What lies ahead for the US relationship with Israel, under President Trump, his son-in-law confidant, Jared Kushner, and his ambassador to the Jewish state, David Friedman? All are surely eager to overturn recent Israeli diplomatic setbacks, such as the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2234 condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Much has changed since Israel became independent in 1948. But Israel’s difficulties with the international community have pedigrees as old as the state itself. The Trump administration would do well to study that history.
The recent publication of the long-lost private diaries of James G. McDonald, the first US ambassador to Israel, show that the international quest for Middle East stability placed concessions from Israel front and center, with little in the way of Arab reciprocity. Soon after recognizing Israel, President Harry S. Truman sensed what was to come. He appointed McDonald, a longtime advocate for Jewish refugees and a strong supporter of Zionism, to “keep those unsympathetic from ‘gumming up’ the new state of Israel.” Potential adversaries included the U.S. State Department, the British government, the United Nations, as well as the Arab states themselves.
Most Arab leaders proclaimed Israel illegitimate, but their invading armies failed to conquer it. The other adversaries argued – three years after Nazi Germany’s demise – that Israel was a potentially aggressive state that needed to be contained.The UN’s initial peace planning, supported by the British and the State Department, called for a truncated Israel that would sacrifice, among other things, the entire Negev region to its Arab neighbors. The Arab states, meanwhile, insisted on the mass repatriation of Palestinian Arab refugees as a precondition to any actual peace negotiations, a demand that the UN backed while favoring truce agreements that left Arab armies in Israel.
The Vatican, meanwhile, insisted that Jerusalem and its environs form an international enclave separate from Israel, a demand that ignored Israel’s desire for Jerusalem as its capital and the fact that the UN had not protected the 100,000 Jews living there from recent attacks. Britain sold tanks and jets to Egypt after 1949 to advance Britain’s own regional security needs but failed to press Egypt, then the leader of the anti-Israeli coalition, to even discuss peace with Israel.
McDonald engaged in countless private discussions with Israel’s leaders. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was loath to defy or weaken the United Nations, noting that, “it is in our interest as Jews and human beings to reinforce … the UN.” But real peace — beginning with recognition by Israel’s Arab neighbors — was essential.
Ben-Gurion noted privately to McDonald that “[with] a stable peace agreement… anything is up for discussion,” including, he said, significant repatriation of Palestinian refugees. And peace, he added, would be easy if the Arabs would just “give up [the] objective of throwing the Jews into [the] sea.” In the meantime, Israel would not sacrifice its security to assuage the countries that had invaded it.
McDonald reported these sentiments to the White House, bypassing the State Department (that was often hostile to the Jewish state) when necessary, and adding that an American rupture with Israel would damage the interests of both states. McDonald helped to stave off the threat of UN sanctions against Israel in late 1948. He managed to maintain the flow of US loans — the State Department suspended them at one point — for Israel’s development and for its resettlement of Holocaust survivors from Europe. He did his part to convince the State Department that the Vatican’s hopes were unrealistic. And he pushed Washington to realize that pressure on the Arab states mattered as well, resulting in reasonably secure armistice agreements on Israel’s borders.
Truman listened to McDonald more often than not. And McDonald was firm when Israel’s actions seemed counterproductive. After the September 1948 assassination of the UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, by members of the Jewish underground, McDonald insisted that the Israeli government rein in violent extremists once and for all, which helped to stabilize the state while improving Israel’s image abroad. His warnings in December 1948 against Israel’s military incursion into the Sinai to cut off Egyptian troops might have averted an expansion of the war.
Both McDonald and Truman drew on their keen sense of recent Jewish catastrophe. They also understood that Israel, by virtue of its existence, triggered violent emotions that could not rule the day. But both also understood that the US-Israeli relationship — at its inception and afterward — depended on a delicate balance whereby the special yet complicated relationship was tempered with moderation.
Richard Breitman is an author and former Distinguished Professor of History at American University. Norman J.W. Goda is a Braman Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Florida. They are co-editors of “Envoy to the Promised Land: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1948-1951”, Indiana University Press. The photo of McDonald was furnished by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and courtesy of the family of James G. McDonald.