United States Influence and Impact on the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Preface: This is a short paper I wrote a little over a year ago while working on my degree. I decided to post it in its entirety and I hope some of you read the whole thing and enjoy it.
From the beginnings of the Zionist movement to the present day, the United States of America has had a role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The impact of the US has gone from negative, to neutral, to positive, and back to negative. While the majority of responsibility of the conflict lies with the central players, the Arabs and the Israelis, it is important to recognize the role that others have played in bringing about the world we live in to day. The conflict was not created in a vacuum, and is increasingly played out on the international arena as the world grows smaller and more interconnected. American businessmen and politicians gave support to the Zionist movement in its infancy, including Washington’s support of the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine at the end of World War I. After, World War II the US attempted to limit the their involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict by supporting United Nations peacekeeping efforts, rarely taking the lead in those efforts, and looking to protect strategic interests in the region with Arab allies. Following the Six Day War in 1967, the US involvement became greater and the impact was generally positive. From then until the year 2000 the military and economic ties between the US and Israel grew larger and stronger, and the role America played as peacemaker and mediator became essential to the peace process. This ended in 2001. While the ties between Israel and the US remain strong, the US does not wield its influence in a positive manner as it once did.
II. Zionist Movement
The United States involvement with the Arab – Israeli conflict started before there was ever a conflict. Chicago businessman William E. Blackstone, an evangelical Christian, was instrumental creating and lobbying for the Zionist movement in the US prior to the Zionist movement’s creation in Europe. “At a time when Jews were seeking relief from oppression, Blackstone petitioned the U.S. President Benjamin Harrison to campaign for their return to Israel. The ‘Blackstone Memorial’ was the first petition of its kind, which predated the work of Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State).”1 The Blackstone Memorial was first written in 1891 and sent to Secretary of State James G. Blaine to be presented to President Harrison. In addition to calling for Palestine to be given back to the Jews it was an important document because of the 413 signatures that Blackstone obtained as endorsements for the document.2
Virtually every significant public vocation was represented on the Memorial. The names included politicians, bankers, publicists, churchmen, presidents of railroads, rabbis, presidents of educational institutions, and all manner of businessmen. Among the signatories were John D. Rockefeller and J. Pierpont Morgan; Melville W. Fuller, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court; T. B. Reed, Speaker of the House of Representatives; James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore; Hugh J. Grant, Mayor of New York City; Edwin H. Fitler, Mayor of Philadelphia; William McKinley congressman from Ohio and future President of the United States; Robert R. Hitt, chairman of the House Committee of Foreign Affairs; and editors and publishers of ninety-three newspaper and periodicals.3
This paper was very influential in America and was printed in numerous newspapers and magazines. Blackstone remained active in the Zionist movement and updated the Memorial for each successive President. In the 1916 edition, Blackstone when a step further and obtained the signatures from many major Christian movement in the country before sending it to President Woodrow Wilson. There is clear evidence that Blackstone influenced President Wilson’s decision to support the Balfour Deceleration.4 The majority of Jews in Central Europe, Western Europe, and America, however, did not support the creation of a Jewish state and felt that assimilation was a better path.
The American influence on the Arab-Israeli conflict started before the conflict itself started. According to some, Zionism itself began in the United States and was supported, not just by Presidents, but by some of the most influential people during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the idea of Zionism was certainly not confined to the US, the financial and political support that did received helped to give it legs, and resulted in the US supporting the Balfour Deceleration, which started the conflict.
III. 1947 – 1967
By the end of World War II the majority of the world’s Jews supported Zionism as the full horrors of the Holocaust were revealed. This support led to increased lobbying for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and created a dilemma for President Harry S. Truman in 1947. As the British were planning on pulling out of the Palestine it was up to the United Nations to make a decision on the future of Palestine and the Israel. The lead plan was that of Partition which caused a conflict in the administration. President Truman’s advisers were looking ahead to the elections of 1948 where the President would need the majority of the Jewish vote, while the State Department and the career diplomats were looking at the strategic cost of alienating the Arab world.5 Initially, President Truman supported the U.N. Partition plan and had publicly made announcements to that fact. Though, the efforts of the State Department, at times seemingly underhanded efforts, were seen on March 19, 1948 when the US Ambassador to the UN announced America’s retreat from partition.6 Despite this announcement, on May 14, 1948 when Israel proclaimed itself an independent state it was quickly recognized by President Truman. Though, this was not the end of President Truman’s problems with Israel and Zionism.
During 1948 there was intense diplomatic maneuvering on how to settle the problem of Palestine. The new state of Israel currently controlled area that, under the UN partition plan, belonged to the Arabs and were in conflict with Egyptian troops that had gained a foothold in the land that was to be part of Israel. The UN wanted both sides to return to the borders established in the partition plan. Israel, on the other hand, wanted to keep the ground that it had been promised and keep the land it had gained through military efforts The US wanted Israel to give up the lands occupied by Arab forces and keep the lands that Israel is occupying, called the Bernodotte plan.7 Settlement of this issue was at a standstill due to the elections, and the bipartisan agreement to keep the issue of Israel and Palestine out of domestic politics. This did not prevent Israeli diplomats and the pro-Zionist lobby from attempts to influence both the Democratic and Republican parties from publicly supporting Israel. Their efforts produced little results.8 The solution to the question of what land belonged to the Arabs and what land belonged to the Israelis was not decided through diplomacy. Instead, it was decided by Israeli military victory in the Negev desert. “It was only then that de jure recognition was extended, that the Export – Import Bank loan was authorized, and that the United States stood by (and pressed Britain to do the same) while the imposed territorial exchange envisaged by the Bernodotte plan was vitiated by Israeli advances in both the western Galilee and the Negev, and rendered moot by direct negotiations between the warring parties.”9 This friendly but distant relationship with Israel would be the character of American diplomacy for the next two decades.
From 1948 until 1967 the US had friendly relations with Israel, without the special status that can be seen later. America’s strategic outlook was geared to maintaining good relations with other Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia, and preventing the spread of Soviet Union influence. “American diplomacy advocated Israeli-Arab peace, usually working within the context of United Nations’ diplomatic efforts, only rarely taking the lead and then without success.”10 It was the June 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors that changed the role of the United States in the conflict.
The period between 1947 – 1967 is one where the US have very little impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite President Truman wanting to give more support to Israel, members of the State Department went against and tried to limit the support that Israel received from the US. They felt that supporting Israel would be detrimental to strategic goals in the Middle East and would alienate current and potential allies. While relationships were never negative and there were some economic agreements between the two states, the US was more concerned with supporting United Nations attempts at peacekeeping than becoming embroiled in the conflict.
IV. 1967 – 1999
The aggression of the Arab states pushed Israel and the US closer together. In June 1967 the Arab invasion, and their subsequent defeat, opened the door for increased US influence in the Arab-Israeli conflict. President Johnson was successful in calling for a cease fire, without Israel vacating land it had seized during the conflict, creating the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.11 The Israeli occupation of land in the West Bank and in Gaza gave a new point of reference for the conflict. Instead of pushing for a return to the borders set forth in the partition plan of 1947, it was acceptable to push for a return to the pre-June 1967 borders in exchange for the Arab states to recognize the right of Israel to exist in peace. By 1973 the US was providing approximately $500 million in military and economic assistance to Israel.12 This was in large part to the strategy of President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, who were using Israel in a shadow war with the Soviet Union, who was giving support to the Arab states.
This level of support towards Israel, which also included political protection in the U.N., was put to the test with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In addition to bringing the US and the USSR to the brink of war, the retaliatory oil embargo in response to America providing weapons to Israel had a serious impact on the global economy.13 The diplomatic efforts of Nixon, and then the Carter, administrations led to three important outcomes. First, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel separate from the rest of the Arab states, effectively ending pan-Arabism. Second, the US promised not to negotiate with the emerging Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), who did not recognize the right for Israel to exist. Third, from this point forward, nothing less than high level US involvement in the peace process would be able to bring Israel and Arabs to the bargaining table.14
With Sadat making a separate peace meant that there was no longer a unified Arab bloc to deal with and to negotiate a peace. As the other Arab states, mainly Jordan and Syria, refused to cooperate and abide by the agreements made between Egypt and Israel in the Camp David Accords. Until this time the Arab-Israel conflict was dominated by the neighboring Arab states that surround Israel. The void left by the loss of that alliance was filled by Palestinians who had enough of others speaking for them. The PLO started as a militia organization that attacked Israel from refugee camps and settlements in Lebanon, eliciting Israeli military response. The PLO, however, was not only a military organization, it was also a political organization. “In the mid- and late 1970s, the PLO gradually shed its rejectionist baggage and moved toward acceptance of a historic compromise: a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, living alongside Israel.”15 Unfortunately, Washington had agreed to not negotiate with the PLO and Congress turned the agreement into a prohibition. “What began as a diplomatic bargaining chip to persuade Israel to withdraw from some territory in Sinai in exchange for an assurance that the United States would stand by Israel in extremis was transformed into a straitjacket for American diplomacy in the late 1970s and 1980s.”16
With the election of President Reagan, the US-Israel relationship took on a new facet. Instead of just considering Israel as proxy in the Cold War, the Reagan Administration saw Israel as an ally in the Middle East and believe that a relationship with Israel did not preclude a relationship with other Arab states. In fact, during the two Reagan terms, the US was able to make alliances with a number of Arab states, as well as Israel.17 That is not to say that the 1980s did not have some set backs. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel seriously strained US-Israeli relations. US intervention resulted in the PLO moving its headquarters to Tunisia, left Israeli troops on Lebanese soil, and angered the Syrian government who thought that they should have a say in Lebanese politics. The invasion of Lebanon was not the only significant happening during the 1980s. In 1987 the Palestinian Intifada began.
The Intifada was another pivotal moment in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Fed up with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights, Palestinians took to the streets. “Because the Intifada pitted stone-throwing Palestinians against gun-toting Israeli soldiers, it was a public relations disaster for Israel.”18 On the other side, the Intifada was a boon to the PLO who used the media attention to commit itself to a two-state agreement. In 1988 the US lifted its prohibition on speaking with the PLO and in return the organization renounced terrorism and recognized Israel’s right to exist. This agreement eventually led to the Madrid Peace Conference.
After the American led coalition’s defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, the US was diplomatically the strongest it had ever been in the Middle East. Conversely, the PLO, who had backed Saddam Hussein, was the weakest it had been. President Bush used this new position to accomplish two goals. First, he pushed Israel to halt its settlement programs, which had been a bone of contention in the Arab world. Second, he pushed for all parties of the Arab-Israeli conflict to attend peace talks. “In October 1991, the United States and the moribund Soviet Union co-sponsored a Middle East conference in Madrid attended by Israel, the major Arab states, and a Palestinian delegation approved by, though not formally affiliated with, the PLO.”19 While little of actual note was accomplished during the conference it did open the door to direct, secret, negotiations between Israel and the PLO. The culmination of these talks was the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993 on the White House lawn.
With the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the US was drawn deeper and deeper into the peace process as personality conflicts arose between the new Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and PLO chairman Yasir Arafat. There was personality strife between Netanyahu and President Clinton, too. “Their mutual suspicions were further exacerbated by Netanyahu’s successful cultivation of key Republican leaders in a Congress now controlled by Clinton’s political opponents, and by Clinton’s domestic political crisis.”20 Despite this, the strategic economic and military partnership between the US and Israel remained, and even grew, stronger.
This period of time marked the rise of American involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict and also marks the most positive impact. Though there was some mistakes made early, overall America was the peacemaker during this period. The US negotiated cease fires, negotiated peace between Israel and Egypt, brought representatives of the Palestinian people directly into the peace process, facilitated an agreement between Palestinians and Israel on a two state solution, and even got Israel to halt settlement building for a period of time. There were setbacks, there were obstacles to overcome, but on the whole this period between 1967 and 2000 saw a positive influence on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the closest the two sides have come to actual and real sustained peace.
V. 2001 – Present
The end of the Clinton era also marked the end of the relative peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The Oslo Agreement abruptly ended in 2001 and a second Intifada erupted due to the end of the negotiations. During this uprising, the Palestinians did not limit themselves to the use of rocks, instead they used guns and suicide bombers. Moreover, the Israeli military also escalated their response. Garnering criticism from the new President Bush. The American criticism of Israeli response to Intifada did not survive the terrorist attacks of the World Trade Center on September 9, 2001.21 For the bulk of the second Bush’s terms in office, the American government supported Israel, and even approved of the annexation of Palestinian land. In addition, in 2006 the American government cut off aid to Palestine after the organization Hamas won the parliamentary elections. Hamas is a Islamist organizations with ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and did not recognize the right of Israel to exist.
Between 2001 and the present, sees an actual lessening of American influence in the conflict, but the impact is much more negative. Little was done to prevent the peace talks and negotiations from breaking down, there was nothing concrete done to stop the renewed settlement building and annexation of Palestinian lands, and aid to the Palestinians was stopped. During the previous four decades of the conflict, Israel has come to depend more and more on the economy and government of the United States. At a time when the US could have exerted the most amount of influence on the peace process, it encouraged the very actions Israel took that ended the peace process.
From the beginnings of the Zionist movement to the present day, the United States of America has had a role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The US supported the Zionist movement and gave it the support it needed at its beginnings. The end of the Second World War saw a shift in the American diplomatic landscape with a focus being on the Arabs of the Middle East, not on Israel. This focus continued until the Six Day War, when the US saw an opportunity to increase its influence in the Middle East and ultimately became the driving force behind the peace process in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This role of mediator and peace maker lasted until 2001 when terrorists attacked US soil. Since then, the US has not used its influence to significantly promote peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The US has gone from a negative impact, to no significant impact, to a positive impact, and finally back to a negative impact. Hopefully, the US diplomacy will return to the idea of attempting to make and equitable peace between Israel and Palestine.
Fetter, Henry D. 2010. “Forthcoming three months represent best remaining opportunity for accomplishment: Israeli diplomacy and the 1948 US presidential election (part II).” Israel Affairs 16 no. 2: 201-218.
Ganin, Zvi. 1977. “The Limits of American Jewish Political Power: America’s Retreat from Partition, November 1947 – March 1948.” Jewish Social Studies 39 no. 1: 1-36.
Lewis, Samuel W. 1999. “The United States and Israel: Evolution of an unwritten alliance.” The Middle East Journal 53, no. 3: 364-378.
Lippman, Thomas W. 2007. “The View from 1947: The CIA and the Partition of Palestine.” The Middle East Journal 61, no. 1: 17-28.
Moorhead, Jonathan. 2010, “The Father of Zionism: William E. Blackstone?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53, no. 4: 787-800.
Yaqub, Salim. 2006. “The United States and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947 to the Present.” Magazine of History 20, no. 3: 3-17.
1Jonathan Moorhead, 2010, “The Father of Zionism: William E. Blackstone?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53, no. 4, 787.
5Thomas W. Lippman, 2007, “The View from 1947: The CIA and the Partition of Palestine,” The Middle East Journal 61, no. 1: 19.
6Zvi Ganin, 1977, “The Limits of American Jewish Political Power: America’s Retreat from Partition, November 1947 – March 1948,” Jewish Social Studies 39 no. 1: 20-24.
7Henry D. Fetter, 2010, “Forthcoming three months represent best remaining opportunity for accomplishment: Israeli diplomacy and the 1948 US presidential election (part II),” Israel Affairs 16 no. 2: 202.
8Henry D. Fetter, 2010, “Forthcoming three months represent best remaining opportunity for accomplishment: Israeli diplomacy and the 1948 US presidential election (part II),” Israel Affairs 16 no. 2.
10Samuel W. Lewis, 1999, “The United States and Israel: Evolution of an unwritten alliance,” The Middle East Journal 53, no. 3: 366.
11Salim Yaqub, 2006, “The United States and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947 to the Present,” Magazine of History 20, no. 3: 14.
12 Salim Yaqub, 2006, “The United States and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947 to the Present,” Magazine of History 20, no. 3: 15.
14Samuel W. Lewis, 1999, “The United States and Israel: Evolution of an unwritten alliance,” The Middle East Journal 53, no. 3: 368.
15Salim Yaqub, 2006, “The United States and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947 to the Present,” Magazine of History 20, no. 3: 15.
16Samuel W. Lewis, 1999, “The United States and Israel: Evolution of an unwritten alliance,” The Middle East Journal 53, no. 3: 367.
18Salim Yaqub, 2006, “The United States and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947 to the Present,” Magazine of History 20, no. 3: 15.
19 Salim Yaqub, 2006, “The United States and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947 to the Present,” Magazine of History 20, no. 3: 16.
20 Samuel W. Lewis, 1999, “The United States and Israel: Evolution of an unwritten alliance,” The Middle East Journal 53, no. 3: 371.
21Salim Yaqub, 2006, “The United States and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947 to the Present,” Magazine of History 20, no. 3: 16.