In line with the principle that what is out of sight is out of mind, the Palestinians rarely entered U.S. policy considerations throughout the 1950s and 1960s. After their dispersal in 1948, the name Palestine disappeared from the world’s political register, primarily because for Israel and even some Arab states the name was inconvenient. The remaining parts of Palestine, taken over by Egypt and Jordan and designated the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, lost their specifically Palestinian identity. The Palestinian people themselves were nameless, known only as “Arab refugees,” without identity or status except as a mass of camp dwellers.
As far as the United States was concerned, the Palestinians did not exist politically—a phenomenon that continued for the duration of the administrations of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson—and, as a result, an entire generation of policymakers came of age not knowing, and not thinking it necessary to learn, the Palestinians’ story. Israel possessed the territory, and, as the victor in 1948, Israel possessed the history. Israel was a state, as the Palestinians were not, and Israel therefore set the limits of discourse on the Palestinian-Israeli question.
The same period saw the U.S. relationship with Israel flourish in both tangible and intangible ways. Israel’s hold on the hearts and minds of the U.S. public intensified, as it was portrayed repeatedly in popular books, movies, and the press as a small, heroic, pioneering nation embodying Western values, surrounded and besieged by huge armies of implacably hostile Arabs. Its victory in the 1967 war, against what were perceived to be impossible odds, captivated the U.S. public. The special emotional affinity for Israel grew among policymakers as well, Eisenhower’s unsentimental detachment ultimately giving way to Johnson’s deep feeling for Israel, and the strategic relationship grew in strength as the years went on. As the United
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States became more deeply enmeshed in the Cold War, its concern increasingly became to ensure stability and preserve the status quo in potentially volatile areas, and so in the Middle East U.S. policymakers looked to Israel for stability and opposed any hint of revolution or the growth of local nationalisms. When the Palestinians entered into policy considerations at all, it was as a dissatisfied group with a potential for upsetting the status quo. Moreover, in the zero-sum equation by which the Arabs and Israel were measured, the image of Arabs in general worsened in direct proportion to the enhancement of Israel’s public portrayal, and in their penchant for warmongering and fiery rhetoric the Arabs seemed to lend substance to the worst aspects of their poor image.
Israel did not have a champion in the White House in President Eisenhower. He had no emotional commitment to Israel; in fact, he stands out as the only president who ever exerted heavy pressure on the Jewish state for a territorial withdrawal, which occurred after Israel captured Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in the 1956 Suez War. But distance from Israel did not make Eisenhower a friend of the Palestinians.
Eisenhower had a peculiarly detached, emotionless style and virtually no passion for anything, and so the romance of Israel’s story never struck him. He did not even share the sense of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecies that had so taken many of his contemporaries. Abba Eban tells of meeting Eisenhower shortly before Eisenhower’s election in 1952 and finding him to be amiable and highly articulate but disconcertingly aloof. Eisenhower frankly acknowledged that he knew little about Jews, having always thought of them as unreal characters who existed only in the Bible. Eban remembers Eisenhower’s telling him that the Bible “spoke of cherubim and seraphim and other creatures who, to the best of his knowledge, no longer existed. He [had] thought the Jews were in this category of extinct species.” As late as 1956, Eisenhower’s diary indicates that he referred to Israelis as Israelites, as though they were still slightly imaginary characters from the past.
The stark contrast between Eisenhower’s reaction to the Bible and Truman’s much more personal response is a striking indication of how different the two men were, in their personalities and in their attitudes toward Israel. Eisenhower was uncomfortable with rhetoric and distrustful of abstractions, preferring plain language and concrete concepts. He had little appreciation for history, his aides have said, and thus no appreciation for what Truman and so many others felt was the special appropriateness of
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biblical Israel’s reincarnation. It was clearly beyond his general’s imagination to feel a personal attachment for any nation or people. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a pragmatist and doctrinaire balance-of-power politician, was no more sentimental or romantic about Israel, although he did admire Israel’s mettle and believed its military victory in 1948 had demonstrated its moral strength.
As a result of this aloofness, Eisenhower, probably alone among modern presidents, did not feel the need to play electoral politics with Israel, and his administration was highly resistant to pressures from any special-interest group. During the Suez crisis in 1956, when he openly opposed the Israeli-British-French military action against Egypt and with an election imminent, Eisenhower wrote to a friend that he had given “strict orders to the State Department that they should inform Israel that we would handle our affairs exactly as though we didn’t have a Jew in America. The welfare and best interests of our own country were to be the sole criteria on which we operated.” Neither U.S. Jewish leaders and lobbyists nor Arabists in the government bureaucracy had much access to the White House. There was no “Jewish portfolio,” another stark contrast with the Truman era, and Eisenhower made it known that he believed no group should have a “caretaker” at the White House.
Eisenhower, and to a lesser extent Dulles, genuinely believed that in order to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict the United States had to be friendly with both sides. “To take sides,” Eisenhower wrote in his diary in 1956, “could do nothing but to destroy our influence” with all the parties. He felt it was vital that the Arabs’ interests and self-respect be preserved. The arguments of Israeli supporters, particularly in Congress, that distance between Israel and the United States only encouraged the Arabs to challenge Israel’s existence aroused little interest at the White House.
Yet it is a particular irony for the Palestinians that by this time they had been so thoroughly removed from the picture that the Eisenhower administration’s impartiality meant little from their standpoint. The Palestinians never figured in Eisenhower’s strategic calculations—or, most likely, in his consciousness at all. It was clear as early as 1948, when Dulles dismissed the injustices done to the Arab states, that the Palestinians were not in his frame of reference either. Dulles seems to have had no interest in the Palestinians except as a discontented and possibly disruptive mass of refugees, and no sense that whatever injustice was done in 1948 was to the Palestinians, not to the Arab states.
Eisenhower’s impartiality actually worked against Palestinian interests, for it assumed continuance of the status quo that had existed since the end
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of the 1948 war—that is, no Palestinian entity; Jordanian and Egyptian control respectively of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the only areas of former Palestine still in Arab hands; and the continued existence of Israel within the borders established by the 1949 armistice agreements. U.S. acceptance of this status quo had already been a fact for over four years before Eisenhower took office, and this reality effectively meant that any effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, no matter how impartial the approach, would not resolve the Palestinian problem. This is a critical point with regard to the perpetuation of the frame of reference surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for from 1948 onward the U.S. definition of peace always included a guarantee of Israel’s existence within the armistice borders, as well as an interest in Jordan’s existence—which together automatically excluded a political solution to the Palestinian issue. By the time Eisenhower took office, it literally no longer occurred to policymakers to think of Palestinians in a political context. Throughout his two terms, decision makers made virtually no effort to deal with or even identify groups or individuals with authority to speak for the Palestinians.
The overriding U.S. concern in the Middle East throughout Eisenhower’s presidency was to prevent Soviet penetration of the area and maintain guaranteed access to oil supplies, and the administration took an activist position in pursuing these often overlapping objectives. Any disruption of the status quo was seen to contribute to Soviet designs and was vigorously opposed, whether it originated from allies like Britain and France, from Israel, or from Arab nationalists. Eisenhower generally opposed signs of lingering Western colonialism because it generated anti-Western hostility, which gave the Soviets an advantage. As a result, he supported Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s right to nationalize the Suez Canal, although not his right to block Israeli passage through the canal, and he opposed the British-French-Israeli invasion of the canal zone in 1956. He also opposed what he deemed Israel’s excessive use of force in retaliation for cross-border guerrilla raids by small groups of Palestinians from Gaza and Jordan because heavy retaliation intensified Arab hostility to Israel and the West. For this reason he forced Israel to withdraw from the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula following the 1956 invasion.
At the same time, Eisenhower feared the rise of stridently nationalist governments in many Middle East countries because this phenomenon gave the Soviets direct inroads to the area. Thus, when a militantly nationalist premier, Muhammad Mussadegh, rose to power in Iran and seemed to be encouraging the rise of a strong local Communist party, Eisenhower enlisted the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1953 to overthrow Mussadegh
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and restore authority to the Shah. When Egypt’s Nasser began espousing a revolutionary ideology and fomenting trouble in other Arab countries, Eisenhower and Dulles first pulled back from their early courtship of him and then began actively opposing his actions. In 1958, when leftist pan-Arabists inspired by Nasser threatened a pro-Western government in Lebanon, Eisenhower sent a contingent of Marines to signify U.S. support for the established government.
The Arab countries and the question of how to win their friendship and keep them and their vast potential out of Soviet hands intrigued and disturbed Eisenhower and Dulles throughout much of their time in office. Early in Eisenhower’s first administration, Dulles lamented after a tour of the Middle East that the Arab peoples were more afraid of Zionism than of communism. It disturbed him that he had found “deep resentment” against the United States among the Arabs as a result of Israel’s creation and the Arabs’ fear that the United States was backing Israel in expansionist schemes. The United States had always previously had such good relations with the Arab world, he said, and could not now afford to be distrusted by “millions who could be sturdy friends of freedom.” Five years later, in 1958, when instability and revolutionary fervor seemed to have intensified in the Arab world despite the best U.S. efforts to keep the lid on, Eisenhower was still trying to figure the Arabs out. Still concerned to ease Arab hostility to the United States, he mused with several foreign visitors at the height of the 1958 Lebanon crisis about how to “get at the underlying Arab thinking” and whether to work with it or try to change it.
In the end, he more or less ceased trying to get into the Arabs’ heads. Nothing he tried had worked to win the friendship of the majority of Arabs: not the Baghdad Pact, a defensive alliance that Eisenhower sponsored in 1955 to thwart the Soviet threat; not the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957, which proposed economic and military aid, as well as the possibility of U.S. military intervention, to advance U.S. interests in the region; not his pressure on Israel; and neither efforts to woo revolutionary Arab leaders nor armed intervention against them. After the Suez crisis, Eisenhower deemphasized efforts to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and for his last two years in office he took a less activist role in the Middle East in all respects.
The Palestinians did not figure at all in these policy initiatives. Six months after Eisenhower took office, in July 1953, the National Security Council officially laid out U.S. policy objectives in the Middle East. The need to resolve the “Arab refugee problem” was acknowledged perfunctorily, in what was to become a rote formula calling for resettlement in the
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Arab countries, repatriation to Israel “to the extent feasible,” and economic-development programs. Politically, the document was remarkable for how studiously it ignored the Palestinians, focusing all recommendations on Israel and the established Arab states. It called for settlement of major issues “between the Arab states and Israel.” In a tone intended to be reassuring to the Arabs, it promised that Israel would not receive preferential treatment “over any Arab state,” that U.S. policy toward Israel was limited to assisting Israel in becoming a viable state “living in amity with the Arab states,” and that U.S. interest in the well-being of “each of the Arab states” was basically identical to its interest in Israel. Neither Eisenhower nor Dulles, nor indeed most others in the administration, had any sense that an attempt to solve the Arab states’ conflict with Israel should address Palestinian political aspirations. Policymakers faced no pressure from any quarter in the 1950s to politicize the issue. Even the Arab states were more interested in their own unresolved territorial issues with Israel and never seriously pressed in these early years for a national solution for the Palestinians. The Palestinians themselves—dispersed all over the Middle East, economically destitute, socially and culturally shattered, and lacking any political leadership—languished in a state of political lassitude and were unable throughout the 1950s to articulate their political aspirations. Smallscale Palestinian commando attacks were launched against Israel from Gaza and Jordan in the 1950s, but the first organized guerrilla group, Fatah, was not formed until 1959, and organized political activity did not begin on a significant scale until well into the 1960s.
The United States focused on schemes that would effectively sweep the Palestinian problem away, either by inducing Israel to accept the repatriation of some of the refugees and to compensate the remainder or by resettling the majority in neighboring Arab countries. Although Washington often made representations to Israel on the repatriation issue and annually cosponsored UN Resolution 194, advocating the repatriation of any refugee willing to live in peace under Israel’s sovereignty, the administration never strenuously opposed Israel’s adamant stand against repatriation and compensation. Eventually, having run out of proposals, it stopped pushing these ideas. Resettling the refugees in the Arab countries was a more comfortable notion for the United States, for it did not involve arguing with Israel and it fit with the old colonialist notion, still widely subscribed to, that if the Arab states and the refugees were made economically content, the politics of the problem would vanish. But Eisenhower administration resettlement schemes, like those that went before and would come after, became
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deeply embroiled in the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict after all and ultimately went nowhere.
Abba Eban, who was Israel’s first ambassador to the United States, serving throughout the 1950s, believed that the key to Israel’s strength and prosperity lay with U.S. public opinion. He viewed his principal task as making Israel, as he put it, “so acceptable to the American public” that, if ever a disagreement arose between Israel and the United States, any administration would be reluctant to carry the disagreement to the point of confrontation. U.S. Jewish organizations, including the several popular organizations and the formal lobby group AIPAC, formed the core of Eban’s efforts with the U.S. public. He met regularly with the leaders of these groups to exchange views and impressions about the U.S.-Israeli relationship and has said in retrospect that he finds it “hard to imagine” that Israel would ever have been as effective as it was in Washington without their active support. These Jewish leaders in turn served as Eban’s ambassadors to the general public, and Eban himself spent what he calls a “frenzied existence” going from Washington to “college campuses to Jewish meetings to state houses to lecture platforms, to foreign policy councils and associations, and above all, to the electronic media.”
This network of support gave Eban, and all future Israeli ambassadors, a distinct advantage in their dealings with whatever administration was in office. The fact that an Israeli ambassador was known to have substantial backing behind him when he appeared at the White House or the State Department gave added weight to Israel’s representations, Eban points out, and “elevated the level at which American-Israeli affairs were transacted.” This popular backing for Israel, and policymakers’ knowledge that it was always there, helped shape a particular frame of reference for dealing with Israel, which developed at the very period when Palestinians were stuck in a political limbo. By the time Eban resigned as ambassador in 1959, he and Israel had become so well known throughout the United States that a special committee of tribute was formed that included the top leaders from both political parties, and dozens of editorials praising his accomplishments appeared in newspapers across the country, including some of the most obscure. The significance, as Eban points out, is that while few Americans could name the ambassador of any country, they knew his name and they knew about Israel. Israel, he says, operated in the United States on an “entirely original basis.”
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From the earliest days of Israel’s existence, U.S. Jewish activists were also Eban’s lobbyists in Congress, and their influence served, to an even greater extent than Israel’s popular support, to foreclose policymakers’ options. AIPAC was formed in 1951 under the leadership of I. L. Kenen, an American who had done extensive lobbying for the Zionists during the Palestine debate in the 1940s. The occasion for organizing a lobby was Israel’s need for economic assistance to absorb the vast numbers of Jewish immigrants moving into the new state, and because the State Department was reluctant to give the aid, the Israelis went directly to Congress through AIPAC. The lobbyists were so successful that Israel had already secured the support of congressional leaders in both houses before Eban formally approached Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Since that time, Eban notes, all U.S. administrations have been “willing to understand” that the Israeli embassy does not confine its contacts to the executive branch. The lobbying produced strong congressional friends. During the Suez crisis in 1956, Congress, showing what two Israeli authors call an “almost stunning tilt” toward Israel, strongly opposed Eisenhower’s pressure to withdraw from the Sinai. Israel’s clout with Congress had become so much a given by 1958 that when Eisenhower sent Marines to Lebanon, Dulles asked Eban to press Congress for support.
The intensity of U.S. public support for Israel waxed and waned in the first two decades after its creation, but throughout this period there was a steady base of support among the informed public, fed by newspapers, books, movies, and Israel’s legions of organized supporters. Palestinians had no base of support, and as Israel’s popularity grew, not only did the Palestinians fall farther into political obscurity, but Arabs in general were increasingly demonized as Israel’s enemies, even as latter-day Nazis bent on another Holocaust. Typical of the prevalent attitude was historian Henry Steele Commager’s comment at a rally held in 1958 to celebrate Israel’s tenth birthday. In the inevitable comparison of Israel with its Arab neighbors, Commager called Israel’s nationalism benign and devoted to peace, while Arab nationalism, he said, was committed to “chauvinism, militarism, and territorial and cultural imperialism.”
Commentators across the political spectrum in the United States began to vilify the Arabs. In the aftermath of the 1956 Suez war, the liberal journalthe Nation depicted Arabs as greedy, sly “old-fashioned sheikhs” driven to oppose the West and Zionism by the “fanatical ideology of their religion,” while the conservative magazine National Review took a similar approach toward President Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. Calling him a “strutting fanatic” who wielded dictatorial power over twenty million
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“diseased and starving illiterates” through a handful of “landlords and grafters,” the journal raged that Nasser not only had “dared to hijack one of the world’s great strategic prizes” when he nationalized the canal but then had flung insults at the canal’s “rightful owners,” the French and British.
By the late 1950s there had come to be what some observers have called a “cultural convergence” between Israel and the United States, promoted particularly by the movie industry. Relations were “wonderful,” recalls Teddy Kollek, who did much to promote the Hollywood-Israel connection and later became the popular and long-serving mayor of Jerusalem. Movie stars, television producers, and writers, attracted by the story of Israel’s accomplishments and by its open and easy-going atmosphere, began flocking to Israel, much as another generation of travelers had streamed into the Holy Land a century earlier. The entertainers were well taken care of in Israel—wined and dined, taken on special tours by the Israeli army, lent military equipment for movies, and introduced to Israeli officials for photo opportunities and autographs. When they returned home, they could be relied on to appear at fund-raisers for Israel.
Movies became a popular vehicle for portraying Israel’s story, and Arabs continued to be depicted as the villains and rascals they had been since the dawn of movie making in the 1920s, but now they were the enemies of Israel and took on a more sinister cast. The 1960s saw at least ten movies in which Israelis or Arabs or both figured, the Israelis almost always favorably, the Arabs unfavorably. But few pieces of fiction have had as deep an impact on the U.S. public as did the 1960 movie Exodus and the 1958 Leon Uris novel on which it was based. The idea for the book began with a prominent public-relations consultant who in the early 1950s decided that the United States was too apathetic about Israel’s struggle for survival and recognition, selected Uris, and sent him to Israel with instructions to soak up the atmosphere and create a novel.
It was an astute public-relations scheme. Already a well-known novelist, with a talent for evoking powerful emotions, Uris approached his task like a crusade. It was the most fulfilling experience of his life as a writer, he told interviewers. “I was just plain pissed off about the Holocaust, and I wanted to hurl that in the face of the Christian world.” When he went to Israel, he realized he had “a lightning story” in his hands, something Americans would take to immediately. The book has sold more than twenty million copies over the years, and the movie has reached hundreds of millions, educating a generation of Americans, along with a great many in succeeding generations, about the Israeli version of the Palestine story.
Exodus is the story of Holocaust survivors and Jewish pioneers who fight
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and toil to build the Israeli state against incredible odds. Both book and movie capture a people and their spirit, inspiring awe at their suffering and their accomplishments, stirring emotions and bringing tears. The Israelis in this story are strong, determined not to give up, and, as Uris describes himself, “pissed off” enough at the world to hurl their achievements in its face. Palestinians and Arabs in general are portrayed in Exodus as the fanatical successors to the Nazis, preying on Jewish settlers and Israelis. The two Palestinian characters who come closest to evoking sympathy are weak. The land, Uris writes, “had lain neglected and unwanted for a thousand years in fruitless despair until the Jews rebuilt it,” and Palestinians did not have the wit to be grateful. Arab Palestine was “known for vile underhanded schemers.” Palestinian men let their women till the fields while they lay about in coffeehouses smoking hashish. People lived in squalor, sharing quarters with farm animals. Villages were malodorous; coffeehouses reeked with vile aromas; one group of women, heavily robed and “encased … in layers of dirt,” smelled worse than the goats in their vicinity. No Palestinian in this montage cared about Palestine, had a legitimate reason for objecting to being dispossessed—a dispossession that was not mentioned at all—or acted out of any sentiment except raw hatred of Jews.
Little wonder that the many millions of Americans who read the book or sat enthralled through three and a half hours of the movie ended up not only loving Israel but revolted by the Palestinians. And little wonder that policymakers, who also read books and went to movies and listened to the pulse of the country, imbibed the same excitement about Israel and the same revulsion for Palestinians and the other militant Arabs with whom they were lumped together.
Much about the brief administration of President Kennedy was like the policy equivalent of rediscovering the wheel. He tried all over again to win the friendship of Egypt’s President Nasser and other nationalist Arab leaders and started again from the beginning on repatriation and resettlement schemes for the Palestinian refugees. But Kennedy’s style and approach were markedly different from Eisenhower’s, and in the area of relations with Israel his instincts, his emotional commitment, and his policy were worlds apart from his predecessor’s.
Like Eisenhower, Kennedy believed friendship with the Arab states was essential to prevent Communist inroads, although the East-West rivalry was not his primary emphasis. He believed Eisenhower had placed his own efforts to befriend Nasser too exclusively in an East-West context and that
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the United States should instead rid itself of all vestiges of colonialism and befriend rather than try to repress Arab nationalism. The rise of nationalism throughout the world was inevitable, Kennedy felt, and because it would affect the global political balance, the United States should try to capitalize on it. Shortly after taking office in 1961, Kennedy wrote to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia pledging help in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and the refugee problem and promising moral and economic support for all states “determined to control their own destiny and to enhance the prosperity of their people.” He made particular overtures to Nasser and carried on a personal correspondence with him. In the end, however, Kennedy’s different approach was no more successful than Eisenhower’s. The Arabs suspected that his overtures concealed a trap and were so divided themselves that they could not coordinate a response or a general stance toward the United States. In the end it proved impossible both to accept Nasser’s pan-Arabism and to maintain friendly ties with the conservative regimes he was trying to subvert.
Kennedy’s efforts to solve the Palestinian refugee problem were equally unsuccessful. As a senator, he had called for the repatriation of all refugees willing to live in peace in Israel, along with resettlement of the rest in the Arab states, and he emphasized the need for repatriation and compensation for lost property in his May 1961 letters to Arab leaders. His efforts, never close to his heart in any case, became mired in Arab-Israeli politics. As before, Israel resisted repatriation and favored resettlement in the Arab states, which would have relieved it of the problem, while the Arab states feared that Kennedy’s resettlement schemes and economic-development proposals would end up permanently consigning the refugees to their care. Not only would absorption of the refugees have been economically difficult for the Arab states, but final resolution of the refugee issue in the absence of a comprehensive peace settlement would have signified Arab acceptance of the post-1948 status quo—that is, acceptance of the Palestinians’ dispossession without recompense and of the permanence of Israel’s presence in Palestine.
Kennedy did not have a good understanding of the refugee issue or a real appreciation of the depth of feeling on both sides. His desire to resolve the problem was sincere but pro forma, something he thought should be attempted but that took second or third place to other interests in the Middle East, and he failed to understand either the vehemence of Israel’s objection to taking back substantial numbers of Palestinians or the intensity of Arab fears of what they called “liquidating the Palestine problem” without actually solving it. The Palestinians themselves appear to have escaped
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Kennedy’s notice altogether. It almost goes without saying at this stage in U.S. policymaking on the Middle East that he had no appreciation for the Palestinians as “a people” or a political entity. Kennedy and policy makers in his administration dealt with Israel and with various Arab states, but they did not deal with and, it seems, rarely thought about Palestinians. They talked around the Palestinians, who were a problem, not a people.
Although he made some attempt to accommodate both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict, relations with Israel generally took precedence in Kennedy’s mind over relations with the Arab states and over the effort to resolve the refugee problem. The warm and enduring nature of the U.S.-Israeli tie essentially began with Kennedy. He saw the tie as a true attachment, a bond in which emotions and not just strategic interests were engaged, and he began a pattern, which has continued virtually uninterrupted until the present, of ever-increasing warmth and closeness in the relationship. Given the zero-sum nature of most Arab-Israeli issues, this bond with Israel left little room for a serious focus on Arab or Palestinian concerns.
Kennedy’s attachment to Israel was genuine, but he was also acutely aware of the domestic political advantages of establishing close ties. He made a conscious effort to play to Jewish audiences during his 1960 presidential campaign, received considerable financial backing from the U.S. Jewish community, and held a strategy meeting with a large group of Jewish leaders as one of his first acts after receiving the nomination in 1960. In the election, it is estimated that he received 80 percent of the Jewish vote, which he was frank to acknowledge, apparently somewhat to the chagrin of Israeli leaders. During his first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, he took Ben-Gurion aside and said he knew he had been elected by the votes of U.S. Jews and wanted to do something for the Jewish people. Ben-Gurion privately reported being somewhat put off by Kennedy’s openly political approach.
Because Kennedy was so frank about the politics, it is difficult to know where true emotional commitment left off and domestic political considerations began, but the effect, a strengthened relationship with Israel, was the sameeitherway. The commitmenttoa “tradition of friendship with Israel,” he once said, went back to the time of Wilson and was based on a U.S. affection for “all free societies that seek a path to peace and honor and individual right.” Friendship for Israel was not partisan but was a “national commitment,” he said in a campaign speech, foretelling the tone of future election campaigns on this question.
Whether arising out of politics or emotion, Kennedy’s bond with Israel
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was not simply a matter of nice speeches and eloquent phrases, for he was the first president to give substance to the relationship—the first to call it a “special relationship,” which has been the term of art ever since, and the first to give meaning to the term. He was the first president to appoint a full-time aide to maintain contact with the U.S. Jewish community, thus giving Jewish leaders, Israeli embassy officials, and pro-Israeli congressmen immediate access to the White House, which they had been denied during the Eisenhower years.
Most important, Kennedy was the first president to sell arms to Israel, agreeing in 1963 to Israel’s request to purchase Hawk antiaircraft missiles. Following the 1948 war, the United States had embargoed military aid to both sides in the hope of maintaining some kind of military balance in the area, but when the Soviet Union began arms shipments to Egypt in the mid-1950s, Israel and its U.S. supporters began to argue for military assistance for Israel.
The Hawk sale put the U.S.-Israeli relationship on a wholly new footing and established a pattern of military cooperation that has continued and intensified over the years, but the true significance of the 1963 arms deal extends far beyond the usual military cooperation. Although the surface perception at the time, and the conventional wisdom among many historians since then, has been that the Hawk sale righted a tilt in the military balance toward the Arab side after the Soviet weapons sale to Egypt had put that balance in jeopardy, in fact Israel already enjoyed military superiority, and top-level U.S. officials knew it. In reality, the Hawk sale constituted a failed attempt to induce Israel to stop development of its nuclear-arms capability.
The intricate story of the Hawk sale and its relationship to the U.S. discovery that Israel was secretly building a nuclear-weapons production facility provides a striking illustration of how thoroughly Israel-centered the policymaking frame of reference had become by the time Kennedy came to office, how unwilling the United States was to challenge Israel seriously even on issues of vital strategic importance, and how relatively insignificant the Palestinians and issues such as their resettlement or repatriation and their frustrated nationalism appeared by comparison.
In December 1960, after Kennedy had been elected but before he had taken office, photographs from a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance aircraft showed that Israel was constructing a nuclear complex at Dimona in the Negev desert. U.S. analysts at the CIA and the Atomic Energy Commission concluded that the complex probably included a reactor capable of producing weaponsgrade plutonium. Particularly concerned in this period to prevent nuclear
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proliferation, the United States repeatedly asked Israel for assurances that it would not produce a nuclear weapon. The U.S. representations were lowkey, however, and ultimately ineffectual.
Kennedy expressed his concern to Ben-Gurion during a meeting in May 1961, but the representation could not have had much impact, as this was the meeting at which Kennedy expressed his desire to do something for the Jewish people in gratitude for Jewish votes. The next time the subject was broached with Ben-Gurion was a year later, at the same time a presidential envoy informed the Israelis that the United States would grant Israel’s request for Hawk missiles. The issue was raised for a third time in April 1963, the same month the Hawk sale was concluded. The United States was not fooled about Israel’s nuclear-weapons production despite Israeli efforts to hide its production facilities and deceive U.S. inspectors, but the United States was easily maneuvered into going along.
The CIA produced an internal memorandum in March 1963 that described, with considerable foresight, the likely Israeli strategy for dealing with the Arabs and enmeshing the United States in a military relationship. Noting that “Israel already enjoys a clear military superiority over its Arab adversaries, singly or combined,” the memo predicted that acquisition of nuclear weapons would greatly enhance the Israelis’ feeling of security and would render their policy toward the Arabs “more rather than less tough.” Israel would probably, the CIA believed, use knowledge of its nuclear capability to intimidate the Arabs psychologically; the Arabs would react by turning to the Soviet Union for additional help against the heightened Israeli threat; and Israel would then put pressure on the United States for more assistance and acquiescence in its possession of nuclear weapons. A former CIA chief of station in Tel Aviv believes that President Kennedy genuinely wanted, and was the last president who seriously tried, to stop Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, but that he got caught in an Israeli trap. This official believes that Kennedy offered the Israelis the Hawk missiles as an inducement to forego nuclear production. But “the Israelis were way ahead of us,” he concludes. “They saw that if we were going to offer them arms to go easy on the bomb, once they had it, we were going to send them a lot more, for fear that they would use it.”
In relation to the development of a frame of reference that excluded Palestinians from policymaking considerations, this episode demonstrates how difficult it had become for any president who felt an affection for Israel or who felt he owed his election to Jewish voters to deny Israel what it wanted, even if this went counter to U.S. strategic interests. In this atmosphere,
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giving the Palestinian or Arab viewpoint on any question having to do with Israel an equal hearing was out of the question.
Shortly after Johnson took office after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, he told a visiting Israeli diplomat that Israel had lost a great friend. “But,” he said, “you have found a better one.” Historians disagree about whether Johnson had an emotional commitment to Israel or was simply highly attuned to the domestic political value of winning the Jewish vote. As with many other presidents, past and future, the truth no doubt lay in some combination of these factors. But no one argues with the notion that Johnson advanced the U.S.-Israeli relationship to a new point. If Johnson’s predecessors had shaped a policymaking frame of reference in which Israel was increasingly important and the Palestinians played no part at all, Johnson cast that frame of reference in concrete—achieving a new degree of warmth in relations with Israel, reaching new depths of hostility in relations with the Arab states, and ignoring the Palestinians so totally that he never even made a show of addressing the refugee problem.
Johnson counted a large number of Israelis and influential U.S. supporters of Israel among both his personal friends and his White House advisers. The number-two man at the Israeli embassy in Washington during the 1960s, Ephraim Evron, became a close friend and was a frequent guest at the LBJ Ranch in Texas. Abe Fortas, a Washington lawyer whom Johnson appointed to the Supreme Court; Arthur Goldberg, a Supreme Court justice whom Johnson named U.S. ambassador to the UN; Walt Rostow, Johnson’s national security adviser; his brother Eugene Rostow, undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department; historian John Roche, a Johnson speechwriter; Ben Wattenberg, another speechwriter and Democratic party strategist; Harry McPherson, a special counsel who was given the “Jewish portfolio” midway through Johnson’s term; banker Abraham Feinberg; and attorney and Universal Artists President Arthur Krim and his wife, Mathilde, a noted cancer researcher who was an Israeli citizen and a former member of the Irgun, the pre-state Israeli underground organization, were all ardent supporters of Israel and close enough to Johnson either personally or politically to have his ear on Arab-Israeli issues.
Many of the pro-Israeli contacts went back to the early days of Johnson’s political career in Washington in the late 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt, taking a fancy to the younger man, sent Johnson around the country to broaden his acquaintance with politically important groups. Roosevelt sent
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an emissary to the New York Jewish community to tell them to “keep an eye on” Johnson and later sent Johnson himself to be introduced around. Johnson established lasting friendships there and campaign supporters who stayed with him into the 1960s.
As a senator and as president, Johnson was always more interested in domestic than in foreign affairs, but early in Israel’s existence he apparently felt it was in cumbent on him as a Senate leader to learn something about the new state. In 1952, when he was Senate majority whip, he sought out an introduction to Eban and visited Eban’s home for a discussion of Israel, hoping “to find out everything essential about Israel in the briefest possible time,” in Eban’swords. It is probably fair to say, in fact, that Johnson learned all he knew about the Middle East from the Israelis. As far as anyone knows, he never made the same effort to learn about the Arabs from the Arabs.
All of these Israelis and Israeli supporters shaped Johnson’s frame of reference on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Rostows, for instance, were known for their pro-Israeli stance; although Walt Rostow’s treatment of the Middle East was relatively evenhanded, both men clearly viewed the region and its problems from an Israeli perspective. After leaving government service, Eugene Rostow wrote extensively rationalizing the legality of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. During the critical period leading up to the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Johnson spent more time with Arthur and Mathilde Krim than he did with his formal advisers, and Mathilde Krim phoned him regularly and passed messages and documents to him during the crisis. She suggested policy statements for Johnson to read to the public during the war, and during a weekend at Camp David both Krims were among those who helped Johnson write a major speech spelling out U.S. policy in the aftermath of the war. Arthur Krim and Abe Feinberg spent hours with Johnson in 1968 trying to persuade him to respond favorably to an Israeli request for fifty F-4 Phantom aircraft. Justice Fortas served as an unofficial channel of communication between Johns on and the Israeli ambassador during the crisis period before the 1967 war; the Israelis knew Fortas was a confidant of Johnson, and it is believed that Johnson, knowing the justice’s close ties to Israel, asked him to be an unofficial intermediary. Goldberg, often in close coordination with the Israeli embassy, shaped much of U.S. policy at the UN after the 1967 war—policy that has defined the U.S. approach to peace negotiations ever since—because Secretary of State Dean Rusk was deeply involved with Vietnam.
The views of Eugene Rostow, laid out in some detail in several articles after he left office, provide an illustration of what the scholar Malcolm Kerr
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meant when he said that the Palestinians’ dispossession had become an “unrecognizable episode” even among well-informed Americans. Rostow’s perspective, which is so Israel-centered that it fails even to acknowledge the existence of Palestinians, is presumably the perspective that he gave Johnson in the 1960s. In one symposium in 1976, Rostow managed to describe the British Mandate and the 1948 war without ever mentioning the Arabs of Palestine or their exodus. He criticized the United States for not “requiring the Arab nations to make peace with Israel” after 1948; this failure, he contended, had allowed the Arabs to continue to dream of destroying Israel. By ignoring the Palestinian factor altogether, Rostow was able to portray Arab hostility to Israel as wholly unreasoned—not as a reaction to the Palestinians’ dispossession but as a perverse belief that the mere existence of Israel was “an aggression against Arab rights.” Rostow’s later writings propounding the legality of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, which apparently influenced the views of later presidents, particularly Ronald Reagan, were premised on the notion that there was not a distinct Palestinian Arab people with any rights in Palestine.
Johnson was not so rigidly pro-Israeli that he was not open to other views. George Ball, for instance, was among his wide circle of informal advisers. Ball had served as undersecretary of state, was known for his strong opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and was soon to become a vocal critic of Israel. Johnson’s decision-making process was notable, in fact, for the wide-ranging discussions with friends and advisers that shaped it, and he was open to bureaucratic, congressional, and interest-group pressures. During one critical meeting at the White House on U.S. strategy in the period leading up to the 1967 war, Johnson called together more than a dozen cabinet members and formal and informal advisers and asked their views individually on Israeli and Arab capabilities and the best U.S. course of action.
Johnson’s affection for Israel also did not always produce absolutely pro-Israeli policies. The 1967 war is a case in point. In mid-May 1967, when Egypt’s President Nasser moved Egyptian troops into the Sinai Peninsula and demanded the departure of the UN force that had been stationed there since the 1956 Suez war, and a week later, when he blockaded the Strait of Tiran at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, which blocked Israel’s access to its port at Eilat, Johnson’s primary concern was not to relieve the threat to Israel but to avoid involving the United States, already mired in Vietnam, in a war that might involve a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Johnson has been criticized by supporters of Israel for his failure throughout the crisis to take a forceful stand in support of Israel. The Israelis did not have
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much doubt that they would prevail in a war with the Arabs, and the U.S. intelligence community was unanimous in the view that Israel would need only a week to ten days, or maybe even less, to “whip hell out of” the Arabs, as Johnson told Israeli Foreign Minister Eban. But Johnson nonetheless feared that the United States would be called on to intervene if by some chance Israel got into trouble. As a result, he would not commit the United States to any course, such as guaranteeing free passage for Israeli shipping, that might have to be backed up by U.S. military force. He also tried, although not hard, to discourage Israel from launching a preemptive strike, which it ultimately did anyway on June 5.
But it would be incorrect to conclude that Johnson-era Middle East policy was not formed within an Israel-centered frame of reference that essentially ignored the Arab and particularly the Palestinian perspective simply because Johnson sometimes listened to advisers who did not favor Israel’s position or because he put U.S. interests ahead of Israeli interests. Some scholars contend that although Johnson was surrounded by strongly pro-Israeli advisers and aides, their sentimental attachment to Israel was usually irrelevant to policy because they were not involved with foreign affairs. But this argument is unconvincing for several reasons. With close foreign-policy advisers like the Rostows, the fact that other pro-Israeli aides might have had responsibilities outside the foreign policy arena is of little significance. Moreover, the influence people like Fortas and the Krims had on Johnson’s thinking in the kind of friendly, informal setting where they oftensawhim—at the LBJ Ranch, for instance, where they couldtalkabout Israel in emotional, human terms and not in hard policy terms—could be far more profound than the influence of formal advisers.
This argument misses the point in any case, the point being that because he was himself so much attached to Israel and had so closely surrounded himself with people who were deeply attached, Johnson took the Israeli perspective into account in all policy decisions on the Middle East throughout his administration, even if his decisions were ultimately not always pro-Israeli, whereas he rarely even recognized the existence of an Arab or particularly a Palestinian perspective. With a more open and inclusive frame of reference, Johnson would not, for instance, have thought it necessary as Senate majority whip to learn as much as possible about Israel while making no similar effort to learn about the Arabs. Nor would he in the three weeks leading up to the 1967 war have consulted with Israeli officials, personally or through designated intermediaries, on at least a daily basis and sometimes more, while maintaining little contact with Arab officials.
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Johnson did not like Arabs, it seems clear, and he felt none of the affinity for these culturally different peoples that he did for Israelis. He regarded Arabs and their lives as alien to his own. Arabs lived in “that ancient land of the camel, the date, and the palm,” as he once described the Arab world in a toast to Jordanian King Hussein. Israel, by contrast, was a modern nation, a land of pioneers who had brought water and irrigation projects to the desert as he had done on the Pedernales River in Texas. As one scholar has noted, Johnson tended to see Israel’s struggle against Arabs as the modernday equivalent of Texas’s struggle with the Mexicans. It may have been part politics, but it was also part genuine emotion, when Johnson told a B’nai B’rith convention in 1968 that he shared the delegates’ deep ties with the land and people of Israel, “for my Christian faith sprang from yours. The Bible stories are woven into my childhood memories as the gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of persecution is also woven into our souls.” It was also only partly political when Johnson’s minority affairs adviser Harry McPherson told a presidential biographer that he had always felt that “some place in Lyndon Johnson’s blood there are a great many Jewish corpuscles.” Nothing Arab was woven into Johnson’s soul, and there were no Arab corpuscles anywhere in his blood.
Dealing with Egypt’s Nasser did not improve Johnson’s outlook on Arabs. Having seen the failure of the Eisenhower and Kennedy attempts to deal with nationalist governments in the Third World, and specifically with Nasser, Johnson turned away from attempting to befriend the Egyptian nationalist and before long developed a strong hostility toward him. One Middle East scholar has said that doing business with Nasser was always like trying to change a tire on a moving automobile, and Johnson was not alone in having trouble with the erratic Egyptian. But Johnson was less patient than some of his predecessors and took deep umbrage at some of Nasser’s insulting anti—United States rhetoric. The intense distrust that developed between the two men was inevitable given Johnson’s known Israeli sympathies, Nasser’s unpredictability, and both men’s deep sensitivity to perceived slights.
Johnson’s hostility to Nasser was symptomatic of an indifference or outright antipathy to Arabs in general that pervaded political discourse throughout Washington—in Congress and even in parts of the bureaucracy—during his administration. Not surprisingly, the administration’s indifference to the Palestinians was virtually complete. Unlike the three previous administrations, this one devoted no time or energy at all to resettlement or repatriation plans for the Palestinian refugees. Johnson’s own
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lack of concern about the Palestinians or their political grievances, which mirrored the attitude of most of the administration and the country, is reflected in this lengthy dismissal in his 1971 memoirs:
I was aware of the deep resentment Arab leaders felt over Israel’s emergence as a nation-state. I knew that many Arab refugees in the area still had not been absorbed into community life. But I also knew that various Arab leaders had used the issue of Israel and the tragic plight of the refugees to advance personal ambitions and to achieve the dominance of Arab radicals over Arab moderates. I knew that resentment and bitter memories, handed down from generation to generation, could only endanger all those who lived in the Middle East. I was convinced that there could be no satisfactory future for the Middle East until the leaders and the peoples of the area turned away from the past, accepted Israel as a reality, and began working together to build modern societies, unhampered by old quarrels, bitterness, and enmity.
Johnson’s view betrays a misunderstanding of how and why the Arab-Israeli conflict originated. Although he was correct enough that Arab leaders had often used the Palestinian cause to advance their personal ambitions, the “deep resentment” of which he spoke arose not from the mere fact of Israel’s emergence as a nation but from the Palestinians’ dispossession. Asking the Palestinians and their champions among the Arab states simply to turn “away from the past” and give up old quarrels failed to address the reason for the quarrel and treated one side of the quarrel as having no merit.
Given the general frame of reference that defined discourse on the Palestinian issue in this period, Johnson’s attitude is hardly surprising. By the mid-1960s, the Palestinians had drifted so far into the political background that virtually no one regarded them as a political factor of any consequence. Even Egypt, its major attention taken up with an inter-Arab war in Yemen, was uninterested in pursuing the Palestinian issue and had informally agreed with the United States that the problem was, in the term used by officials at the time, “in the icebox.”
As a result, few in the United States noticed or attached much significance when the Palestinians, provoked into action by years of Arab, Israeli, and U.S. complacency, began in the late 1950s and early 1960s to organize themselves along political and military lines. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed more or less by fiat at an Arab summit in 1964 by Egypt and several other Arab states whose primary objective was to co-opt the Palestinian movement and prevent guerrilla groups from drawing the Arab states into war with Israel. Because the PLO was regarded
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as—and indeed was, in its early days—a diplomatic tool of Egypt and the other Arab states, the United States dismissed the organization’s importance. At the same time, policymakers also seemed unaware of the significance of the growth of a Palestinian guerrilla organization, called Fatah and led by Yasir Arafat, that was propounding a theory of armed struggle to liberate Palestine. Fatah and several other nascent Palestinian guerrilla groups began in the early 1960s to conduct cross-border operations against Israel from bases in Syria, Lebanon, and, despite King Hussein’s efforts to suppress them, Jordan. Although the United States recognized that these groups’ intensified guerrilla activity played a role in the Arab-Israeli tensions that ultimately led to war in June 1967, policymakers did not attach much long-term political importance to this Palestinian activity.
As a university student in Cairo in the early 1950s, Yasir Arafat had begun with several fellow students to shape the Palestinian Students’ Union into a political organization based on the philosophy that Palestinians should rely on their own resources and focus exclusively on the question of Palestine rather than allow the other Arabs to use the Palestinian cause as a rallying point for their own interests. This young group eventually became the leadership of Fatah. As the years went on, Arafat and his colleagues joined with other emerging Palestinian groups and formed a network throughout the Palestinian exile community. Fatah had been organized by the early 1960s, dedicated to liberating Palestine through armed struggle and political self-reliance. Within four years of the PLO’s creation, Arafat and his Fatah organization had taken over its leadership and transformed it into an umbrella organization for several Palestinian groups. Whatever its shortcomings, the new PLO as reorganized in 1968 was generally independent of the Arab states and spoke more or less faithfully for most Palestinians throughout the world.
The United States failed to anticipate these developments. In its tendency to shape Middle East policy in a frame of reference centered on Israel, the United States understood little about Palestinian concerns and aspirations and therefore had readily gone along with the impulse to put the Palestinian problem “in the icebox.” U.S. officials also clung to what some have called “the myth of Arabism” even after its demise. Nasser’s pan-Arabism, which had been a powerful force in Arab politics in the 1950s and early 1960s, had gained a large following among Palestinians attracted to Nasser’s revolutionary ideas and seeking the kind of widespread support that a unified Arab effort behind their cause would provide. Pan-Arabism was clearly shown to be an empty force during the 1967 war, however, and as Palestinians increasingly began to look to their own resources, the ideology
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lost its appeal for all except the most leftist Palestinian groups. Yet a belief in the continued vitality of a pan-Arabism that enveloped the Palestinians in an Arabwide nationalism had the advantage for Israel and the United States of allowing them still to ignore the Palestinian problem; as long as the Palestinians’ separate existence could be denied, Israel had no legitimate challenger to its claim to Palestine. Recognizing the death of pan-Arabism would have meant acknowledging that Palestinians had no other identity except as Palestinians and that they could not find a solution to their problem as part of the broader Arab world. Few U.S. policymakers in the late 1960s understood or wanted to face the demise of pan-Arabism.
The policy that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war was to determine U.S. attitudes and policy for the next quarter century. It was a policy in large measure inspired by Israel, and it took Israel’s concerns into account without paying heed to the Palestinians. Within hours after the war began and it had become clear that Israel would win handily, Johnson’s friends and advisers, including Mathilde Krim, who spoke with Johnson frequently during the war and helped shape his policy statements afterward, began talking to him about postwar arrangements and the shape of the peace that should emerge. The tack they took, which Johnson fully accepted, was to insist on what they were calling a “real, guaranteed, meaningful peace” and to demand that Israel not be forced to withdraw from the territories it had captured—the entire Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip—except in exchange for this kind of full and permanent peace. Israel’s supporters felt that Israel had been betrayed after the 1956 war, when President Eisenhower had forced the Israelis to withdraw from the Sinai without any assurance of a peace agreement with Egypt. Johnson himself had publicly opposed Eisenhower’s action and was determined not to repeat it.
The United States did not endorse permanent Israeli control of the occupied territories, but the notion that the territories should be returned to the Arabs only in exchange for an end to Arab belligerency and full peace became the basis for all future U.S. policy. It was the basis for UN Resolution 242, passed in November 1967, which has formed the foundation for U.S. policy ever since. The resolution called for Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” although the extent of the territory was not spelled out; it also required termination of all belligerency, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states in the area, and acknowledgment of the right of all states to live in peace within secure and recognized borders. The resolution called for a just settlement of the
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refugee problem but did not mention the Palestinians by name or treat them in a political context.
Although Resolution 242 was put forth as a way to achieve the kind of genuine peace that had been missing since Israel’s creation, Johnson and his advisers apparently did not recognize that resolving the territorial questions arising from the 1967 war would not resolve or even address the real problem that had existed since Israel’s creation, which was the displacement of the Palestinians and a smoldering Palestinian nationalism. Israel’s capture of additional territory had dramatically upped the ante in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Israelis clearly hoped that their demonstration of military superiority would force the Arab states to sue for peace. But because they ignored the Palestinian perspective, U.S. officials did not recognize that the Palestinians were upping the ante as well. In the wake of the 1967 war, in the words of scholar Mark Tessler, the Palestinians sought to “reestablish a proper and historically accurate understanding of the conflict,” making it clear that the essence of the Arab-Israeli problem was the struggle between Palestinian nationalism and Zionism and emphasizing that they were a nation in need of a political solution, not a collection of refugees with only humanitarian needs.
From the beginning, the United States had not recognized that Israel’s main problem had always been with the Palestinians, not primarily with the Arab states. A “just settlement of the refugee problem,” the formulation established in Resolution 242, would not accomplish the real peace Israel sought; returning the Sinai to Egypt or the West Bank to Jordan would not resolve the principal issue. It would be almost another decade before the United States would begin to acknowledge, although reluctantly even then, that the Palestinian issue was the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The 1961 trial in Israel of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, mastermind of the Nazis’ “final solution” for the Jews, had a profound and lasting impact on the U.S. public; it both generated sympathy for Jews and Israel and demonized Arabs, who were increasingly associated with Hitler and his murderous schemes. The horrors of the Holocaust had been well publicized in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the discovery of the Nazi death camps, but the world was soon diverted from intense concentration on these events by other pressing developments—the reconstruction of Europe, the looming Cold War, the Korean War, and other manifestations of rising East-West tensions around the world. Discussion of the Holocaust
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was minimized even in Israel, where self-sufficiency and fighting for survival had become so important that the failure of Europe’s Jews to fight Hitler’s machine was often regarded as shameful.
Remembrance of the Holocaust was suppressed even by Jewish intellectuals and writers, “as if the pain was too great and the historical events too close,” as if the grief aroused would be overwhelming and disorienting. It required an extended period of rumination and collective introspection before the horrors could be confronted and the Holocaust’s meaning dealt with head on. The silence began to be broken in the late 1950s, when Elie Wiesel, probably the most prolific and widely read intellectual commentator on the Holocaust, began writing. Other intellectuals and theologians in the United States such as Emil Fackenheim followed in the early 1960s. Before long, the Holocaust began to be publicized in popularized versions such as Exodus and other books, movies, and television productions.
But the Eichmann trial, more than any previous event, brought the Holocaust to the fore as a trauma that had to be discussed and dealt with by Jews and non-Jews throughout the world, for the trial served to redeem Jewish powerlessness by showing that a Jewish state could avenge Jewish suffering. The eight months of the trial, followed by Eichmann’s execution in May 1962, opened the floodgates. Press coverage of the trial and the atrocities it revealed was intense, in Israel and throughout the world. In response to one poll in the United States, 30 percent of Americans said they had become more sympathetic to Israel and Jews following publicity surrounding the Eichmann trial. Of even more importance than retribution against Eichmann himself, Eban has said, was the “electrifying” effect of the trial on world opinion and on the generation of Israelis born after the Holocaust. Unimaginable horrors were exposed day after day during the trial, and “a sharp light was thrown on the role of the Jewish people as history’s most poignant victim.” The world and the U.S. public came to know and understand the centrality of the Holocaust to Jewish experience and to Israel’s struggle for existence.
In the zero-sum atmosphere in which Israel and the Arabs and Palestinians were viewed in the United States in this period, the deeper sympathy aroused for Israel produced a deeper aversion for Arabs, and in the public consciousness Arabs became, in a kind of continuum, the ones playing Hitler’s role by trying to exterminate Israel. This connection was made during the Eichmann trial, when the Israeli prosecutor submitted documents showing that the former Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and other Arabs had opposed plans to rescue the Jews. The prosecutor also tried to establish that Eichmann and the Mufti had had “firm links.” All
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that could be determined was that they had metonce, possiblyin Eichmann’s office, possibly at a social event, but for all intents and purposes the connection had been made indelibly. Even today, the Israeli Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem has a display showing the Mufti with Nazi officials, leading the visitor to conclude that there is little difference between Palestinian enmity toward Israel and Nazi plans to destroy the Jews.
This supposed continuity between Nazis and Arabs found full expression in the lead-up to the 1967 war, when many Israelis and many Americans feared that Israel was about to experience another Holocaust. In fact, the threat of extermination was never real, and Israeli and U.S. leaders knew it, but, as one Israeli writer has noted, the fear of extermination that Israelis felt was real. All over Israel, “one heard and read about the danger that the Arabs were about to ‘exterminate Israel.’ The phrase had no precise meaning, but everyone used it: No one said that the Arab armies would ‘conquer’ Israel or that they would ‘destroy’ its cities, not even that they would kill its inhabitants. They said that the Arabs would ‘exterminate Israel.’” Israeli newspapers continually identified Nasser with Hitler.
Israel’s swift victory in 1967 was as electrifying in its own way in the United States as the Eichmann trial had been. If Exodus had created for millions of ordinary Americans an image of courageous Israeli pioneers fighting for survival against Arab hordes, and the Eichmann trial and the fearful run-up to the war had reminded Americans of the grave dangers Jews had always faced, the war produced the real thing—not fictional heroes but flesh-and-blood supermen, still facing grave danger, who had proved, rather stunningly, that this time they could defeat Hitler.
For U.S. Jews, the experience was often intense, exposing a bond and an identification with Israel that many had not known they felt. Wellknown U.S. rabbi Arthur Hertzberg wrote in the aftermath of the war that many U.S. Jews “would never have believed that grave danger to Israel could dominate their thoughts and emotions to the exclusion of all else.” The fear for Israel, capped by the victory, produced a unity and solidarity with each other and with Israel that came as a surprise to many Jews. Many who had forgotten their Jewishness felt a new sense of identity. Young Jews who knew nothing firsthand about the Holocaust felt a shared danger that brought the Holocaust to life, as well as a shared sense of triumph that gave them a collective identity for the first time.
The solidarity and sense of identity with Israel that the war evoked in U.S. Jews was shared on a different level by vast numbers of non-Jewish Americans. Israel became the hero of the United States; probably, because the United States was then mired in Vietnam, Israelis provided a kind of
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surrogate for the heroism and military exploits Americans could not admire in their own military. Polls showed that sympathy for Israel surged to 55 percent, while sympathy for the Arabs, never high in any case, fell to near zero. For the media, the Israeli victory made good copy and extremely good pictures. Photos on the cover of Life magazine of smiling young Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem or the Suez Canal helped Americans share the flush of Israel’s victory. In fact, the war brought about a revolution in media coverage of the Middle East. Neither the 1948 nor the 1956 Arab-Israeli war had been covered by television, but the networks sent large numbers of people to Israel in 1967 and covered the war intensively. The number of foreign correspondents in what became permanent bureaus in Israel, from all media and all countries, soared to almost fourhundred after the 1967 war—a number that in succeeding years would triple or quadruple or more during crisis periods.
On a more intellectual level, the Eichmann trial and the 1967 war brought forth from Jewish thinkers a philosophy, constituting a response to the Holocaust and Jewish suffering, that became central to Jewish thinking. This so-called Holocaust theology, whose principal spokespeople were intellectuals and theologians like Wiesel, Fackenheim, and Irving Greenberg, included among its themes the notion that the Holocaust, now after years of silence acknowledged to be the defining experience of Jewish existence, taught the lesson that Jews must have enough power that it would be impossible to inflict such suffering on them ever again; a strong Israel was the manifestation of that empowerment. Another principal tenet of Holocaust theology was that Jews had been innocent victims in Europe (“history’s most poignant victim,” per Eban) and were innocent still as they tried to forestall another catastrophe inflicted by another predator. Here again, the idea emerges that Arabs were modern-day Nazis. “In this formulation,” notes Jewish scholar Marc Ellis, “the transference of European history to the Middle East is complete; insofar as Palestinian Arabs and the Arab world in general attempt to thwart Jewish empowerment in Israel, they symbolize to Holocaust theologians the continuity of the Nazi drama.”
It began to be common to attribute Palestinian enmity toward Israel to anti-Semitism. One typical remark came from theologian Emil Fackenheim. Observing that Palestinian hostility to the Jewish “invaders” in Palestine was initially understandable, Fackenheim said one had to wonder whether, “had these invaders not been Jews, [Palestinian] hostility … would have remained implacable.” Indeed, he went on, “except in the context of Muslim and … Arab anti-Jewish attitudes, Arab policies toward Israel would appear to be unintelligible.” (This argument ignores the fact
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that the Palestinians also opposed the British “invaders” in Palestine, who were not Jews. Moreover, the implacability of Palestinian hostility to Israel is explainable by the implacability and irreversibility of the Palestinians’ displacement.)
Ordinary Americans, even ordinary U.S. Jews, did not read these Jewish philosophers and were not consciously aware of the theology they propounded or the criticism of the Arabs. But, to the extent that any intellectual helps mold and define community thought, and to the extent that the Holocaust theologians articulated a thought process that was being put forth in a less erudite way by Exodus and Life magazine and media paeans to Israel’s accomplishments, these thinkers defined and refined a frame of reference that had always juxtaposed Israelis in white hats to Palestinians in black hats, with few shades of gray, and that now showed Israel in heroic raiment and Palestinians in brown shirts with swastikas.
This transference of Nazi motives to the Palestinians began to be felt by individual Palestinians in the United States after the 1967 war. Needless to say, the feeling of solidarity with Israel that the war aroused in so many Americans completely excluded the Palestinians, but, more than that, many Palestinian Americans began to experience hostility from previously neutral Americans. One Palestinian American scholar who came to the United States as a student in the 1950s recalls being shocked at the degree of partisanship that Americans demonstrated during and after the war. He felt that the attitude throughout the United States—in the government, in the media, and among individuals—was that “we Americans beat out these Arabs, via Israel.” The feeling he encountered was not merely pro-Israeli; it was as if “it was a personal victory for America.” He was shaken and startled by the reaction and recalls wondering, “Why do they feel that we Palestinians and the Arabs are their enemies?”
By the late 1960s, Israel and the United States had redefined Palestinian enmity toward Israel. No longer seen as harmless refugees, the Palestinians had become predators in the popular imagination—largely because of the image portrayed by U.S. and Israeli writers and moviemakers, and even before the Palestinians had begun to turn to terrorism. It would be an exaggeration to say that most policymakers consciously shared this popular perception of Palestinians and Arabs in general as latter-day Nazis, but the widespread popular hostility could not help but have some impact on a group of policymakers whose top levels already felt so strongly connected to Israel.
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More than two hundred thousand Palestinians, fleeing Israeli forces advancing on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, became refugees during the 1967 war; a large proportion of these, perhaps almost half, were already refugees from 1948 now fleeing for a second time. Few in the United States, either inside or outside the government, paid much heed. Throughout the decade and a half of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, the United States had been so unconcerned with the Palestinians as a policy issue and a political problem that more refugees aroused little interest. Nor did anyone pay much attention to the implications of another, far more significant number: the one and a quarter million Palestinians whom Israel now ruled over after occupying the West Bank and Gaza. The question of who ruled over Palestinians not thought to have a political identity in any case was of little concern.
But 1967 had created many new realities. First and foremost, the fact that Israel now exercised control over more than a million Palestinians meant that, no matter how they might try, Israel and the United States would not be able to ignore the Palestinians as a political reality for long. Second, the occupation awakened the Palestinians to their own situation. Many Palestinian intellectuals date their activism to the shock of 1967. The same shock attracted many more young Palestinians to paramilitary organizations like Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, and these groups were emboldened to undertake more cross-border raids from neighboring Arab countries. The success of many of these raids, and in particular the strong resistance of Fatah’s fighters to an Israeli attack on a guerrilla base in the Jordanian village of Karameh in March 1968, instilled great pride in the Palestinians and raised their political consciousness even further. Thousands of new recruits signed up to join Palestinian guerrilla organizations after the Karameh battle, swamping commando training facilities.
In the aftermath of the Arab states’ humiliating defeat the previous June, the Karameh incident focused attention on Palestinian fighters as the only Arabs attempting to stand up to Israel and able to acquit themselves reasonably well. Within four months after the Karameh watershed, Arafat and Fatah and the contingent of Palestinian activists who supported armed struggle against Israel and independence from the Arab states had taken control of the PLO. The Palestinian resistance movement now became a factor of considerable significance in Middle East politics. The PLO made political gains that would prove to be irreversible and, by forcefully articulating a political agenda for the Palestinians, fundamentally altered the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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At the same time as the Palestinians were becoming more active and were beginning to push themselves forward as a political factor, the United States was moving closer to Israel. U.S. policymakers, more inclined than ever before to view the Middle East through an Israeli prism, were consequently also more inclined to ignore the Palestinians. The point had been reached when more than the pro forma pledge to search for a just solution of the “Arab refugee” problem was required, but it would be another decade—one filled with terrorism and another major war—before the United States would recognize this reality.