WASHINGTON — Just minutes after the Jewish community in Palestine proclaimed its independence on May 14, 1948, President Harry S. Truman--motivated by domestic politics and a sense of moral obligation in the wake of the Holocaust--extended U.S. diplomatic recognition to the new nation of Israel.
In the eyes of his State Department and Pentagon, it was a dumb idea. Recognition was diplomatically foolish because it would alienate the Arab world, they argued, and it was strategically dangerous because the new state would never be able to defend itself, eventually drawing the United States into war.
While the darkest of those Truman-era assessments have been proved wrong in the ensuing half-century, there is little doubt that the United States has paid a stiff price for its alliance with Israel. Even as 50 rams' horns and a biblical harp provided the lyrical launch to Israelis' official celebration today of their nation's five decades of existence, the question now for the U.S. is whether the benefits of its links with the Jewish state have been enough to outweigh the costs.
Proponents of the alliance point to Israel's role as a steadfast ally in a part of the world where the U.S. has few reliable friends. They cite its military might, its intelligence expertise and its role as a model of democracy in a region where representative governments are few and far between.
Moreover, supporters say Israel's status as a Jewish homeland after the Holocaust is so important that it overshadows the difficulties that have sometimes beset the relationship.
"Israel is a cultural and ideological kindred spirit in a part of the world that is very difficult," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "That is difficult to quantify because we are not out to re-create the world in our own image. But it is nice when there is a country with such an affinity."
Critics paint a different picture, arguing that the alliance undercuts Washington's relations with Arab states, complicates energy policy, makes Americans targets of terrorism and costs billions of dollars in military and nonmilitary aid.
They also say the alliance clouds the U.S. public's view of the Middle East and leaves the United States vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy in matters such as human rights and nuclear proliferation--issues it claims are universal.
"In foreign policy terms, Israel is nothing but a liability," said I. William Zartman, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Washington. "Without Israel, we would be tactically more agile in regard to an area that is strategically important to us."
Regardless of the diplomatic balance sheet, however, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has become part of the bedrock of American foreign policy. Even most of the critics concede that it would be impossible to disentangle the two countries at this point in history.
Despite some friction, the Clinton administration is staunchly friendly to Israel. And on Capitol Hill, Israel is so popular that the administration is criticized for, in effect, being too evenhanded in the Arab-Israeli dispute, not for being too overtly pro-Israel.
Israel Has Strongest Army in the Region
Confounding the Pentagon's assessment in 1948 that Israel would be too weak to survive, the Jewish state today has the strongest army in the region and has become Washington's most reliable military ally in a critical part of the world.
For both the U.S. and Israel, the clearest advantages of the relationship have been in the military and technological arenas.
U.S. assistance, including advanced aircraft and other sophisticated weaponry, has been indispensable to Israel's military posture. In return, Jerusalem has made contributions to the U.S. fighting capability by producing such battle-tested modifications to U.S.-designed weaponry as fuel tanks for F-15s that extended the range of the Air Force's top-of-the-line fighter.
Beyond weapons and equipment, Israel's supporters cite the 1981 bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad by Israeli forces--which clearly set back Iraq's nuclear weapons program--as another huge benefit to the United States. The Israeli attack was condemned at the time by much of the rest of the world, producing a diplomatic embarrassment for Washington. But no one really knows how the Persian Gulf War would have gone a decade later without the Israeli military action.
In the diplomatic sphere, however, the pluses and minuses of the relationship are not as clear. The U.S.-Israeli connection has complicated Washington's relations with other countries in the Middle East and throughout the world. Indeed, history has fulfilled Secretary of State George Marshall's warning in 1948 that support for Israel would prove to be an irritant to U.S. relations with Arab states.