Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Irene Gendzier: Why the US recognised Israel

9 November 2011

By Irene Gendzier, Israeli Occupation Archive – 9 Nov 2011

Irene Gendzier

Irene Gendzier

To judge by official pronouncements in Washington and Tel Aviv in the summer of 2011, nothing is more important than forestalling the appearance of the Palestinian Authority before the UN General Assembly lest it succeed in obtaining support for its unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence.

Underlying this position on the part of the US and Israel is the unstated comparison between Israel, the allegedly law-abiding state that is a member of the ‘international community,’ and the political outlaw making illegitimate demands of that same community.

What such images fail to convey is revealed in an examination of US policy in Palestine in 1948. At that time, Washington regarded the prospect of an Israeli declaration of independence as a threat to its interests in the region.

In 1948  the State Department,  the Defense Department and the CIA regarded such an outcome with open concern. Opposing this view was President Truman’s special legal counsel, Clark Clifford and his small entourage of supporters,  who strongly endorsed US recognition of Israel’s independence as in line with US interests. It was Clifford, moreover, who shepherded the proposal for independence through the White House insisting that the Jewish state already existed and that it remained only to recognize it before the Soviet Union did.

Several points are worth making in this connection. The first is a reminder of conditions in Palestine in the winter of 1948 that led US officials and the US President to come close to abandoning support for the UN Partition Resolution.

The second is the US assessment of the status of Arab regimes on the eve of Britain’s departure from Palestine, and the continuing misgivings expressed by US officials as to risks that Jewish statehood entailed for US interests. The third point is that, when those misgivings  proved to be false, US oil and defense interests concluded that the new State’s military capacity and political orientation could protect those interests, US policy changed accordingly.

In the winter of 1948, US officials and the President  were close to abandoning support for the UN Partition Resolution, UN Res. 181, in the face of unending conflict and the realization that force would be necessary to implement it. In its place, Washington was moved to support a cease-fire, a truce and temporary trusteeship, delaying but not entirely abandoning the objective of partition, as it insisted under pressure.

Developments on the ground in Palestine, however, could not be ignored. On May 3,  eleven days before Britain’s departure from Palestine, the US Consul in Jerusalem reported on the collapse of Palestinian government with the warning that “unless strong Arab reinforcements arrive, we expect Jews overrun most of city upon withdrawal British force.” [1]  The same officer reported in April on the steady advances of Jewish forces in “aggressive and irresponsible operations such as Deir Yassin massacre and Jaffa,”  as well as what occurred in Haifa in the same period. The US Consul reported that British and others agreed in early May 1948 that  “Jews will be able sweep all before them unless regular Arab armies come to rescue. With Haifa as example of Haganah military occupation, possible their operations will restore order.” [2]  What kind of order?  Haifa was known to the British, Iraqis and Americans chiefly through its oil refinery  that processed Iraqi oil through IPC pipelines. Its takeover was unacceptable to the Iraqis and led to the destruction of the existing network of relations between Palestinian and Jewish workers.

Shortly thereafter, Robert McClintock, then with the US delegation at the UN, speculated that the Security Council would soon be confronted by the question as to “whether Jewish armed attack on Arab communities in Palestine is legitimate or whether it constitutes such a threat to international peace and security as to call for coercive measures by the Security Council.” [3] It was again McClintock who observed that if Arab armies entered Palestine leading Jewish forces to claim “that their state is the object of armed aggression and will use every means to obscure the fact that it is their own armed aggression against the Arabs inside Palestine which is the cause of Arab counter-attack,” the US would be obliged to intervene.[4]

Finally, some ten days before Britain’s departure,  US Secretary of State, George C Marshall provided select diplomatic offices with his assessment of the condition of Arab regimes. He had few illusions as to which would survive.

Whole govt structure Iraq is endangered by political and economic disorders and Iraq Govt can not at this  moment afford to send more than handful of troops it has already dispatched. Egypt has suffered recently from strikes and disorders. Its army has insufficient equipment because of its refusal of Brit aid, and what it has is needed for police duty at home. Syria has neither arms nor army worthy of name and has not been able to organize one since French left three years ago. Lebanon has no real army while Saudi Arabia has small army which is barely sufficient to keep tribes in order. Jealousies between Saudi Arabia and Syrians on one hand and Hashemite govts of Transjordan and Iraq, prevent Arabs from making even best of existing forces. [5]

Marshall’s remarks about Egypt were corrected by the US Ambassador who pointed out that Egypt’s ill equipped army was the result of British refusal to provide the Egyptians with viable equipment. The Transjordan military, as Marshall pointed out, was similarly dependent on British officers. Despite such conditions, Marshall warned that “this does not mean however that over long period Jewish State can survive as self-sufficient entity in face of hostility of Arab world.” And as he emphatically concluded, “If Jews follow counsel of their extremists who favor contemptuous policy toward Arabs, any Jewish State to be set up will be able survive only with continuous assistance from abroad.”

Furthermore, before and especially after Israel’s declaration of independence, US officials denounced the treatment of Palestinian refugees and called for their repatriation,  an issue that was endorsed by the US President who had earlier taken the initiative in calling on the British, then still in Palestine, to permit the admission of 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine.

Recognizing the influence of the Zionist movement in the US, although not always aware of the nature of President Truman’s private communications with high level Jewish Agency officials, including Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, the US foreign policy elite  warned of the  possible risks to US interests in the Middle East, referring to US oil and defense interests as developments in 1948 unfolded.

They proved to be wrong. The reason behind their error exposes the roots of what was to become the ‘special relationship’ between Washington and Tel Aviv.Within a year of Israel’s establishment, the position of the State and Defense Departments changed from criticism regarding Israel’s  feared damage to US interests in the region, including oil and defense, to an appreciation of its potential in supporting those very interests.

US officials conceded that while Arab public opinion and the declarations of its leaders were openly critical of Washington’s pro-Israeli stance, US commercial interests did not suffer.  In mid-March 1948 US officials at the UN had been informed that the Saudi position was that the “Palestine conflict was civil one and it was most important from Arab states’ own interest not do anything which would give SC [Security Council] occasion use force in Palestine.” [6]  US officials, including the Secretary of State, were highly appreciative of the Saudi position.

The end result was that US oil and defense interests, both primarily in Saudi Arabia at this time, were not undermined. There had been fear, expressed by US corporate leaders, that the Saudis might decide to abrogate their oil contracts, but this did not take place, nor was there any attempt to block US Aramco, the corporate oil giant, from  extending its control over off-shore oil.

There were other related developments in the winter of 1948 as  Jewish Agency leaders in the US sought to confront US oil interests, recognizing that they constituted the prime objective of US Middle East policy at this period. In the winter of 1948 the US Director of the Oil and Gas Division of the Department of the Interior, Max Ball, reputed to be among the best informed officials on US and international oil,  met with the principal Jewish Agency representative in the US.[7] Eliahu Epstein (later Elath) was a member of the Jewish Agency Political Advisory Committee, member of the Presidium of the Zionist General Council, and Director of the US Office of the Jewish Agency. His meeting with Ball took place  when the US House of Representatives was conducting extensive hearings  on “Petroleum in Relation to National Defense, ” which underlined the centrality of US oil policy in its overall foreign policy, including the Marshall Plan.  It was against this background and with Ball’s interest in the possibility of finding oil in the Negev, that Ball encouraged Epstein to explore meeting with US oil executives including the VP of Aramco, the Director of Socony Vacuum, and the VP of Standard Oil of New Jersey. Israeli interest in US oil policy began before 1948.[8] But when Max Ball met with Epstein in the winter of 1948 and recommended meetings with major US oil interests in the Middle East, it was at a formative period of US policy making in the oil rich regions of the Arab East.

The above developments signaled a positive view of the Jewish Agency’s interest in US oil policy on the part of a major US official with direct responsibility in that sector. Further, it directly challenged the prominent view held by government officials and the corporate oil sector that supporting the Jewish state risked endangering such interests. Precisely what followed in the relations of  Israel and US oil interests in this period remains to be examined.

Suffice it to recall that the  reevaluation of the new state prompted by the events of May 1948 was necessarily based on multiple key factors. Among them were those that led the US military to conclude that Israel could be a significant asset in ‘holding’ the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East and its oil interests, which did not preclude recognizing its dependence on external support, or the necessity of resolving the Palestinian refugee problem. Such qualifications aside, the US military was prepared to concede that Israel had altered the military balance of power in the region, which justified rethinking its policy.

On March 7, 1949, a Memorandum by the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on “U.S. Strategic Interests in Israel,” affirmed the need for precisely such a reassessment.

The power balance in the Near and Middle East has been radically altered. At the time the state of Israel  was forming, numerous indications pointed to its extremely short life in the face of Arab League opposition. However, Israel has now been  recognized by the United States and the United Kingdom, is likely soon to become a member of the United Nations, and has demonstrated by force of arms its right to be considered the military power next  after Turkey in the Near and Middle East.[9]

In the light of such developments, the same source concluded that “as the result of its support to Israel, the United States might now gain strategic advantages from the new political situation.”  [10] [italics added] And on the basis of the same calculations, the Air Force Chief of Staff called for a study of “US strategic objectives touching Israel,” in addition to recommending that military training and assistance be considered and that above all, Soviet influence in the new state be blocked.

The same calculations led to the implicit reevaluation of US policy on the question of Palestine which  was increasingly interpreted exclusively as a refugee problem disconnected from the fate of the Palestinian state.

 

A shortened version of this text appeared in the October 2011 edition of  Le Monde Diplomatique and its international editions, including that published in London, as well as on Znet.com.

This article is part of the ongoing research for Gendzier’s forthcoming book, Dying to Forget: The Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East, to be published by Columbia University Press.

Irene Gendzier is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Boston University; she is also a member of the IOA Advisory Board.

 

Notes:

[1] May 3, 1948, The Consul General at Jerusalem (Wasson) to the Secretary of State, FRUS 1948,  V, part 2, p.889.

[2] May 3, 1948, The Consul General at Jerusalem (Wasson) to the Secretary of State, FRUS 1948, V, part 2,p.889.

[3] May 4, 1948, Draft Memorandum, FRUS 1948, V, part 2, pp.894-895.

[4] Ibid. p.895.

[5] May 13, 1948, The Secretary of State to Certain Diplomatic Offices, FRUS, 1948, V, part 2, pp.983-984.

[6] March 13, 1948, The Minister in Saudi Arabia (Childs) to the Secretary of State, FRUS 1948, V, part 2, p.719.

[7] Feb. 18,1948, Memorandum for M. Shertok, No. 210, Political and Diplomatic Documents, December 1947-May 1948, State of Israel Archives, World Zionist Organization Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem 1979, p.354.

[8] Zohar Segev, “Sruggle for Cooperation and Integration: American Zionists and Arab Oil, 1940s,” Middle Eastern Studies, Sept. 2006, Vo.42; p. 821, n.5; p.829, n.7 and 8.

[9] Mar. 7, 1949, enclosure,  Memorandum by the Chief of Staff, US Air Force to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on US Strategic Interest in Israel, JCS 1684/27 p. 181.

[10] Ibid., idem.

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