How the Republican Party (GOP) Went Zionist

Republicans are now among the Jewish state’s most important friends. This was not always so.

Redacted from an in-depth article in Commentary Magazine


The movement to isolate Israel may be in full swing on college campuses across the country, and Israel may be the subject of ever-louder international denunciations, but when it comes to a Republican Party riven by squabbles, the Jewish state has become a unifying glue.

Support for Israel is all but unanimous among the party’s politicians in Washington, and in the presidential race, candidates vie to outdo one another when it comes to expressing their commitment to it; even the isolationist presidential candidate Rand Paul had gone to great pains to attempt to establish his pro-Israel bona fides.

It was not ever thus. Indeed, the emergence of the GOP as the nation’s pro-Israel voice is an odd and fascinating element in the modern political history of the United States. For the first 45 years of Israel’s existence, the Republican Party was deeply divided when it came to the Middle East. Powerful forces inside the GOP had long been at best uncomfortable with Israel and at worst openly hostile. Those forces included big businessmen and oilmen with deep connections and interests in Arab lands and so-called foreign-policy realists who did not see why the U.S. should maintain a special relationship with a tiny, economically negligible country surrounded by 22 Arab nations that wished it would disappear.

As a practical political matter, there were few discernible electoral incentives for the GOP to support Israel, given that the Jewish community was so completely in the Democratic camp (save for many progressive Jews in the Northeast, such as Senator Jacob Javits of New York, who were members of the Republican Party because they loathed the role Southern segregationists played in the Democratic electoral coalition).

The first Republican to serve as president after Israel’s founding was Dwight David Eisenhower, elected in 1952. Eisenhower was put off by Israel’s democratic-socialist ideology. Additionally, its tiny size, martial weakness, and lack of strategic resources of any kind marked it as an irritant. Eisenhower believed that his predecessor, Harry Truman, had only supported the creation of the state because of political considerations—the 1948 Jewish vote—not strategic calculations.

His view was that the United States needed to preserve friendly relations with Arab states to maintain access to oil reserves and to keep the Arabs from forging stronger ties with the Soviet Union, which had begun to advocate for the Arab world against Israel in international forums such as the United Nations during Eisenhower’s first term. When Israel, France, and Britain invaded the Sinai to reestablish Western control of the Suez Canal after its seizure by Egypt, Eisenhower reacted with rage and forced the coalition to withdraw.

Richard Nixon served as Ike’s vice president and shared Eisenhower’s views on maintaining the balance of power in the Middle East. When he became president in 1969, he wanted his administration to serve as a corrective to what Nixon believed had been the Johnson administration’s tilt toward Israel.  On the one hand, he was the first president to appoint a Jewish national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, who would also become the first Jewish secretary of state. But the private Nixon spoke freely in bigoted terms about Jews and enjoyed poking at Kissinger’s origins. 

And yet, when Israel faced an existential crisis during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Nixon showed little ambivalence. He saved the Jewish state from a devastating defeat at the hands of the Egyptians, armed to the teeth with Soviet weaponry. Operation Nickel Grass provided Israel with more than 112,000 tons of supplies. Nixon knew he would be criticized over the airlift, and this understanding helped steel his resolve: “We are going to get blamed just as much for three planes as for three hundred.” When the airlift wasn’t moving fast enough, he ordered his generals to “use every [plane] we have—everything that will fly.”

Nixon’s decision to arm Israel in the 1973 war would have long-standing repercussions. One consequence was the oil embargo initiated by the Arab states in 1973, an economically devastating move—and one that convinced ordinary Americans who had to cope with the tripling of energy costs that the Arab states were hostile entities that deserved to be confronted rather than appeased, as the foreign-policy panjandrums of both parties had long asserted. Decades of American evenhandedness had failed to stay OPEC’s intimidation. Perhaps a different approach might prove more valid in the future.

The war further clarified for the American people where the various Middle East players stood when it came to the Cold War. The Soviet Union had made it unmistakably evident that it was Israel’s enemy just as it was the enemy of the United States. And the war marked a turning point in Israel’s relation with the United States at a strategic level as well. Israel not only proved proficient at destroying Soviet weaponry used against it by Egypt and Syria, it also shared captured Soviet weapons, including the T-62 battle tank, with the United States. This was an intelligence coup for the U.S. military, and it demonstrated that oil was not the only strategic asset available to the United States in the Middle East. Israel, too, was an asset.

There was also an emerging realization among some key foreign-policy thinkers that a coalition of Third World nations and Soviet allies was treating the U.S. as a punching bag at the United Nations. This was given full voice in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seminal 1975 Commentary essay, “The United States in Opposition.” Moynihan’s response to the rhetorical onslaught against the United States was simple: America should fight back. The essay led to his appointment by President Gerald Ford as U.S. ambassador to the UN in 1975 and 1976. And the most notable moment of Moynihan’s tenure came when he joined with Israel against the UN’s Orwellian declaration of Zionism as racism.

The same would prove true about the influence of another hawkish Democrat, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Many of his aides—including Elliott Abrams, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz—shared his perspective, and it was in Jackson’s offices that the emerging “neoconservative” foreign policy was first laid out in Washington. Israel was not Jackson’s primary foreign-policy interest. Rather, his top priority was a strong U.S. stance against Soviet aggression. And because he believed the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente was a capitulation, he pressed for increased involvement of Congress in international relations to counter the administration’s appeasement; his greatest success came with the passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked U.S-Soviet trade to Soviet human-rights policy, particularly as regarded oppressed Soviet Jews who wished to emigrate.

Outside of Washington, another important trend emerged in the 1970s that would have a far-reaching impact on the GOP’s realignment with Israel: the rise of the evangelical vote. Staunch evangelical support for Israel meant that it was no longer mainly Jewish voters who cared where politicians stood. As these voters moved in large numbers to the Republican Party, beginning with the election in 1980, these pro-Israel Christians started to emerge as the largest and most important segment of the GOP base. Republican politicians started to take notice.

Then–Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin also took notice, and took steps to encourage the burgeoning evangelical support of Israel. In 1981, Begin spoke to a gathering of 3,000 evangelical Christians in Jerusalem and issued a medal to Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell. After Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, Begin even called Falwell to explain Israel’s reasoning.

It was not only conservative clergy who would be converted to the pro-Israel cause, but conservative legislators as well. The most important example was the evolution of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Helms was openly hostile to Israel for his first decade or so in the Senate, and was targeted for defeat by Jewish groups in a 1984 Senate reelection bid that he survived only by the skin of his teeth. The next year, AIPAC helped arrange a trip to Israel for Helms and his wife; Helms himself indicated that the trip was life-changing.  Helms would go on to chair from 1995 to 2001 the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, where he would actively legislate on Israel’s behalf.

Helms’s shift represented the confluence of forces that were remaking the Republican Party. The growing evangelical support for Israel had its greatest impact in the South, fast becoming the GOP’s stronghold. And it coincided with Ronald Reagan’s eloquence in support of the Jewish state. Reagan did not see eye to eye with the Israelis on every issue; he approved the sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981, criticized the Osirak attack, and was not supportive of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Reagan spoke and thought of Israel in a manner new to American presidents. He saw that Israel was a strategic asset to the United States in the struggle against totalitarianism. Reagan recognized the alignment not only of interests but foundational Judeo-Christian beliefs: “Israel represents the one stable democracy sharing values with us in that part of the world,” he said. He took the historic step of formalizing military cooperation between the United States and Israel. The Pentagon also began to recognize the strategic importance of maintaining its joint activities with Israel, which could field-test U.S. weapons, strengthen intelligence cooperation, and serve as a base for U.S. equipment in a hostile region.

Congressional GOP support for Israel became even more marked in the 1990s after the GOP took over both Houses of Congress. The outspokenly pro-Israel Speaker Newt Gingrich set up a contrast on the Israel issue between himself and the Clinton administration, which was pressing Israel for territorial concessions in the name of peace deals.

None of this was seamless. Reagan was succeeded by George H.W. Bush, himself quite literally a Country Club Republican and oilman by birth and occupation and a foreign-policy realist by disposition. His secretary of state, James Baker, was even worse, earning the wrong kind of immortality with his line, “F— the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.”

But Bush’s brand of hostility was not the only anti-Israel tendency within the rapidly evolving American right. Open anti-Semitism reared its head as well, in the personages of the writers Patrick J. Buchanan (a protest candidate for president in 1992 and 1996) and Joseph Sobran. When Buchanan called Congress “Israeli-occupied territory,” he was not only giving foul voice to a classic anti-Semitic theme but was accurately reflecting the fact that by this point, anti-Israel sentiment on Capitol Hill had become a mark of extremism in both parties. More important, both Sobran and Buchanan received a very public cold shoulder from the mainstream conservative movement. William F. Buckley Jr. himself wrote a long indictment of his friend Sobran in National Review and consigned his and Buchanan’s brand of Jew-hatred to the margins of the conservative movement.

Congressional GOP support for Israel became even more marked in the 1990s after the GOP took over both Houses of Congress. Pro-Israel Speaker Newt Gingrich set up a contrast on the Israel issue between the GOP and the Clinton administration, which was pressing Israel for territorial concessions in the name of “peace” deals. In 1998, Gingrich visited Israel and was so expressive of his admiration and support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that journalist David Makovsky called the trip a “love fest.” Palestinians noticed as well, and grumbled about what the New York Times characterized as “the lopsided support for Israel shown by Mr. Gingrich and the Congress.”

Netanyahu would go on to play a key part in facilitating better relations between Israel and the GOP in another way as well. As prime minister in the 1990s and, more successfully, as finance minister from 2003 to 2005, Netanyahu embarked on a series of economic reforms that liberalized Israel’s previously socialistic and stagnant economy. Netanyahu made alterations in Israel’s welfare system, slashed government spending, privatized parts of the economy, and cut taxes. Unemployment and deficits went down, economic growth surged, and Israel developed its reputation as the high tech start-up nation. The reforms also opened the door to more support from the Republicans, as backing the Jewish state no longer meant having to apologize for propping up a socialist economy. Instead, Republicans could now tout a free-market Israeli economy, which was far more congruent with prevailing GOP economic theory.

When the GOP took over the White House after Bill Clinton, the days of strategic ambiguity by GOP presidents toward Israel were long gone. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush may have come from the same family, but they came from different Republican parties. The party that embraced the younger Bush was evangelically dominated, congressionally focused, and definitively pro-Israel. As Bush once told a Jewish leader: “The Saudis thought ‘this Texas oil guy was going to go against Israel’ and I told them you have the wrong guy.”

As the story goes, when Bush went to Israel, then–Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon went out of his way to welcome the visiting governor, and Arafat gave Bush the runaround—after which he denounced Bush for refusing to meet with him. Sharon’s foresight would be rewarded, and Arafat’s shortsightedness would come back to haunt him. This became obvious during the Second Intifada, with Israel suffering from a barrage of Arafat-encouraged suicide attacks. At the time, America itself was recovering from the shock of 9/11, and the televised footage of Palestinians celebrating the attacks by handing out candy clarified issues in the minds of many Americans.

In G.W. Bush’s view, and as a result of a generational shift in the GOP, Israel was our ally and was going to be treated as such. To be sure, Bush continued to push for the so-called peace process, especially in his second term. But Bush’s effort, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, featured none of the vitriol that would characterize the Obama administration’s push for a negotiated settlement.

Thus, the tale of the transformation of the GOP into an unambiguously, proudly, and solidly pro-Israel coalition, 80 percent of whose self-identified members now tell pollsters they support the Jewish state. In 2014, Joshua Muravchik wrote an important book, Making David into Goliath, an account of how Israel went from being a widely admired nation in 1967 to one of the most reviled. In Muravchik’s telling, this development was not accidental, but the result of strategic action by a number of actors—on the left, in the Arab world, and in Europe—to delegitimize and damage Israel. But while the Jewish state lost many allies during this period, it also gained an important and reliable friend. At the same time that the world was learning to hate Israel, the Republican Party was learning to love it.

Tevi D. Troy is the president of the American Health Policy Institute. He is also the author of the Washington Post best-seller What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House. He served as Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services and a senior White House aide in the George W. Bush administration.


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