The relationship between Israel and the United States has evolved over the past decades with the most important factor in this unequal partnership, being the views of the US president of the day.
President Truman vacillated on the question of whether there should or should not be a Jewish State and was primarily focused on 2 factors.
He wanted to quickly resettle at least 100,000 Jewish refugees after the Shoah, for which he saw then Palestine in one form or another as a destination, whilst at the same time being somewhat opposed to Jewish independence. In part this was because he felt that a Jewish state could not survive without the serious commitment of US troops, something which in the late 1940’s he was trying to avoid.
Never the less, once he saw that the Jewish State was a reality and apparently able to defend itself, and after some internal debate, Truman took the decision to recognise the State of Israel.
He furnished political support – as by the way did Stalin – but refused to provide Israel with the sophisticated weapons she so desperately needed.
He was follow ed by Eisenhower who would not even meet with Prime Minister Ben Gurion until his last year in office. Eisenhower was fixated on attempting to deny Russian influence in the Middle East and looked at everything through the prism of assuming that assisting Israel would harm relations with the Arab states. Eisenhower intervened in the Suez crisis in 1956 where the US turned on its allies, Britain and France. Which by the way, was a major factor in the Arab world seriously questioning whether the US could ever be a reliable ally.
The arrival of President Kennedy brought a change in policy. He met with Prime Minister Ben Gurion in his first year in office, a statement in itself and was committed to showing that the USA could be both friends with the Arab world and with Israel, and that one relationship did not have to affect the other.
Kennedy also courted the Arab states very heavily and deliberately, in particular Nasser from Egypt.
It was Kennedy who first established and named the ‘special relationship’ between Israel and the USA and who first agreed to supply advanced defensive weaponry to Israel, such as the Hawk missile.
Even so, he pressured Israel in numerous ways.
Kennedy was determined that Israel should not get nuclear weapons and he fought Israel over Dimona. Kennedy did not want to see a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Kennedy also presented the Johnson Plan to resolve the question of the Arab refugees. He forced Ben Gurion and Golda Meir to agree to a commitment to take 10% of all of the refugees, whilst he said that he would ask Arab countries to take the other 90%. Ultimately Israel only agreed to do so as long as there was a simultaneous agreement by the Arab world. Nasser rejected the idea and so it died.
The lesson is that even the friendliest US presidents have sought to pressure Israel, despite taking the ‘special relationship’ into account, but against the background of the larger picture of US interests.
The policy battleground remains – debate about what Israel’s legitimate physical security needs are, and how to best achieve it.
And with various US administrations often claiming to know better than Israel, what her core security requirements are – sometimes sincerely, or sometimes for US convenience.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that President Trump regards Israel’s physical security as being of the highest importance and it is against this background that we should view both his announcements to the media last week, and Prime Minster Netanyahu’s responses.
Trump’s support for ‘a’ Two State Solution last week – we cannot say ‘the’ Two State Solution – was a landmark policy pronouncement that certainly would have surprised those Israelis and others who had thought that this was off the table.
It would also have shocked many Trump supporters both in Israel and elsewhere.
It’s a clear sign that in some form or another, Trump has come to the same conclusion about a resolution of the conflict as other US presidents before him – with it seems, one major caveat – recognising the dangers to Israel’s security as a higher order issue. In other words, being acutely aware of the risks to Israel. Which could – could – make a world of difference to his ‘deal of the century’.
Trump was very clear about ‘a’ Two State Solution. And stayed on message for the whole day. And without contradiction to date since.
It is just wishful thinking on the part of some who claim that Trump’s comments eight hours later in the day were a retraction when he said:
“If the Israelis and the Palestinians want one state, that’s okay with me. If they want two states, that’s okay with me.”
Because he began those comments with
“I think probably two-state is more likely. Well, I think the two-state will happen. I think we’ll go down the two-state road.”
It broke at the joint press conference earlier in the day with Netanyahu, when Trump said:
“I like two-state solution. I like two-state solution. Yeah. That’s — that what I think — that’s what I think works best. I don’t even have to speak to anybody, that’s my feeling. Now, you may have a different feeling — I don’t think so — but I think two-state solution works best.”
But later Trump went much further, by claiming that perhaps even despite what Netanyahu, or members of Netanyahu’s own party, or certainly some of his coalition partners saye ither openly or behind closed doors, Trump himself knows what the Israeli people really want.
“I think it will be a two-state. By saying that, I put it out there. If you ask most of the people in Israel, they agree with that, but no one wanted to say it. It is a big thing to put out there.”
Netanyahu’s reaction to Trump and in media interviews that followed, is instructive.
Firstly, he praised Trump for all he had done for Israel and then focussed his response on only one issue. Netanyahu did not mention ideology, rights, religion et al – just one thing – Israel’s physical security.
Netanyahu emphasised that it was the definition of Palestinian statehood that mattered, not so much statehood itself. Netanyahu stressed that previous American presidents had accepted that a future Palestinian state would be demilitarised. That is, that this should be a non-negotiable base line. That such a close friend of Israel’s as Trump should not agree to anything potentially more harmful to Israel than his predecessors.
“I talked about the essence, and not the terminology,”
“I am ready for the Palestinians to have the power to govern themselves without having the powers to threaten us.”
“The key power that must, must not be in their hands is the question of security. I don’t want them either as citizens of Israel or subjects of Israel. But I think there is not an either-or model. I think we have a third model at the very least which is what I’m talking about: basically, all the powers of sovereignty, or nearly all the powers, but not the ones of security.”
“Look, in the Middle East, which is littered with failed states, that’s often the best you can do. They would have those rights in their own territory. In other words, they have their own Parliament, they have their own government, they have their own flag, they have their own anthem, they have their own tax system.”
Netanyahu’s coalition partner Naphtali Bennett tweeted that whilst Trump is a
“true friend, a Palestinian state would be a disaster for Israel”.
Netanyahu responded cleverly.
“I promise that there won’t be a Palestinian state that will be a disaster for the State of Israel.”
The only game in town remains, keeping President Trump happy and keeping Israel’s security needs front and centre.
And letting it be the Palestinians, who yet again, in reacting to Trump’s comments, reject the possibility of achieving a state of their own.
The policy tension since Oslo has been Palestinian statehood vs the risks to Israel’s security that doing it, or not doing it,entails.
Palestinian intransigence has so far, not allowed it to be tested.
Palestinian hatred of Trump would have Abba Eban intoning from the next world, that once again, the Palestinians “have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.