Israel, America, and the War on Terror

By David Hazony

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elations between the United States and Israel have been turbulent since the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington. Within hours after the attacks, a dramatic outpouring of support was seen throughout the Jewish state—including candlelight vigils across the country, a spontaneous blood-donation drive late that same night, and the immediate declaration of a national day of mourning. Alongside the empathy felt by a great many Israelis, the first few days also gave rise to a quiet hope throughout the country that perhaps this horrific turn of events might assist Americans in understanding the nature of Israel’s own decades-long battle with terrorism.
Within a week of the attacks, however, Israelis were taken aback by the State Department’s campaign to craft an international coalition against terror, which appeared to be leaving out Israel while seeking to include prominent terror-sponsoring regimes such as Syria, Iran, and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. In October, disillusionment turned to alarm when American coalition efforts translated into direct pressure on Israel to exercise restraint in its own fight against Palestinian terror. In particular, many Israelis were genuinely hurt by the Bush administration’s criticism of Israel’s policy of targeting terrorist gang-leaders, at a time when the United States was conducting a similar policy against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Israeli newspapers spoke freely of a “crisis” in relations with the United States, and the Israeli media widely reported on what was believed to be a growing resentment of Israel among the American public, supposedly driven by a belief that America’s support for Israel was ultimately to blame for the attack on the United States. “An evil wind is blowing in recent days in the American press,” announced reporter Eitan Amit in the daily Yedi’ot Aharonot of September 23. In the minds of many Americans, he reported, “the United States is paying for its friendship with Israel with the blood of its citizens.”
In early December, after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and a string of suicide bombings in Israel’s major cities, the tone in Washington shifted in a direction far more favorable to Israel: Administration officials began to speak more critically of the Palestinian leadership, stopped talking about a “cycle of violence,” and began asserting Israel’s right of self-defense against terror. When Israel declared the Palestinian Authority to be a “terror-sponsoring entity” and Yasser Arafat to be “irrelevant,” and then followed these declarations with major anti-terror operations in the Palestinian territories in mid-December, the Bush administration did not protest, but instead insisted that Arafat had to crack down on terrorist groups. American delegations also started to arrive in Israel to express their solidarity with the Jewish state—most notably the high-profile visit of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg, and New York State Governor George Pataki on December 9. It was Pataki who best summed up the new mood when, after taking part in a public candle-lighting ceremony on the first night of Hanuka, he declared that “the special bonds that connect our two peoples are stronger than ever before.”
These abrupt swings in attitude reflect, in part, the difficulties facing a superpower suddenly thrown into a long-term conflict with an unforeseen enemy and seeking to forge effective alliances amidst rapid changes. They also may reflect the internal struggles that have long characterized American policymaking, regularly putting the diplomats at odds with those charged with defending American security, with the president navigating among the differing courses of action they offer.
But it would be a mistake to view these shifts, as have many Israelis, as reflecting a fundamental uncertainty among Americans or their leaders regarding the basic relationship between Israel and the United States. On the contrary, a good look at what is happening in America reveals a far more consistent trend of American support for Israel, which has only become more deeply entrenched, and has taken on new meaning, since September 11. In the wake of the terror attacks, the strategic interests of Israel and the United States have been brought into greater convergence than at any time since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, these interests have been translated into moral terms, putting the two countries clearly on the same side of a larger conflict. This commonality of interests and values is reflected in the attitudes of Americans, which have become more positive towards Israel, and also in the concrete cooperation that has already begun to take place between the countries. Indeed, for many Americans, Israel is no longer simply a friendly democracy locked in perpetual conflict with its neighbors, but also now an important source—perhaps the most important source—of expertise and inspiration in fighting the war on terror.
Such a shift both in the reality of American and Israeli interests and in the way Americans tend to view the Jewish state may have opened up the possibility of a new period of deepened American-Israeli relations, which could potentially have a far-reaching effect on Israel’s position in the world. But for this to happen, Israelis will have to take notice of the change, and act accordingly—lest the opportunity be squandered, and the Jewish state risk further isolation and frustration in its own efforts to secure a peaceful life for its citizens.

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