An Enduring Tension

By Nicolaus Mills

In a speech before Congress that received 59 rounds of applause, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his charge that President Obama’s contention that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” is a betrayal of Israel.

“Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967,” Netanyahu promised.  “Jerusalem must never again be divided.”

The standing ovations that Netanyahu received during the course of his speech had to be reassuring to him and his American supporters, who believe President Obama is wrong when he says that in today’s Middle East, “The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.”

Tension between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers is nothing new—even the strongest ties are sometimes frayed. Perhaps the strongest parallel with the present controversy can be found in 1948, amid the debate that took place in the United States over the founding of Israel.

Under the leadership of President Harry Truman, America provided de facto recognition of Israel eleven minutes after it declared itself a state. Nonetheless, within the Truman State Department there was widespread belief that America was acting hastily, allowing domestic pressure to determine foreign policy.

Even President Truman, who as early as October 1946 pledged his support for Jewish immigration to Palestine, complained of the pressure that he was under from the American Jewish community in the period between the founding of Israel and Great Britain’s 1947 announcement that, by the summer of 1948, it would end the mandate over Palestine that it had exercise since the end of World War I.  In his memoir, Years of Hope, Truman remarks how often he was accused of being pro-Arab whenever his policies did not conform to “the Zionist program for the State of Israel.”

The Truman State Department felt these same pressures. Truman’s Secretary of State, George Marshall, and George Kennan, a Soviet expert who headed Marshall’s newly-created Policy Planning Staff, believed it was essential for America to move carefully with respect to Israel if it did not permanently want to alienate the Arab world.

Cold warriors who knew firsthand the dangers the Soviet Union posed, Kennan and Marshall were never anti-Israel. Yet, they saw enormous danger in unquestioning support for Israel by America.  The diplomatic reports and dispatches that appear in the 1948 volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States tell the story of their worries in a way that puts the Netanyahu-Obama conflict in perspective.

The fullest statement of Kennan’s thinking comes in a January 19 report.  Kennan began with the damage that he sees a one-sided support of Israel would cause. Given the Arab opposition to the partition of Palestine, Kennan argued, “Any assistance the U.S. might give to the enforcement of partition would result in deep-seated antagonism for the U.S. in many sections of the Moslem world over a period of many years.”

What worried Kennan most is that he does not see an independent Israel surviving on its own. America, he fears, is going to have to support Israel indefinitely. “If the U.S. is determined to see the successful establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine,” Kennan wrote, “the U.S. must be prepared to grant economic assistance, together with aid to the Jewish authorities through the supply of arms, ammunition, and implements of war.”

Marshall’s thinking followed similar lines.  After America recognized Israel’s independence, he cabled America’s diplomatic officers in London and the Middle East, asking them to comment on his belief that Israel cannot “survive as a self-sufficient entity in face of hostility of Arab world.”  What troubled Marshall was that he saw no way for America to separate itself from Israel if it became Israel’s primary sponsor.

In a May 12 memorandum that has become the diplomatic centerpiece for all discussion about America’s support for the foundation of Israel, Marshall recounted how he warned Moshe Shertok, Israel’s future foreign minister, that Israel was betting too heavily that its initial military success against the Arabs would guarantee its survival.

“There was no doubt but that the Jewish army had gained such temporary success, but there was no assurance whatever that in the long-range the tide might not turn against them,” Marshall noted.  What Marshall wanted Israel’s leaders to understand at the outset was that if the tide of battle turned against them, “there was no warrant to expect help from the United States.”

It was not, however, merely as a diplomat and former general that Marshall spoke out on May 12.  Clark Clifford, the special adviser to President Truman, attended the May 12 meeting, and Marshall saw Clifford’s pro-Israel stance as motivated in part by the desire to get Truman votes in the 1948 election against his pro-Israel Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey.

“The counsel offered by Mr. Clifford was based on domestic political considerations,” an angry Marshall observed, before going on to say, “if the president were to follow Mr. Clifford’s advice and if in the elections I were to vote, I would vote against the President.”

Nothing in President Obama’s May 19 speech approaches the toughness or the doubts we find in Kennan’s and Marshall’s 1948 assessments of Israel. Still, it is impossible to ignore that they were right to believe that far into the future, America was bound to be Israel’s chief supplier of arms.

In seeking to leverage America’s military and economic influence into getting Israel to take a more flexible position with regard to the West Bank settlements and a viable Palestinian state, the president has not turned his back on history. He has instead sought to modify historical positions two of America’s greatest diplomats took in the same transformative year when the United States instituted the Berlin Airlift and began the Marshall Plan to help Europe recover from World War II, which his critics seem to have conveniently forgotten.


Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.

[Image courtesy of flickr user Barack Obama]

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