As America marks the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, we will be remembering one of our country’s greatest leaders with speeches, tributes and television specials. Friends of Israel will have a special reason to celebrate: Reagan made the Republican Party into the unambiguously pro-Israel party that it is today.
Indeed, before the Reagan era, the Republican Party had a decidedly mixed record on Israel. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the conservative movement had strong isolationist and even anti-Semitic tendencies. Later, Republican presidents, such as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon — while by no means isolationists — had complicated relations with the Jewish state. Eisenhower forced Israel to return the Sinai to Egypt after capturing it in 1956. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Nixon wasted precious days before finally re-supplying a tapped out Israel with arms.
Reagan, by contrast, had staunchly pro-Israel views. These were informed by his perception of Israel as an important American ally in the Cold War and his identification with Israel as a vibrant democracy.
“Only by full appreciation of the critical role the State of Israel plays in our strategic calculus can we build the foundation for thwarting Moscow’s designs on territories and resources vital to our security and our national well-being,” Reagan said. As Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, has noted: “Ronald Reagan was the first President to state explicitly that Israel was a strategic asset to the United States.”
Ronald Reagan was the first President
to state explicitly that Israel
was a strategic asset to the United States,
with shared democratic values
But for Reagan, America’s friendship with Israel wasn’t only a matter of strategic calculus. As Reagan said in his 1980 campaign, “Israel represents the one stable democracy sharing values with us in that part of the world…. I think we should make it plain that we are going to keep our commitment to the continued existence of Israel.”
This sort of talk was music to the ears of neoconservatives, many of whom had backed Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election only to grow disillusioned. Reagan gave pro-Israel neoconservatives, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams, prominent roles in his administration. Kirkpatrick, in particular, defended Israel from her perch as American ambassador to the United Nations. The neoconservatives helped give Republican foreign policy a pro-democracy emphasis that it often lacked in the era of Kissingerian realpolitik, permanently altering the way that Republicans related to Israel and its conflicts with its undemocratic neighbors.