Sent: February 21, 2010
Hi, Ed. I wonder whether you'd be interested in distributing one I wrote,
posted a few days ago.
A History Lesson for Obama
By Henry Norr
With President Obama's Middle East peace plans so completely -- and
humiliatingly -- shipwrecked on the rocks of Israeli intransigence, it's
time for him to consider a new approach, at least if he's serious about his
announced objectives. In the spirit of bipartisanship that he's so dedicated
to, I suggest he look to the way Dwight D. Eisenhower handled a similar
predicament a half-century ago.
First, a quick review of the goals Obama staked out last year and how much
progress his efforts have produced. In his speech in Cairo last June, he
noted that the Palestinian people have "for more than 60 years ... endured
the pain of dislocation" and "the daily humiliations -- large and small --
that come with occupation."
"Let there be no doubt," he proclaimed, "the situation for the Palestinian
people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate
Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own."
Israel, he went on, "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 the policy Washington has subscribed to, at
least on paper, since 1967: "The United States does not accept the
legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates
previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for
these settlements to stop."
As to the devastated Gaza Strip, Obama said little in Cairo, observing only
that "the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's
security." But shortly afterwards the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported
that his administration had delivered a diplomatic note to the Israeli
government protesting its blockade of the 1.5 million Gazans and demanding
that Israel open the border crossings to allow in desperately needed food,
medical equipment, and reconstruction materials.
Now, thirteen months after Obama took office, and almost nine months since
his Cairo speech, how do things look? No one can seriously claim that the
Palestinians are any closer to "dignity, opportunity, and a state of their
own." The only discernible changes are that Israel has stepped up repression
of grassroots, non-violent anti-occupation activists and accelerated its
campaign to "Judaize" East Jerusalem.
With regard to settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu promised a
10-month "freeze" on new construction, but his commitment was riddled with
loopholes, and in practice, as both Israeli and Palestinian media and
human-rights organizations have documented, settlement expansion continues
unabated. In the words of the prominent Israeli pundit Akiva Eldar, "Only an
idiot would say Israel has frozen settlement activity."
Netanyahu himself is no idiot: Last month, after Obama's special envoy
George Mitchell once again left the region in failure, the prime minister
celebrated by planting trees in several settlements, and just to make sure
no one could misunderstand the symbolism, he spelled out his intent: to
"send a clear message that we are here. We will stay here. We are planning
and we are building." The major settlements, he declared, are an
"indisputable part of Israel forever."
Meanwhile, conditions in Gaza have scarcely changed. Just this week,
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham told a conference in Qatar that "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 to Gaza
actually declined last month and now amount to only 17 percent of the
monthly average before Israel launched its full-scale siege in 2007 -- a
whole lot closer to a trickle than a flood.
When Secretary Clinton was grilled about the contradiction in Qatar, her
only response was as vague as it was 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
President Obama sounds equally helpless. "This is just really hard," he told
Time magazine reporter 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" both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority.
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 bloody Hungarian revolution against
Soviet rule, the Israelis 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 embarrassed by such a blatant display of
old-fashioned imperialism -- instead of the neocolonial tactics of economic
coercion and CIA manipulation the U.S. preferred -- Eisenhower and his
Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, forthrightly condemned the attack.
At the United Nations, where Britain and France held veto power in the
Security Council, the U.S. joined the Soviet bloc -- even as Soviet tanks
rolled through Hungary -- as well as emerging third-world governments in
taking the matter to the General Assembly and approving resolution after
resolution calling for a ceasefire, then withdrawal of the aggressors.
Within days the British and French gave in and began pulling out their
troops. A few weeks later Israel grudgingly agreed to withdraw from 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, despite
personal pleas from Eisenhower and a sixth UN resolution calling for
withdrawal. Israel's parliament, the Knesset, formally proclaimed the
country's intent to keep Gaza.
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 on its demands. Senate majority leader Lyndon
Johnson led the campaign, joined by his Republican counterpart, William
Knowland, and backed up by 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,
replying that "there is no basis for the restoration of the status quo ante
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 and warning that such
sanctions could apply not only to U.S. government aid to Israel (then
modest) but also to Israel's lifeline at the time, tax-deductible private
donations and the purchase of Israel's bonds. That same evening the
president went on national television specifically to address the dispute
with Israel. "We are now," he told the American people, "faced with a
fateful moment as the result of the failure of Israel to withdraw its forces
behind the Armistice lines, as contemplated by the United Nations
Resolutions on this subject."
"I would, I feel, be untrue to the standards of the high office to which you
have chosen me, 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," he continued. "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."
Ben Gurion's initial response was continued defiance, but with no indication
that Eisenhower would back down, and the General Assembly about to vote for
sanctions, he had no choice but to capitulate. On March 1 Israel's foreign
minister, Golda Meir, announced that her government would withdraw from Gaza
after all, and by March 16 the pull-out was complete. On the way out, the
Israelis systematically destroyed all surface roads, railway tracks, and
telephone lines in the area, as well as several villages. But at least the
occupation of the Gaza Strip came to an end -- until the Israelis came
storming back 10 years later.
Granted, there was hypocrisy aplenty in Eisenhower's stand, considering his
own administration's activities 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.
*This account of the events of 1956-57 is based mainly on the Eisenhower
papers posted by the American Presidency Project at the University of
California at Santa Barbara <www.presidency.ucsb.edu>; the archives of the
New York Times; Patrick Tyler's A World of Trouble: The White House and the
Middle East - from the Cold War to the War on Terror (2009); and two books
by Donald Neff, Warriors at Suez: Eisenhower Takes America into the Middle
East in 1956 (1988) and Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy towards Palestine and
Israel since 1945 (1995).
Henry Norr is a retired journalist. He was fired by the San Francisco
Chronicle in 2003 after participating in the International Solidarity
Movement in the Gaza Strip, then getting arrested in San Francisco
protesting the war on Iraq. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.