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Why the US Recognised Israel


The United States and Israel have both been intent on forestalling the appearance of the Palestinian Authority before the United Nations, in case it succeeded in winning support for its unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence. This is a reversal of history: in 1948, the US regarded the prospect of an Israeli declaration of independence as a threat to its interests in the region, and the State Department, defence department and CIA were worried about such an outcome. It was President Truman’s special legal counsel, Clark Clifford, and his small, supportive entourage, who endorsed recognition of Israel as in line with US interests. Clifford argued that the Jewish state already existed and the US should recognise it before the Soviet Union did: he got the independence proposal through the White House. Within a few months, the volte face was complete.

That year, the US administration had been close to abandoning support for the UN plan for the partition of Palestine and creation of a Jewish state, as laid out in resolution 181 of 29 November 1947. It was clear from the fight between Jewish and Arab militias that force would be necessary to implement it. Washington supported a ceasefire instead: a truce and temporary trusteeship, delaying but not entirely abandoning partition.

But developments in Palestine could not be ignored. On 3 May 1948, 11 days before Britain’s departure from Palestine, the US Consul in Jerusalem reported on the collapse of Palestinian government with the warning that “unless strong Arab reinforcements arrive, we expect Jews will overrun most of city upon withdrawal British force” (1). In April he had reported the steady advances of Jewish forces in “aggressive and irresponsible operations such as the Deir Yassin massacre and Jaffa” and the evacuation of the Arab population from Haifa.

The US consul reported that the British and others agreed in May 1948 that “Jews will be able sweep all before them unless regular Arab armies come to rescue. With Haifa as example of Haganah military occupation, it is possible their operations will restore order” (2). But what kind of order? Haifa was known to the British and Americans for its oil refinery, which processed Iraqi oil through Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) pipelines. Its takeover, unacceptable to the Iraqis, destroyed the existing relations between Palestinian and Jewish workers.

‘Armed aggression against the Arabs’

Robert McClintock, of the US delegation at the UN, speculated that the Security Council would soon be confronted by the question as to “whether Jewish armed attack on Arab communities in Palestine is legitimate or whether it constitutes such a threat to international peace and security as to call for coercive measures by the Security Council.” McClintock observed that if Arab armies entered Palestine, it would lead Jewish forces to claim “that their state is the object of armed aggression [and they] will use every means to obscure the fact that it is their own armed aggression against the Arabs inside Palestine which is the cause of Arab counter-attack,” and the US would be obliged to intervene (3).

Some 10 days before the British departure, US Secretary of State George C Marshall provided select diplomatic offices with his assessment of the condition of Arab regimes:

“The whole government structure of Iraq is endangered by political and economic disorders, and the Iraq Government cannot at this moment afford to send more than the handful of troops it has already dispatched. Egypt has suffered recently from strikes and disorders. Its army has insufficient equipment because of its refusal of British aid, and what it has is needed for police duty at home. Syria has neither arms nor army worthy of the name and has not been able to organise one since the French left three years ago. Lebanon has no real army while Saudi Arabia has a small army which is barely sufficient to keep tribes in order. Jealousies between Saudi Arabia and Syrians, and the Hashemite governments of Transjordan and Iraq, prevent the Arabs from making the best of the existing forces” (4).

Marshall’s remarks were corrected by the US ambassador in Cairo, who pointed out that the Egyptian army’s lack of equipment was the result of a British refusal to provide the Egyptians with it. The Transjordan military was dependent on British officers. Despite such conditions, Marshall warned: “This does not mean, however, that over a long period a Jewish State can survive as a self-sufficient entity in the face of the hostility of the Arab world … If Jews follow the counsel of their extremists who favour a contemptuous policy toward Arabs, any Jewish State to be set up will be able to survive only with continuous assistance from abroad.”

Before, and especially after, Israel’s declaration of independence, US officials denounced the treatment of Palestinian refugees and called for their repatriation. Recognising the influence of the Zionist movement in the US, although not always aware of the nature of Truman’s private communications with high-level Jewish Agency officials, including Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann, the US foreign policy elite warned of the possible risks of support for Tel Aviv to US interests in the Middle East.

Developments proved them wrong. Within a year of Israel’s establishment, the position of the State and defence departments changed from criticism to an appreciation of Israel’s potential in supporting US interests. From then on US officials conceded that, while Arab public opinion and the declarations of the region’s leaders were openly critical of Washington’s pro-Israeli stance, US commercial interests did not suffer. In March 1948 US officials at the UN learned that the Saudi position was that the “Palestine conflict was civil one and it was most important [for the] Arab states’ own interest not to do anything which would give the SC [Security Council] occasion to use force in Palestine” (5). 

The fear expressed by US corporate leaders that the Saudis might decide to abrogate their oil contracts soon disappeared. There was no attempt to block Aramco, the corporate US oil giant that controlled oil in Saudi Arabia, from extending its control over offshore oil.

Oil and national defence

The US director of the oil and gas division of the US department of the interior, Max Ball, reputed to be among the best informed officials on US and international oil, had already met with Eliahu Epstein (later Elath), a member of the Jewish Agency political advisory committee and its principal representative in the US, and a member of the Presidium of the Zionist General Council (the main organ of global Zionist movements) (6). The meeting took place when the US House of Representatives was conducting extensive hearings into “petroleum in relation to national defence”. Ball, interested in finding oil in the Negev, encouraged Epstein to try to meet US oil executives, including the vice presidents of Aramco and Standard Oil of New Jersey and the director of Socony.

Because of the importance Washington attached to its oil interests in the Middle East (7), the Jewish Agency leaders in the US sought to tackle the oil companies’ and US officials’ concerns that supporting the Jewish state risked endangering those interests.

The re-evaluation of the new state was based on many things, among them the US military’s conclusion that Israel could be a significant asset in “holding” the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East and its oil interests. This did not preclude recognising its dependence on external support or the need to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem. Such qualifications aside, the US military was prepared to concede that Israel had altered the balance of power in the region, which justified rethinking US policy.

On 7 March 1949 a memorandum by the chief of staff of the US Air Force to the joint chiefs of staff on “US strategic Interests in Israel” affirmed the need for such a reassessment. “The power balance in the Near and Middle East has been radically altered. At the time the state of Israel was forming, numerous indications pointed to its extremely short life in the face of Arab League opposition. However, Israel has now been recognised by the United States and the United Kingdom, is likely soon to become a member of the United Nations, and has demonstrated by force of arms its right to be considered the military power next after Turkey in the Near and Middle East” (8). He also called for a study of “US strategic objectives touching Israel”, and recommended that military training and assistance be considered and that, above all, Soviet influence in the new state be blocked.

The same calculations led to the (implicit) re-evaluation of US policy on the question of Palestine, increasingly reduced to a simple refugee problem disconnected from the future of the Palestinian state.  

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