Benjamin Netanyahu is not the first Israeli prime minister to find himself at odds with Washington. In fact, several prime ministers from the Labor Party, Netanyahu's traditional rival, have suffered the wrath of an angry American president.
Harry Truman, for example, is remembered fondly by Israelis and American Jews for his quick de facto recognition of the newborn State of Israel on May 15, 1948. But in the preceding weeks, the State Department, acting with the approval of the White House, repeatedly pressured David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues to accept a "truce" that would include postponing statehood indefinitely.
"If the Jews refuse to accept a truce on reasonable grounds they need not expect anything from us," Truman told State Department official Dean Rusk. Undersecretary Robert Lovett threatened Nahum Goldmann --a Washington representative of Ben-Gurion's Jewish Agency-- that if the Zionists did not indefinitely postpone the proclamation of statehood, "we will become very tough. We will wash our hands of the whole situation and will prevent any help being given to you."
Lovett then went further, warning that if Ben-Gurion did not back down, the administration would release a "White Paper" so critical of the Zionists that it would "do great harm to the Jews in this country." He told Goldmann that the report would have "grave repercussions," since "anti-Semitism is mounting in an unprecedented way in groups and circles which are very influential and were never touched by anti-Semitism."
In the 1950s, it was the Eisenhower administration that took aim at Israel's Labor-led government. Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, visiting Washington in April 1953, was shocked when Assistant Secretary of State Henry A. Byroade threatened him that if Israel did not make territorial concessions to the Arabs (within Israel's already-narrow contours), the U.S. administration would present "our own peace plan," which Israel might not like.
Soon afterwards, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles proposed that Jerusalem should not be Israel's capital, but should be ruled by "the world religious community"; and that Israel should stop emphasizing its Jewishness and instead "become a part of the Near East."
Dulles subsequently told the Israeli ambassador, Abba Eban, that Israel must "re-examine its policy of encouraging large-scale immigration," refrain from counter-terror raids, and "bear her share of the Arab refugee burden." Byroade then delivered several speeches demanding that Israel become "a Middle Eastern state" and describing aliya as a central obstacle to peace (since it supposedly made the Arabs worry that Israel was planning "a future attempt at territorial expansion").
The knives really came out in late 1956. Egypt's huge military buildup, its threats to annihilate Israel, and its sponsorship of repeated terrorist raids into Israel from Sinai and Gaza compelled Ben-Gurion to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Nasser regime.
Professor Isaac Alteras, in his definitive study, Eisenhower and Israel, describes Eisenhower's response in language that calls to mind what Prime Minister Netanyahu has been experiencing at the hands of President Obama. Eisenhower let it be known that he regarded Ben-Gurion as an "extremist." In one conversation with a prominent American Jewish leader, the president questioned the Israeli leader's "balance and rationality."
During the first days of the war, Eisenhower and other U.S. officials refused to even meet with the Israeli ambassador, Abba Eban, or any other Israeli representatives. (Israel's current ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, was not the first to be given the cold shoulder.) When Ben-Gurion requested a meeting with the president to discuss their differences, Eisenhower refused. "The president in his punitive mood was not about to award Ben-Gurion with the prestige of a summit meeting," Alteras writes.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has been on the receiving end of some salty comments from unnamed U.S. officials. So was Ben-Gurion. New York Times columnist James Reston reported: "The White House crackled with barracks room language the like of which had not been heard since the days of General Grant."