A Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations: Have We Been Here Before?

Written by Dore Gold


 As a result of the June 1967 Six-Day War, Israel entered the eastern parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank in a war of self-defense. It is very important to recall that Israel entered these areas after it was attacked, and after it requested that the Jordanians not join the Egyptian war effort. There were Jordanian artillery attacks throughout Jerusalem and all of Israel, as well as movement of Jordanian ground forces into areas that were previously no-man's land.



We are in a period in which the U.S.-Israel relationship appears to be in flux, but it is hard for many observers to establish whether the policies of the Obama administration represent a sharp break in U.S. policy toward Israel or  a continuation of past U.S. policies. Will military ties between the two countries be affected? According to a charge that has been associated with officers in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Israel's disagreements with the Palestinians, or Israel's construction efforts, have a negative effect on the U.S. military posture in the Middle East, with some reports even going so far as to suggest that they risk the lives of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, on the basis of past experience, is it likely that the U.S. and Israel will ultimately resolve their differences, or are the present gaps between the two countries so wide that their long-term relationship will change?

The Neighborhoods of Eastern Jerusalem Were Captured in a War of Self-Defense

The present tensions in U.S.-Israel relations appeared to erupt in response to an Israeli building project in the Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem, where 1,600 new apartments were approved by a local zoning board. Ramat Shlomo is one of several Jerusalem neighborhoods that were established in Jerusalem in territories that were captured by Israel as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel formally extended Israeli law to these parts of its newly united capital. 

Formally the U.S. did not recognize the annexation by Israel of the eastern parts of Jerusalem in July 1967. And while past administrations did not support Israeli construction of new neighborhoods, they did not let this issue disrupt the overall U.S.-Israel relationship.  Much of the present discord in the relationship is partly attributable to the fact that the background of how Israel entered the eastern parts of Jerusalem has been forgotten. It is important to remember that Israel entered the eastern parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank in what it saw as a war of self-defense.

Factually, Israel only entered these areas after it was attacked, and after it requested that the Jordanians not join the Egyptian war effort. That didn't happen. There were Jordanian artillery attacks throughout Jerusalem and all of Israel. There was movement of Jordanian ground forces into areas that were previously no-man's land, and Israel responded and captured the eastern parts of Jerusalem.

The Soviet Union, which was an adversary of the State of Israel back in 1967, tried to have Israel branded as the aggressor in that war. The Soviets first went to the Security Council and failed. Then they went to the General Assembly, which is not exactly Israel's home territory, and also failed. The new situation produced a particular dilemma for U.S. policy about how to treat the issue of Jerusalem. On the one hand, Israel had now moved into territories which were previously not in its possession. But on the other hand, there were fundamental problems with the status quo ante. Jerusalem had originally been slated to be internationalized for ten years as a corpus separatum under Resolution 181, that the UN failed to implement, and the city was invaded in 1948 by an Arab war coalition that included the Arab Legion. The UN secretary general in 1948 called that invasion a war of aggression. And as a result of that war, the Jews were ethnically cleansed from the areas that came under Jordanian control, and were denied access to Jewish holy sites.

To call for a restoration of the status quo ante would mean that the U.S. backed the return of an illegal situation that was imposed in 1948, which also denied religious freedom. Ultimately, the international community decided not to restore the status quo ante that existed prior to the war, and sought some other kind of outcome, which was reflected in the resolutions and decisions taken with respect to Jerusalem. Following the war, UN Security Council Resolution 242 was adopted in November 1967, and did not call for Israel to return to the pre-1967 lines. It called for a withdrawal from territories but not from all the territories, which is what the Soviet Union was insisting upon. Resolution 242 did not mention Jerusalem. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Arthur Goldberg, wrote to the New York Times in 1980 that the Johnson administration kept Jerusalem out of 242 intentionally.

Shifting U.S. Policies on Jerusalem

U.S. policy on Jerusalem went through different shifts. Back in 1948, the U.S. was originally committed to the failed internationalization proposals in UN General Assembly Resolution 181. This original position was quickly replaced in the 1950s by acceptance of the 1949 armistice agreements. 

When President Richard Nixon came to the White House in 1969, there was a definite hardening of the U.S. position on the issue of Jerusalem. For the first time, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Charles Yost, described Jerusalem as "occupied territory," terminology that had not been used by Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, who served under President Johnson. Under Nixon, the United States did not veto or even abstain from resolutions that disagreed with Israeli policy on Jerusalem in 1969, 1970, and 1971.

In successive administrations, we see that the U.S. did not want the issue of Jerusalem addressed by the UN Security Council, and we see a movement of U.S. policy much closer to the Israeli position. No U.S. administration formally recognized Israel's annexation of Jerusalem in July 1967. Nonetheless, in the past we saw the U.S. and Israel coming to a modus vivendi with respect to Israeli policy in Jerusalem, when Israel built various neighborhoods in the eastern parts of the city.

For example, Gilo, in southern Jerusalem, with nearly 30,000 residents, was founded in 1971 at the time of the Nixon administration. Though Israel had differences with the U.S., those differences did not lead to a crisis in relations between the two countries. In 1973 the Neve Yaakov neighborhood was reestablished. It was originally established in 1924, but was overrun by the Arab Legion in 1948. The Ramat Eshkol neighborhood was established in 1969 at the very beginning of the Nixon administration. The Ramot neighborhood, established in 1974, has over 40,000 people living there today.

A neighborhood called Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem, next to Gilo, was established in 1997 during the Clinton administration. Israel had just completed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat over the Hebron agreement. At that time, the Israeli government informed the Clinton administration that after completing the deal on Hebron, it would be taking some initiatives in Jerusalem that were necessary because of the considerable shortage of housing in both the Jewish sector and even to some extent in the Arab sector. The Clinton administration was informed when Israel decided to approve the Har Homa project, which the Israeli government saw as compensation for the big initiative it took in signing the Hebron agreement. Now the Clinton administration did not say it welcomed this initiative, but it basically accepted that Israel was going to go ahead and build Har Homa.

On two occasions in 1997, the Arab bloc, together with some other countries, initiated a draft resolution in the UN Security Council that would have condemned Israel for constructing Har Homa. And on those two occasions the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, vetoed those resolutions under instructions from the Clinton administration. So even though we didn't always agree on the details of the legal status of the territory, we were able to cooperate, we were able to work together, and again a modus vivendi was worked out.

Ramat Shlomo, the current Jerusalem neighborhood being discussed, was originally begun in 1995 during the period when President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were in office. So again, in the past, the U.S. did not actively oppose Israeli efforts to construct housing for both the Jewish sector and the Arab sector in the eastern parts of Jerusalem.

The policies of the Obama administration definitely represent a shift in U.S. policy towards Israel and Jerusalem because of the efforts to have Israel freeze all construction in the eastern parts of the city. The original Oslo Agreements in 1993 do not require a freeze of any kind on construction in Jerusalem. Furthermore, under the Oslo Agreements, Jerusalem was treated as having a completely different status than the West Bank and the city was kept under Israeli control, while seen as an issue for permanent status negotiations in the future. Israel kept building for its residents, just as Palestinian Arabs built for their needs in the areas under their control and elsewhere.

The relationship between the United States and Israel is not confined to their governments. It involves the people of the United States, who overwhelmingly support the State of Israel, and it also involves the U.S. Congress which reflects the will of the people. While U.S. administrations have not formally recognized Israel's unification of Jerusalem, back in 1995 the U.S. Congress adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act by a massive bipartisan majority. It called for the movement of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Equally important, it also acknowledged that Jerusalem must remain united under Israeli sovereignty.

Does Construction in Jerusalem Affect the U.S. Military Posture?

Israel is not within the area of responsibility of CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command. U.S. military planners kept Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey within the responsibility of EUCOM, the U.S. European command, while in 1983, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf States were put under the responsibility of CENTCOM. The statement by CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on March 10, 2010, says the whole issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict fits into a category called "Cross-Cutting Challenges to Security and Stability." It doesn't fit into the more severe category of "Significant Threats." General Petraeus' written statement says that the enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to the U.S. ability to advance its interests. But he did not specifically make this point in his oral remarks, and in neither his oral or written remarks did he suggest that Israel had become a strategic burden because its policies threatened U.S. soldiers, as some have tried to suggest. 

All of this ignores the posture statements and other testimony given by EUCOM commanders, which actually give Israel a lot of praise. Israel appears as an asset. General Bantz Craddock was the EUCOM commander in 2007 and spoke extensively about Israel in his appearance that year before the House Armed Services Committee. He specifically described Israel as the closest ally of the United States in the Middle East. Moreover, the U.S. ambassador to Israel at the time, Richard Jones, spoke about Israeli research and development on countermeasures against IEDs, those highly lethal roadside bombs used by insurgents that had become the single largest cause of U.S. casualties. Jones disclosed that Israel was helping the United States Army in Iraq in this area. In short, Israeli efforts were saving American lives, and not putting them at risk, as some irresponsible pundits contended.

Will the Relationship Recover?

Is it possible for the U.S.-Israel relationship to recover from the recent tensions? If history is any guide, we have had such problems at different times in the past and we have recovered each time. At the very beginning of the Reagan administration, in 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided that it was necessary for the future of Israel to destroy Saddam Hussein's Osirak nuclear reactor in Baghdad. Israel took upon itself to do that and U.S.-Israel relations went into a period of extreme tension. Yet by 1983, the United States and Israel reached the first of a series of strategic cooperation agreements that brought their military relationship to unprecedented heights. So there was a crisis for about two years, which basically ended as the U.S. and Israel pulled together because they had paramount strategic interests and reasons to cooperate. Ultimately, the strategic challenges that both countries faced and saw in a similar light trumped the differences that existed in the background of the destruction of the Iraqi reactor.

The period of 1989 to 1990 was another one of unusual tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship, when President Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, got into direct conflict with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over the question of settlement construction. We remember Secretary Baker saying to Israel: "When you're serious about peace, here's the White House phone number." Then in 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the Middle East changed entirely, and in the First Gulf War the military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel reached new heights. Strategic circumstances led both countries to realize their mutual interests and overcome their differences.

The United States and Israel have been tied by mutual strategic interests for many years, and those interests will eventually trump the differences that we're seeing today. The major strategic interest that both countries share is the threat of Iran. The Iranian nuclear program is advancing steadily towards a point where it will cross the nuclear threshold in a military sense. Therefore, the restoration of U.S.-Israel cooperation and understanding is probably a greater imperative today than it ever was in the past. It is extremely important for both countries to bury their differences because the only ones who are smiling during this entire episode are the leadership in Iran, who are continuing to move toward a military nuclear program.

There is one caveat to the idea that U.S.-Israel relations will get back on track in the near future. It is possible to discern a growing view, which has been reported in the Washington Post, that the Obama administration intends to put on the table its own plan for Middle East peace, based on a nearly full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, that most Israeli planners view as militarily indefensible. As the Palestinians see this scenario unfold, their incentive to re-enter negotiations will decline as they look forward to the prospect that an American peace plan will be imposed. An Obama plan for a complete Israeli retreat of this sort would not only deny the Jewish state "defensible borders," but would also divide Jerusalem, placing the Old City and its holy sites within Palestinian jurisdiction. 

If indeed there is such a plan being prepared, then the recent U.S.-Israel tensions over construction in east Jerusalem may only be Act I in a much longer drama that the two countries are about to face. Undoubtedly there are sober voices in the U.S. government today that would advise against the President taking such a course of action. But should he indeed advance a new division of Jerusalem, then in the months ahead the U.S. and Israel will be facing a serious crisis in their relationship, just as the military threats from Iran can be expected to worsen.    


Ambassador Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was the eleventh Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999). Dr. Gold served as foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first government and has advised Israeli governments since that time on U.S.-Israel relations.  He is the author of the best-selling books: The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009). In 1993 he wrote a book on the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) for the Israel Ministry of Defense publishing house. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on March 25, 2010.


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