It wasn't always like this

There is no other alliance that compares, and it is newer than you might think. Anton La Guardia ana

Who provided the fighter aircraft and other weapons that the Jews used to carve out a state for themselves in Palestine in 1948? America, you might say. Wrong. It was the Soviet bloc. Who built the Dimona reactor that allowed Israel to become the only nuclear power in the Middle East? The United States, surely. No, France. Who conspired with Israel to invade Egypt and remove Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Arab anti-colonial trouble-maker of his time? Step forward Britain and France. It was the US president, Dwight Eisenhower, who demanded and obtained Israel's withdrawal from all the territory it had occupied in the Suez crisis of 1956.

A quick reading of Middle East history shows that the US was not always Israel's best friend, not always the bankroller, armourer and diplomatic shield-holder it is today. In fact the alliance between Washington and Jerusalem was forged in the cold war, though it has been hardened by George W Bush's "global war on terrorism".

After the 11 September attacks, Israel convinced many Americans that its war against Palestinian suicide bombers was no different from the US war against those who sent suicide pilots crashing into the twin towers, and that Yasser Arafat was the same as Osama Bin Laden, only with a Palestinian headscarf on his head. It is a remarkable achievement for a country of almost seven million people to be able to convince a country 50 times larger, and many times more powerful, to see the world its way, to extract disproportionate amounts of subsidies from the US taxpayer and to lever a superpower's political might for its own ends.

"Israel is dependent on the United States as no country is on a friendly power . . ." wrote Henry Kissinger in the 1980s. "It takes a special kind of heroism to turn total dependence into defiance, to insist on support as a matter of right than as a favour."

The relationship was born in the six-day war of 1967, when Israel's puny borders expanded to the Suez Canal, the Jordan river and the approaches to Damascus. This established Israel in America's eyes as a bulwark against Soviet influence in the Arab world. So although the Jewish state fought that war with French weapons, it has defended its conquests with American arms.

Israel was helped generously in its wars with Arab states, and even more so after it made peace with Egypt. For the past two decades it has received $3bn a year in civi-lian and military aid from the US, roughly the same as all current US development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa. The bond goes beyond strategic considerations. Over the years, supporting Israel has come to be seen as a moral obligation across the American political spectrum. The pro-Israeli lobby may be legendary for its ability to twist arms on Capitol Hill, Jewish votes are important in key states such as New York and Florida, and the Bush administration's neo-cons may be supporters of the Likud party, but the real secret of Israel's influence is that it resonates with the public. Many Americans see in Israel a reflection of themselves, a settler society born of ideas of freedom and built on the romance of pioneers with a God-given destiny. To liberals Israel is an island of democracy in a sea of Arab autocracy, and to hawks it is the country that shows how terrorism must be fought.

Many Americans, more religiously mind-ed than Europeans and more literate in biblical scripture, believe that protecting the "children of Israel" is smiled on, if not directly commanded, by God. For the fundamentalist Christian right the ingathering of the Jews is to be supported as part of the divine plan for the return of the Messiah (though Jews and Christians disagree about what will happen when the Messiah comes).

And yet, while US support for Israel may be unshakeable, it is not unconditional. American interests in the Middle East stretch far beyond the question of Israel and Palestine, not least to oil in the Gulf. Many of Israel's enemies are important friends of the United States. Washington finds it easier to embrace Israel when Israel is trying to make peace and give up occupied territory than when it is being obstinate.

Even the Bush administration understands that, to some extent, it should be seen to try to heal the open sore of Palestine. One of President Bush's first responses to 9/11 was to declare his "vision" of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Although he later ostracised Arafat, he also made sure that Ariel Sharon did not kill him or try to send him into exile. So while America has protected Israel from the Arab world's wrath, it also saved Arafat from Israel's wrath.

As well as his much-derided private comments about God telling him to invade Iraq (which the White House denies), Bush was also said to have announced that he was on a divine mission to establish a Palestinian state.

This is the kind of talk that unsettles Israeli leaders. They know that Israeli voters can take a harsh view of prime ministers who upset relations with the great protector. Yitzhak Shamir's clash with President Bush's father after the 1991 Iraq war, over the Madrid peace conference and the building of settlements, was one of the main causes of his downfall in the 1992 elections. After the latest war in Iraq, Israel's leaders are happy that the US has removed Saddam Hussein and that its forces now surround what they regard as the biggest menace, Iran. But they worry that the younger Bush may take a leaf out of his father's book. "If the Americans fail in Iraq and cannot defeat the insurgency," one senior Israeli official said, "Bush could try to look for success elsewhere in the Middle East and force a settlement of the Palestinian issue."

Anton La Guardia is diplomatic editor of the Daily Telegraph and author of Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis and Palestinians