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This isn't the first time the U.S. and Israel have disagreed over Gaza

Israeli troops round up Egyptian soldiers captured during fighting in 1956 in the Rafah area of the Gaza Strip, which was controlled by Egypt at the time. Israel, Britain and France invaded Egyptian territory after Egypt moved to nationalize the Suez Canal. But U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower intervened, leading to the withdrawal of foreign troops, including the Israeli forces in Gaza.
AP
Israeli troops round up Egyptian soldiers captured during fighting in 1956 in the Rafah area of the Gaza Strip, which was controlled by Egypt at the time. Israel, Britain and France invaded Egyptian territory after Egypt moved to nationalize the Suez Canal. But U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower intervened, leading to the withdrawal of foreign troops, including the Israeli forces in Gaza.

U.S.-Israel relations are now strained over Gaza — and it's not the first time Israel's military operations there have drawn criticism from the White House.

The year was 1956. Israel, Britain and France had just invaded Egyptian territory in a bid to take over the Suez Canal, which Egypt had decided to nationalize.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower stepped in, ending the brief conflict. But in the months afterward, Israel resisted a United Nations resolution that called for it to pull its troops out of the Gaza Strip, then controlled by Egypt.

"Repeated, but so far unsuccessful, efforts have been made to bring about a voluntary withdrawal by Israel," Eisenhower said in a nationally televised speech. "It was a matter of keen disappointment to us that the government of Israel, despite the United Nations action, still felt unwilling to withdraw.

Israel got the message, and withdrew from Gaza shortly afterward.

So here we are again, 68 years later, with a few a new twists.

President Biden supports Israel in its war with Hamas. But he's warning Israelis against a military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah at a time when more than a million Palestinian civilians are taking refuge there.

Top U.S. and Israeli officials held a virtual meeting Monday but did not reach a breakthrough.

"They agreed that they share the objective to see Hamas defeated in Rafah. The U.S. side expressed its concerns with various courses of action in Rafah. The Israeli side agreed to take these concerns into account and to have follow up discussions," the U.S. and Israel said in a joint statement.

So just how strained are relations right now?

"I do see a very, very real risk for the state of Israel and its long-term interests," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, a Washington group that describes itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-democracy.

He puts much of the blame on Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition government.

"They are leading the country toward the loss of international legitimacy and American support," Ben-Ami said.

Gaza residents inspect the vehicle where World Central Kitchen workers were killed near the town of Deir al-Balah on Monday. World Central Kitchen, an aid group, says an Israeli airstrike killed at least seven people, including several foreigners.
Abdel Kareem Hana / AP
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AP
Gaza residents inspect the vehicle where World Central Kitchen workers were killed near the town of Deir al-Balah on Monday. World Central Kitchen, an aid group, says an Israeli airstrike killed at least seven people, including several foreigners.

During his many years in power, Netanyahu has aligned himself with Republicans in the U.S. He's also waged very public battles with the past three Democratic presidents: Bill Clinton, over peace negotiations with the Palestinians; Barack Obama, over a nuclear deal with Iran; and now Biden, over the war in Gaza.

One of Israel's strongest supporters, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, recently took the provocative step of calling for Netanyahu to be replaced.

"I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu has lost his way by allowing his political survival to take precedence over the best interests of Israel," said Schumer.

U.S.-Israeli relations have rebounded from past disagreements. Robert Satloff, who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes this will happen again.

"I expect that out of the current difficulty, with the passage of time, there will be renewed commitment to strengthen this relationship again," he said.

However, some things have changed.

Older Americans often saw an embattled Israel fighting for its survival.

A younger generation sees Israel's aggressive military campaign in Gaza, with thousands of Palestinian civilian deaths, and the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories.

"My parents and their grandparents went through the Holocaust. My father's family fought for Israel's independence," said Ben-Ami. "It's a completely different life experience than the young person born in the 21st century. It's not at all a surprise that there is a completely different conversation happening on college campuses versus what's happening in senior citizen centers."

In every generation, the U.S. and Israel have had pointed conversations.

When President George H.W. Bush wanted to launch Mideast peace talks in 1990, he felt Israel was dragging its feet.

So his secretary of state, James Baker, delivered a blunt message in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee: "It's gonna take some really good faith, affirmative effort, on the part of our good friends in Israel. Everybody over there should know that the telephone number is 1-202-456-1414. When you're serious about peace, call us."

That was, and is, the White House phone number.

The current moment includes this paradox. Biden is proposing $14 billion in military assistance to Israel — which is already the leading U.S. recipient of such aid. Yet the president is criticizing Israel's military operations and telling the country what not to do in Gaza.

In the past, Israeli leaders have often accepted military advice from U.S. presidents, said Robert Satloff.

"The historical precedent is that the president certainly has the ability to impose his will if he wants to go that far," Satloff said.

It's not clear what will happen this time. Netanyahu says he'll stand up to pressure from anywhere, including the White House.

"I think we're seeing this this complicated relationship evolve in real time before our eyes," said Satloff.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent who was based in Jerusalem from 2000-2007. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.