Irene Gendzier: Plain talk on the Netanyahu visit

By Irene Gendzier
Israeli Occupation Archive – 10 March 2015

Irene Gendzier

Irene Gendzier

The March visit of the Israeli PM to Washington has aroused rapid opposition among Israel’s supporters in Congress as well as Democratic Party activists. At issue is the matter of protocol, not to say, principle. But there is something else afoot, namely, the realization that Netanyahu’s action risks alienating a political base that is increasingly skeptical of Israeli claims, including those about Iran’s nuclear arms that were exposed as false by Israel’s Intelligence agency. Then there was the PM’s analogy between his leadership of Israel in 2015 and that of David Ben-Gurion in 1948, that was rapidly written off by Israeli critics. At bottom, however, is the threat of blowing open the taboo on plain talk about Washington’s relations with Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The PM’s remarks about Ben-Gurion omitted mention of one of the more intractable features of his relationship with Washington in 1948, when US officials confronted the consequences of the struggle over Palestine. From the President to the lowest ranking State Department officials, they pressed Ben-Gurion to accept the repatriation of Palestinian refugees, to cease illegal expansion of territory beyond the boundaries of the UNGA Partition Resolution 181 (Nov 29, 1947), and to accept the internationalization of Jerusalem, as recommended by UNGA Resolution 194 of Dec. 11, 1948. More than six decades later, those remain critical elements in any resolution to the conflict.

The talk in 1948 was not about an Iranian threat. It was about the Soviet threat of intervention in the Middle East, which some in the State Department believed to be imminent. The result was justification for a politics of US intervention across the Near and Middle East, from Greece to Iran and Palestine.

In May 1945, the State Department described the Palestine problem as “probably the most important and urgent,” particularly as it was located in the oil rich region of the Middle East. That zone, under the control of US oil companies, was simultaneously recognized as constituting one of the greatest material prizes in history. In that context, Washington feared that support for Zionist objectives in Palestine would put their prize at risk. They were wrong. The oil continued to flow.

But the problem in Palestine only worsened.

It was in 1945 that Truman approved the Harrison Report on the state of European refugees, whose condition led him to press Britain to allow the entry of 100,000 Jews to Palestine. Behind Truman’s move was controversy over immigration, and the rise of nativist racism that favored letting the Jews go to Palestine instead of the USA.

In 1946, Gordon Merriam, the Chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs of the State Department called for an international response to the European-Jewish refugee problem, while insisting that Palestine be granted independence as a Class A Mandate, then under British control. Merriam and other State Department officials also insisted that there be an Arab-Jewish consensus as a prerequisite to resolving the conflict in Palestine. Support for consensus was hardly new, but it was vehemently taken up along with expressions of support for bi-nationalism although that option never became official policy.

The partition of Palestine in Nov. 1947 put an end to all such talk in Washington, where it elicited deep concern that the intervention of the major powers, including the US and the USSR would be necessary for it to work. Washington rejected the prospect, while watching the devastating results of Partition in the months between the passage of the UN Partition Resolution to Israel’s unilateral declaration of independence on May 14, 1948. Above all, there was increasing doubt among US officials about long term Zionist goals.

On Nov. 28, 1947, the CIA issued a report warning that “in the long run no Zionists in Palestine will be satisfied with the territorial arrangements of the partition settlement. Even the more conservative Zionists will hope to obtain the whole of the Negev, western Galilee, the city of Jerusalem, and eventually all of Palestine.”

On April 9, 1948, Thomas Wasson, the US Consul in Jerusalem, sent an account of the massacre by Jewish forces in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. Wasson was assassinated on May 23. But before that the overwhelming sentiment among US officials in Washington was to concede the defeat of partition and consider calling for a temporary trusteeship plan under UN auspices.

Israel’s declaration of independence eliminated any such options. It also changed Washington’s view of the new state and its military potential. The turnabout in the US position –believed by some to have long been in the making-was inspired by the US military’s recognition that Israel was now the 2nd military power in the Middle East after Turkey, a situation that altered the regional balance of power, and with it, US policy.

But there was one dimension of that policy that remained in place, the insistence that Israel accept the repatriation of Palestinian refugees.

Within a month of Israel’s independence, Secretary of State Marshall warned that “we consider overall solution Arab refugee problem intrinsic to final settlement Palestine problem, but believe increasingly critical nature refugee problem makes it essential that at least partial return of refugees should be permitted for those so desiring prior to achievement final settlement. “

On August 31, 1948, the CIA described the refugee situation as, “the most serious population upheaval since the termination of World War ll,” and two months later, the US Ambassador to the UK described the “Palestinian situation is probably as dangerous to our national interests as is Berlin.”

Israeli officials rejected the US position and all claims of responsibility for the expulsion of Palestinian refugees. The President and State Department officials concerned with Palestine continued to criticize but no action followed. In a matter of months they moved to accommodate Israel’s policies and to legitimize its violations of international law. The Palestine question was relegated to a back burner. The reason was clear: Israel’s military success had convinced State and Defense Department officials that the combination of its location and military capacity could prove useful in US strategy, that is in the protection of its oil interests in the Middle East. US officials were well aware that Israel was the strongest state in the region in comparison to their Arab neighbors. This was not the image of David facing Goliath, but insofar as Washington was concerned, David was the Goliath.

Sixty years later, the Pentagon supported Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014, and in the midst of the controversy over the Prime Minister’s visit to Congress in 2015, the New York Times reported a budget proposal of $3.1 billion for Israel. It did not raise the question of US support for an ally whose possession of nuclear arms was an open secret, and whose failure to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was on the record. Nor did it explain why Washington did not act in the face of the Prime Minister’s continued construction of settlements in Occupied Territory, a violation of international law and US policy.

But then, the US has a long relationship with this special ally, and it may be time to probe its origins. If the Prime Minister’s visit turns out to be what provoked such an opening, he is to be thanked.


A version of this article was published on Znet:

Irene Gendzier was a long time member of the Boston University faculty, having taught in the Departments of History, African Studies and Political Science. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, and the Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East, Columbia University Press, Nov. 2015; and she is also a member of the IOA Advisory Board.

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