Presidents and their ties to Israel: Reagan to Trump
Photo: Yaakov Saar/GPO via Getty Images
President Ronald Reagan, left, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin at the White House, Sept. 9, 1981

By Ron Kampeas
Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Israel turns 70 this year.
And no relationship has been more important than its on-again, off-again friendship with the United States and its presidents.
In this series, we describe the U.S.-Israel friendship through portraits of 13 of those presidents, from Harry Truman to Donald Trump.
Part II, featuring Ronald Reagan to Trump, is below. Part I, from Truman through Jimmy Carter, was published in the July 5 issue of the TJP.
Ronald Reagan: A cold warrior who cared — and sold spy planes to the Saudis
When Ronald Reagan cowed the Soviet Union into winding down the Cold War — his successor, George H.W. Bush, formally ended it — a key component of his animus toward Moscow was the treatment of its Jews.
“He was someone who was truly committed to overturning the Communist system and gaining freedom for all people, but he had a particularly soft spot in his heart for Soviet Jewry,” Mark Levin, a longtime advocate for Soviet and Eurasian Jewry, told JTA in 2004 when Reagan died.
When Theodore Mann, the chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, returned from a visit to the Soviet Union in 1981, the first call he received in his law office was from Reagan.
“He wanted to know all about the trip,” Mann said in 2004.
On Reagan’s watch, in 1986, the Soviets released Natan Sharansky, the prisoner of conscience who spent nine years in Soviet prisons. Reagan’s ties to the pro-Israel community extended back to his Hollywood days as an actor and union leader. As California governor in 1967, he headlined a pro-Israel rally at the Hollywood Bowl.
Reagan won over the wary with his avuncular affect.
“This man cared,” Shoshana Cardin, who led a number of Jewish organizations, once said of Reagan, but his persuasive powers could also be a sharp-edged weapon.
In 1981, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied hard against a proposed sale of AWACS spy plans to Saudi Arabia. Reagan met with Jewish senators one on one and threatened to unleash dual-loyalty charges if they voted against him.
“It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy,” the president said. The Reagan administration in 1981 joined a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
After Israel’s Christian allies in Lebanon massacred Palestinians in 1982, Reagan sent U.S. troops into Lebanon — against advice from Israel.
He and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin exchanged barbs, and Begin famously chided Reagan for treating Israel like a “banana republic.” Reagan secretly planned to surprise Begin with a peace plan that would have pulled Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Under pressure from Reagan, Israel allowed PLO leader Yasser Arafat to safely leave Lebanon.
On Reagan’s watch, authorities arrested Jonathan Pollard, a civilian Navy analyst who was a spy for Israel, and Israeli figures were caught up in his administration’s efforts to trade arms to Iran for the release of U.S. hostages in Beirut, and then funnel the proceeds to right-wing militias in Central America. In his final months in office, a lame duck beyond political pressures, Reagan established ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
To the chagrin of even his closest allies, Reagan went ahead with plans in 1985 to visit Germany’s Bitburg cemetery, where 40 members of the Nazi Waffen SS were buried.
“It is precisely because you have so impressed us in the past with your deep understanding of the need to keep the meaning and memory of the Holocaust alive that we have been so keenly disturbed by your plans,” Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust memoirist, said in a telegram to Reagan.
George H. W. Bush: The patrician advocate for Jews in distress and the Madrid peace talks
George H.W. Bush was involved in Soviet Jewry advocacy since his days as ambassador to the United Nations under President Richard Nixon. As Reagan’s vice president, his responsibilities included efforts to free Jews in distress — not only in the former Soviet Union but in Ethiopia and in Syria.
Bush quarterbacked Secretary of State George Schultz’ confrontation with the Soviets over Russia’s captive Jews and was instrumental in persuading the Syrian dictator, Hafez Assad, to allow young Jewish women to immigrate to the U.S. so they could marry within the faith. As president, he gave the nod to the Marxist Mengistu regime in Ethiopia that led to Operation Solomon, the mass airlift to Israel in 1991.
Following his success in the 1991 Gulf War, Bush convened the multilateral Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid. It was marked by his tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. But in retrospect, Bush was as tough on the Arab interlocutors, and just the fact that Saudi Arabia, Gulf states and North African countries sat at the table with Israel led to Israeli diplomatic inroads in those countries.
Pro-Israel activists will never forget — or forgive — when Bush said he was “one lonely guy” facing off against “thousands of lobbyists on the Hill.” He was referring to lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who in 1991 were pushing back against his pledge to suspend loan guarantees to Israel unless it froze settlement building.
But lacking Reagan’s easy charm, the patrician Bush couldn’t get away with the tough-guy talk and instead sounded self-pitying and mildly anti-Semitic. His secretary of state, James Baker, didn’t help things when he reportedly dismissed the prospect of Jewish protestations by saying, essentially but much more crassly, “To hell with them — they don’t vote for us anyway.”
After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Iraqi strongman pelted Israel with missiles. Israel itched to respond, but Bush insisted that Israel take it on the chin so he could assemble as broad a coalition as possible to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Israel complied, and its leaders were stunned when in the war’s aftermath, Bush used American actions to protect Israel during the war as leverage to get Israel to Madrid. It seemed galling because Israel had been reluctant to accept the assistance in the first place.
Bill Clinton: The ‘chaver’ who brought Israelis and Palestinians together — up to a point
“Shalom, chaver,” Bill Clinton said at the funeral of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and those two words encapsulated the intimate passion Clinton felt toward Israel: He was a friend, one close enough that he wanted to bid goodbye to a man he saw as a mentor in his language.
Clinton’s relationship with the American Jewish community was similarly intimate. Unlike George H.W. Bush, he was an adept retail politician and made it a point to win folks over. The pro-Israel community, likewise, understood that this was a president who responded best to friendly overtures. AIPAC named as its president Steve Grossman, a Massachusetts businessman and early Clinton backer. In 1995, over cigars on the White House balcony, Grossman talked Clinton into imposing the first sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear program.
Clinton, in his first term, had the luck of working with an Israeli administration whose peacemaking agenda matched his own. In what one reporter called “a triumph of hope over history,” Clinton brought Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, to the White House to shake hands on their first agreement on ending their conflict.
Yet to the consternation of the Palestinians, Clinton would never get ahead of Israel. Although the Oslo track clearly was destined toward statehood for the Palestinians, Clinton did not articulate that outcome until his last weeks in office. In 2000, after the Camp David talks ended without a deal, Clinton broke with protocol and blamed Arafat for the failure.
After Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Clinton thought it important enough to preserve his friend’s legacy that he blatantly electioneered on behalf of Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres. Rattled by a series of deadly terrorist bus bombings, Clinton pushed Middle East leaders into convening a summit against terrorism starring Peres. It didn’t work. Benjamin Netanyahu was narrowly elected to his first term in office, and the U.S.-Israel relationship turned rocky.
Clinton grew frustrated at what he said was Netanyahu’s predilection for introducing out-of-left-field demands after talks on an issue had wrapped up for the day. In one instance during the 1998 Wye River negotiations to advance the Oslo process, Netanyahu asked Arafat to assassinate a Gaza Strip police chief. In another, during the same talks, he asked Clinton to release Jonathan Pollard, the civilian Navy analyst who was caught spying for Israel. (Clinton was ready to do it, but his intelligence chiefs were outraged and threatened to quit.)
Clinton learned his lesson by the 1999 elections and kept out — kind of. His two campaign advisers, Stanley Greenberg and James Carville, traveled to Israel to advise Netanyahu’s challenger, Ehud Barak, and Barak won.
George W. Bush: Launching a war on terror, and making the case for democracy
The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 seemed for Israelis to be a turning point in U.S. foreign policy, burying once and for all the American realist strain that posited engagement with bad actors as a dirty but necessary statecraft. George W. Bush’s “with us or against us” approach to the war on terrorism, his very coinage of the term “war on terrorism,” was music to the ears of Israelis who for years had said that partners in peace must renounce absolutist demands and absolutist means to achieve them.
Bush extended his outlook to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Relaunching the peace process with his “road map” in 2002, one explicit condition was that he would no longer deal with Yasser Arafat, who had steered his PLO factions into participating in the bloody second intifada.
“The Jewish community started to see a resolve for promoting peace by motivating the Palestinians to take good actions rather than starting with Israeli concessions,” Jay Lefkowitz, a former Bush White House policy adviser, told JTA in 2004.
The same year, Bush made history when he recognized some Israeli claims to the West Bank. His vision of a new Middle East borrowed much from Natan Sharansky’s 2005 book, A Case for Democracy.
Bush also never demanded that Israel hew to standards he would not: Once the United States launched targeted killings against suspected terrorists, the Bush administration put an end to State Department statements condemning Israel for doing the same.
In his second term, during Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, Bush overrode his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who was pressuring Israel to end the war before it was ready to do so.
“It is important to remember this crisis began with Hezbollah’s unprovoked terrorist attacks against Israel,” Bush said at the time.
Fred Zeidman, a Jewish Texas businessman and a longtime Bush backer, told JTA in 2004: “If there has ever been a thing that was not politically expedient, it was the way he handled Israel.”
Ariel Sharon was elected Israeli prime minister just about the same time Bush became president, and the two already were close: Two years earlier, Sharon had taken Bush on a helicopter tour of Israel to make tangible how small and vulnerable the country was. There was talk that Sharon would be to Bush what Yitzhak Rabin was to Bill Clinton: a wizened, war-tested father figure and mentor.
That didn’t quite work out, perhaps because Bush already had two competing father figures — his actual father, who unlike Clinton’s was alive, and his vice president, Dick Cheney. In any case, by 2005, the honeymoon was over. Bush had agreed not to press Israel on settlements as long as the growth remained “natural,” but Bush administration officials had concluded that the growth was anything but natural. A Texas summit in April of that year between the two leaders turned sour: Sharon, unlike most other leaders, was not invited to spend the night at Bush’s ranch, and instead was ensconced in a Waco hotel. About all the leaders could agree on was that Israel would withdraw its settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip that summer. By the time of the 2009 transition to the Obama administration, Bush administration officials were so frustrated with Israel they treated the “natural growth” agreement as null and void.
Also irritating the relationship was the raid in 2004 by federal agents on AIPAC’s offices in pursuit of evidence of espionage charges that years later proved groundless.
A tireless democracy promoter, Bush insisted on Palestinian elections in 2006, which Israel correctly feared would bring about a Hamas victory. (It didn’t help that Rice, on multiple occasions, likened what she witnessed in the West Bank to her upbringing in the Jim Crow South.)
Bush also rejected Sharon’s advice to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq and get out, again pinning his hopes on Iraq to set an example as an Arab democracy. Instead, a long U.S.-led occupation went south and set the stage for the rise of Iran in the region — and ultimately dampened American enthusiasm for involvement in the Middle East. Israelis complained privately that Bush’s focus on Iraq was giving Iran a free hand. Adding salt to the wound, Bush denied an Israeli request in 2008 for permission to fly through Iraqi airspace to hit Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons facilities.
He remained beloved nonetheless and delivered a speech at the Knesset in May 2008 marking Israel’s 60th anniversary.
“You have raised a modern society in the Promised Land, a light unto the nations that preserves the legacy of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob,” Bush said to applause. “And you have built a mighty democracy that will endure forever and can always count on the United States of America to be at your side.”
“Such statements about the State of Israel have never been spoken before by a U.S. president in the Knesset,” marveled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Barack Obama: Acts of friendship and diplomatic pratfalls
Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential hopeful, did something few before or since have accomplished as a speaker at AIPAC’s annual conference: In 2008, the then-U.S. senator from Illinois received a standing ovation for talking about something that had nothing to do with Israel.
“In the great social movements in our country’s history, Jewish- and African-Americans have stood shoulder to shoulder,” he said.
Obama seemed to herald a return to an alliance long troubled, in part because of differences over Israel and increasing African-American sympathies for the Palestinians. Candidate Obama sought out the council of Israel’s then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and a range of pro-Israel figures in the United States on the threat posed by Iran and on the means to achieve peace. As president, he expressed affection for the state — and for the Jewish community — in ways that suggested his belief in the U.S.-Israel alliance stemmed from his perspective as a black man.
“To a young man like me, grappling with his own identity, recognizing the scars of race here in this nation, inspired by the civil rights struggle, the idea that you could be grounded in your history, as Israel was, but not be trapped by it, to be able to repair the world — that idea was liberating,” he told the Adas Israel congregation in Washington in May 2015, the first address by a president to a Jewish congregation. “The example of Israel and its values was inspiring.”
Obama put an end to the linking of loan guarantees to Israel’s spending on settlement construction and increased defense assistance to Israel to the unprecedented level of $38 billion over 10 years, making permanent hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to Israel’s anti-missile programs. He authorized assistance to Iron Dome, the short-range anti-missile system that has proven critical in Israel’s three wars since 2009 with Hamas on its border with the Gaza Strip. In 2011, when Israeli diplomats were trapped inside the Cairo embassy by rioters, Obama made their extraction a priority. “This was a decisive and fateful moment,” Netanyahu said. “He said ‘I will do everything I can,’” he said, referring to Obama. “And so he did.”
There was a hard edge to Obama’s embrace of the alliance: Israel’s military might and intelligence savvy provided the pressure that Obama sought to leverage Iranian compliance with his demands that it roll back its nuclear weapons program. Under Obama, Israel and the United States are believed to have worked together to create the computer virus that crippled Iran’s uranium enrichment capability in 2010. Israelis unhesitatingly said military and intelligence cooperation was closer under Obama than any of his predecessors.
Beyond the secret relationships, there were plenty of firsts: Obama was the first president to conduct formal Passover Seders in the White House; the first to mark Jewish Heritage Month in May with a party; the first to deliver a speech at the Israeli Embassy, marking Holocaust remembrance; the first, in 2016, to hold multiple Hanukkah parties to accommodate demand. (Multiple Christmas parties have long been a thing.) He may have been the first, in 2011, to structure a speech to a Jewish audience, the Union for Reform Judaism, around a d’var Torah.
But Obama’s relationship with Israel suffered from the flaw of every good friend who is certain he “gets” you: He doesn’t truly get you.
Before Obama was elected, he told a group of Jews, “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel.” The implication was that Netanyahu’s party was a nuisance — especially awkward after Netanyahu would return to office just weeks after Obama was inaugurated.
The conversation between Obama and Israelis — Netanyahu, in particular — seemed susceptible to pratfalls, however good the intentions on both sides.
Obama addressed the Muslim world in a 2009 speech in Cairo, and said Holocaust denial was corrosive and counseled acceptance of Israel; he was lacerated because it seemed to some that he predicated Israel’s existence on the Holocaust. The next year, Vice President Joe Biden landed in Israel for a let’s-be-friends trip; within hours the mood was soured when a midlevel Israeli bureaucrat announced, apparently to Netanyahu’s surprise, that there would be new building in eastern Jerusalem.
And the next year, in 2011, Obama outlined a Middle East policy that for the first time included a formal American endorsement of a longstanding Israeli demand that a Palestinian state be demilitarized. Whatever goodwill that may have garnered was squashed by Obama’s inclusion of the 1967 lines as the basis for a Palestinian-Israeli border. Netanyahu subsequently lectured Obama on Middle East history in the Oval Office.
Nothing frustrated Netanyahu and his advisers more than repeated assurances from Obama and his cohort that they knew what was good for Israel, particularly heading into the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
“To friends of Israel, and to the Israeli people, I say this: A nuclear-armed Iran is far more dangerous to Israel, to America, and to the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief,” he said in a 2015 speech on the deal, which swapped sanctions relief for a rollback in Iran’s nuclear program.
Netanyahu decried the deal as a deadly one, saying its “sunset clauses” removing some restrictions simply delayed for a few years Iran’s nuclear weapons. He arranged with the Republican leadership in Congress to speak out against the deal in a joint meeting, infuriating Obama and prompting a rift between Israel and Democrats that persists until this day. AIPAC threw itself into trying to stop the deal, intensely lobbying lawmakers to kill it and other Jewish organizations to speak up against it.
The pattern — an act of friendship followed by a diplomatic slapdown — persisted until the end of the Obama presidency. His administration’s two final Israel-related acts were signing the deal with Israel that guaranteed unprecedented levels of assistance — and then letting the U.N. Security Council adopt a resolution condemning Israel’s settlements. Notably, it was the first time that Obama failed to stop a Security Council resolution that Israel opposed — his predecessors allowed through multiple such resolutions.
Obama was adamant to the end that he had Israel’s best interests at heart. Four days before he left office, he told Israel’s Channel 2, “I believe it would be a moral betrayal for the world not to protect and secure a homeland for the Jewish people.”
Donald Trump: Following through on his Israel promises
Donald Trump, the unlikeliest of Republican presidents, has gotten a reputation for unpredictability. But if he is consistent on one thing, it is his campaign promises. He tends to keep them.
On Dec. 6, 2017, he made good on his promise to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
“While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver,” Trump said. “Today, I am delivering.”
Trump not only delivers, he delivers with a vengeance. Recognizing Jerusalem and setting a schedule to move the embassy would have been enough for his Jewish base, but Trump accelerated the process and the embassy opened in May, albeit in temporary quarters.
The same goes for his other Israel-related pledges. Trump promised to block Israel-hostile actions at the United Nations; his ambassador to the body, Nikki Haley, has been perhaps the most proactively pro-Israel envoy since Daniel Patrick Moynihan under Gerald Ford. Haley has forced the United Nations to withdraw reports critical of Israel and stopped a Palestinian from assuming a senior position in the body because the same courtesy has yet to be afforded to an Israeli.
Similarly, Trump said he would reconsider the Iran nuclear deal; he has scrapped it.
“With President Trump, I have fewer disagreements,” Netanyahu said when he was asked to compare his interactions with Obama and Clinton. “It’s fair to say I don’t have any disagreements.”
Trump wants to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks and has entrusted the task to a team of three, all with solid pro-Israel ties, led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is Jewish.
In the second year of his presidency, Trump is bolder and more confident in his role, and is distancing himself from the foreign policy mavens who insist the United States must ensure stability worldwide. For example, he plans to pull out from Syria the 2,000 or so troops there training and advising U.S.-friendly rebel forces.
“It is very costly for our country, and it helps other countries more than it helps us,” Trump said in April of the U.S. presence in Syria. “I want to get out, I want to bring our troops back home.”
That’s not a prospect Israel relishes. Russia has joined with Iran and Hezbollah — both deadly enemies to Israel — in propping up the Assad regime in Syria. Israel is adamantly opposed to a long-term Iranian presence in Syria, and to an emboldened Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that launched a war against Israel in 2006.
Now that Syria’s civil war is winding down, the absence of a U.S. presence would give Russia, Iran and Hezbollah more room to consolidate their presence there. Already the prospect of an Israeli conflict not just with Iran but possibly with Russia is looming in Syria.
Trump’s base on the isolationist right has made it eminently clear it wants out of Syria, and Trump is being responsive. The same loyalty to his base could explain the horror he has stirred among American Jews with his failure to condemn — and at times his seeming encouragement of — white supremacists.
The most searing moment was last August, when it took Trump days to unequivocally condemn the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, an event that culminated in a car-ramming attack on counterprotesters that killed one. Trump said there were “very fine” people on both sides, drawing rebukes from across the Jewish spectrum — including, unprecedentedly, from AIPAC and even the Republican Jewish Coalition.

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