Timeline: How US presidents have defended Israel over decades
Joe Biden is not only US president to back Israel amid criticism of military operations and abuses against Palestinians.
As the Palestinian death toll from Israel’s continuing bombardment of Gaza mounts, anger with US President Joe Biden’s handling of the situation is growing.
On the same day that Israeli air raids killed 10 members of a single family and levelled an 11-storey building housing the media offices of Al Jazeera and The Associated Press, as well as residential apartments, Biden reasserted his unequivocal support for Israel.
The White House on Saturday said the US president called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the second time since the crisis began and “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza”.
While calling for a de-escalation, Washington has failed to urge an immediate ceasefire or utter a word of criticism directed at Israel.
US progressive legislators, Palestine advocacy groups and others are expressing disappointment with Biden’s policy. But the US president’s position is not unique among a long line of US presidents who have shown nearly unconditional support for Israel in times of conflict.
Here is how Biden and past US presidents have defended Israel over decades:
Biden has twice issued statements reaffirming his commitment to Israel’s “right to defend itself” against rockets fired from Gaza during Israel’s ongoing offensive on the territory.
Israeli officials say thousands of rockets have been fired from Gaza towards Israel, where 10 people have been killed to date, while a barrage of Israeli air strikes on the besieged territory have killed at least 188 Palestinians and injured hundreds more.
Top Biden administration officials have stressed their “strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself” while saying the US is pushing for a “de-escalation”. The US also blocked a United Nations Security Council statement that would have called for an end to the violence.
Today the President spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza, and condemned these indiscriminate attacks against Israel. pic.twitter.com/baHWh1b6Q2
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 15, 2021
Former US President Donald Trump – a staunch defender of Israel and the country’s prime minister, Netanyahu – rejected any attempts to criticise Israel for the killing of dozens of protesters in Gaza in May 2018.
Palestinians were participating in a “Great March of Return” rally when Israeli forces opened fire on the crowd. The deadly violence coincided with the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, after the Trump administration moved it from Tel Aviv in a move that drew the ire of Palestinians.
“The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas. Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response, and as the Secretary of State said, Israel has the right to defend itself,” White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah said at the time.
Israel carried out 10 days of aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip in July 2014 before launching a ground offensive into the territory. On July 18, then-US President Barack Obama told reporters he had “reaffirmed [his] strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself” in a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “No nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders, or terrorists tunnelling into its territory,” Obama said.
“I also made clear that the United States, and our friends and allies, are deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life,” said Obama. More than 1,500 Palestinian civilians, including more than 500 children, were killed in that Israeli military operation in Gaza, according to the UN.
More than 100 Palestinian civilians were killed when Israel launched a military offensive on Gaza in November 2012 after it assassinated Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari.
Obama once more defended Israel’s actions: “There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on peoples’ homes.”
December 2008-January 2009
Israel’s offensive in Gaza, dubbed “Operation Cast Lead”, began in the morning of December 27, 2008. When it was declared over 22 days later, Israeli fire had killed about 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and razed much of the territory to the ground, Amnesty International says.
But on January 2, then-US President George W Bush – who was in the final weeks of his time in the White House – placed sole blame for the situation on Hamas. “This recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas – a Palestinian terrorist group supported by Iran and Syria that calls for Israel’s destruction,” Bush said, as reported by NBC News at the time. He also said any ceasefire “that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable”.
An incendiary visit by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque in September 2000 led to mass Palestinian protests and confrontations with Israeli security forces that left seven Palestinians dead. The Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, was launched.
Both Palestinian armed groups – which began deploying suicide bombings – and Israel were accused of war crimes and the indiscriminate killing of civilians during the uprising. Israel launched air raids and incursions into Gaza and the West Bank. At least 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in the fighting.
Newly elected President George W Bush did not approve of early Israeli operations, but closely aligned with Sharon in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and subsequent “War on Terror”. The alliance was seen as giving Israel a wide berth for military actions, while disproportionately blaming Palestinians for any violence. Bush also supported Sharon’s refusal to engage with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat.
In a 2002 speech, Bush became the first US president to publicly support a Palestinian state, but he said such support was conditional on a complete Palestinian overhaul of its leadership, institutions, and security arrangements. “Today, Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing, terrorism,” he said. “This is unacceptable. And the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure.”
US President Bill Clinton defended Israel after its military launched an attack on a UN compound in Qana, in southern Lebanon, where hundreds of civilians had been sheltering in April 1996. The attack killed more than 100 civilians and injured hundreds of others.
Israel said the attack was carried out in error, but a report to the UN Security Council found that “while the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, the pattern of impacts in the Qana area makes it unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of technical and/or procedural errors”.
Tens days after the massacre, in a speech to pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Clinton said Lebanese children in Qana “were caught between – make no mistake about it – the deliberate tactics of Hezbollah in their positioning and firing and the tragic misfiring in Israel’s legitimate exercise of its right to self-defense”.
A series of protests, strikes, and boycotts defined the First Intifada, with Israeli security forces criticised for disproportionate crackdowns, including the use of live fire against Palestinians.
The uprising erupted as US President Ronald Reagan had begun to bolster Israel’s role as a “unique strategic asset”, making aid to Israel more readily available and giving the country special access to US military technology. While generally adverse to criticising Israel, the Reagan administration in 1987 condemned Israel security forces for “harsh security measures and excessive use of live ammunition”.
His successor, George HW Bush, took a relatively firmer stance with Israel, pushing a delay of loan guarantees in exchange for a halt to the building of settlements in the occupied West Bank and participation in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.
Reagan admitted that Israel gave no warning when its military invaded southern Lebanon in June of 1982 amid cross-border fighting. When asked about the US’s failure to condemn the action, or cut off arms sales to Israel, Reagan told reporters, “The situation is so complicated and the goals that we would like to pursue are what are dictating our conduct right now.”
Still, he denied giving Israel the “green light” for the invasion, saying, “We were caught as much by surprise as anyone, and we wanted a diplomatic solution and believe there could have been one.”
In October 1973, several Arab nations led by Egypt and Syria launched a military offensive in an attempt to regain the Sinai peninsula and Golan Heights, which Israel had captured during the 1967 war and continued to occupy.
Following a failed counterattack, the US began airlifting weapons to Israel, with US President Richard Nixon credited by then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir as expediting the transfer. The weapons are widely seen as turning the tide of the conflict, which Nixon told Congress was significant in a wider Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, which supported the Arab countries.
In June of 1967, Israel launched an air assault on Egypt that began the so-called Six-Day War. The conflict, which also involved Jordan and Syria, saw Israel take large swaths of land including the West Bank and Gaza, and the Syrian Golan Heights.
US President Lyndon B Johnson recounted in a 1971 New York Times piece, “I can understand that men might decide to act on their own when hostile forces gather on their frontiers and cut off a major port, and when antagonistic political leaders fill the air with threats to destroy their nation.”
“Nonetheless, I have never concealed my regret that Israel decided to move when it did. I always made it equally clear, however, to the Russians and to every other nation, that I did not accept the oversimplified charge of Israeli aggression. Arab actions in the weeks before the war started – forcing UN troops out, closing the port of Aqaba and assembling forces on the Israeli border – made that charge ridiculous.”
On May 14, 1948, the head of the Jewish Agency proclaimed the creation of the independent state of Israel as the United Kingdom’s colonial mandate over the territory ended. US President Harry S Truman immediately recognised the new sovereign nation.
“This government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine, and recognition has been requested by the provisional government thereof,” read a statement signed by Truman. “The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new State of Israel.”