By Irene Gendzier | Author, Dying to Forget | (Informed Comment) | – –
For journalists and politicians alike, the recurring violence in the Middle East is commonly viewed as the lamentable legacy of a conflict-prone region driven by militant sectarianism and incompetent leaders. In an election year, this self-serving view of the Middle has become a common theme, used to justify calls for military intervention to arrest the dire consequences of ‘failed states’ and their alleged threats to U.S. national interests.
No less a fixture in this sorry history is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict whose roots remain well hidden from public discussion as does the US role in its formation and perpetuation. Several examples deserve attention, including the recent reviews by veteran journalists Scott Anderson and Thomas Friedman of former Special Envoy Dennis Ross’s study of US-Israeli relations from Truman to Obama.(1) Yet President Truman’s policymakers discussed the origins and consequences of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians with utter clarity, much as they exposed the calculations of interest involving US oil and defense in the Middle East, that undermined the prospects of arriving at a just and equitable resolution of the conflict. (2)
Consider the following. Veteran journalist Thomas Friedman is impressed with Ross’s account of former Secretary of State James Baker lll’s “straight talk” in confronting Palestinian reservations at the time of the Madrid peace conference.. Regrettably, Friedman claims, “straight talk has been all too absent from U.S. Middle East diplomacy lately.”(3) Moreover, according to him, “we forget how much the parties need America at times to play the reality principle to break the paralysis in their internal politics.” (4)
The record of the foundation of US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians in the years immediately after WW ll is rich in examples of “straight talk” by US policymakers, who were not averse to discussion of the political roots of the conflict or how they believed it endangered US priorities in the Middle East, namely the protection of US oil companies operating in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. But there was also “straight talk” between Jewish Agency officials and the head of the Oil and Gas Division of the US Interior Department in 1948, that later opened up useful connections between Israel and US oil companies.
Above all, there was ‘straight talk’ among US policymakers about the conflict in Palestine that they defined as in political as opposed to religious or cultural terms. For such officials, its resolution rested in compromise over territory, the repatriation of Palestinian refugees and the internationalization of Jerusalem.
“Straight talk” was at work in US consular reports of the accelerating violence in Palestine in the period between the passage of the UN Partition Plan (UNGA Res 181) on Nov. 29, 1947 through Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, 1948 and the Lausanne Conference in 1949. By the winter of 1948, US officials were no less direct in admitting that in the absence of Arab-Jewish consensus, partition was a failure and should be replaced by a temporary trusteeship agreement under UN auspices.
The Departments of State, Defense and CIA were hardly sanguine about the origins and aggravation of the Palestinian refugee problem; they were fearful of its consequences and determined in their support of repatriation, which was rejected by Israel.
But there was also “straight talk” among US military and intelligence officials about the comparative strength of Israeli as opposed to Palestinian and Arab forces, the first of which they regarded as superior from the vantage point of training and equipment. US officials concluded that Israel had become the number two power in the Middle East after Turkey, and could be useful in contributing to US strategy in the Middle East.
This gave rise to reassessments of the “reality principle” guiding US calculations of priorities in the Middle East that led-–by 1949– to a shift in policy. As the “straight talk” of US officials revealed, Israel’s orientation toward the US and away from the USSR was viewed as more important in terms of the protection of US oil interests in the region, than the repatriation of Palestinian refugees.
Reflecting on Scott Anderson’s view of US policy in this context is instructive. Anderson argues that “at the heart of the Palestinian Question is a conundrum no American administration has been willing or able to unravel.”(5) The conundrum was Washington’s inability or reluctance to confront Palestinian failure to initiate peace offers after rejecting those of Israel, and Israel’s preference for the status quo to an uncertain peace. Indeed, as US records indicate, Israel preferred the status quo following the signing of armistice agreement with Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, to US efforts to negotiate a permanent peace at Lausanne.
This did not alter the policies of those US officials who regarded Israel’s potential in US Middle East strategy as the guiding “reality principle.” Then and now US officials recognized that “straight talk” about such policies carried significant risks, the risk of knowing and challenging their ends and means.
1. Dennis Ross, Doomed to Succeed, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
2. The discussion that follows is based on Irene Gendzier, Dying to Forget: Oil, Power and Palestine, the Foundations of US Policy in the Middle East, Columbia University Press, 2015.
3. Thomas Friedman, ‘Have A Nice Life’, The New York Times, Oct. 28, 2015, A25.
5. Scott Anderson, “Quagmire Diplomacy,” The New York Times, Oct. 25, 2015, 15.
Irene Gendzier is Professor Emerita at Boston University and author of Dying to Forget: Oil, Power and Palestine: the Foundations of United States Foreign Policy in the Middle East, Columbia University Press