IN MAY 1948, President Harry Truman ignored the misgivings of the State Department and recognised the sovereignty of Israel which had just been declared. In May 1998 President Bill Clinton finds himself dealing with that legacy, and with what has been one of the most curious and fraught relationships of our time.
Clinton enjoyed a moment of brilliant reflected glory when Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn in September 1993, the first fruits of the peace process which had begun in Oslo. Now Israel's 50th anniversary finds that process painfully stalled, as Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to yield to American urgings.
Appropriately enough, the anniversary also found the Israeli prime minister in America. While he was there, the worst violence between Arab and Jew in almost two years erupted, with eight Palestinians, including two small boys, killed by Israeli troops. "Bibi" Netanyahu's reaction was to condemn the demonstrations as a "pressure tactic", adding that "It's very simple and very easy to whip up a frenzy of hatred and to whip up violence".
To which one might say, he should know. However he may be as a national ruler or international statesman, Netanyahu has few rivals at pressure tactics and whipping up emotions. So his American visit showed, once again. He was in Washington partly to talk to the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who now scarcely conceals her loathing of him, while the Clinton administration scarcely conceals its view that the Israelis are the miscreants.
Like all Israeli prime ministers, Netanyahu is nevertheless able to whip up the emotions of Jewish America, and to exert pressure tactics through Congress. That was the real purpose of his visit to the country where he first established his political reputation, as Israel's ambassador at the United Nations and a fluent television performer.
The glad-handings in Washington illustrated again what has been called "the triangular relationship", between the United States, Israel and Jewish America. But behind the appearance of amity lurks one of the great secrets of our time: the hatred which all American presidents develop for Israel, or at least for its political leaders.
In public, any American politician with the faintest presidential aspirations has to learn his lines by rote: "Israel, our truest friend in the Mid- East ... the only democracy ... Judeo-Christian tradition", not to mention the Israeli achievement in "making a once-barren desert bloom".
In private, it's another story. Running for re-election in 1980, President Jimmy Carter told close colleagues that "If I get back in, I'm going to fuck the Jews." He lost, but the following year his successor, Ronald Reagan, tried to win Congressional approval for an aircraft sale to Saudi Arabia despite Israeli objections. An earlier president, Gerald Ford, once said to a senator: "Are we going to let the fucking Jews run American foreign policy?" Ten years later, President George Bush's Secretary of State, James Baker, said to a colleague: "Fuck the Jews. They don't vote for us anyway," words said in private which became public and were blazoned as a headline in an Israeli paper.
These profanities (all related by reliable sources) might look like evidence of that ineradicable anti- Semitism which Zionism claimed to answer. A simpler explanation is that every American administration since Truman's has been hamstrung in its Middle Eastern policy by Israeli intervention in American domestic politics, and presidents resent this with a bitterness all the stronger because it can't be expressed publicly.
In 1957, Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, told a senator: "I am aware how almost impossible it is in this country to carry out a foreign policy not approved by the Jews ... I am going to try to have one. This does not mean that I am anti-Jewish, but I believe in what George Washington said in his Farewell Address that an emotional attachment should not interfere." He spoke for his successors. But all of them have come up against the most formidable lobby Washington has known.
Over and again, the same thing has happened. There has been a clash of wills between the US administration and the Israeli government, both trying to win congressional favour. It happened in a startling fashion in 1991. Israel wanted loan guarantees from Washington, which the Bush administration said would be conditional on a halt to Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
Yitzhak Shamir's government veered between refusing to halt settlements, and promising that it had halted them, which the Americans knew to be untrue. The loan guarantees were held up - and yet Shamir told his cabinet to budget on the assumption that they would come through: which is to say on the assumption that, in such a clash of wills, Congress would take the Israeli side against its own president.
It has just happened again. Netanyahu did not want Clinton to go public with his plans for Israeli withdrawal. Those plans are technical and abstruse, and an awful lot of heat and light has been generated by the precise details of how much territory Israel should hand over to the Palestinian Authority - 13 per cent, 9 per cent, or, as some Israelis would prefer, nought per cent.
Once more, what really matters was not the rights and wrongs, if any, at issue, but that contest of wills, and how biddable Congress is. Sure enough, more than half of the House of Representatives, and more than four out of five senators, were induced by Israeli lobbyists to sign a letter telling Clinton not to publish his plan.
This time it is just possible that the worm will turn. That congressional missive has only served further to vex Clinton and Albright, who do not in any case believe that Netanyahu is acting in good faith, though they are also aware that he is himself hamstrung by domestic difficulties.
Absurdly enough, Netanyahu sometimes seems to pull more weight, and exert more control over political events, in the US than in Israel. Two years ago, he became prime minister in succession to Shimon Peres, the Labour leader, who had himself succeeded when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. The way Netanyahu won the election partly explains his predicament.
Israel suffers from a pure system of proportional representation, which has led to a multiplicity of parties and to weak governments. When I talked to Peres in Tel Aviv a few months ago and asked him if he would prefer our own maligned first-past-the-post electoral system, I was amused by the vehemence of his reply: "Absolutely." Half of his country's political woes could have been avoided, he said, by the "Westminster system", an ironical reflection on Roy Jenkins's endeavours to get rid of that system here.
The last Israeli election was made more complex still, with a direct personal election for prime minister held simultaneously with parliamentary elections. This was meant to strengthen the premier's hand in relation to the parties, but it has not worked as intended. Netanyahu beat Peres, albeit in a photo finish, by less than a percentage point; but he still needs a parliamentary majority, which is at present precarious.
That means that he has to keep on board hard-liners like Ariel Sharon. Now implausibly cast as infrastructure minister, Sharon is the man directly responsible for the calamitous Lebanon adventure in 1982, and at least indirectly responsible for the appalling Beirut massacres which ensued.
And he thinks a 9 per cent withdrawal is 9 per cent too much. More alarming still, Netanyahu has discussed offering a cabinet post to a representative of the extreme right-wing Moledet party, which advocates the "transfer" or expulsion of all Arabs from the lands controlled by Israel.
Although Netanyahu won the election on the slogan "peace with security", his position was not so straightforward. He could honourably have said that he was opposed to the whole peace process, and would abandon it. But he didn't say that. He said that he was suspicious of the Oslo process, but that he would honour it if he was elected.
Since the election, he has shown little sign of keeping that promise, and Uzi Benziman of the Ha'aretz newspaper expresses a widespread belief in Israel that all of Netanyahu's manoeuvring "is nothing but a tactical means of ridding himself of the burden of the Oslo process. He just doesn't want to get blamed for it." But he will be blamed: by the Palestinians, by many Israelis, and by the White House.
And the most important single factor in the equation may be that Clinton is in his second term. For all the platitudes about the blooming desert and our truest friend, he has a huge investment of personal prestige in the peace process; and, since he cannot run again, he has nothing to lose by strong-arming Israel. Come to me, my melancholy Bibi, croons the President, or you may be more melancholy still before Washington sees the next presidential inauguration.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's latest book, 'The Controversy of Zion: How Zionism Tried to Resolve the Jewish Question', has won an American National Jewish Book Award.
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