How LBJ forged the US-Israel alliance
- January 22, 2024
- Ronan Mainprize
- Themes: America, History, Israel
The special relationship between the United States and Israel was cemented by the support offered by Lyndon B. Johnson throughout the sixties.
At 4:35am on 5 June 1967, Lyndon Johnson was woken up by a telephone call from his national security advisor. Speaking briefly, Walt Rostow informed the president that war had just erupted in the Middle East. Over the next six days, as Johnson watched the conflict from the White House situation room, Israel would go on to exert a crushing defeat over its Arab neighbours: Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
The war of June 1967 was a seminal moment that transformed the landscape of the Middle East forever. With Israel’s capture and subsequent occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, its shock waves can still be felt to this day. The mid-1960s also marked a clear inflexion point for the US posture in the region. Previous presidents had sought to finely balance their policies along regional fault lines and restrain Israeli ambitions; Lyndon Johnson did not. The staunchly pro-Israel policies he implemented during his term of office became the very foundations for what thereafter developed into a multi-decade alliance.
Whether it is diplomatic backing or economic assistance, weapons dealing or intelligence sharing, there are few nations that have enjoyed such tight, intimate bonds. Israel’s continuing campaign against Hamas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements about the future of Palestine have presented Washington with a dilemma. Israel, once considered an essential Cold War ally in the Middle East, is increasingly looking like a strategic liability. As many begin to contemplate if Washington should continue to maintain support, it is important to understand when – and why – this partnership originated.
American support for Israel dates back to the very creation of the Jewish state. President Harry Truman had backed the United Nations’ partition plan for Palestine in 1947, before later recognising Israel immediately after its declaration of independence in May 1948. Yet, for much of the early years, the United States was a tentative partner. Both Truman and his two successors in the White House, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, were all too aware that embracing Israel too openly would alienate much of the Arab world, and thus they proceeded with caution.
The 1950s saw several spats between Washington and Jerusalem as Eisenhower attempted to build stability in the Middle East. His administration twice threatened to cut aid to Jerusalem; first, over Israeli plans to divert water from the Jordan River, and then because of their attempts to hold onto territory they had captured during the Suez Crisis. As the Cold War began to intensify, however, and the Soviet Union strengthened its hand in the region, Jerusalem became an increasingly useful partner. The Kennedy presidency saw the first major American arms sales to Israel with Hawk anti-aircraft missiles being delivered in 1963. Kennedy also provided initial security guarantees by privately pledging military support to Golda Meir in the event of any Arab invasion.
Kennedy still attempted to maintain a balanced stance in the Middle East so as to not jeopardise his relations with the Arab leaders and invite further encroachment into the region by the Soviet Union. He endeavoured, in vain, to curtail the proliferation of Israeli nuclear weapons at Dimona, an Israeli city in the Negev Desert, by requesting regular inspections, while also providing economic support to Egypt and attempting to build cordial relations with its president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. This strategy saw some success; Nasser was said to have been overcome with sorrow upon hearing the news of Kennedy’s assassination.
The American policy towards Israel and much of the wider Middle East accelerated quickly after Kennedy’s death and Johnson’s ascendency to the Oval Office in November 1963. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz claimed in 2018 that ‘Israel has had no better friend’ than the Texan president, and it is not difficult to see why he received such a glowing review. Holding court with numerous influential Jewish American intellectuals, such as Arthur Krim, Abe Fortas, and Arthur Goldberg, Johnson had supported every aid package during his time as a senator and majority leader and had pressed Eisenhower not to sanction Jerusalem in 1956. When President, he enjoyed warm relations with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and professed to hold deep admiration for Israel and its people. ‘I may not worry as much as Eshkol does about Israel’, Johnson told an ambassador, ‘but I do worry as deeply.’
Johnson’s infatuation with Israel was also blended with his personal distaste for Nasser. Viewing the region through the lens of the binary Cold War struggle, Johnson and many of his advisers viewed Cairo as just another Soviet proxy. After initial attempts to placate Nasser with grain deals, Johnson’s patience ran thin as Egypt began to assert itself throughout the region. After the burning of an American library in Cairo, the White House cut all aid and the two presidents became increasingly vocal critics of one another. Johnson branded Nasser as ‘an instrument of the Kremlin’, while the Egyptian responded by calling his counterpart little more than a ‘cowboy.’
Underpinning many of the rhetorical barbs were Johnson’s strategic objectives for the Middle East. His presidency witnessed steadily increasing Soviet military aid to Egypt and Syria as Moscow attempted to fan the flames of anti-West, pan-Arab nationalism. Israel was thus seen as an essential Cold War bulwark against the Kremlin’s meddling, as well as a vital tool for securing the free flow of oil. To maintain the regional balance of power, Johnson oversaw the sale of more than 200 M48 tanks in 1964 despite reservations from the CIA and his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy. He would also authorise the unprecedented delivery of A-4 Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom planes. When it came to Israel developing weapons of mass destruction, Johnson looked the other way. He never pressured Jerusalem to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a disputed anecdote claims that he even asked CIA Director Richard Helms not to share intelligence on Israel’s atomic capabilities with anyone else in his administration.
As tensions began to simmer in the Middle East in May 1967 over Egypt’s blockade of the port of Eilat, Israel called upon its closest friend for help. Presenting the White House with a bleak intelligence picture, which claimed they would be swiftly beaten by their Arab neighbours should war come, Israeli ministers pleaded with Johnson to expand the already generous assistance.
Many in the Johnson administration and the American intelligence community knew the Israeli predictions were little more than an attempt to drum up foreign support. Though a committed ally, Johnson was wary of escalation and the domestic impact of another intervention on foreign soil during the turmoil of the Vietnam War. Supported by analysis from the CIA that concluded Israel would beat any combination of its Arab neighbours within ten days, the White House rebuffed Jerusalem’s calls for further assistance. Ultimately, this dispute mattered little. Launching an apparent pre-emptive attack, Israel achieved a lightning victory. Johnson did order the Sixth Fleet into the eastern Mediterranean to deter Soviet threats on the final day of the war, but the United States played no further role in the conflict.
Yet the war still inflicted significant damage on the perceptions of the United States throughout the Arab world. Believing, perhaps not unfoundedly, that Johnson had given Israel the ‘green light’, American embassies across the region were faced with protests and calls for the boycotting of US products. Nevertheless, Johnson’s support for Jerusalem still did not waver, even after the Israeli Air Force mysteriously attacked an American signals intelligence vessel. For the White House, the war had only confirmed the necessity of arming Israel against the Soviet-backed Arabs. The latter years of the Johnson presidency continued to see large increases in economic aid, with the previous annual average of $63 million jumping to over $100 million in 1967. Johnson also put up little opposition to Israel’s continued occupation of the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the Palestinian territories after the Six Day War.
When he left office in January 1969, Johnson left behind the roots for what thereafter blossomed into an extensive alliance. Pushed on by a powerful lobby in Washington, every president since has upheld the moral and material commitment Johnson initiated. Defence contracts and economic packages grew over the decades that followed, as did American diplomatic support for Israel during a succession of wars in the Middle East. When President Joe Biden stepped down from Air Force One and embraced Netanyahu after the Hamas terror attacks of 7 October 2023, he did so as a clear continuation of Lyndon Johnson’s policies.
As we reach six decades since the Johnson era, this special relationship has come under new strain. Netanyahu’s insistence that there can be no two-state solution and the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza has brought the limits of American leverage and support into clear view for Biden and his foreign policy team. With the Cold War long gone and a new era of global disorder emerging, some in Washington may begin to question whether the alliance has long since served its purpose.