Public Comment

A History Lesson for Obama

By Henry Norr
Thursday February 18, 2010 - 09:03:00 AM

Now that his Middle East peace initiative has shattered on the rocks of Israeli intransigence, it’s time for President Obama to consider a new approach. In the spirit of bipartisanship that he’s so dedicated to, I suggest he look to the way Dwight D. Eisenhower handled a similar challenge a half-century ago.  

First, let’s review the goals Obama has staked out and how much progress his efforts have produced. In his speech in Cairo last June, he declared “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own....Israel must live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society.” 

Specifically, on the key issue of Israeli colonization of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, he reaffirmed that “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. ... It is time for these settlements to stop.”  

As to the devastated Gaza Strip, the Obama administration last May delivered a diplomatic note to the Israeli government demanding that it open border crossings to allow food, medical equipment, and reconstruction materials to reach the 1.5 million Gazans.  

Now, thirteen months after Obama took office, and almost nine months since his Cairo speech, no one can seriously claim that the Palestinians are any closer to “dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” The only major changes I can detect are that Israel has stepped up its repression of grassroots, non-violent anti-occupation activism and its efforts to “Judaize” East Jerusalem.  

With regard to settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s promise of a 10-month “freeze” on new construction was riddled with loopholes, and in practice, as both Israeli and Palestinian media and human-rights organizations have documented, settlement expansion continues unabated. Last month, as Netanyahu planted trees in several of the settlements, he declared that he wanted to “send a clear message that we are here. We will stay here. We are planning and we are building.” The major settlements, he proclaimed, are an “indisputable part of Israel forever.” 

Meanwhile, conditions in Gaza have scarcely changed. Just this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said “We have pushed the Israelis to end the—to increase the trickle to a flood of goods into Gaza,” but the UN reports that deliveries of goods currently amount to only 17 percent of the pre-siege average. When she was pressed about the contradiction, Clinton’s response was downright pathetic: “I hope that we are going to see some progress. ... there are so many countries standing ready to help the people of Gaza rebuild. And we just want the chance to be able to do that.” 

President Obama sounds equally helpless. “This is just really hard,” he told Time’s Joe Klein a few weeks ago. “This is as intractable a problem as you get. ... And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade” the parties. 

He promised, of course, to keep working on the issue, but if —as he’s shown over the past year—he’s unwilling to stand up to Netanyahu even over core American objectives, what reason is there to think he’ll have any more success in the coming year? 

That’s where Ike comes in. 53 years ago this week, he too was facing a defiant Israeli government. A few months earlier, in late October 1956, while he himself was in the home stretch of his re-election campaign, and the world was preoccupied with the Hungarian revolution, Israel colluded with Britain and France to launch a surprise attack on Nasser’s Egypt, apparently without so much as a word to Washington. Israeli forces quickly seized the Gaza Strip (previously under Egyptian control) and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, while the British and the French took over the Suez Canal.  

Miffed at not being consulted, and troubled by such a blatant display of old-fashioned imperialism—instead of the neocolonial tactics of economic coercion and CIA manipulation the US favored—Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, forthrightly condemned the attack and supported UN resolutions calling for a ceasefire, then withdrawal of the aggressors.  

Within days the British and French gave in and began withdrawing. A few weeks later Israel grudgingly agreed to pull out of the Sinai. But Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion adamantly refused to give up the Gaza Strip as well as an area along the Gulf of Aqaba.  

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Israel mobilized its lobby—already a formidable political force, if not quite as dominant as it is today—to pressure the administration to back off. Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, with support from his Republican counterpart, Alameda-born California Sen. William Knowland (later publisher of the Oakland Tribune), led the campaign, with support from such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Time Inc. publisher Henry Luce. Noting the “terrific control the Jews have over the news media and the barrage the Jews have built up on congressmen,” Dulles complained that “The Israeli Embassy is practically dictating to the Congress through influential Jewish people in the country.” 

“I am aware how almost impossible it is in this country to carry out a foreign policy not approved by the Jews,” he told Luce, but “I am going to have one. That does not mean I am anti-Jewish, but I believe in what George Washington said in his Farewell Address that an emotional attachment to another country should not interfere.” 

Eisenhower agreed. On Feb. 11, 1957, he sent another message to Ben Gurion, offering to guarantee Israeli access to the Gulf of Aqaba but demanding “prompt and unconditional withdrawal” from Gaza. Ben Gurion again refused.  

At that point, instead of an Obama-style cave-in, Ike decided to take the gloves off. On Feb. 20 he sent another cable to Ben Gurion threatening to support a UN call for sanctions against Israel, warning that they might apply not only to U.S. government aid to Israel (then modest) but also to tax-deductible private donations and even Israeli bonds. That same evening he went on national television and told the American people that “We are now faced with a fateful moment as the result of the failure of Israel to withdraw its forces behind the Armistice lines. 

“I would, I feel, be untrue to the standards of the high office to which you have chosen me,” he continued, “if I were to lend the influence of the United States to the proposition that a nation which invades another should be permitted to exact conditions for withdrawal. ... I believe that in the interests of peace the United Nations has no choice but to exert pressure upon Israel to comply with the withdrawal resolutions.” 

Faced with a determined American president, Ben Gurion had no choice but to capitulate. Within weeks Israel was out of the Gaza Strip. 

Granted, there was hypocrisy aplenty in Eisenhower’s stand, considering his own administration’s behavior in Iran, Guatemala, and elsewhere. (In mid-1958 he even sent the Marines into Lebanon.) And of course the Middle East today is very different from in 1956-57.  

Still, there’s a lesson in the events of 53 years ago that remains relevant today: on the rare occasions when U.S. leaders have the guts to stand up to the bluster of the Israelis and their supporters at home, to insist on respect for international law, to take their case to the American people and the world, and to back up their demands with the threat of economic sanctions, even the most recalcitrant Israeli government has to give in. 

If Obama would only learn that lesson, he might yet be able to achieve the goals he set out last June in Cairo.  


Henry Norr supported Adlai Stevenson.