The American Stake in Israel
The place of Israel in the evolution of American foreign policy since 1945 is a cautionary tale for all who study the art, or practice it, and for all who must live with American foreign policy as citizens, as allies, or as adversaries. It is the perfect case history through which to observe the development of our foreign policy since Truman. Every factor shaping our policy during this period has been at work with regard to Israel: the influence of strategic interests, and the ways in which our perception of those interests has changed in response to the changing character of Soviet policy, the Sino-Soviet split, and the decline of the European political and military presence in the world beyond Europe; the influence of our isolationist tradition, and of isolationist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonialist attitudes, which continue to have a tenacious grip on our minds and feelings even though the experience on which they rest has become obsolete; our reluctant recognition of our security interest in the fate of Europe (and Japan), and our resistance to involvement in the vast and turbulent world beyond those narrow perimeters; the influence of moral conviction, sympathy, and democratic principle; the influence of international law on international politics, and vice versa, the unresolved question of the place of the United Nations charter in our foreign policy, and the extent to which our policy is or should be committed to the rules of the charter against the international use of force; and, finally, the influence of the most important and most neglected category among the causes of history, that of the so-called “irrational factors,” which include stupidity, pride, accident, misperceptions of reality, psychological defense mechanisms for screening out unpleasant realities, failures of nerve, feelings of guilt, and paralysis of the instinct for self-preservation. Perhaps I should add the death wish itself.
But it is impossible to tell the story of the American involvement in the Middle East without at least a brief glance at the background. Let me then start by recalling a few aspects of the pre-1946 situation which are of particular relevance to the policy conflicts of today.
The British Mandate for Palestine was exceptional among the League of Nations Mandates. It established “a sacred trust” not only for the people of the territory, but also for Jews throughout the world, who were endowed by the instrument with the right to migrate to Palestine if they wished to do so. The Mandate expressly recognized the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine as the ground for reconstituting their national home in that country. As the mandatory power, Britain was made “responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative, and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home, . . . and the development of self-governing institutions . . . it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
Arab spokesmen have always taken the view, which remains central to their position today, that the Mandate was beyond the powers of the League of Nations. All that flowed from the Mandate should therefore be treated as a nullity. Despite contrary rulings by the International Court of Justice and the United Nations Security Council, the Arabs proceed from this premise to the startling conclusion that the Arab states have a right to make war on Israel in the name of “the self-determination of peoples.” This reasoning lies behind the Arab practice of referring to Israel as “occupied Palestine” in maps, books, newspapers, and speeches, and in their campaigns to deny Israel diplomatic recognition, and to expel it from the United Nations. Arab spokesmen often point out that the United Nations which recognized Israel in 1949 was a body of some fifty states, much smaller than the United Nations today. Such statements ignore the fact that the contemporary Security Council, on October 22, 1973, passed a mandatory resolution, Resolution 338, imposing upon the states which are parties to the conflict a binding legal obligation to make a just and durable peace with Israel, in accordance with the principles and provisions of Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in 1967.
As an argument of law and of history, the Arab position cannot be reconciled with the charter of the United Nations or with decisions of the International Court of Justice and the Security Council, and indeed no serious attempt has been made to do so. But it is powerful medicine in a world where the restraining influence of the charter on political behavior is becoming weaker every year.
The territory of the Mandate constitutes the only conceivable definition for the word “Palestine” as a matter of international politics and international law. The Mandate included what are now Israel, Jordan, and the territories in dispute between them—the Gaza Strip and the West Bank area. In 1922, acting against the judgment of the League Mandates Commission, and with doubtful legality, the British prohibited or at least “postponed” Jewish settlement in the Transjordanian province of the Mandate. Transjordan remained part of the Mandate, however, until May 22, 1946, when it became a separate state. In view of current controversies, it should be noted that Britain’s 1922 decision did not apply to the area now known as the West Bank, which remained open to Jewish settlement throughout the Mandate period. Thus the term “Palestinian” is properly used not only for Arabs from the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, but for all Jews, as well as Christian or Muslim Arabs, Druses, Circassians, and others who, under the Mandate, had the right to live in its boundaries. King Hussein and Prime Minister Rabin are Palestinians as well as Yasir Arafat.
By the late 1930’s, Britain had tentatively reached the conclusion that the twin purposes of the Mandate were incompatible. Arab massacres, rioting, and other pressures were directed against the increasing Jewish migration to Palestine in the 1920’s, and again following the rise of Hitler, and indeed against the rapid development of the Jewish National Home as a polity capable of becoming a state. In order to mollify the Arabs, the British cut down Jewish immigration, and announced a policy of terminating immigration completely after a period of years. This policy failed in its primary purpose. The Arabs were not mollified or pacified, but further inflamed by the prospect of success. And British concessions on immigration aroused opposition at home and in Palestine, as well as in the Mandates Commission of the League, and in the United States and other countries sympathetic to the Zionist dream. A final British decision on the future of Palestine was postponed until after World War II. But the policy of limiting immigration continued during the war, despite the harrowing position of the Jews in occupied Europe.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the outcry about limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine became intense in the United States, in Great Britain, and above all in the Jewish community of Palestine. It was difficult to remain calm before the spectacle of Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps and other displaced persons being turned back from Palestine, and kept behind barbed wire on Cyprus, or drowned at sea.
Palestine was being consumed in a storm of irrationality and violence, which affected the rationality of the policies of nearly all the nations.
Before resolving to give up the Mandate, Britain turned to the United States for cooperation, as it did in the case of Greece at roughly the same time. The first general question I should like to pose—a question I regard as critical to the way we have perceived Middle Eastern affairs ever since—is why the American reaction to the British dilemma in Greece was so different from its response to the Palestine question.
The Greek and the Palestine crises of the late 1940’s occurred at about the same time, and in the same overall context of world politics. They directly affected the same national-security interests of the United States. In each case, Britain had turned to us for help in coping with problems it felt to be beyond its power, or its political will. In Greece, we reacted firmly and decisively. In Palestine, we put our heads down, and hoped for a miracle.
The problem in Greece was simple, as compared with that in Palestine. The Soviet Union was sending arms and troops into Greece to support a Communist revolt. The situation was deteriorating rapidly, threatening the security of Italy and the allied position in the Eastern Mediterranean. We thought Stalin had promised Churchill to respect the British interest in Greece. And what the Soviets were doing there was an open violation of the charter of the United Nations, less than two years old. The British also asked us to take some of the responsibility for Palestine. In the world of postwar superpowers, Britain and France no longer had the strength or the will to conduct the orchestra of world politics: above all, they could not face down the Soviet Union without American support. This was a political condition we had long anticipated and feared. Before the pressures of Soviet policy made manifest in Eastern Europe and Iran, and foreshadowed in the Middle East, we realized that the new state of things was upon us.
Offstage, the hopes of the immediate postwar period were nearly gone. The Soviets clearly had no intention of honoring their pledge to allow free elections in Eastern Europe. Communist regimes were installed throughout the region except for Czechoslovakia, and the Czech regime was in peril. Germany was one long wrangle with the Soviets, and shadows were falling over Berlin.
Thus the background of the Greek and of the Palestinian crises was the same. The interests at stake were closely related. But the United States reacted to them quite differently.
When I had my first working contact with the State Department, shortly after Pearl Harbor, its prevailing outlook was still that of the world before 1914. The basic rule was “Keep out of trouble”—a maxim applied with equal zeal to the officer as bureaucrat and to the United States as a participant in world affairs. Except for the war, which was viewed as a technical problem separate from politics, initiatives, responsibilities, actions, and commitments were to be left at all costs to the British and the French. We criticized what the British and the French did and failed to do, and insisted on our rights within a system we seemed to think they would always maintain. But the habits of isolation, and the memory of Wilson’s fate, had burned deep. Indeed, I heard the same old slogan in the State Department—“Leave it to the British”—as late as 1968, with regard to dangerous and important problems in Africa and the Persian Gulf.
It is difficult to convey the atmosphere of the State Department in those remote times. For present purposes, one anecdote will have to suffice. Before I went out to Algiers in 1943, I called on Ray Atherton to say goodbye. Atherton was one of the avatars of the foreign service of the day, an intelligent, cultivated, worldly man of wit, charm, and style, and a most effective official, in charge of European affairs. Algiers came within his jurisdiction, as part of French North Africa. He sent me off with some classic State Department advice. “Don’t try so hard,” he said. “Nothing can prevent France from going Communist after the war, so why struggle?”
There were exceptions, of course—officials with a sense of history who understood that the old system was dissolving before our eyes and would soon be swept away. Dean Acheson, then an Assistant Secretary of State, was the leader and natural hero of this group within the State Department and the other departments concerned with foreign policy. His memoirs give a modest account of what was accomplished, both with regard to the political and economic problems of the war itself, and in postwar planning for Dumbarton Oaks, Bretton Woods, and other celebrated occasions.
These officials knew that our most fundamental national interests required us to work with all our energy, during the war and after it, to achieve relationships with Europe and Japan, and, if at all possible, with the Soviet Union as well, on the basis of which a new and more stable political order could be built. And they realized that the United States would have to take a leading and responsible part in that effort—indeed, that the task would be beyond the strength of the European powers alone. Men and women of this outlook saw the war as a political phenomenon—a phenomenon of political pathology, caused by the breakdown of the international system launched at the Congress of Vienna, and the disappearance of its rules. Throughout World War II, they argued that the war should be fought with the necessities of the future in mind.
But the “exceptional” officers, though not without influence, were a minority, at least until 1947.
In that year, American policy started on a mutation which has by no means run its course. The precipitating cause of the change was the fact that the Soviet Union was sending arms and men to support a Communist revolt in Greece. But the deeper cause was the realization, which the Soviet threat to Greece made obvious, that unless the United States fully accepted ongoing responsibility as the leader of the democratic coalition, Europe itself would fall under Soviet control, and the balance of power on which our primitive safety depended would be dangerously altered against us. The government of the United States and, at an instinctive level at least, our public opinion as well, had long understood our absolutely bedrock national interest in assuring the independence and the democratic character of Western Europe, and in preventing any potential adversary from gaining control of its territory, people, and resources. That, of course, was why we fought in both world wars. Against the background of Soviet behavior in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and our growing frustration with the situation in Germany, the Soviet thrust for Greece touched this vital nerve. Our response was electric.
Within a remarkably short period of time, President Truman and Congress, backed by a strong, bipartisan public opinion, articulated, ratified, and began to carry out policies which still define the structure and content of our foreign policy, despite the ebb and flow of events and of public opinion since that time. Most of the ideas out of which this policy was constructed had been drafted and debated within the government during World War II. Starting in 1946 and 1947, their time had come.
The Truman Doctrine was announced, applying the Wilsonian proposition that peace is “indivisible,” and formulating a policy of collective security: that the United States and its allies would insist on the enforcement of the United Nations charter through the Security Council or, failing that remedy, through regional arrangements of self-defense, at least against aggression conducted or sponsored by the Communist states or their proxies. That policy led to the checking of Soviet expansion in Iran, Turkey, Greece, Berlin, and South Korea, and the development of a network of alliances designed to deter aggression and maintain the balance of power.
On the foundation of the Truman Doctrine—the policy of “containment,” as it used to be called—the other familiar features of our foreign policy were put into place: the Marshall Plan, progenitor of programs which led to the formation of the European Community, the reconstruction of Japan, and the development of the industrialized democracies as an integrated and extremely successful capitalist world economy; the Point Four program, leading to comparable processes of economic development for many of the nations of the Third World; the Baruch Plan, the first step in a continuing if thus far unsuccessful effort to eliminate nuclear weapons as instruments of war and make nuclear technology an international resource for peaceful purposes; the many initiatives, going beyond those of the Marshall Plan and that of the Baruch Plan, to improve relations with the Soviet Union, and achieve conditions of true détente with that nation; and finally, starting in 1949, policies intended to end what Acheson then called the “unnatural” alliance between China and the Soviet Union, and thereby to achieve better and more stable relations among the United States and both those countries.
I do not mean to suggest that our foreign policy has been frozen in amber since the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, or that it has been pursued with complete coherence and consistency since that creative moment. Of course that is not the case. But the main ideas of the Truman-Acheson foreign policy have remained vital sources of our behavior throughout the period, as a considered national response to the hazards and opportunities of the world as it is. While those ideas have been questioned in recent years, in the shadow of Korea and Vietnam, no alternative line of policy has been proposed or accepted to replace them. They remain the basis for our actions in the theater of world politics, despite the uncertainty, for the moment, of the public opinion needed to sustain them.
While the British quandary in Greece triggered an American response of remarkable dimensions, the British quandary in Palestine resulted only in American hand-wringing, dithering, ineffectiveness, and indeed irresponsibility. For the Middle East, unlike Greece or Turkey, or Iran for that matter, our motto remained the old isolationist battlecry, “Let the British do it.”
A prolonged Anglo-American diplomatic effort during 1945, 1946, and 1947 failed to produce a common policy, or in fact any policy at all on the part of the American government. Starting in 1945, there were worthy reports by Anglo-American committees of distinguished citizens, endless meetings, correspondence, cables, and memoranda of conversations galore. But while the United States government freely and publicly advised the British government what to do and how to do it, we flatly refused to consider sharing the British Mandate, or taking on a United Nations Trusteeship ourselves. The notion of exposing American troops to the ambushes of Arab and Jewish terrorists was repulsive. We were unwilling to increase the risks to our oil interests in the area, or so to inflame Arab opinion against the West as to create an opportunity for Soviet penetration. So we did little or nothing beyond the making of occasional political gestures, and hoping for the best.
Beset in India, Egypt, and even Transjordan, as well as Palestine, and discouraged by the position of the American government, the British decided to place the future of what was left of the mandated territory before the United Nations. In 1947, the General Assembly, following the advice of its special committee on Palestine, recommended to the Security Council a plan for the partition of the remainder of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, joined in economic union, with a special regime for Jerusalem. The Jewish Agency accepted the 1947 Partition Plan. The Arab states announced that they would use force to oppose the Assembly’s plan, which was denounced again as beyond the powers of the United Nations, and a violation of the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination. The General Assembly warned the Security Council that unless it exercised its ultimate authority over threats to the peace, there would almost surely be war in the area. That fact was in any event obvious to every reader of newspapers.
In a sequence of shameful irresponsibility, the Security Council did nothing to prevent the war, or to carry out the recommendations of the General Assembly, or any other plan for the peaceful resolution of the dispute. At the last moment, the United States even proposed abandoning the Partition Plan, which it had supported, and substituting for it a United Nations Trusteeship.
These ineffectual and unrealistic maneuvers were ended in 1948 when Israel declared its independence—making appropriate reference to the recommendations of the General Assembly’s Partition Plan—and was recognized by the United States, the Soviet Union, and other states. Five Arab states then marched against Israel, united in their desire to destroy Israel, but deeply divided about what they should do next. The forces of Jordan, still under British guidance, probably intended only to occupy Jerusalem in addition to the areas indicated as Arab in the General Assembly’s Partition Plan. Jordan considered itself then—and still considers itself—the Arab Palestinian state, which should divide the territory of the Mandate with Israel. Egypt, pursuing policies which it has followed for millennia, wished to take over the area itself, an ambition which concerns Riyadh, Baghdad, and Teheran as much today as it did in ancient times. Syria, too, wished to occupy the area, in the name of a conception of a Greater Syria, based not only on ancient history, but on the administrative arrangements of the Ottoman Empire. These intense rivalries continue unabated.
Until the first round of the fighting reached its natural end, and the belligerents were willing to accept at least a truce, the Security Council did nothing to stop the war, to condemn and punish the aggressors, or to resolve the issues by peaceful means. That pattern prevailed through several more rounds of warfare, and Count Bernadotte’s attempt at mediation, until it was clear that Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan were incapable of further fighting, and that Egypt had been defeated. Then the Security Council insisted that the parties go beyond a short-time truce or cease-fire, and negotiate armistice agreements, to be followed shortly by agreements of peace.
By implication, at least, these decisions of the Security Council rule on some of the most fundamental issues of the dispute: that Israel exists of right as a state entitled to the full protection of the charter; that its neighbors are under obligation to make peace with Israel; that Jordan and Israel are the successor states to the Mandate, whose territories should be divided between them; that no state of belligerency can be acknowledged to exist between Israel and its neighbors; and that the guidelines for the peace between Israel and Jordan are not the boundary lines of the Partition Plan recommended by the General Assembly in 1947, and rejected by the Arabs, but the armistice agreements they negotiated and accepted in 1949.
Why was the policy of the United States in Palestine so different from its policies of the same period with respect to Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Berlin?
Was it because the quarrel was not visibly and directly over European territory? Despite the universality of its language, the Truman Doctrine seemed at first to be focused primarily on the precarious situation of postwar Europe, where a complete Communist takeover remained a distinct possibility. Reluctantly and against the weight of our isolationist tradition, we had accepted the necessity for keeping Western Europe and Japan out of Soviet hands in order to preserve and maintain a balance of power. But we found it hard to believe that the vital interests of the nation required us to venture into the swamps of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
The whole of our postwar foreign policy has indeed been bedeviled by a tension between our basic policy of support for the independence of Western Europe, and our distaste for supporting British, French, Dutch, Belgian, or Portuguese policies in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East. Our alliance with Europe, the cornerstone of our security position, seemed to imply cooperation with the European nations outside Europe. But we have never been able to do this effectively. When our policy of partnership with Europe has led us into dilemmas of this order with regard to problems outside Europe, the result has generally been paralysis, frustration, half-heartedness, or worse—as was the case most notably in Indochina, and in the Middle East again in 1956.
Is this the tragic element, perhaps the tragic flaw, in American thought about the security of the nation in the new order of world politics which has emerged from the collapse of Europe, the end of the European empires, save that of Russia, and the emergence of the Soviet Union, China, and Japan as important actors in world politics?
Or was our reaction to the Palestine crisis affected by the fact that while the Soviet Union was directly responsible for the attacks on Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Berlin, in Palestine the Soviet Union had supported Israel for about eighteen months, and opposed the Arab cause? Without Czech arms in 1948, Israel would have had even greater difficulties in the first critical battles of the 1948-49 war. Soviet policy at that time was concerned with weakening Britain and France in the Mediterranean. The Soviet decision to reverse its policy, and exploit Arab hostility to the existence of Israel as an instrument of its own expansion in the area, was several years away.
Whatever the causes, we did what we did in 1947 and in the long cycle of Middle East troubles thereafter, sometimes pursuing active policies of pacification and security with Britain and France, and at others nearly paralyzed by our preconceptions as we watched Britain and France being driven out of the area, and the Soviet Union filling the vacuum, step by step. But there were, after all, alternative policies which might have been pursued.
During the Palestine crisis and the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49, the United States was never able to make up its mind about its national interest in the controversy. It is hardly a reproach to the policy-makers of the day that they did not anticipate the Soviet military build-up after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and the worldwide campaigns of expansion based on that build-up. One should not expect our policy-planners to be Delphic oracles.
But it is not too much to have expected them to base their plans on the assumption that the British and French political and military positions in the area would be washed away in the anti-imperialist tide. It was apparent during World War II that no political force could prevent the liquidation after the war of all the European empires, except perhaps the Russian. Except for Russia, no European power was prepared to use force on the scale necessary for success in preserving its empire. The European empires had always been viewed in Europe as trusteeships which would evolve into independent nations under the benign influence of education in the ideas of European liberalism. It should have been, and indeed it was, obvious to our government that the Middle East was not an exception. Unless measures were taken, the withdrawal of Britain and France from their military positions in the Middle East would result in a vacuum which the Soviets would surely try to fill, if we did not join with the British, the French, and the emerging states of the region to prevent any hostile forces from taking control of the area. After all, the Middle East was within easy reach of the Soviet land mass, and altogether accessible to Soviet land, naval, and air forces. The first pressures of Soviet postwar expansion were felt in Iran and Turkey. Both we and the Russians were acutely conscious of the strategic importance of the space and the oil of the Middle East to the economies and military establishments of Europe and the United States, and to their security.
In short, we should have perceived the Middle East as part of the security problem of Europe—and therefore of the United States—certainly by 1946 and 1947. There were State Department officers who had urged this point of view throughout the war, and after it. But we did not act on their analysis. The Palestine crisis of the late 1940’s simply did not touch the European nerve, as the Greek crisis did. Despite our anxieties about oil, we viewed the crisis as the result of a rather tiresome and difficult regional quarrel, on which there was much to be said on both sides. Within the government, Congressmen and officials took sides on the basis of their enthusiasms, as if the bitter war were a football game, of no consequence to the security of the United States. Americans generally admired the pioneering democratic spirit of the Israelis, and wished them well. But our concerns about the oil and geopolitics of the Middle East were translated not into effective security arrangements but into a tendency to side with the Arabs, and to avoid too open an identification with the Israelis, either in the United Nations or, later on, as arms suppliers.
United States security interests in the Middle East were and are fundamental. As would become super-obvious in the course of time, it was the area from which Europe could be outflanked and enveloped. And it possessed oil reserves we, the Europeans—and the Japanese—simply had to have in order to survive. But we undertook to safeguard those interests by weak and vacillating expedients: friendly and sympathetic talk with some of the Arab governments, but a totally inadequate program of political and diplomatic action, and no significant military bases (indeed, some years later, we abandoned the one important base we had in the area—in Libya—without a murmur). And we never seriously considered a major policy move through which we and our allies together might insist on peace, and secure the region against the dominance of hostile forces.
As for Israel, United States policy was deeply divided, and remained divided for a long, long time. Indeed, it is ambiguous and uncertain still. There was strong and general sympathy for Israel, and a realization that the international community has special obligations to protect Israel, since most of the Jews in Israel have come there, and created first the Jewish national home, and now the state of Israel, in reliance on international promises. But there was sympathy too for the Arab grievance. No responsible American officials ever accepted the Arab claim of a right to destroy Israel, but many have felt that Israel was doomed in the long run. And there was a rather passive, fearful sensitivity on the subject of oil, and a desire to avoid political friction with the Arab states, as if such a policy could minimize the risks of an ultimate showdown, either on Israel or on the use of oil as a political or military weapon. For a long time, we and the Europeans acted as if we had no alternatives.
The outcome of this inner turmoil was a curiously equivocal American position, which reduced our chances, such as they were, for achieving outcomes more compatible with our interests. It is our interest that the area be secure and at peace, available on fair terms both to our military forces and to our commerce. So far as Israel is concerned, our interest is twofold: to achieve peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and to maintain Israel as a bulwark whose presence and strength discourage imperial impulses on the part of Egypt, Syria, or Iraq. For a long time, as the Saudi Arabians and the Iranians understood very well, only Israel prevented Egypt under Nasser from conquering Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. And if we face, as we may, a showdown some day with the oil-producing states, Israel would be an indispensable ally. In addition, Israel is the only sure access point we have between Western Europe and our partners in the Far East, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and Japan. From the security point of view, this is a fact of cardinal importance in many perspectives. Ideally, if the Middle East were at peace, Israel could be an important influence for progress throughout the area.
In the late 1940’s, then, the United States failed to prevent the first Arab-Israeli war, or to influence its outcome. It carefully refrained from condemning the Arab attack on Israel as an aggression, and calling for sanctions. Instead of pressing for peace between Israel and its neighbors after the 1948 war, we accepted the armistice of 1949 as an end in iself. At that time, the Soviet Union argued for peace. We contented ourselves with a lesser goal.
By failing to insist on peace, we weakened our position with the Arab states, and our ultimate security position in the region. In the absence of peace, the Arab states have been able to keep alive the hope some day of being able to destroy Israel. They knew that the United States, Britain, and France would never arm them enough for that purpose. Once they had demonstrated that the Western powers lacked the will to insist on the enforcement of the Security Council’s orders to make peace, the Arab states, led by Egypt, began to explore the possibility of association with the Soviet Union for the purpose of fulfilling their great dream. What keeps the Soviet connection alive in the Middle East is not American support for Israel, but America’s failure to insist upon peace between Israel and its neighbors. This basic flaw in our policy was manifest in our handling of the Middle Eastern crisis of 1948-49. It remains the basic weakness of our policy today.
I should like to put a second question about this first chapter of the story: of what significance are the rules of the charter in defining the American national interest, and the substance therefore of American foreign policy? In the late 1940’s, we moved vigorously to uphold the charter in behalf of Greece, and failed to do so in behalf of Israel. Israel survived nonetheless, as a result of its heroic success in trial by battle. A few years later, we intervened against aggression in Korea, in Suez, and in Indochina. Then, after the agony and tragedy of Vietnam, there was a revulsion in American political feeling, and we did little or nothing against an accelerating tide of aggression since 1972 against Pakistan, South Vietnam, Israel, Lebanon, and many states in Africa.
The issue to be faced in our reflections about the Palestine crisis of 1946-53—and I believe it to be the ultimate issue—is the weight we should attach to the rules of the charter against aggression in the formulation and execution of our foreign policy. Forty years ago, World War II engulfed us after it had been demonstrated that the rules of the League of Nations Covenant were toothless, meaningless, and of little restraining influence on the behavior of states. For us, the same issue was posed in another form thirty years ago, when the Arab nations demonstrated that aggression against Israel was costless.
What conclusions were the Israelis and the Arabs justified in drawing from that appalling demonstration of impotence? The Russians? The rest of the world? For whom did the bells toll?
The Suez crisis of 1956 and 1957 was one of the most important missed opportunities of the postwar period. The policies adopted by the United States gravely weakened the Atlantic alliance, and—following the Indochina debacle of 1954—deepened and confirmed an estrangement between France and the United States which has not yet been cured. In the Middle East itself, our management of the crisis failed to bring peace between Israel and its neighbors; strengthened Nasser’s position as a charismatic Arab leader; and accelerated the process of Soviet imperial penetration of the entire region, in a pattern, to recall Georges Pompidou’s mordant phrase, which threatens “the soft underbelly of Europe, and constitutes a continuing Cuban missile crisis.”
By the early 1950’s, the Soviet effort in the Middle East had become a major affair. It was no longer an almost absentminded matter of taking advantage of every opportunity for expansion—of “pushing at open doors,” as the Russians say—but something far more formidable, and ambitious.
During the immediate postwar years, the Soviets were checked in Europe by effective Western help to Greece, Turkey, and Yugoslavia, the Berlin airlift, and the formation of NATO, and the European Economic Community. Their riposte in Korea, which began in June 1950, was successfully resisted. In the age-old style of Russian diplomacy, the Soviets sought to flow around the obstacles, and resume the struggle on another front.
The Soviet strategic goal in the West was and remains the control of Europe; for the Soviets to achieve that goal would transform the balance of power irreversibly in their favor, and leave the United States isolated and vulnerable. If Western Europe should come under Soviet control, the lesson for China and Japan would be nearly compelling. The Atlantic alliance is thus necessarily the first principle of modern American security policy, as the Monroe Doctrine was a century ago.
Starting in the 1950’s, the Soviets chose a Middle Eastern strategy as their principal means to the end of conquering Western Europe. By gaining a position of dominance in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, the Soviets thought, they could reduce Europe without even invading it. To conquer Europe, it seemed plausible to suppose, it should be sufficient to use intimidation and threats, both directly and through the exploitation of the oil weapon, as well as the weapon of left-wing politics. In October 1973, they nearly achieved their objective.
Abandoning their 1948 policy of support for Israel, the Soviets embraced Arab nationalism, and began to intervene not only in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but in the iridescent rivalries among Arab sects, states, parties, and leaders as well. For twenty-five years, as the British, French, Belgian, and now Portuguese empires of the Middle East and Africa evaporated, one after another, the Soviets have been clumping heavily into the vacuums they had often helped to create, sometimes gaining, sometimes losing, but always pressing forward in the confident pattern of a clear policy addressed to the long run.
Impelled by the traditional aspirations of the Czars, and the newer ambitions of their Communist ideology, the Soviets live still in the imperial mood of the 18th and 19th centuries, which the Western nations have rejected with relief, and with conviction.
Nasser came to power in Egypt following Egypt’s defeat in 1948-49 and the military coup which ended the monarchy in 1952. A new collective leadership was exercising authority in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953. The Soviet Union became a nuclear power. The Korean war dragged on, accompanied by interminable negotiations, to be finished, finally, at the Geneva Conference of 1954.
In the Middle East, the basic military array of the early 1950’s still seemed to be that of the placid prewar period. The appearance was an illusion, of course, but French and British forces were for the moment supreme in the area, backed by the American Sixth Fleet. France still controlled Morocco and Algeria, Britain guarded the Suez Canal, Aden, and a number of other key points. And there were no serious military establishments opposing the existing order. As late as 1958, Britain and the United States intervened without incident in Lebanon and Jordan, ending by their gesture a Soviet thrust for control of the region. The massive Soviet presence in the Mediterranean was for the future.
Britain, France, and the United States had issued a Tripartite Declaration in 1950, guaranteeing the political independence and territorial integrity of all the states in the area; they doled out arms to the newly independent Arab states, and to Israel, in ways which were intended to minimize the fever of ambition, and the danger of war. There were no other arms suppliers for the region until January or February 1955, when the Soviet Union finally succeeded in initiating a military-aid agreement with Egypt. The Soviet-Egyptian agreement was soon followed by comparable agreements with Syria and Iraq, and later with Algeria, the smaller states of the Arab Peninsula, and then, much later, with Libya.
The diplomacy of the Soviet arms negotiation with Egypt in 1954 and 1955 has been discussed often, usually in terms of the mistakes John Foster Dulles is supposed to have made in rebuffing Egyptian requests for arms, and somehow mishandling the Aswan Dam negotiations. These criticisms, typical of American habits of self-reproach, miss the point. Nasser sought arms from the Soviet Union soon after the British left Suez in 1954 because he wanted to purchase military equipment on a scale which the United States, Britain, and France could not have approved. Dulles is often accused of driving the Egyptians into the embrace of the Soviets by turning down an Egyptian request for American help in building the Aswan Dam. The exact opposite is the case. The United States had to reject the Aswan Dam project in October 1955, because the Egyptians had made an arms contract with the Soviets in February, and announced it in September. Either at that time, or later, there was no conceivable way in which one could imagine Congress or the executive branch of the American government solemnly building a huge dam for Egypt, while Egypt undertook campaigns of aggression in the area as a Soviet proxy, ally, and satellite.
Nasser’s political goals were incompatible with a close and cooperative relationship with the United States and Western Europe. Nasser flatly refused to join in the American plan for a Middle Eastern alliance system to supplement NATO by containing the Soviet Union from the South. He sought the military means to fulfill his aspiration to become the leader of the Arab nation, and indeed the leader of the Muslim world, by taking over Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the weak states of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, their oil resources and their important geography, thus finally achieving Egyptian control over Iran. And, above all, he wanted to destroy Israel, and vindicate the Arab belief that the establishment of Israel was an injustice to the Arab nation, beyond the rightful authority of the League of Nations and the United Nations.
Nasser and his fellow-officers came to power in Egypt to avenge the Arab defeat in 1948-49. That yearning was the passion which nurtured all the other passions of Nasser’s Egypt—the Pan-Arabism; the soaring ambition; the ambiguous relationship with the Soviets, with the Chinese, and with his fellow members of the club of the non-aligned—Nehru, Tito, Nkrumah, and Sukarno; and the long and costly campaign to conquer the Persian Gulf region via the Yemen, where he had 70,000 troops hopelessly mired in 1967.
During the early 1950’s, Nasser led the Arabs in developing the strategy of refusing to negotiate with Israel, to recognize Israel, or to make peace with Israel. In 1949, the Israelis would not stop fighting until Nasser agreed not only to a cease-fire but to an armistice, and then, at a later stage, to peace. Fighting alone, without allies, and with five divisions defeated and encircled, the Egyptians finally agreed to go to Rhodes, and did sign an armistice agreement with Israel—an event which permitted Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria to enter into comparable agreements.
Then the Arabs made a remarkable discovery. The Security Council of the day had ordered the Arabs to make peace with Israel, and the General Assembly had set up a conciliation commission to facilitate the negotiation of peace. The Security Council had ruled that the armistice agreements of 1949 established a legal regime of “non-belligerency” which would last until the parties made peace. Under those agreements, the Security Council decided, the Arabs could not claim belligerent rights or bar the Suez Canal to Israeli ships or shipping. What the Arabs realized in the early 1950’s was that they could defy mandatory decisions of the Security Council without penalty. They were told in 1951 that they could not shut the Suez Canal to the Israelis. But they did, and nothing happened. They were told they had to make peace with Israel. They refused to do so, insisted that they were still at war with Israel, and had “belligerent rights”; again, the Security Council did nothing to enforce its rulings.
True, the Israelis treated the territory they held under the armistice agreements as their own; gradually even the Arabs came to regard the armistice demarcation lines of 1949 as true boundaries between the Arab and the Jewish parts of Palestine—that is, between Israel and Jordan—although the armistice agreements provide otherwise. But the Western powers showed no appetite for the task of requiring the Arab nations to make peace with Israel. As a result, the deep-seated Arab conviction that the existence of Israel is an aggression against Arab rights became a political force.
By 1951 or 1952, the Soviets began to understand that this conviction among the Arabs was a weapon they could use in their campaign to bring Europe under their control, and to split Europe from North America. No Arab statesman, however moderate, can dissociate himself from the call to a Holy War, a jihad, against Israel. With massive arms supplies, political backing, and the deterrent threat of some Soviet military protection as well, the Soviets dangled before the eyes of the Arabs the irresistible temptation of an opportunity to drive out the Israelis, as the Crusaders had been driven out many centuries before. Beating the anti-Israeli drum, and organizing diplomatic and economic boycotts, guerrilla attacks, and occasional wars against Israel have aroused radical forces within Arab politics, and forced one regime after another to follow the example of Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Under the pressure of escalating hostility, the Arab states are drawn into acts of aggression not only against Israel, but against the Western states as well—for example, the nationalization of foreign concessions, the punitive increase in the price of oil, and the oil embargoes of 1956, 1967, and 1973. With every step down this path, Arab dependence on the Soviet Union is deepened and confirmed.
The immediate background of the Suez crisis of 1956 was a series of developments which brought Britain, France, and Israel together as primary victims of Nasser’s policies of expansion, backed by Soviet arms and diplomatic support. The Egyptians refused a French request that they desist from assisting the rebellion in Algeria, a matter of convulsive importance to the public life of France at the time. The nationalization of the Suez Canal, following the withdrawal of British forces from Egypt in 1954, and climaxing a long series of pinpricks and more, was regarded by Britain and France as a breach of treaty obligations with them, and an act threatening the vital interests of both nations. And Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran as well as the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping, a policy which Israel rightly viewed as a partial blockade, and an act of war. Under customary international law, codified in Article 51 of the United Nations charter, the proportional use of force is justified by way of self-defense to cure such violations of international law by one state against another, when diplomatic or judicial remedies are unavailable or impractical.
Britain and France felt pushed beyond endurance by the pressures—and the tone—of Egyptian policy. For them, Egypt’s behavior would surely mean the end of any possibility of effective action on their part to protect their interests throughout the region, if the political condition of the area should deteriorate further. For Israel, Egypt’s Soviet connection, and the arms build-up and intensification of pressures to which it gave rise, presented a palpable threat. It should be recalled that the Soviet-Egyptian arms agreement of 1955 was on a formidable scale. Soviet arms shipments to Egypt exceeded in volume the cumulative total of arms transfers to all the Middle Eastern countries (save Iraq) by all other arms suppliers during the previous five years. The Soviet-Egyptian connection completely changed the horizon of Middle Eastern politics. It was not an event Israel could be expected to ignore.
As Nasser’s policy developed, he allowed guerrillas to operate against Israel from Egyptian territory. Israel responded with unmistakable emphasis. In this context, the closing of the Straits of Tiran was taken to be the final straw in a cumulative process which would end in full-scale attack unless it was promptly scotched.
Britain, France, and Israel then made common cause, and decided to use force together to remedy their several and quite different grievances. Earlier, indeed, Ben-Gurion had publicly welcomed Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal, provided that Egypt would recognize Israel’s right to use it. Although some American officials have claimed otherwise, the United States government was consulted and informed about the Anglo-French decision to use force, certainly by the British, and perhaps by the French as well. We pressed a series of meetings and negotiations to establish an association of the nations whose shipping used the Canal as the agency to operate it—a device which served to delay the crisis, and, it was hoped, to smother it in diplomacy. It did not, of course, succeed.
On October 29, 1956, a few days before the American election, and shortly after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Israel attacked Egypt in the Sinai, seeking to liquidate guerrilla bases in the area, and to open the Straits of Tiran. The next day, Britain and France asked Israel and Egypt to keep their forces away from the Canal, threatening military action if they did not agree. On October 31, British and French forces attacked Egypt in the Canal Zone, explaining that their purpose was to separate the Israelis and the Egyptians, to achieve international administration of the Canal, and to prevent a major war. Their real goal, of course, was the overthrow of Nasser, and the emergence of a more cooperative regime in Egypt.
The Israeli attack in the desert—with French support through air patrols over Israeli cities—was a brilliant success. The British and the French moved deliberately to occupy the Canal Zone and its chief cities.
The United States, which had warned Israel not to use force in most insistent and even threatening terms, now took the position that the Anglo-French-Israeli attack was not a justifiable use of force in self-defense, but a breach of the charter. Both President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles were angry, or in any event acted as if they were angry.1 The United States moved for a cease-fire in the Security Council with startling speed and energy, and spoke ominously of its obligations under the Tripartite Declaration of 1950 to assist any victim of aggression in the Middle East.
The result, in the field, in the Security Council, and in the political life of the Atlantic alliance, was a disastrous and unnecessary setback for American interests. I say “unnecessary,” although I myself fully accept and would still support the policy of President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles in basing our policy on the foundation of the United Nations charter, and its obligation to avoid the unilateral use of force in international affairs, except in cases of self-defense against breaches of international law for which no peaceful remedy is in fact available. Although the United States government was officially informed, at least in July 1956, that the British government had decided to use force under Article 51, we took no steps as allies to consult Britain or France about the problem, and to formulate with them a policy which could genuinely protect the common interest of the allies in the controversy. We did pursue the dilatory and ephemeral scheme of a users’ association, which Egypt might be persuaded to accept in lieu of Egyptian administration of the Canal. Our position as mediators and neutrals in that negotiation guaranteed an outcome which could not protect our common interests, or give Britain and France satisfaction. We did not support the legal position of Britain and France, in claiming that Egypt’s nationalization of the Canal was so drastic a breach of existing treaties as to amount to a use of force in violation of Article 2 (4) of the charter. And we brushed aside the far stronger and less debatable legal position of Israel, which claimed—quite correctly, in my opinion—a right to use limited and proportional force in self-defense both against guerrilla raids from Egyptian territory, and against the use of force to close the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping. In settling the Suez crisis of 1956, the international community—led by the United States and the Soviet Union—ultimately rejected the legal position of Britain and France, but upheld the basic claims of the Israelis, and sought to provide assurances to Israel with regard to all its claims against Egypt.
But we took no such positions in the United Nations, or in the early diplomatic stages of the crisis. We took a flat and simplistic stand with regard to the illegality of what Britain, France, and Israel had done, and used strong economic and political pressure to force them to accept a ceasefire, and then a withdrawal without prior conditions.
With regard to Israel, the scenario did not follow that formula. Groups within the United States government, led by Lyndon B. Johnson as majority leader of the Senate, induced the executive branch to adopt a different approach. Before Israel withdrew its forces to the armistice demarcation lines, the United States, acting as go-between, obtained for Israel a number of assurances which were transmitted to Israel by the United States in behalf of Egypt: that Israel’s maritime rights through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran would be respected; that Egypt would meet its international responsibilities to prevent guerrilla attacks on Israel from Egyptian territory; and that peace would be made in due course. It was explicitly understood that if force were used to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, Israel would be entitled to use force in reply by way of self-defense under Article 51. Great Britain, France, and the United States guaranteed the international character of the Straits of Tiran. And it was agreed as well that if Egypt should ever unilaterally request the removal of UNEF forces from the Sinai, the Secretary-General would undertake negotiations, in accordance with a memorandum duly filed, to prevent that eventuality.
In deference to Egypt’s political sensibilities, the international understanding of 1957 was embodied in an agreed series of statements, letters, memoranda, and silences, both in the General Assembly, at United Nations headquarters, and in the several capitals.
The breach by Egypt of every term of this agreement between 1957 and 1967 had a decisive influence on the substance and structure of Security Council Resolution 242, which embodied the international settlement formally ending the Six-Day War of 1967.
The best comment I know on our diplomacy during and after the Suez crisis of 1956 was made by Dean Acheson in a private conversation with me some years later. There is a principle in all systems of law, he remarked, which prescribes that he who seeks equity should do equity. Egypt sought the protection of the charter against the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of 1956. Our posture should have been that we would support Egypt, insofar as the law justified its claims, only if it made peace with Israel, in accordance with the mandates of the Security Council, and fully complied with the precepts of international law governing the Suez Canal.
Acheson’s view of the matter became the premise on which we built Resolution 242 after the 1967 war. When Nasser had violated every provision of the 1957 agreement, finally even closing the Straits of Tiran in May 1967, the United States and its Atlantic allies, and many other nations throughout the world, were ready to accept Acheson’s approach to the problem.
By 1967, of course, the magnetic field of world politics had become entirely different from its configuration in 1956. The influence of the Soviet Union in world affairs was growing steadily, while Europe continued to withdraw from world politics, becoming a regional political and military power. While China and the Soviet Union had drawn apart, China had not yet moved to establish with the United States a relationship which might deter Soviet aggression. That immense and constructive shift took place in 1971 and 1972. The Soviet Union was a massive nuclear power, and a major sea power, pressing its influence skillfully and steadily in many areas of the world, despite what was widely, but erroneously, perceived as a major setback during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. With explosive consequences for its own political life, France had withdrawn from Algeria, and from Morocco, Madagascar, and several other imperial positions as well. The United States was deeply involved in South Vietnam. With full and active Soviet support, Egypt was pursuing a large-scale war in the Yemen, seeking control of Aden, and of the states and resources of the Persian Gulf. Syria and Iraq had endured coup after coup, which had resulted in a reorientation of the policies of those countries, and drawn them into the Soviet orbit. While the Congo had been preserved by international support in 1964, its future was in doubt. Comparable processes of change were visible throughout the world, endlessly raising questions about the politico-military and the economic position of the United States and its allies in the Atlantic and in the Pacific.
Most important of all, the unnatural division among the Atlantic allies which the United States had allowed to develop over the Suez crisis of 1956 had continued, and become nearly the normal pattern of their political policies for questions arising outside Europe itself.
When I came back to the State Department in the fall of 1966, the Middle East phase of the general problem was clearly getting worse. The Soviets were increasing their pressure in that sector. The process of Soviet penetration was well advanced in Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Southern Arabia, and the nearby African areas. As the crisis of 1967 approached, Egypt was deeply engaged in a large-scale war to conquer Yemen and Southern Arabia. In that campaign, Egypt had full Soviet support, including poison gas, and some Soviet military participation as well. Through the Yemen, Egypt and the Soviet Union sought control of Aden, and of the states and resources of the Persian Gulf. The Yemen strategy was necessary since it had proved to be so difficult in the past to destroy Israel. Success for Egypt in its drive toward the Persian Gulf, Nasser thought, would surely doom Israel as well.
Naturally, the Soviet-Egyptian war in the Yemen caused alarm in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf states, and Israel.
For more than a year before the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel had been subjected to an intensified program of more and more sophisticated guerrilla raids. The raids were organized and directed from Syria, but were often mounted from Jordan. Inevitably, these raids led to reprisals against which the Arabs protested vehemently, as if the reprisals were in any sense illegal or unjustified. Just as inevitably, the Arab protests gained political, or at least nominal, support, at the United Nations and elsewhere, in a pattern which had been developing since the failure of the Lausanne effort to achieve peace in the early 1950s. The United States and other countries tended to deplore whatever looked like an escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, although they had been unwilling since 1949 to take effective steps to enforce the decisions of the Security Council which had commanded the Arab states to make peace with Israel. It was easier to reproach Israel for its use of force in self-defense under Article 51 of the charter than to make the Arabs stop their guerrilla raids, boycotts, or other acts of force in violation of the armistice agreements of 1949, and in violation of the United Nations charter.
After one of the most inflamed of these episodes, in the fall of 1966, we persuaded Israel to go to the Security Council for redress instead of mounting a reprisal against Syria. In the negotiations for a resolution, the Soviet Union assured us its support, in return for modifications of the text which watered it down nearly to innocuousness. Then the Soviet representative vetoed the resolution. A year later, looking back on the chain of events which led to the Six-Day War, Avraham Harman, the Israeli ambassador to the United States at the time, wondered if the war could have been prevented if Israel had ignored our advice, and hit Syria hard at that early stage. It is a painful question, well worth thinking about.
In 1966, United States policy was based on a fresh appraisal of Soviet penetration of the Middle East, the Mediterranean basin, and the Northern part of Africa itself. For the first time, it rested on a realistic appreciation of Soviet exploitation of Arab resistance to the existence of Israel as a weapon of Soviet imperialism.
The first goal of our diplomacy was to prevent the war—to protect our interests, of course, but also to head off the imminent danger of war. In this extremely active and far-reaching campaign, which dominated our efforts in the winter and spring of 1967, we established a consensus among our allies and many other nations, and laid the foundation for the alliance diplomacy which eventually achieved Security Council Resolution 242 in November 1967. For the first, and thus far the last, time since the disaster of Suez in 1956-57, we had a concerted alliance position on Middle Eastern policy, save only for the French, who were nonetheless systematically consulted. The United States worked intimately and effectively with the British government throughout this period, led on these matters by George Brown, George Thomson, Sir Patrick Dean, and Lord Caradon. Frequent consultations with the other Atlantic allies took place in Brussels, in Washington, in London, in Paris, and in other capitals. There were continuing consultations as well with Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, and especially with Iran, as well as with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, India, and Pakistan. Among the Atlantic allies, the positions of Turkey, Canada, Italy, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands were particularly important.
The Soviet Union precipitated the crisis of May 1967, not only by supporting Nasser but by spreading false and inflammatory information as well—particularly the false reports that Israel had mobilized in order to attack Syria by way of reprisal for guerrilla raids from Syrian territory. These reports continued even after we had warned the Soviet Union on the subject.
Despite strenuous allied efforts to defuse the crisis, the war exploded early in June 1967, as a result, I am convinced, not of accident but of Soviet and Egyptian miscalculations about how the pattern of events would unfold. They thought that the open threat of war would lead the United States, deeply engaged in Vietnam, to force Israel to accept a humiliating political defeat, by allowing Egypt to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and to obtain other concessions.
A critical element in the drama was the timetable for carrying out a plan to have the allies escort shipping through the Straits of Tiran under Egyptian guns at Sharm el-Sheikh. The British had proposed the plan. The Israelis had delayed their decision until its feasibility could be explored. The United States, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, and other nations accepted the idea.
As I pointed out earlier, the international character of the Straits of Tiran was one of the key elements of the secret agreement between Egypt and Israel we had negotiated in 1957. When Nasser broke that agreement by closing the Straits in May 1967, one of our chief officials commented that “he cut our throat from ear to ear.” In 1957, the United States, the British, and the French assured Israel that they would guarantee the freedom of international navigation through that waterway.
Although the United States could have participated in the British naval-escort program on the authority of the President alone, especially in view of the provisions of the Eisenhower Doctrine Resolution passed by Congress in 1957, and reaffirmed in 1961, it was decided to seek a fresh congressional resolution, because of the political storms in the United States over Vietnam.
President Johnson had reason to believe he had a few more days to obtain that resolution, but events took over. Arab mobilization under unified command on all of Israel’s borders, save that with Lebanon, became a far more imminent and ominous threat and act of force than the closing of the Straits of Tiran. The war exploded.
The key to American and allied policy toward the crisis was stated by President Johnson on the first day of the war. This time, he said, our goal would be peace, not a cease-fire alone, or a renewal of the armistice agreements of 1949, but peace itself, the condition which the Security Council had demanded on several occasions, but never carried through. The United States and its allies pressed vigorously for a cease-fire from the first day of the war. Until the course of the fighting became clear to the Soviet Union and the Arabs in the middle of the week, they refused to consider a cease-fire or any other cessation of hostilities.
During and after the Six-Day War the United States and Great Britain, acting in concert, led an intensive and far-ranging diplomatic effort to bring about a state of genuine peace in the area. That campaign culminated in the unanimous adoption by the Security Council of Resolution 242 in November 1967. The history of that diplomatic campaign gives the text of the resolution an extremely plain meaning. Since Resolution 242 was made mandatory by Resolution 338 in October 1973, and necessarily remains the basis for all peace-making efforts in the next phase of the conflict, at Geneva or elsewhere, its history is worth reviewing in some detail.
A number of positions emerged. Their interplay, and the resolution of that interplay, are reflected in the document.
The Soviet Union and its chief Arab associates wished to have Israel declared the aggressor and required under Chapter VII of the charter—that is, under threat of sanctions—to withdraw to the armistice-demarcation lines as they stood on June 5, in exchange for the fewest possible assurances as to what would happen after Israel withdrew; that after withdrawal, Israeli maritime rights in the Straits of Tiran would be “no problem” (some-times the same thought was expressed about the Suez Canal as well); and that after Israeli withdrawal, the possibility could be discussed of a document that might be filed with the Secretary General, of a Security Council resolution, that would finally end any possibility of claiming that a “state of belligerency” existed between Israel and its neighbors. This position was asserted without regard to the fact that the Security Council had twice explicitly denied that any state could claim “belligerent” status or “belligerent” rights in the Middle Eastern conflict. That particular issue is simply not available for bargaining.
The Israeli position had four major elements. In the Israeli view the Arab governments had repudiated the armistice agreements of 1949 by repeated acts of war over the years. They believed that the parties should meet alone and draw up a treaty of peace. So far as territorial problems were concerned, they contended that negotiations should begin, not with the armistice demarcation lines, but with the 1967 cease-fire lines. Until negotiations actually began, Israel should not weaken its bargaining position by publicly revealing its peace aims, although the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister did state publicly and officially that Israel had no territorial claims as such, but was interested in the territorial problem only insofar as issues of security and maritime rights, and, of course, the problem of Jerusalem were concerned. Meanwhile Israel began its administration of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and Sinai as the occupying power under the cease-fire resolutions, justifying its policies “at the municipal level,” and without annexations, in the perspective of that branch of international law.
The United States and the formidable diplomatic coalition which it then led supported a third approach, which ultimately prevailed.
In view of the taut circumstances of May 1967, no majority could be obtained, either in the Security Council or the General Assembly, to declare Israel the aggressor. The question of who fired the first shot, difficult enough to resolve in itself, had to be examined as part of a sequence of Byzantine complexity: the false reports of Israeli mobilization against Syria; the removal of UNEF forces from the Sinai and the Gaza Strip: the closing of the Straits of Tiran; the mobilization of Arab forces around Israel, and the establishment of a unified command; the call for a Holy War; and the cycle of statements, propaganda, speeches, and diplomatic efforts that marked the final weeks before June 5. Before that mystery, sober opinion refused to reach the conclusion that Israel was the aggressor. In view of the political orientation of the UN, no serious attempt was made to obtain a resolution declaring the United Arab Republic to be the aggressor.
Second, the majority opinion both in the General Assembly and in the Security Council supported the American view, first announced on June 5, 1967, and stated more fully on June 19, 1967, that after twenty bitter and tragic years of “war,” “belligerency,” and guerrilla activity in the Middle East, the quarrel had become a burden to world peace, and that the world community should finally insist on the establishment of a condition of peace, flowing from an agreement among the parties.
Third, the experience of the international community with the understandings that ended the Suez crisis of 1956-57 led to the conclusion that Israel should not be required to withdraw from the cease-fire lines, except as part of a firm prior agreement dealing with all the major issues in the controversy: justice for the refugees; security arrangements, including demilitarized zones, for Israel’s borders and for its maritime rights in the Gulf of Aqaba, the Suez Canal, and the other international waterways of the region; a solution for Jerusalem that met the legitimate interests of Jordan and of Israel and of the three world religions that regard Jerusalem as a Holy City; and the establishment of a condition of peace.
Fourth, while the majority approach always linked Israeli withdrawal to the establishment of a condition of peace through an agreement among the parties, the question remained, “To what boundaries should Israel withdraw?” On this issue the American position was sharply drawn, and rested on a critical provision of the armistice agreements of 1949 with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Those agreements provided that each demarcation line “is not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary, and is delineated without prejudice to rights, claims, or positions of either party to the armistice as regards ultimate settlement of the Palestine question.” The wording of the armistice agreement with Lebanon is slightly different, although its tenor is the same. Many other provisions of each agreement make it clear that the purpose of the armistice was “to facilitate the transition from the present truce to permanent peace in Palestine,” and that all non-military “rights, claims, or interests” were subject to later settlement as part of the transition from armistice to peace. These paragraphs, which were put into the agreements at Arab insistence, were the legal foundation for the controversies over the wording of paragraphs 1 and 3 of Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967.
That resolution, promulgated under Chapter VI of the charter—that is to say, as a call for an agreement of peace—finally received the unanimous support of the Council. It was backed in advance by the assurance of the key countries that they would accept the resolution and work with Ambassador Gunnar Jarring to implement it.
It is important to recall what the resolution requires. It calls upon the parties to reach “a peaceful and accepted” agreement that would definitively settle the Arab-Israeli controversy and establish conditions of “just and lasting peace” in the area, in accordance with the “provisions and principles” stated in the resolution. The agreement required by paragraph 3 of the resolution, the Security Council said, should establish “secure and recognized boundaries” between Israel and its neighbors, “free from threats or acts of force,” to replace the armistice demarcation lines established in 1949 and the cease-fire lines of June 1967. The Israeli armed forces should withdraw to such lines as part of a comprehensive agreement settling all the issues mentioned in the resolution, and in a condition of peace.
Between 1967 and the end of the Johnson administration, endless efforts were made, through Ambassador Jarring and otherwise, to implement the resolution through direct or indirect negotiations. In that period, Egypt rejected every proposal for a negotiating procedure that might permit the parties to carry out the resolution, including at least one proposal, that of the fall of 1968, in which the United States offered to support the terms Egypt had publicly announced as its terms for peace, the return of the whole of the Sinai in accordance with an agreed timetable. The other Arab states were unwilling to act while Egypt refused to make peace.
The Nixon administration remained nominally committed to the framework of Resolution 242, but experimented with a variety of alternative negotiating approaches which met the same fate. And it did nothing in 1969-70 when Nasser, with full Soviet backing, undertook a “war of attrition” along the Suez Canal against Israeli occupying forces in that area. In 1971, Ambassador Jarring attempted to obtain agreement among the parties on the basis of an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories it had occupied in 1967. Ambassador Jarring’s position was without foundation in Resolution 242. By going beyond his mandate, he lost his capacity to act as an intermediary, and his mission ended in failure.
In this period, China sought and obtained a rapprochement with the United States, as an answer to the menace it perceived in the Soviet military build-up in Siberia, and the increase of Soviet influence in Southern and Southeastern Asia. This event transformed the theater of world politics, and altered the significance of each of its problems.
In April 1972, according to President Sadat, the Soviets promised him to support an attempt to change the situation in the Middle East by war during 1973. Elaborate preparations for the war of October 1973 were then set in train, with full Soviet participation, behind a brilliantly executed program of deception and surprise. President Sadat has testified that the Soviet promise was given him a month before the Soviets publicly promised President Nixon to cooperate with us not only in the policy of “détente,” but specifically in a diplomatic effort to support Jarring’s attempt to bring about peace in the Middle East pursuant to Resolution 242.
The war of October 1973, then, can be understood only as a major Soviet move, undertaken at a time of American weakness, to separate America from Western Europe, and transform the balance of power fundamentally against us. It was the Soviet answer to China’s rapprochement with the United States—a war addressed to strategic and not simply to tactical goals. The Soviet policy almost succeeded in 1973—and may succeed yet.
By 1973, the concerted policy toward the Middle East conducted by the Atlantic allies, except for France, between 1966 and 1969 had been allowed to fade away. American consultations on Middle Eastern problems with its Atlantic allies and other interested nations simply did not occur. The Europeans, absorbed in trying to find a separate political role for the European Community, took a position on these matters markedly different from that of the United States, and sought at least the illusion of keeping the United States at arm’s length. As a result, the United States was politically isolated when the war of October 1973 broke out, and had to deal with the crisis alone.
In the event, of course, the Soviet plan failed. The Israelis won a remarkable military victory, with the support of American arms. And the United States rightly refused to consider a ceasefire until the Soviets and the Arabs agreed to the mandatory provision of Resolution 338, adopted on October 22, 1973, which “decides that, immediately and concurrently with the cease-fire, negotiations shall start between the parties concerned under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace,” in accordance with the principles and provisions of Resolution 242. On paper, this commitment is the most important American diplomatic victory in the whole history of the dispute over Israel’s right to exist, and the key to possible success in a diplomatic program designed to protect American and allied interests in the area. While an Arab-Israeli peace will not of itself assure the protection of those interests, that goal cannot be achieved until peace between Israel and its neighbors has become a political and juridical reality.
The basic weakness of American diplomacy since 1973 has been its failure to stand firmly on this principle, which embodies the most important lesson of the long, tragic, and bitter history of the region, and of world politics as a whole, since the late 1940’s. There are secondary weaknesses as well—defects of diplomatic method, and of political insight. We have not attempted to obtain the support of our allies for a concerted policy which might have more weight in the scales of world politics than a purely American policy. We have involved the prestige of the Secretary of State in negotiations which might better have been left to ambassadors or special envoys. But the controlling weakness of the policy has not been procedural, but substantive. The step-by-step diplomacy we have pursued has involved American pressure to force Israel to withdraw without peace, in the pattern of John Foster Dulles’s disastrous diplomacy of 1957, contrary to the command of the Security Council resolutions we ourselves obtained.
Furthermore, we have not even been at pains to see to it that the military disengagement agreements we did negotiate were compatible with our ultimate goal of peace. We have not insisted, for example, on the demilitarization of the areas in the Sinai and the Golan Heights which Israel has yielded to Egypt and to Syria, although no general Israeli withdrawals can possibly be expected—or sought—without complete demilitarization. For this reason, the agreements thus far made do not really provide for “military disengagement.” And they would make peace negotiations infinitely more difficult, if such negotiations should ever begin, since Egypt and Syria will be most reluctant to withdraw from the territories to which they have been allowed to return.
The first American national interest in the prolonged conflict over Israel’s right to exist is the achievement of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors—a just and durable peace, an even-handed peace if you will, but an agreement of peace, negotiated by the states of the region, and freely accepted by them as fair. At this stage of the controversy, the Security Council has ruled, that goal requires peace itself—not another truce or cease-fire; not a repetition of the procedure we followed in 1957; not a reiteration of the terms of the 1949 armistice agreements, which established a regime of non-belligerency of indefinite duration; but peace. We should settle for nothing less. By postponing peace, and demonstrating that we can force Israel to withdraw without peace, as we did in 1957, and again in 1975, we do not weaken but fortify and perpetuate the Arab ties to the Soviet Union.
There is no escape from history or geography. The Middle East is quite as important to the security of Europe as it was in the time of Hannibal, Augustus, and Napoleon—more important, because of the importance of oil, of air power, and of space and other communications systems. Whatever the merits of the Balfour Declaration as an abstract problem of ethics—wise men will debate that question to the end of time—history has ratified the legitimate existence of Israel through a long series of authoritative decisions of the world community. And a strong, confident Israel is a vital factor in any program to protect our own legitimate national interests, and those of Europe, Japan, and many other countries, in the independence, openness, and stability of the region. These facts we can only refuse to respect at our peril. It is unthinkable that the international community could stand idly by, in the atmosphere of Dürrenmatt’s terrible vision in The Visit, if Israel were in danger of destruction. The moral and political convulsion which such an event would engender is beyond calculation. It could spell the end not only of the Atlantic alliance, but of liberal civilization as we know it.
1 Both Harold Macmillan and Selwyn Lloyd, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Great Britain after the Suez affair, have told me privately that when they met with President Eisenhower in Bermuda in 1957, the President's first question was, “Why didn't you go through with it?”