A History Lesson for Obama

Henry Norr is a retired journalist. He was fired by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003 after participating in the International Solidarity Movement in the Gaza Strip, then getting arrested in San Francisco protesting the war on Iraq. He contributed this article to Palestine Chronicle. Contact him at: henry@norr.com.

Henry Norr
Palestine Chronicle
February 17, 2010

With President Obama's Middle East peace plans so completely -- and humiliatingly -- shipwrecked on the rocks of Israeli intransigence, it's time for him to consider a new approach, at least if he's serious about his announced objectives. In the spirit of bipartisanship that he's so dedicated to, I suggest he look to the way Dwight D. Eisenhower handled a similar predicament a half-century ago.

First, a quick review of the goals Obama staked out last year and how much progress his efforts have produced. In his speech in Cairo last June, he noted that the Palestinian people have "for more than 60 years ... endured the pain of dislocation" and "the daily humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation."

"Let there be no doubt," he proclaimed, "the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." Israel, he went on, "must live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society."

Specifically, on the key issue of Israeli colonization of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, he reaffirmed the policy Washington has subscribed to, at least on paper, since 1967: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

As to the devastated Gaza Strip, Obama said little in Cairo, observing only that "the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security." But shortly afterwards the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that his administration had delivered a diplomatic note to the Israeli government protesting its blockade of the 1.5 million Gazans and demanding that Israel open the border crossings to allow in desperately needed food, medical equipment, and reconstruction materials.

Now, thirteen months after Obama took office, and almost nine months since his Cairo speech, how do things look? No one can seriously claim that the Palestinians are any closer to "dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." The only discernible changes are that Israel has stepped up repression of grassroots, non-violent anti-occupation activists and accelerated its campaign to "Judaize" East Jerusalem.

With regard to settlements, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu promised a 10-month "freeze" on new construction, but his commitment was riddled with loopholes, and in practice, as both Israeli and Palestinian media and human-rights organizations have documented, settlement expansion continues unabated. In the words of the prominent Israeli pundit Akiva Eldar, "Only an idiot would say Israel has frozen settlement activity."

Netanyahu himself is no idiot: Last month, after Obama's special envoy George Mitchell once again left the region in failure, the prime minister celebrated by planting trees in several settlements, and just to make sure no one could misunderstand the symbolism, he spelled out his intent: to "send a clear message that we are here. We will stay here. We are planning and we are building." The major settlements, he declared, are an "indisputable part of Israel forever."

Meanwhile, conditions in Gaza have scarcely changed. Just this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham told a conference in Qatar that "We have pushed the Israelis to end the -- to increase the trickle to a flood of goods into Gaza," but the UN reports that deliveries of goods to Gaza actually declined last month and now amount to only 17 percent of the monthly average before Israel launched its full-scale siege in 2007 -- a whole lot closer to a trickle than a flood.

When Secretary Clinton was grilled about the contradiction in Qatar, her only response was as vague as it was pathetic: "I hope that we are going to see some progress. ... there are so many countries standing ready to help the people of Gaza rebuild. And we just want the chance to be able to do that."

President Obama sounds equally helpless. "This is just really hard," he told Time magazine reporter Joe Klein a few weeks ago. "This is as intractable a problem as you get. ... And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade" both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority.

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

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

Miffed at not being consulted, and embarrassed by such a blatant display of old-fashioned imperialism -- instead of the neocolonial tactics of economic coercion and CIA manipulation the U.S. preferred -- Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, forthrightly condemned the attack. At the United Nations, where Britain and France held veto power in the Security Council, the U.S. joined the Soviet bloc -- even as Soviet tanks rolled through Hungary -- as well as emerging third-world governments in taking the matter to the General Assembly and approving resolution after resolution calling for a ceasefire, then withdrawal of the aggressors.

Within days the British and French gave in and began pulling out their troops. A few weeks later Israel grudgingly agreed to withdraw from the Sinai. But Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion adamantly refused to give up the Gaza Strip as well as an area along the Gulf of Aqaba, despite personal pleas from Eisenhower and a sixth UN resolution calling for withdrawal. Israel's parliament, the Knesset, formally proclaimed the country's intent to keep Gaza.

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

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

Eisenhower agreed. On Feb. 11, 1957, he sent another message to Ben Gurion, offering to guarantee Israeli access to the Gulf of Aqaba but demanding "prompt and unconditional withdrawal" from Gaza. Ben Gurion again refused, replying that "there is no basis for the restoration of the status quo ante in Gaza."

At that point, instead of an Obama-style cave-in, Ike decided to take the gloves off. On Feb. 20 he sent another cable to Ben Gurion threatening to support a UN call for sanctions against Israel and warning that such sanctions could apply not only to U.S. government aid to Israel (then modest) but also to Israel's lifeline at the time, tax-deductible private donations and the purchase of Israel's bonds. That same evening the president went on national television specifically to address the dispute with Israel. "We are now," he told the American people, "faced with a fateful moment as the result of the failure of Israel to withdraw its forces behind the Armistice lines, as contemplated by the United Nations Resolutions on this subject."

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

Ben Gurion's initial response was continued defiance, but with no indication that Eisenhower would back down, and the General Assembly about to vote for sanctions, he had no choice but to capitulate. On March 1 Israel's foreign minister, Golda Meir, announced that her government would withdraw from Gaza after all, and by March 16 the pull-out was complete. On the way out, the Israelis systematically destroyed all surface roads, railway tracks, and telephone lines in the area, as well as several villages. But at least the occupation of the Gaza Strip came to an end -- until the Israelis came storming back 10 years later.

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

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

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

* This account of the events of 1956-57 is based mainly on the Eisenhower papers posted by the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara www.presidency.ucsb.edu; the archives of the New York Times; Patrick Tyler's A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East - from the Cold War to the War on Terror (2009); and two books by Donald Neff, Warriors at Suez: Eisenhower Takes America into the Middle East in 1956 (1988) and Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy towards Palestine and Israel since 1945 (1995). [BACK]

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