, had agreed to provide Israel with a plutonium reactor. All that was needed in order to cement the deal were the signatures of the French foreign minister and his prime minister.
Peres’ first stop on Monday morning, September 30th, was at the office of Pierre Guillaumat, the head of France’s Atomic Energy Commission and an avid supporter of Israel. He told Peres what he already knew: The deal could only be finalized with the French government’s approval, and their government was teetering on the edge of collapse.
Peres hurried to the office of Foreign Minister Christian Pineau, the deal’s main opponent, and Pineau promptly told Peres that he wanted to help — but couldn’t. The Americans would be livid if they found out and might impose sanctions on France, which would cripple its own dawning nuclear capacity. Moreover, the agreement could induce the Soviet Union to arm Egypt with nuclear weapons.
But Peres had come prepared: The reactor was for peaceful purposes, he said. If that ever was to change, Israel would consult with France first. Also, he said, who was to say the Soviet Union wouldn’t introduce nuclear weapons to Egypt on its own accord? Then what would the West do?
Pineau agreed, and Peres urged him to call the prime minister. Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury did not answer, so Peres convinced Pineau to dictate the terms of their agreement to his secretary. The two of them signed the paper, and then Peres convinced him that he — a foreign national — would ferry the paper to the French prime minister.
All that was needed now was Bourgès-Maunoury’s signature. Peres went to his office and waited. The hours passed. Afternoon became evening. Several rounds of whiskey were sent to the office. And, as midnight approached, Peres had two realizations: He would not see the prime minister that evening, since the prime minister, who was stuck in parliament, was likely being defeated in a no-confidence vote.
The next morning, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary that the French government had fallen over a vote about Algeria, and that Peres’ trip to Paris was likely “for naught.”
He did not know that Peres had secured the prime minister’s oral agreement late that night and that, at nine in the morning, Peres was seated in Bourgès-Maunoury’s office. The French prime minister had not slept, and his eyes were red, for he was no longer the prime minister of France.
In other words, Bourgès-Maunoury no longer had authority to sign an agreement on behalf of France. But with Peres’ encouragement, he signed his consent, authorizing the agreement on a piece of paper that held the previous day’s date, when Bourgès-Maunoury was still France’s prime minister.
Summing up the backroom drama, Peres said: “This date or that, what does it matter? Of what significance is that between friends?”2
Mead, Walter Russell. “The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People.” Knopf. July 5, 2022.
“A back-dated deal with a toppled French PM: How Peres secured Israel’s nuclear deterrent.” The Times of Israel. https://www.timesofisrael.com/a-back-dated-deal-with-a-toppled-french-pm-how-peres-secured-israels-nuclear-deterrent.