With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tanking in the polls, and the election fast approaching, he and his right-wing Likud party are taking desperate measures to shore up their flagging support.
Their campaign is imperiled by Bibi’s underhanded tactics in inveigling an invitation to speak to the US Congress on the eve of the Obama administration’s delicate negotiations with Iran – an event sure to turn into a heavy-handed denunciation of the peace talks and a direct appeal to the Republican-controlled Congress to sabotage them. The whole arrangement was done behind the President’s back, and it has sunk US-Israeli relations to a new low. Meanwhile, in Israel, alarm rather than support for Netanyahu is the dominant reaction: the fear is that Bibi’s willfulness is endangering the "special relationship" with the US, which has been a vital lifeline for the Jewish state lo these many years.
Bibi, it seems to many Israelis, is the one who needs a "Bibi-sitter."
The opposition is scoring points and making gains – but the intransigent Netanyahu, characteristically, is digging in, and even going on the offensive. His campaign has released a new ad showing an image of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding Prime Minister, and text that reads:
"In 1948, Ben-Gurion stood before a fateful moment: The creation of the State of Israel. The U.S. secretary of state firmly objected [to the establishment of Israel]. Ben-Gurion – contrary to the State Department’s position – announced the establishment of the state… Would we be here today had Ben-Gurion not done the right thing?"
The ad ends with this exhortation: "Only Likud. Only Netanyahu" – and, I might add, only lies.
Aside from being a blatant appeal to growing Israeli anti-Americanism – a disturbing trend I pointed out long ago – the ad represents a considerable distortion of the historical record.
It is true that, in 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, then US Secretary of State George C. Marshall was opposed to US recognition of the Jewish state. He wanted to delay it until the United Nations General Assembly could deal with the matter. Virtually the entire US foreign policy Establishment of the time – the so-called "Wise Men" who ushered the US into the postwar world – supported this view, which was summed up by then Defense Secretary James V. Forrestal, who told Clark Clifford: "There are thirty million Arabs on one side and about 600,000 Jews on the other. Why don’t you face up to the realities?"
What Netanyahu leaves out of this narrative, however, is the countervailing role played by President Harry Truman, who supported recognizing Israel against the advice of nearly all his advisors. Truman encouraged the Jewish Agency, the predecessor to the Israeli state, to declare independence when the British mandate ended, and promised his support. When the US representative to the United Nations voted to refer the Palestine question to a commission, the President was enraged, writing in a note:
"The State Dept. pulled the rug from under me today. The first I know about it is what I read in the newspapers! Isn’t that hell? I’m now in the position of a liar and double-crosser. I’ve never felt so low in my life."
Truman took considerable political risks in opposing Marshall, who was presciently convinced recognition of Israel would be nothing but trouble for the US. General Marshall, former US chief of staff, enjoyed enormous prestige, and if he had resigned over this, or split with the President publicly, the political consequences for the increasingly unpopular Truman would have been costly. Yet Truman took on the State Department for two reasons, neither of which fit neatly into the Netanyahu narrative of American treachery on the eve of Israel’s birth.
One reason was moral: the horrors of the Holocaust were just being revealed in all their grisly details. Truman felt that the Jewish people not only deserved a homeland but were owed one: whatever one’s view of that stance, it stands in stark contrast to the portrait of American obstructionism painted by Likud’s historical revisionism.
The other reason was political. Truman was facing a challenge from the left-wing of his party, represented by the candidacy of former Vice President Henry Wallace, who was running under the banner of the Progressive party. Backed by the Communists, who were still a significant if waning force in American politics, Wallace closely followed the Kremlin line on the Palestine question, which was at that time militantly pro-Israel. Indeed, as the US administration was debating whether or not to recognize the Jewish state, Soviet envoy Andrei Gromyko was declaring in the UN his fulsome support for Israeli independence. Zionism was a pet left-wing cause at the time: it was the conservatives in both parties who opposed it.
Fearful of losing the largely left-wing Jewish vote to Wallace, Truman made a blatantly political move in coming out for Israel. After listening to the objections of his foreign policy advisors, Truman bluntly stated: "I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents."
This doesn’t fit into Netanyahu’s narrative either, which is yet another reason why the Likud ad focuses on Marshall and completely erases Truman, the decisive figure in this history. According to Bibi, Ben Gurion’s unilateralism was undertaken in total defiance of the United States, which was intent on sabotaging Israel from the very beginning. However, the truth is that Truman had promised his support early on, and took considerable risks in following through. Indeed, without US support, it is highly doubtful the nascent Israeli state would have survived. The US was the very first government to recognize Israel, and this was followed up with substantial loans on favorable terms.
The Netanyahu narrative also elides Truman’s key role because the political considerations underlying Truman’s actions underscore the classic methodology of Israel’s supporters in the US, which is today being played out in the drama around Bibi’s upcoming speech. Their strategy has always been to mobilize their supporters to exert maximum pressure on Washington, to manipulate both public opinion and the politicians, regardless of the harm done to American interests. The Israel lobby puts Israel’s interests first, and America’s last – if they come in for consideration at all.
After nearly 70 years of faithful American support – financial, diplomatic, and military – to the state of Israel, this is how the Israeli Prime Minister repays us – with naked appeals to anti-Americanism in a desperate bid to rescue his failing reelection campaign. Ingrate is far too mild a term to apply to the faithless Bibi, but since this is a family-friendly web site, I shall refrain from choosing a more fitting epithet.
The backlash in response to Netanyahu’s machinations is well underway, and not just in Washington’s Democratic precincts. Recent polls show the American people are shifting away from their traditional pro-Israel stance: a majority now want the US government to take a more evenhanded stance in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A more radical rejection of Israeli policies is underway among younger people: the Boycott and Divest movement is making considerable progress on the nation’s campuses, much to the consternation of the Israel lobby, and young people in general are increasingly repulsed by the ruthlessness and intransigence of the current regime in Tel Aviv.
The US relationship with Israel has changed, in part, because Israel has changed – and not for the better. The growth of ultra-nationalist extremism, the openly racist policies toward Palestinians and African immigrants, the ruthlessness of Israeli military policy with its brazen disregard for innocent civilians, and the braying posturing arrogance of Netanyahu himself have all contributed to the growing unease with which Americans view their longtime ally-turned-frenemy.
What this means is that the pressure for the US to intervene on Israel’s behalf – a major motivating factor in the War Party’s success – is considerably weakened. And that is good news for those of us who are working for a more peaceful and more rational foreign policy.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.